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Lars Bo Christensen, Book of Changes

Here’s a new I Ching worth getting: Lars Bo Christensen’s Book of Changes, available (in the US and UK) for Kindle and now also on paper.

His aim is to create a coherent, usable and authentic translation of the Zhouyi core text. That’s interesting in itself, as ‘usable’ and ‘authentic’ are usually separated. Another recent I Ching, John Minford’s, is actually subdivided into two parts: the ‘wisdom book’ with all its accreted tradition, intended for use in divination, and a suggested reconstruction of the original meaning, which is no more intended for use than Rutt’s Zhouyi. Lars finds plenty of wisdom, coherence and psychological depth in the simple Zhouyi.

The book’s contents:

  • Introduction – not in any way a rehashing of the usual Yijing book introduction, but 80 pages with information on history, structure and sources.
  • The Zhouyi: Chinese text with line-by-line translation, using square brackets to show the translator’s interpolations, just like Legge. Each hexagram is followed by a glossary of most of the characters in the hexagram (the more commonly used characters get their own separate glossary, and there’s a section of the introduction dedicated to yuan, heng and zhen), giving their dictionary definitions along with notes on the translation.
  • Appendices: the glossary of common characters; a full listing of the trigrams and hexagrams of numbers found on late Shang and early Zhou artefacts; the Chinese text; a long bibliography.
  • A second version of the translation designed for easier use – no Chinese, no square brackets, and brief comment on the core meaning of each line.
  • Instructions for yarrow and three coin consultation, and a hexagram look-up chart.

Things I like

I would buy the book just for the introduction. It includes a really good, thorough, readable account of the book’s history, sources and dating. Perhaps it’s a teensy bit repetitive for lack of an editor, but it’s fascinating reading and I’m very glad to have all this information in one place. There’s a description of all the recently excavated texts, the readings described in the Zuozhuan, and a description of the number-trigrams and -hexagrams inscribed on artefacts.

The introduction also explains the thinking behind his translation – which is another thing I like. The gist is that the received text is coherent and intended for use (bravo!), that the words must be understood through their context, and that context includes not only contemporary texts and background knowledge of Zhou life and culture, but also the structure of the text (bravo!!).

By ‘structure’ he doesn’t mean the post-hoc systematisation of nuclear trigrams and the like, just the basics: the sequence of hexagrams, the sequence of lines rising through each hexagram, the hexagram pairs (he goes through and lists their contrasts and commonalities), and each line’s zhi gua. He points out that the use of zhi in the Zuozhuan to identify moving lines (such as ‘1 zhi 43’ for 1.6) probably indicates that the zhi gua had some significance – otherwise, why not just say ‘1 line 6’?

‘If a divination answer is obtained with the method of multiple lines then the lines must obviously be intended to be connected into little “stories” – stories of increasing length the more lines that the divination yields. And there must be a connection between the combined line statements and the following hexagram. I say it is obvious because I can hardly imagine that a divination answer with, for example, four lines changing to a following hexagram was supposed to be viewed as five different answers to that particular question.’

To which I say about 85% ‘hooray! bravo!’ and 15% ‘yes, but’ (see the ‘mixed feelings’ section).

He even gives specific examples of lines working together with their zhi gua – both single lines and combinations, both fully-worked examples and some more briefly stated that you can mull over for yourself. Funnily enough, I don’t agree with most of them – which is good for me, as I get to see some different possibilities and not get too stuck in my own ideas. But some are simply good. For instance…
‘H30 line 4 and 6 changing to H36: A flash of light makes it clear to us which of the barbarians can be trusted.’
or for 60.1 to 29,
‘Stay inside. H29 is not only a picture of a bad pit, but also a good space that can contain something.’

He believes the book was written by a single author, for whom he obviously has a great respect. I like the advice to read the Shijing ‘for anyone who finds it difficult to accept the full scope of themes in the Zhou Yi.’ In other words, Yi represents a full and complex inner life, not just politics and/or lucky/unlucky offerings. (There is a daft modern tendency to describe the ancient world as if people back then hadn’t quite developed self-awareness yet.) Lars makes the radical, blunt assertions that ‘H52 is about meditation and H31 is about the ancient concept of internal energy.’ He adds, ‘I believe the main problem in translating the Zhou Yi lies not in understanding the words, but rather in believing that someone more than 2500 years ago could hold the complexity of all these ideas and express them as clearly as they are, in fact, being presented to us in the Zhou Yi.’

The section on the yarrow method gives both the source and the practical method. There’s also an excellent practical explanation of the Nanjing method (for getting just one changing line) if you want to use that.

I really appreciate the use of square brackets in the translation to show the interpolations. Basically, when you’re translating the Yi you can either add hardly anything, and end up with something so cryptic you have to write reams of commentary to make up for this (which is pretty much what I did), or you can include some interpretation in your translation. By doing this and using brackets, Lars gives you something readable without creating any confusion as to what’s original and what’s his own idea. Some interpolations seem to me a bit much, but some are real ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. Like 2.4:
‘It is no mistake to keep the sack closed, but you will get no credit [for what is in it].’

Also, I’m pretty much over the moon about the glossary and footnotes to each hexagram. It’s not just the dictionary entries, though those are good to have in themselves, but also notes explaining his translation choices, comments on contemporary usage and other occurrences of words and phrases within the Yi – which is part of Yi’s ‘vocabulary’ for communicating through a series of readings, so it’s important to know – and a privileged insight into his research and thinking in general. It also gives you the means to challenge his translations! If you’re not happy with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as translations for the names of the first two hexagrams (which I’m not), then check with the glossary.

Things I have mixed feelings about

I’m delighted that he points to the importance of structure in creating meaning, but not-so-thrilled with some of his assertions. He says the ‘following hexagram’ (aka changed hexagram aka relating hexagram) ‘was a sort of conclusion like: “Because … [line] and because … [other line] you should …”.’ That might sometimes be how it works, but – in my experience – not usually. (A single fixed meaning for the relating hexagram, ‘What you should be doing’? Good luck making that work in all your readings…) And while multiple moving lines often do work together as stories, that’s certainly not their only way of relating – and not the line texts’ only ‘baked in’ structural principle, either.

Along similar lines, he’s noticed the relationship between lines of the same level in the pairs (eg 12.1 and 11.1) but not the actual paired lines ( e.g. 41.5/42.2, 43.4/44.3, 63.3/64.4 – he notices the repeated text in each case but doesn’t put two and two together). He notices that lines tell stories and express ‘increasing levels of meaning’, that ‘the first one or two levels of lines are about feet, roots, staying, being closer to home, holes in the ground, beginnings, walking, tails, mats, staying low — in general anything that can be considered low or basic’ but not, for instance, the particular awkwardness of lines 3 and 4 as ‘threshold’ lines. Of course, it’s a very safe bet that we have all missed seeing things about Yi’s structure – but when I find that rare gem, a translator interested in how the structure helps to create the meaning, I wish he’d take this further. Maybe in the next edition?

He is distressed that 63 and 64 are the ‘wrong’ way round and thinks someone must have muddled up some bamboo strips. Perhaps, or perhaps Yi has – and embodies – a profound sense of humour. (We must ask Lars about this again after he’s done a few dozen rounds of textual revisions…)

Moving on to the translation – there are a lot of ideas here that I’ve never seen before and that had never occurred to me. In itself, this is a Very Good Thing: I’m compelled to stop and think and reconsider, and with enough of this I might even learn something. Some examples…

12 line 2 changes from,
‘Embracing the charge: good for small people, blocking for great people. Creating success.’
to
‘To shelter and support small people is good. By refraining from doing so, the great man makes things go well.’
Interesting! And you don’t have to agree with the change-around to appreciate the flexibility and the challenge to rethink what you thought you knew.

12.0 is intriguing. What’s usually along the lines of,
‘Blocked by bad/non- people. No harvest [in a] junzi[‘s] constancy. Great goes, small comes.’
becomes,
‘Refrain from this. There is no one that does not want gain, but the wise person acts correctly when he lets great things go away and settles with the smaller.’ So ‘no harvest’ has become ‘does not want gain’, constancy/correctness is no longer ineffective, and the bad people (匪人) have disappeared into ‘no one’ – a choice he explains in the glossary note on 14.1,
‘The meaning of 匪 in the Shi Jing is in all cases derived from “not”; “nothing”, “without”, “there is no”, “no one”. 匪 can, in later texts, also mean “bad people” “bandit” or “robber”. There is, however, no example of this meaning in the Shi Jing. For that reason, I don’t think the meaning of 匪 in line 1 can be “bad” but rather “wrong [for you]”.’

Or how about 10.6:
‘Look when you step [on the tiger’s tail] and observe any signs that [indicate that the tiger will] turn around. [This is the] basic [method to insure things turn out] for the good.’
Lots of interpolations, but it’s not a bad idea, is it?

The surprises only rarely come from the translation of a particular word. An exception: the phrase in 45.0 and 59.0, ‘the king enters his temple’ (Wilhelm) or ‘the king places himself in service to the temple’ (Harmen) or ‘with the king’s presence there is a temple’ (Barrett, in the updated version in the Resonance Journal) becomes something like, ‘When the king is otherwise unoccupied, there is the temple to go to,’ as if the relationship with the royal ancestors were an afterthought. This is again explained with reference to the meaning of the character in the Shijing, which is fine in principle, but I am really not convinced.

More often, surprises come from one of Lars’ principles of translation:

1) One character per meaning. One Chinese character can have many English translations, of course, but many Chinese characters should not be reduced to one English word. If there’s already a character that means ‘move (a city)’ then a different character must mean something different (like ‘renew’). He makes exceptions when compelled to do so (as by the carriage in 40.3), but otherwise is guided by this. It makes sense, especially if you agree with him that the book has a single author. There aren’t so many characters for the author to choose from, so surely the choice of a different one would be deliberate and meaningful.

2) There is no punctuation in the original, so the traditional parsing can be discarded without loss: everything can be rethought.

This creates the freedom that allows for a lot of his best ideas. However, sometimes this reparsing extends into translating the words in a different order from that in which they appear in the text. Now… here I am going to start holding forth on things I know nothing about. Lars reads Chinese and is qualified to translate it; I don’t and I’m not. All I have is a rudimentary instinct for the book. Rudimentary instinct says that the order of the words in the original is an important part of the meaning. It creates a rhythm to the text that’s sometimes used to show contrasts and alternatives.

I first noticed Lars’ approach to word order in 48.0:
‘The Well. It is bad if the village is renewed, but the well is not renewed. Without [thinking about] what they can lose or gain, [people just] come and go to thewell. But the well can dry up even to the point where you cannot quite [reach down] to draw water from the well, [and prolonged use] will wear out its bucket.’

Wait – where does that ‘it is bad’ come from? Ah – from the xiong that’s the very last character of the whole oracle. Well… if the whole thing is a single utterance describing a single situation, I suppose it doesn’t make so much difference whether you put the omen at the end or the beginning. (Except that the author put it at the end, which makes you read the oracle differently, and maybe that reading experience is important in itself…)

Then there’s 11.4:
翩翩不富以其鄰不戒以孚

Word by word –
翩翩 (flutter-flutter) 不 (not – except Lars translates it as ‘don’t’, which I thought was 勿 wu as in 1.1, which he translates ‘can’t be’… sorry, speaking of flutter-flutter, where was I?) 富 (rich) 以 (in-relation-to/using) 其 (the/its/your) 鄰 (neighbour) 不 (not) 戒 (on guard) 以 (in-relation-to/using) 孚 (truth/confidence).

You don’t have to know a word of Chinese to see the parallel construction: 不 + adjective + 以 + something. Good old rudimentary instinct says that’s deliberate. So I (after a lot of trying and failing to find a single English preposition to work for both cases of 以) ended up with,
‘Fluttering, fluttering.
Not rich in your neighbours.
Not on guard against truth and confidence.’

Lars has,
‘Don’t go back and forth many times to enrich yourself with help from your neighbour, don’t feel unsafe but use your own inner confidence.’
He’s reading it as if the first 不, ‘not’, were at the beginning of the line, applying to the ‘fluttering’ or ‘going back and forth’. Does old Chinese ever work like that, with a negative applying to the preceding verb?

Who should buy it?

Probably almost anyone who’s interested in the Yi and not quite sure that they already know what it all means.

In this review I’ve talked mostly about the parts that grab my interest, which mainly means the translation with bracketed interpolations and those lovely glossaries and translation notes. It’s a great source of new ideas, and the information in the introduction is good to have. If you – like me – have got comfortable with certain explanations of the lines, this is an excellently uncomfortable book to have, and greatly recommended.

And if you’re more of a beginner? Well – out of consideration for less Yeeky types, there is also the second version of the translation included: no Chinese, no square brackets, and a quick comment indicating the gist of each line. This would be very usable for divination: straightforward, direct, respectful and authentic. I wouldn’t recommend it as your only version, as some of those novel translations are really very novel. (But then again, there isn’t really any book I’d recommend as your only version.) But it would make an excellent and eye-opening companion to another translation: look at this one, look at your Wilhelm/Karcher/Barrett/Hatcher/Lynn…, see how they differ, explore why, listen for what resonates…

You can find the book at Amazon – UK or US.

15 responses to Lars Bo Christensen, Book of Changes

  1. About word order, punctuation, and some general comments on Lars’s translation etc.:

    1. 12.0 否之匪人不利君子貞大往小來 as ‘Refrain from this. There is no one that does not want gain, but the wise person acts correctly when he lets great things go away and settles with the smaller.’

    To translate 否之 as ‘refrain from this’ is in my opinion not consistent with the grammar in the little sentence and the known meanings of 否. Fou/pi 否 is never used with the meaning of ‘to refrain from something’. Zhi 之 at the end of a sentence most often can be translated as ‘it’, ‘him’ or her’ and in that case refers to something what is already known. But my main objection is the punctuation that Lars used here. I believe that the sentence should be 否之匪人. We have another usage of X之匪人 at hexagram 8, line 3, where it says 比之匪人. The position of zhi 之 in 否之匪人 can be read either as ‘possessive’, ‘否 its 匪人’ or it means ‘this’, ‘this’ referring to what immediately follows it: ‘this 匪人’, but in that case I don’t know how 否 fits in it. It is also possible that 之 introduces the predicate of the sentence, i.e. it tells about the subject, what it does, what happens to it or what it means (see for all the possible usages of 之 《古代汉语虛词词典》, p. 832-843). Viewed from that angle 否之匪人 might mean ‘否 means 匪人’. One of the meanings of 否 is ‘bad, evil’. Which brings us to 匪人. The older texts of the Yi use 非人, an expression which is more common than 匪人 and refers to scoundrels and other bad people, people with physical disabilities, generally said, people who live on the fringes of society. In other words, 否 (bad, evil) means 匪人 (bad people). There are to my knowledge no examples of texts which use 匪人 with the meaning of ‘there is no one’.
    The rest of Lars’ translation ignores the divinatory tradition and the meaning of the keywords of that tradition from which the Yi originated: we know by now that 利 and 貞 are used with specific meanings that are consistent through all the old and excavated divination materials. I believe Lars knows these sources yet he chooses to ignore them.

    2. 12.2 承小人吉大人否亨 as ‘To shelter and support small people is good. By refraining from doing so, the great man makes things go well.’

    Lars punctuates this sentence as 承小人吉. 大人否亨. However, it is clear that 小人 and 大人 are juxtaposed here, just as in other lines in the Yijing 小人 is juxtaposed with 君子 (e.g. hexagram 23, line 6: 君子得輿. 小人剝廬, hexagram 33, line 4: 好遯. 君子吉. 小人否, hexagram 34, line 3: 小人用壯. 君子用罔, or hexagram 49, line 6: 君子豹變. 小人革面). Which means that the punctuation should be something like 承: 小人吉. 大人否. 亨. Separating 亨 from the rest of the sentence is not uncommon in the Yi (see http://www.yjcn.nl/wp/the-yijing-as-oracle-bones-sidekick-a-study-of-heng-%E4%BA%A8/). Lars’ translation of 亨 does not keep up with the latest insights that we have gained through excavated materials.

    3. 10.6 視履考祥其旋元吉 as ‘Look when you step [on the tiger’s tail] and observe any signs that [indicate that the tiger will] turn around. [This is the] basic [method to insure things turn out] for the good.’

    I think the translation can be more simple. 視履考祥. 其旋. 元吉: ‘look – tiger – investigating/examining – carefully/cautiously – he – turns around – greatly auspicious’. ‘Looking at a tiger investigating cautiously. He turns around. Greatly auspicious.’ (reading 祥 as a loan for 詳, see 漢語大詞典, Vol. 7, p. 915; Ding Sixin 丁四新, 《楚竹書與漢帛書校注》, p. 209)

    4. 48.0 改邑不改井无喪无得往來井井汔至亦未繘井羸其瓶凶 as ‘The Well. It is bad if the village is renewed, but the well is not renewed. Without [thinking about] what they can lose or gain, [people just] come and go to the well. But the well can dry up even to the point where you cannot quite [reach down] to draw water from the well, [and prolonged use] will wear out its bucket.’

    Putting xiong 凶, ‘bad’, at the beginning of the translation when it is actually at the end of the paragraph is simply wrong. I would like Lars to show me other examples in which 凶 says something about a statement that is made 18-22 characters before it. It simply doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t in line with the other uses of 凶 in the Yi (as a divinatory statement it is most often a conclusion of the text that came before it: ‘inauspicious’).

    You ask, ‘Does old Chinese ever work like that, with a negative applying to the preceding verb?’ No, not that I know of, unless it is meant as ‘…or not?’, in which case it is at the end of a sentence (《古代汉语虛词词典》, p. 36-37) Lars’ translation is not consistent with the grammar in the sentence.

  2. Thank you, Harmen! I would like your review of the book, but your review of a review of the book is not a bad substitute at all.

    (Actually what I would mostly like is your translation… I may possibly have mentioned that once or twice before…)

    Lars’ name for 12 is ‘Refraining from’; he sees the theme of the hexagram as a whole as refraining from doing things that would normally be a good idea. I take it you’re not buying that idea? (I’m going to wait for readings with 12 in and then try it on for size.)

    As for zhi at the end of a sentence ‘referring to something already known’ – well, in a divination text that will always work nicely: it’s the action proposed.

    I should have thought to look at 8.3 for fei ren. Yes, he has the ‘normal’ approach to that – uniting with bad people – which greatly weakens the case for parsing 12.0 differently.

    About the ‘old’ and ‘new meanings of heng, li, zhen – success vs offering, divination vs constancy/correctness… that actually doesn’t bother me. I find old and new meanings to be connected, part of a continuous ‘chain’ of meaning. That is: offering accepted and enjoyed… successful offering… participating in the whole of life in a successful way… successful. There is a similar continuity from ‘divination’ via ‘knowing truth’ to ‘constancy (to what you perceive to be true)’. So I think ‘going well’ is a reasonable translation for heng, and can even cope with ‘correct’ for zhen.

    (I always have doubts about translating zhen as ‘the divination’, because the results are frequently redundant. That is, the person sorting yarrow stalks already knows this is a divination, so why waste perfectly good bamboo strip space by mentioning it?)

    About the tiger that might or might not be implied in 10.6 (I suppose it’s like the dragon that either is or isn’t in 1.4…): if it turns around when you’re following behind it, mightn’t that be a problem?

  3. (Actually what I would mostly like is your translation… I may possibly have mentioned that once or twice before…)

    You have? You’re kidding me.

    “Lars’ name for 12 is ‘Refraining from’; he sees the theme of the hexagram as a whole as refraining from doing things that would normally be a good idea. I take it you’re not buying that idea?”

    No. I can’t find sources which use de name of hexagram 12 with the meaning of ‘to refrain from’, which in my opinion makes it unlikely that it has that meaning in the text of hexagram 12. It also doesn’t match the grammar structure and apparent meaning of, for instance, the 6th line: 先否後喜: first 否, later happiness.

    “So I think ‘going well’ is a reasonable translation for heng, and can even cope with ‘correct’ for zhen.”

    I can understand that, from a user point of view. But I expect better from a translator of the Yi. The text of the Yi contains several elements that are also found on oracle bones and in other divination texts. If we are sure that the Yi is a divination text, and that in the other divination sources zhen means ‘to divine’, then in my opinion it is likely that zhen means ‘to divine’ in the Yi as well. The variant texts of the Yi have helped to correct the meaning of heng – see my article, Ed Shaughnessy’s article ‘A Special Use of the Character xiang in Oracle-Bone Inscriptions and Its Significance for the Meaning of Early Chinese Divination: With Comments on the First Line of the Yi Jing’ (http://yunpan.cn/cjTe7RRbUixx2 访问密码 b7f9), and Ed’s article

  4. I worked on this project for five years and I believe I did a very good job. Every bit of my translation is accounted for, much more so than any previous translation. I’ve made some mistakes in the supporting chapters and have correct them fast as I could – but actually I have been content with the translation for a long time now.
    I also believe I wrote my arguments in a language that is clear and easy to understand.
    That is all I can do. I have already put forth hundreds of arguments. There should be no reason to repeat myself.

    I appreciate any interest in my work, but keep your words soft and tender – you might have to eat them later….

  5. Lars, translation is interpretation and your arguments will by no doubt explain your choices. That doesn’t mean that other options are less valid. You write on your website about Blofeld’s and Wilhelm’s translation, “I (…) realized that there were so many places that obviously made no sense and were not correctly translated. So I decided that one day I would make an even better translation.” As you can tell from my comments the ‘not correctly translated’ can also be applied to your work, depending on the point of view, and when you say that you ‘would make an even better translation’ that is an opinion that can easily be challenged. I don’t sugarcoat my words, there is no point in doing that. I like to be frank and give my view without using too much words. Don’t focus on [i]how[/i] I’m saying it, focus on [i]what[/i] I am saying. My opinion of your work does not diminish the value of your effort to produce the best possible translation of the Yi.

  6. Thank you for such a thorough and balanced review of this book Hilary. It sounds intriguing and I will be ordering a copy today !

  7. I particularly like this

    “He even gives specific examples of lines working together with their zhi gua – both single lines and combinations, both fully-worked examples and some more briefly stated that you can mull over for yourself. Funnily enough, I don’t agree with most of them – which is good for me, as I get to see some different possibilities and not get too stuck in my own ideas. But some are simply good. For instance…
    ‘H30 line 4 and 6 changing to H36: A flash of light makes it clear to us which of the barbarians can be trusted.’
    or for 60.1 to 29,
    ‘Stay inside. H29 is not only a picture of a bad pit, but also a good space that can contain something.’”

    because I’ve not yet seen anyone attempt that in a Yi book.

    Re what you said here

    “Lars’ name for 12 is ‘Refraining from’; he sees the theme of the hexagram as a whole as refraining from doing things that would normally be a good idea. I take it you’re not buying that idea? (I’m going to wait for readings with 12 in and then try it on for size.)”

    I can think back to enough 12 experiences to say I’ve tried it on for size already and there certainly is enough room to say that in many cases 12 does boil down to refraining from actions that normally would be thought to be good or true. Actually for me Lars idea on 12 as you described it doesn’t differ that much from our usual way of considering 12. After all ‘small people’ rule, it won’t be a good time to be upstanding honest and true to anything. It won’t ‘work’ in the 12 time.

  8. Great accuracy of translation is valuable yet by itself cannot connect us to the truth of any reading. The truth of a reading comes often ‘between the lines’ where real life and the translation meet.

    3 comments because my thoughts came like hiccups

  9. I got L.B.C’s book a week ago. So I won’t clame anything about it but just one thing: “Were the I written by a single author ?” [p. 2, preface]
    This question seems very interesting to me. I don’t think we will ever know but it’ll place the I in a much more “man to man-light” if it’s the case.
    (According to the commentary/Ten wings the I was invented by The sages ie. not one – or the gods)

  10. Thanks for the review, stimulating and informative as always. Also for the great posts from folk more informed than myself.

    I am enjoying a thoroughly good read. A refreshing book, (though accepting the translation discussion above.)

    However as I sit comparing the text with Rutt, Field, Lynn, Karcher (Vega) etc I sigh at the differences and ponder my possible foolishness, as a curious end user, of wanting to find the original Zhouyi layers.

  11. My copy of Field’s book is on its way – but I saved a few Euros by getting it sent over land, so it may take a while.

    I think the foolishness is baked in to the lot of us. There are worse things.

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