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Margaret Pearson: The Original I Ching

I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I met Margaret and ran a webinar with her back in 2005. And late last year, it finally became available. It’s a neat little hardback with the characters for ‘yin’, ‘zhouyi’ and ‘woman’ on the front and a hexagram reference chart inside the back cover.

The book in brief: what you get

  • An intriguing, thoughtful introduction.
  • A translation that blends the received version of the Zhouyi with emendations taken from the Mawangdui (MWD)manuscript. (With just one exception, she doesn’t tell you which is which – but she does give you page references to Wilhelm/Baynes, Lynn and Shaughnessy’s Mawangdui translation for each hexagram, and the Chinese text she’s using in an appendix.)
  • A translation of the Image. (Oh, except for hexagram 36, where it’s replaced by an excerpt from the Tuanzhuan. Odd.)
  • Commentary on just eight of the line texts – but there are occasional interpolated glosses throughout offering a starting point for interpretation, like ‘matters affecting many people’ for ‘king’s business’ or ‘eliminating all your defences’ for the walls collapsing into the moat.
  • An original, helpful commentary on each hexagram as a whole, based largely on the trigram imagery, blended with natural imagery from the Zhouyi and insights into Chinese thought and history.


To be clear – I do like this book very much; I’ve been enjoying reading it, and I fully expect to be using it in readings. But there are a couple of issues that could get in the way of both enjoyment and use for you, so let me get those out of the way before I move on to the good stuff…

It’s described on the front cover as ‘The Original I Ching’ and on the back cover as ‘based on the core text created during the first centuries of the Zhou dynasty.’ Only there’s a basic problem with going looking for an ‘original I Ching’: it’s not like researching the work of a single modern author, where if you go far enough back the variant texts will resolve themselves into a single original. Travel far enough back through Yi’s history, and you will find not a single source, but multiple tributaries. Where is the ‘original’, and how are you to know when you’ve found it?

Margaret has chosen to use a blend of the Mawangdui (MWD) manuscript, which is the most complete but not the oldest of the early versions we have, with the received text, creating a truly ‘original I Ching’. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor with choosing the MWD as a source and deciding not to look at the more fragmentary, earlier texts discovered more recently. Learning and discoveries never stop with the Yi, so if anything is ever going to get into print there has to come a point where the translator says ‘enough’.

What I don’t like, though, is that she only mentions these earlier texts in a little footnote in the introduction, and then in her commentary on hexagram 18 implies that the received meaning of corruption and the ancestral curse is altogether superseded by the ‘earlier’ MWD meaning of ‘branching out’. So all the richness of imagery that comes with the ancestral curse is lost, while she pretends that it never meant more than ‘saving insect-infested food’!

Argh, somewhat. I like working with hexagram 18 – it’s one that speaks particularly clearly and eloquently and works inner magic for people. (By the way, it seems the oldest manuscript does have it as the gu curse.) And in general, I’d rather have Margaret’s translation of the whole of the received version – partly so I could more easily compare like with like, putting her work alongside other translators’, and partly because the received version is what I use in readings, and it just isn’t practical suddenly to switch to a whole different text and turn 18 into ‘Branching Out’ or 19 into ‘The Forest’.

The second issue is also a good thing, in a way. Margaret has that essential scholar’s honesty that refuses to invent meanings to fill in gaps: she even says in her introduction that her book ‘aims to be as clear or as vague as the text itself.’ The unpretentiousness of her translation is appealing – ‘You should’ for the junzi of the Image, for instance, or ‘crossing the great river will work out’ or ‘impeded’/’on foot’ for 39. She offers lucid, intelligent explanations of recurrent phrases (like crossing the great river and yuan heng, li zhen) in her introduction.

However, when she comes to something unclear, it remains quite authentically unclear. 37.3, for instance, she translates,

‘The family goes “shyow-shyow”. Remorse and danger, but good fortune. Wife and children go “shee-shee”. In the end, distress.’

and adds a footnote,

‘It is unclear which emotions were associated with these sounds. The first may indicate anger or joy; the second may be happy.’

This is refreshingly open and completely without that irritating ‘I know what this means and I’ll make it mean it, damn it!’ translator’s attitude. However, it does often leave the reader without much of a starting point.

There’s next to no interpretation offered of line texts in general – some italicised commentary on eight of the 384, the occasional gloss in parentheses – so that often you’re left on your own to work with something like,

‘Sincerity. In peeling, danger.’ (58.5)

That’s fair enough. But at times it seems there is just no attempt to make sense in the translation itself:

‘Reversing the jaws. Gnashing at the warp at the north. Going on a campaign would bring misfortune.’ (27.2)

‘Jaws reversed: good fortune. The tiger gazes “dan-dan” (his eyes down], his face “didi” (flute-like). No blame.’ (27.4)

And for 29.4, here is all you get:

‘Six in the fourth place: (this line has to do with the bronze containers used in sacrificial rituals, replacing them with earthenware pots, and with either a wine ladle or angelica coming from a window. The one clear statement is: ) In the end, no danger [or blame].’

I can sympathise absolutely with the feeling behind this kind of note. It arises after a few weeks or years spent looking at every meaning, usage and variant of every character in a line, parsing it every which way, maybe looking at a small mountain of sample readings and consulting the Yi to ask it what it means for good measure, and still being all at sea. (Come to think of it, hexagram 29 is an apt place for that to happen, isn’t it?) But seeing this note in place of a translation still makes me feel as though an early draft went to the printers by mistake. I feel the same way about flute-like tiger faces – oh, and the standard of proof-reading, which is really not good at all.

Good things

Let me move on to the things I particularly like about the book.

The introduction makes interesting reading. It’s permeated by an awareness that this is and has always been an oracle, not just a foundational philosophical/metaphysical text. So towards the beginning she says,

‘Over the centuries, many have found that consulting the Changes can encourage thoughtful decision-makers to see aspects of situations to which they had been blind. The natural images in the Changes, when considered as analogous to recurring human situations, can provide fruitful images for meditation as people search for ways through – or out of – their particular dilemmas.’


‘It is best used as part of a thoughtful process involving repeated meditation, journaling, and the advice of others. It was not intended to replace moral dicta but to assist those determined to act responsibly. It can prod us toward a deeper, more informed view of the world and our actions within it.’

And towards the end, when she offers two example readings, one is modern and the other dates from the second century – a fact she doesn’t mention until after walking you through the reading. So the reader is left with a sense of Yi’s powerful history as an oracle – which is good.

I also especially like her advice on how to divine, something she regards as being part of a process of decision-making that includes information-gathering and talking to people. (Since a classic and painful mistake is for people to use divination as an alternative to these things, this is a Good Thing.)

Her ideas for questions are reasonable, if weirdly limited – why only decision-making and no asking for advice or insight? – and she seems stuck on the idea that second hexagram equals future results (not that that’s unusual). But then she suggests that you write down your response to the reading, journal before bed, sleep on it, write more the following morning, talk with a friend for advice, keep coming back to your reading for a few days and meditate on the Image. That’s far, far more true-to-life than your average, ‘cast coins, add up values, look up hexagram, get answer’ kind of account. ‘Expect to find wisdom though not clarity,’ she says. ‘If the answer seems clear, be sure to read all sections again, carefully.’

You can tell this is the voice of someone who has consulted the oracle, not just treated it as the object of study. She even mentions in passing, in the Acknowledgements, having introduced students to the oracle and had them write essays about their reading experiences. Hooray!

There’s also intriguing insight here into Margaret’s approach to translation. She explains how the concepts of yin and yang were introduced long after the Zhouyi was written. Instead of merely mentioning this, though, she has taken care to avoid the casual conflation of solid lines with yang and open with yin (I only have to look at my own book’s introduction for a handy example of that 😳 ), remove this conceptual layer from her thinking about the text, and explore what is revealed behind it. (And she includes a lovely interpretation in passing of 61.2 and its mention of ‘yin’.) And there’s a good account here of her take on Hexagram 44 – the accounts of 44 in Karcher’s Total I Ching and my book both owe a lot to her original article on this.

The commentary on each hexagram is original, sometimes surprising (24 as an earthquake?) and often insightful. It’s mostly based on the Image, and you can tell that, as she says in the Introduction, this arises from personal daily reflections:

‘I have lived with these words for many years, writing down the characters in the morning and carrying them throughout the day, memorising them, and writing the characters over and over when I could…’

(And I do very much like the fact that she’s included the Image because it speaks to her, and never mind historical authenticity.)

She uses her background knowledge of ancient Chinese life and thought to provide a context that makes things more accessible. There are little references to Confucius and Mencius; there’s an explanation of the setting-right of the calendar in 49 and this at the end of Hexagram 56:

‘A further note: In early China, fire was used to clear mountainous land and prepare it for cultivation or easier access by humans. So for them it was a civilizing, fructifying act, not one of long-term destruction. In th same way, in being wanderers (or pilgrims), we must leave behind many ties and almost all physical possessions. But by acceding to this emptiness and vulnerability, we open ourselves to new worlds, some of which may be far more fruitful for us than our current homes.’

Margaret writes in a plain, direct style that encourages you simply to contemplate the natural imagery – the scenery of the trigrams (had you thought of 26 as ‘the skies that lie among mountain peaks’?) and also the imagery of the original. Here is the bamboo in the name of Hexagram 60:

‘Bamboo is a rapidly growing grass with hollow stems. Each hollow tube terminates in a woody membrane that blocks the hollow. These solid portions have two functions: they give strength to the plant and they are the loci for branching and other growth. Without the joints, bamboo would collapse easily, and never grow into sturdy tree-tall plants.’

She goes on to compare this to a university course being just a term long to support the development of skills and the making of better long-term choices, and to simple, frugal living. We might already know all this about bamboo plants, but I find that to have it presented to me explicitly like this keeps me from skimming past the imagery and encourages the kind of slowing down and contemplating that makes for readings that work. Without being plunged into a sea of imagery and associations (no mythic or legendary dimension here), you’re nonetheless quietly guided into a meditative approach. And this is why I expect to be picking this book up quite often, to see if it can take me back to beginner’s mind again and out of my ‘I-know-what-this-one’s-about’-ism.

Who it’s for

I don’t think this is a beginner’s book, or not on its own, because of that lack of interpretation I mentioned, and the way it sometimes extends into the translation. But alongside a book that’s more inclined to ‘tell you what it means’ line by line, this would be a good addition: an alternative perspective, a common sense approach without moralising, and a reminder that the more prolix commentator didn’t really know what it meant, either.

I think it’ll be especially useful for non-beginners who have a store of their own ideas and could do with coming back to basics. And it would also appeal to anyone who’s averse to over-complication and drawn to the natural imagery of the trigrams.

You’ll find it at Amazon.com, and in Canada and the UK.

17 responses to Margaret Pearson: The Original I Ching

  1. until some 15 years ago I used to purchase every yi interpretation, and I did some reviewing in a real paper magazine. At a certain point I got bored by every new and better translation from a deeper and more unknown and just for that occasion revealed source, and stopped reading those interpretations. They appeared as no more then territorial marks that shouted: “Listen to me, I am important in yi-country, follow me, offer your money to me”. I decided to use my energy for understanding the workings of the yi in real life. You don’t need legions of translations, although some good ones are a must for good learning.
    I think your interpretation is a positive exception, it adds understanding and vision, so I bought that one and advise it to people.

  2. Thank you!

    Even though the marketing around Margaret’s book is a little ‘territorial’, the book itself is deeply felt and wholly unpretentious. I think you’d enjoy it.

  3. Thank you!

    Here is Margaret’s response to the review that she kindly emailed to me. She isn’t available for much conversation now, as she’s preparing for surgery, but hopefully we can invite her back later…

    Margaret writes:

    “Dear Hilary,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and detailed review of my Original I Ching: an Authentic Translation of the Book of Changes Based on Recent Research (Tuttle, 2011). I am particularly grateful for your recognition that my past research on hexagram 44 (Oracle, Sept 2000) has been useful to you and Mr Karcher. Also for your kind comments on my suggestions on ways to consult the Changes. We continue to disagree on the significance of the second hexagram; you may be right. My interpretation is based on historical examples (mostly in Zuo) and my own experiences.

    As for the title, Original I Ching was the publisher’s choice of an accurate rendering of Zhouyi, and is a reference to that earliest layer of all versions of the text, not to a particular variant of Zhouyi (such as mawangdui, guodian, etc) You will also note that I insisted that this is “an authentic translation” NOT the only one. I agree with Richard Lynn (and ZhuXi) that . . . . there is no one single Classic of Changes but rather as many versions of it as there are different commentaries on it. . . . (for more, see my page 33 or his page 8 )

    Which version of the Zhouyi is the earliest is one I leave to others. I used both versions which had reached a state I considered workable when I began most of my work in 1997. I hope someday to do a revised version which may incorporate some variants from the Guodian texts. My conversations with scholars at the Guodian texts conference at Dartmouth last year suggest that there may be few differences.

    Your translation of the characters on the coins on the cover will be helpful to many. I hope you’ll let me add a bit of additional information. The two characters on the outside coins are actually a quotation from The Classic of Poetry (Shijing 257) (translation of those two words shown in boldface below, within that stanza of the poem)

    In Karlgren’s translation it reads:

    Luxuriant is the softness of the mulberry tree, beneath it, it is even shade (everywhere). . . .
    Alas you comrades! Do I compose in ignorance? You are like those flying birds
    They are hit also by arrows and caught;
    I have gone to (shade=) shelter you,
    but on the contrary you come and overawe me!

    so Yin here is the verb: (implicit I) shelter (in other translations: do good to), somewhat like yin in hexagram 61, nine in the second place.
    You is usually the woman character with water radical (the two dot version), but here the water radical is missing. Still the meaning is clear: you.

    It may interest your readers to realize that words for you and woman were so much alike at this time.

    I will defer responding to other issues you raise till after my upcoming surgery on Friday January 13.
    Best wishes to you and all your readers in the New Year.

    I hope to see you again when I speak at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, the evening of May first.


    Margaret J Pearson
    professor emerita
    History Department
    Skidmore College
    Saratoga NY”

  4. just a quick thought, you know shee-shee sounds like, xie xie, thank you, (the west, country area pronunciation).

  5. It is amazing to recognize that Hilary has a huge energy to be so updated and to brillantly comment about every important news on Yi Jing. On the other side she inspires confidence by revealing a deep and honest work work. She is actually an example of dedication and hardworker. I absolutely rely in every thing she writes.

  6. I pre-ordered this edition and looked forward to it, but when it arrived it moved rather quickly to the ‘other editions’ section of the collection (not the working editions kept in my office). I did enjoy and appreciate the thorough review, but overall I didn’t find the translation itself had the depth of treatment that I would expect from an edition claiming to reveal the ‘Original I Ching’.

  7. Sorry to hear that! I agree that the translation is not the strong point, but the trigram-based reflections are worth having.

  8. Thank you for the review…they always sound so inspiring.

    I was wondering though. I don’t know that much about the I Ching despite knowing of it for decades. Nevertheless, given that there are so many translations out there (and I know there are a few recommended ones), the advice sometimes given is to meditate on the image of the constituent trigrams.

    Surely, though, given the preponderance of “original” I Chings and their historical sources, there is also disagreement with what constitutes the images of the trigrams within a hexagram.

    So, I suppose my question is: Is there a good source of the “closest” to the original constituent images? Or is one of the recommended good translations also good at translating the images?

    Another interesting thing for me would be: Are there books or sources where the images are actually that–the images rendered in good artwork which captures a good portion of what was intended?

  9. This is a good question! Would you like to post it to the I Ching Community? I’d like to hear what people have to say.

    You’re right, of course, that there are differences as to the original meanings of the trigrams. Here’s an article you might find interesting:

    But the Image itself – the Wing, I mean, the Daxiang – states clearly what natural images you have to work with: that is, it doesn’t just say 57 is xun (name of the trigram) but specifically that there are ‘following winds’, feng. That part of it, at least, is simple, and you can expect everyone to translate it in much the same way. Maybe where we translate as ‘lake’ we should say ‘marsh’, but that’s about as contentious as it gets.

    There are some quite beautiful I Ching card decks… I can’t think of one that draws its imagery specifically and solely from trigrams, though…

  10. Thank you Hilary for your response.

    Yes, posting to the I Ching community would be good for more comments, but I don’t know how.

    I will check out the cards thank you.

  11. This is a thoughtful and wonderful review Hilary, and makes me definitely want to read Margaret Pearson’s book. 🙂

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