Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Paul Fendos’ new I Ching:
‘The Book of Changes: A Modern Adaptation and Interpretation attempts to breathe new life into the Book of Changes by making it relevant to the present time and day. It does so by using archaeological evidence to trace the origins of the Book of Changes, starting with numeric trigrams and hexagrams, making its way up to early divination manuals, and ending with the oldest extant version of the Book of Changes—usually referred to as the ‘received version.’ It also explains the development of the Book of Changes from a divination manual into a philosophical text dealing with change. However, its main focus is on delineating sixty-four patterns of change in the Book of Changes, patterns based on novel metaphorical interpretations of the line texts in the Book of Changes that serve as the foundation for a new handbook on change.’
On the one hand, that first sentence triggers some wheezy old alarm klaxons. Modern adaptation? Breathe new life? Make it relevant? Oh, dear – is this going to be another limp Wilhelm-derivative with all the ancient imagery removed?
But on the other hand, the rest sounds really promising. A version that’s both infused with knowledge of the history and motivated by a desire to make something usable is a rarity; ‘novel metaphorical interpretations’ based on in-depth historical understanding would be wonderful.The author’s bio (Ph.D in Chinese, doctoral dissertation on the Yi, 25 years university teaching ‘Chinese Studies’) suggests that he’s qualified to do this. (The impressive bibliography and footnotes in the book confirm it: he’s well-versed in both recent discoveries and traditional interpretations and seems to have read just about everything.)
I replied to the publisher’s email asking to see a sample of the translation, and in return they sent me a pdf review copy of the whole thing, and I dived in. The book divides into three parts: historical introduction, translation/interpretation, and a method to use the book.
1. Historical introduction
This is the best part of the book. Fendos gives a thorough account of what’s known of the ancient origins of the Yi through to its canonisation as Yijing. There’s a table of source materials, their likely dates and what they consist of, and a timeline of Yi’s development through to Wang Bi that I’m genuinely glad to have. The next chapter continues the story through yin/yang and Five Element theory and the Chinese understanding of harmony with the time, and the distinction between schools of thought in the Chinese tradition.
There are a few eyebrow-raising things, though. He seems to think that the moment when hexagrams were first written with solid/broken lines instead of odd/even numbers is also the moment when they became identified as yang and yin, with all the associated metaphysics. Of the Mawangdui manuscript, he says the lines were written as the numbers 1 and 8, ‘but referred to as 9 or 6’ – as if this were quite inexplicable. And then there’s,
“As is evidenced by the Commentary on the Trigrams section of the Book of Changes, by then Five Phases theory had become part of the basic Yin/Yang correlative structure of the Book of Changes.”
By ‘then’ he means the early Western Han, when the received Yijing text had come together. This is indeed a time when correlative theories were developed, but the only association with Five Phases/Elements in this Wing is that the order in which the trigrams are described follows the generative cycle, with the exception of gen being placed at the end: thunder and wind/wood (both correlated with the ‘wood’ phase), then fire, earth, lake and heaven (both ‘metal’), then water, and finally mountain (earth). This is the closest thing to a reference to the Five Phases anywhere in the Yijing; they’re never mentioned explicitly, even in the Shuogua‘s long lists of trigram’s associations. It seems to me that the most economical explanation for this almost-parallel is that the correlation of 8 trigrams with 5 elements – a thoroughly awkward thing to accomplish – was helped along by the order of the trigrams given in the Wing.
Anyway, Fendos, though he inexplicably includes tables of pre-Han rulers and their Five Phase identities, never actually explains what Five Phase/Element theory is, so this is a bit of a detour. The historical information is good to have; the conclusions he draws from it are occasionally a bit odd.
He goes on to ask the very good question of how best to approach translation and interpretation now, if you actually want to use the book – through the tradition, or through seeking original meanings, or trying to find a middle way? He will try to find the middle way, which seems wise.
Then he talks about the omen elements of line texts, and makes a distinction between recognising them as omens versus understanding them as imagery. As is apparent to anyone who’s consulted Yi as an oracle (I would guess that Fendos hasn’t), this distinction falls apart as soon as an omen becomes part of a divination text. You consult and receive a message about geese in flight, although you haven’t seen any wild geese. How can you possibly engage with this if not as the vehicle of a metaphor – an image for what a flight of geese represents to you?
2. Translation and interpretation
There follow the Chinese text and a translation of the Zhouyi line texts, with an interpretation and commentary, for each hexagram.
Yes – just the line texts. He has decided to omit the Judgement texts altogether. Here is the explanation he gives for the omission (in full, to give you a representative sample of his style of writing):
‘Though some have argued their placement near the head of a hexagram suggests a superior position and perhaps older age, hexagram texts generally serve to comment either on a hexagram as a whole or a theme being developed in its constituent line texts, leading to conjecture that they probably were added to what must have been an early version of a Zhouyi-like divination manual when that work was still being compiled from a collection of ad hoc divination texts originally attached to the lines of early numeric gua.’
… so now you know. He also omits the texts for all lines changing in hexagrams 1 and 2.
The translation itself is mostly fine. Perhaps because he omitted the hexagram text, he doesn’t always translate the name of the hexagram, sometimes substituting his own impression of the hexagram’s theme (eg 45 as ‘Anxiety’ and 50 as ‘Political Power’). But the line texts are largely translated in a straightforward, character-by-character way, with anything unusual explained in his commentary and/or footnotes. If he chooses to follow something other than the received text (as in Hexagram 58, which follows the Mawangdui version and becomes ‘Expropriation’), he will acknowledge and explain this, which is helpful.
An unfortunate exception is 6.5, where he’s substituted ‘No good fortune’ for ‘Great good fortune’ (in both Chinese text and translation). He gives no explanation for this, and since the expression ‘no good fortune’ exists nowhere else in the text, this seems a pretty obvious mistake.
I wonder whether it was caused by his guiding principle that the line texts can be read as a single essay on different aspects of a single situation/principle. This isn’t a bad idea, on the whole – it’s certainly better than reading lines in isolation from their hexagram. Thus in Hexagram 3 amidst difficulties you need help, not to marry a bandit (he has wangled the translation of line 3 accordingly) and not to go it alone (line 4) nor attempt too much (5) or you’ll be forced to backtrack (6). In Hexagram 4, you see the progression from allowing the young ignoramus to make his own mistakes at line 1 to giving him responsibility for his own home at line 2. Thus all lines are conveying a variant of the same unexceptionable message, and there’s really no place for a line – like 6.5 – that’s different from the rest.
With the lines amalgamated into a single block, the interpretations become bland. Hexagram 54, for instance (‘Binding Relationships’) becomes a homily on how to behave in a relationship when you are in an inferior position. He goes through the lines in turn, concluding,
‘In fact, the most perfect of unions is not always the one in which you enjoy the highest status or rank (54/5). Not to understand this could well leave one with no real advantage (54/6).’
The moon almost full, the shining silk, the historic moment with its ripples spreading throughout the book, the bitter emptiness of line 6… all reduced to that.
This is frankly baffling: he’s translated the text, he knows the richness of history and culture behind it, and he’s gone to the trouble of researching and writing a book… doesn’t he find any of it even a little bit interesting?
The promised ‘novel metaphorical interpretations’ are largely uncontentious, but similarly unexciting. There are some ideas I haven’t seen before – for instance, that Hexagram 55’s abundance of ‘curtains, banners, screens and canopies’ is sufficient to block out the light, and such abundance ‘is sure to create enmity among others unless one has their trust.’ Most, though, are familiar. A dragon in flight is a creative person seeking recognition. Hexagram 2 is acquiescence. Marriage, he observes in an introductory chapter, could mean ‘asking for a collaborative relationship [help]’; his interpretation of the two marriage-related lines in Hexagram 4 is as follows:
‘True learning begins to occur only when a student is freed from such restraints (4/1), given responsibilities, and allowed to make decisions on his own – as happens when a man takes a wife and starts a family (4/2). Nevertheless, care should be taken to avoid stepping outside the bounds of correct behavior: choosing, for example, a person who will not make a good spouse (4/3).’
Elsewhere, he can see that marriage can be a metaphor for other human relationships, but that’s as far as it goes. There is nothing, for instance, about marriage as a way to forge alliances between clans, or the different kinds of change marriage represents for men and women.
Another effect of reading six lines as a unit: the advice they can offer tends to boil down to, ‘Knowing how to do it right is good, and getting it wrong is not.’ The first two lines of 60, for instance:
‘Knowing the proper limitations of one’s behavior, for example, when to step back from things and withdraw to the privacy of one’s own home (60/1), or when to proactively get involved in the outside world (60/2), is essential to success.’
No doubt. So how are we to know when, or what time it is? A few thousand years ago in China, someone came up with a quite elegant solution to this, but Fendos has a different one:
‘Those general patterns of line text imagery and the situations they represent can be adopted in the real world to deal with circumstances faced there, as a way of both explaining how those situations develop and how best to react to them, with the decision on which set(s) of line texts best fit being intertwined with the personal dynamic of the involved person as well as that person’s subjective understanding of a situation he/she is facing and his/her interpretation of the line texts used to explain it. (All, as Chapter 5 will show, outside of the divination process.)’
3. Method of use
To summarise: the person asking the question, or someone they talk to, chooses a hexagram that best represents how they see their situation. This is the ‘original’ hexagram. (They thus need to be familiar with all 64 to start with.)
An advisor offers a different choice of hexagram. This is a ‘changing’ hexagram and offers an alternative course of action.
Do not misinterpret this to mean we then highlight the line texts that differ between the two hexagrams, thus deriving a clear and specific message. No: we read the whole sad, trite, magnolia-washed interpretation for both.
He gives examples.
A woman wondering whether to leave her marriage ends up being advised that it depends on what’s more important to her, continuity and economic security, or a meaningful relationship. A politician wondering how far to go with negative campaigning thinks he should take a measured approach, and ends up being advised to do more or less that, with the added observation that politics is about power, and if he wins he can use his power to make it up to his opponents.
And so on. The advisor looks through the book for hexagrams that fit their personal opinion, and the resultant advice is soporific.
I think this is the first time I’ve ever published a review that simply says, ‘Don’t buy the book,’ and I did hesitate about this one. But I had sort-of promised a friend to review the book, and Fendos is a well-established academic so I can’t really do him any personal harm, and I might just save someone the price of the book, which is worth doing.
Mostly, though, I would like to shout from the rooftops that Yi is everything this book is not: rich, complex, beautiful, profound, exquisitely succinct and concentrated, startling, challenging, exciting. I’ll get back to doing that.