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Review: Stephen Field, The Duke of Zhou Changes

Field coverI’m really the wrong person to review this book: it’s a scholarly work, and I’m not remotely qualified to write a scholarly review. So here is a diviner’s take, instead. It comes as a sort of ‘whinge sandwich’: appreciation beginning and end, nitpicking in the middle. (Don’t take too much notice of the filling; it’s a lovely book.)

Wonderful scholarship…

First, as a diviner, it’s good to be able to rely on someone else’s scholarship! Better background knowledge makes for better readings. And Stephen Field undoubtedly knows his ancient Chinese onions. I have two other books of his – the fascinating/bewildering Tian Wen and Ancient Chinese Divination. This book, like those, is one from which I can learn a lot.

This starts with the introduction. Its table of contents is available as a pdf from the publisher’s page – and yes, any self-respecting Yeek will be salivating over this, and rightly so. The section on the bagua is especially fascinating. (The Luoshu writing representing calendar reform following the precession of the equinoxes, for instance, with the turtle as a constellation emerging from the ‘river’ of the Milky Way…) There’s a wealth of information here – historical and cultural background – that I’ve not found elsewhere, not even in Rutt’s introduction.

The learning continues with the hexagrams, and especially with the stories behind them. Just a few highlights:

  • historical ‘who’s who’ clarity in Hexagram 54
  • a much fuller version of the story of Wang Hai, anti-hero of hexagrams 34 and 56. Interestingly, Field tells his story first under Hexagram 23, which he thinks refers to Hai’s dismembering.
  • in Hexagram 35, a detailed account of the story of Kang and his reward, and a clear connection with the ‘royal mother’ of line 2

In addition to these specific references, there’s also an underlying awareness of the authors’ culture and way of life. So we learn that the ‘thatch grass’ of 11.1 was also used to wrap offerings, that bronze was equivalent to gold and therefore a natural reward for the successful hunters – and there’s the clearest differentiation I’ve seen yet of the coloured knee-bands in 47.2 and .5.

and so on – more examples of this abundant food for thought later…

…but uninspiring interpretation

It’s not that Field is uninterested in divination, I think. Part 3 of the book is boldly-titled ‘practical applications’, and begins with recommendations for respectful ritual around the oracle book. Also, the question advice he gives is very sensible, and there’s a very full account of how to cast. (He gives three casting methods: yarrow, 3 coin and ‘8 coin’ – a modern method that always gives one changing line, also popularised recently by Karcher.)

Under ‘how to interpret a reading’ he tells you not how to interpret a reading, but which texts to read: ignore moving line texts altogether when there’s more than one line changing and read the hexagram judgements; with one line changing, read just that line and ignore the hexagram judgements. Not brilliant advice if you’re interested in the full subtle language of the Yi, but not disastrous if you want a simple answer.

So he does care about divination – but the book doesn’t reliably offer you usable interpretations that will deepen your understanding of a reading. Which is a shame – I would have loved commentaries that offered more insight into Yi’s nature as an oracle, a way to have powerful conversations that create change. I don’t mean commentary to ‘tell you what it means’ (ugh), but I do think it’s the interpreter’s job to draw out the connections that hold the text together and give you a sense of the hexagram’s underlying theme. That often doesn’t happen in Field’s book – it’s as if he doesn’t believe in a deeper theme at all.

Take the commentary on Hexagram 3’s name and judgement, for instance:

3. Tun, A Bunch
When pronounced tun, the name of this hexagram means “to accumulate,” or “to tie together (in bunches).” Note line 5 where this meaning is especially evident. When pronounced zhun, the graph means “difficult” and pictures a sprout before it breaks through the soil.
Hexagram statement: Diviners in the early history of this text determined that travel conducted as a result of this hexagram usually ended in misfortune. So they recorded the counsel, “Do not use this omen to go on a journey.” Similarly, when the king divined the proper time to enfeoff his nobles and this hexagram was obtained, the result was usually favorable. So the diviners recorded the counsel, “It is good to install feudal officers.”

Is that really how he thinks the text was assembled? Just random jottings of divination experiences? Isn’t there some significance to the contrast between enfeoffment and going on a journey, and some relationship between that and the name of the hexagram?

Another example: he translates Hexagram 30 as not ‘clarity’ but ‘lia bird’, and has some very interesting information about this bird. So… why would this one hexagram of the 64 recommend rearing cattle in its Judgement? Because ‘diviners in the early history of this text determined that keeping cows brought good fortune.’ There is no suggestion of any connection between the lia bird and cattle-rearing – it looks as though he’s chosen the translation for the hexagram name with no thought to its relation to its context. Which is the only sensible way to go about it, of course, if you believe that the text of the hexagram is nothing but a random collection of diviners’ records with no unifying theme…

An oracle, or some records of an oracle?

It’s important to recognise that diviners’ records certainly are and always have been part of how we understand hexagrams. It’s a tradition as old as the oracle. We’re part of it now: when you want help with a reading, you may well come to the forum to ask, ‘Does anyone have experience with these two lines changing?’ (And this is why we’re building WikiWing – a collaborative ‘eleventh Wing’ of distilled reading experiences) Field represents the very beginning of the same tradition by dividing the text into three columns: omen, counsel and fortune. For instance, 30.3:

Omen:  the setting sun’s lia-bird
Counsel: Unless you beat an earthen pot and sing, your elders’ lamentations will be substantial.
Fortune: Misfortune.

(The commentary has a really intriguing suggestion: this bird could be the three legged raven seen in the sun, in sunspots – visible to the naked eye at sunset – and you must beat on pots and sing to drive the raven away.)

The idea is that the original diviners see a sign, then record their experience or compose an interpretation in response, and make a note of how good or bad the outcome was. In a way, it’s interesting to see the text broken up in this way – it’s good to have a clear visual reminder of which parts are missing, because the absence of a ‘fortune’ from a line, for instance, can be quite eloquent.

However, it’s not especially easy to read in the correct order (you have to remember to read across the columns, then down), and in fact the text isn’t always given in the correct order – in hexagram 4, the second half of the ‘fortune’, ‘a good omen’ (aka ‘constancy bears fruit’), should come at the very end, after the questioner’s importunate interruption. That – I reckon – is a deliberate literary device, so that the questioner interrupts omen words that are normally spoken together. (I don’t suppose Field believes such things are to be found in Yi.)

Anyway… divination records are certainly used as part of the Yi’s construction. But they are used, not just collected. The book was composed for use as an oracle, so I think it’s reasonable to credit its authors with some thoughtfulness and insight as they selected the dozen or so characters to sum up the essence of tun or li.

Whereas if you treat the book mostly as just a compilation of historical allusions and divination records – rather than something intended for future use as an oracle – you risk missing the point.

The lines of Hexagram 18, for instance, are written following the ancient pattern of divinations to ask which neglected ancestral spirit was responsible for a curse: ‘it is stem father x’s curse’. But in the text of the Yi, the names of the ancestors are all omitted. Field spends some time pondering which ancestor they might mean – when surely, if the authors had meant those who received this hexagram in divination to use it to identify a Zhou ancestor as the source of their problems, they could simply have left the names in? Perhaps they had something else in mind?

Also, if you treat the book as an oracle, then a line’s good or bad omens must be part of the line. That is, omen, counsel and fortune work together to say, ‘in this situation, acting this way is a good/ bad idea.’ But if this isn’t your starting point – if you don’t expect a line to carry that kind of message – then things start coming apart.

A couple of examples: 29.6 and 53.5.

‘Tie him up with braids and cords. Throw him into a thorny keep. For three years he is not bagged. Misfortune.’

In his commentary, Field develops the idea that the lines of 29 concern the imprisonment of Wen (then known as Chang). Of line 6 he says,

This omen shows the captive tied up with braids and cords and thrown into a thorny enclosure. The counsel attests that the captive will not be “bagged” (that is, converted) for three years. While the omen is bad, the implication is not. After three painful years, the prisoner is still not broken. Eventually – after three more years, Chang was released from prison.

‘While the omen is bad, the implication is not.’ That makes sense for a historical record – not for an oracle. (Oh… except for in lines like 28.6… but that’s a special case.)

In 53.5, the disjointedness extends to the translation. A ‘conventional’ one:

‘The wild geese gradually progress to the ancestral grave-mounds.
The wife is not pregnant for three years.
In the end, nothing can prevent it.
Good fortune.’

You see the logic: it’s good fortune because the wife will certainly become pregnant in the end.


‘The wild goose reaches the hills. The wife will not conceive for three years. In the end no one can overcome it. Good fortune.’

The wife will never conceive – so where is the ‘good fortune’ coming from? Perhaps his commentary will explain…

‘This omen shows a wild goose flying even higher to the hill. Another ominous scenario similar to those in line 3 is presented in the counsel text here. A wife is deprived of her future child when she is unable to conceive for three years. However, in this line the woman is unable to overcome her barrenness – perhaps a reference to the daughter of King Di Yi. Otherwise, the counsel refers to the hunters who are unable to bag the goose. Whichever is the case, the prognosis is good fortune.’

…or perhaps not. (Now a failed hunt is good fortune, too?) Anyway, this shows what a difference the translator’s idea of the book makes: if you don’t start with the assumption that the text is meant to be used as an oracle, then the line doesn’t need to hang together as a coherent answer to a prospective questioner.

But this gets us into the realms of literary criticism and how each of us ‘constructs’ the text – hard to imagine there could be any book more de- and re-constructed than this one – which is something I was very pleased to escape 19 years ago. Moving on…

…more to nitpick about

While I’m in complaining mode – I wish he’d consider translating fu as something other than ‘captives’. He does concede this once, at 14.5: ‘His confidence was mutual and awe-inspiring.’ He says firmly in the notes to this line that ‘this instance is the only one that retains the original meaning of “trust” or “confidence”.’

I imagine he allows this exception because he has associated Hexagram 14 with the Duke of Zhou and his willingness to sacrifice himself for King Wu, and there are no captives in this story. So 厥孚交如威如 – ‘his fu mingling thus awe-inspiring thus’ becomes confidence that is mutual and awe-inspiring. When I saw this, I turned with interest to 37.6, 有孚威如 – ‘having fu awe-inspiring thus’ to see if the same phrase would be translated in the same way. But no – no awe-inspiring confidence here, just ‘captives terror-stricken’. Which, as translation of the same words, seems odd.

So Hexagram 61 has to be called ‘score the capture’ rather than anything like ‘central trust’. Yet when he reaches the poetry of line 2, the crane calling and her young answering, he actually writes,

The image of this omen text is an appropriate representation of the original meaning of fu, “hatchling,” noted under the hexagram name above. A derived meaning of “hatchling” is “confidence” – the fragile chicks have total trust and dependence on the hen that hatches them. Here, it is a symbol of allegiance…

Lovely! Perfect! (Then isn’t there the smallest possibility that the name of the hexagram could mean something more than ‘score the capture’?)

And a final complaint for good measure – I wish the Harrassowitz Verlag could afford a proof reader. We have, for instance, one ‘sacrificial alter’ and at 19.6 ‘Ernest wailing.’ (Whatever can have upset the poor man?) Gah.

But a real feast of food for thought

The publishers say, “The general public will appreciate the narrative cohesion of the commentaries.” This member of it certainly does. Field tells stories with the hexagram lines, and many of these are of the eye-opening, ‘why did I never think of that?’ variety. 9.6, for instance: it’s a bad omen for the wife because her husband will go to war. Ah. (Though the lines of 9 – ‘Lesser Stock’ – are mostly about goats.)

Also, he regularly makes many lines in a hexagram tell one story. 63 lines 1, 2 and 4 all describe one carriage that gets temporarily stuck on a sandbar. Hexagram 40 lines 2-6 all tell the story of a hunting party waylaid by bandits. There are many more examples, and this generally works very well – I can see it coming in highly useful in readings with multiple moving lines for finding connections between them.

Admirers of LiSe’s work will be interested to know that Field agrees with her on 15, actually translating the hexagram name as ‘the wedwing’: the bird that has to join with its partner to fly. (He goes on to associate this with the combined efforts of Wen and Wu, necessary to achieve the ‘completion’ of conquering Shang.)

Field is particularly good at pointing to mythical and historical references in the text, backing this up with his in-depth knowledge of the myth/history. There’s a wealth of detail about stories we already know from other sources (Wang Hai, Wu at Feng, Prince Kang, Yu) and also associations and allusions I’ve not come across elsewhere, or not in anything like this kind of detail. 46 as a migration in early Zhou history? 57 as the story of Wu’s illness?

Some of these associations are more convincing than others (what is there, really, to tell us that 8.6 is – definitely – about Fa making alliances after his father’s death?) but it’s all deeply intriguing and makes me look at the familiar words in a new way.

There is so much good stuff in here: the details of Hai and Heng in Hexagram 34; the specific conquest and post-conquest history in the lines of 50; ceremonies to ward off the evil of an earthquake in 51; 28 and 62 as ‘the old surpass’ and ‘the young surpass’ respectively, with 62 as the story of funeral, succession and inheritance. That last really fits well with the theme of the hexagram as I understand it: smallness in the face of great things, like ancestral might and virtue (didn’t Wu habitually refer to himself in speeches as ‘the small child’?), and the importance of facing, meeting and ‘getting the message’ from such encounters.

In the end, this book feels a bit like reading a wonderfully well-researched, in-depth and thoughtful biography of a close friend. I’m not sure whether the biographer has ever met my friend, but that doesn’t matter – I still want to read and re-read the biography.

Who’s this book for?

Not for beginners, I think – not for people who haven’t already settled into a relationship with Yi and a pattern of divination. (It would be a shame for a beginner to start with the fragmented ‘divination records’ view of the text, or with divination methods that restrict them to only ever reading one moving line.) And probably not for people who just want to get a reading they can use, maybe with a few helpful nudges for interpretation. This is one for Yeeks – dedicated students who love the oracle, are happy comparing translations and want to dive deep. If you’re interested in building up your reserve of stories and background knowledge from which to extemporise your own interpretations – just like those ancient diviners – then buy this one, and enjoy.

Where to get it

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