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How to recognise a good I Ching book

If you want to use the Yijing for yourself, you will need to start with a copy of it.

Embarrassingly obvious, I know – but actually trickier than you might think. The shelves in the ‘New Age’ section of the world’s bookshops are groaning under the weight of ‘I Ching’ books that have very little to do with the real Oracle. Here’s a list of recommended books – but first, here’s how to recognise an ‘I Ching’ worth having.

Beware the ‘simplified version’ (a rant)

Beware of the words ‘modernisation’ and ‘simplification’. The I Ching has been helping people for some 3 millennia; this leads some authors to conclude that it must need rewriting. Instead of the real imagery of the I Ching, rich, evocative and versatile, they give you their own explanations of it.

It’s as if I told you there was someone I’d like you to meet – but instead of bringing you together to talk, I kept you in different rooms and ran in-between, passing on summaries of what he said (or whatever I’d understood of what he said!). What kind of communication would you have? You’d manage to share some information, no doubt, but it would all be rather flavourless…

Seriously, though, how can the Yijing speak to you if its words are taken away? If it’s stripped of story and imagery? A single image contains a great concentration of significance, and can be understood on many levels at once: there are always new depths of meaning to be uncovered. This cannot be paraphrased.

Also, every time you ask the Yijing a question, you create a unique relationship between your question and its answer, and a unique set of meanings. Even when you’ve already received exactly the ‘same’ answer several times in response to other questions, you will find that this one is new. But if you’re stuck with someone else’s ‘one size fits all’ interpretation, this creative interaction never takes place.

Look for the original imagery

So the basic requirement for a Yijing translation is that it should be a translation, not just an attempt at paraphrase. Hexagram 48 should be called The Well. There should be a mare in hexagram 2, a tiger in hexagram 10, a river to cross in hexagram 5, cattle in Hexagram 30.

There will also be comments from the author on the original texts, but make sure you can see clearly which is which.

What’s included?

Another factor is how much of the Yijing you are getting. The most important part is the ancient Zhouyi, which consists just of the name of the hexagrams, ‘judgements’ or ‘oracles’ that pertain to the hexagram as a whole, and line texts. But the Yijing, the Classic Book of Change, contains a wealth of additional, later commentary in its Ten Wings. (See the Foundations Course ‘Yijing Reference’ for a full account of these.)

You can receive perfectly helpful answers from Yi without reading the more metaphysical of these commentaries, especially if they are replaced by insightful interpretations from a modern author. But it’s good to have the option of exploring them. On the ‘book reviews’ pages, I mention what’s included in each book.

Get more than one book

I have one further recommendation for you: get more than one translation if you possibly can. Even between faithful translations of the Yijing, there are enormous differences in meaning, especially in the oldest parts of the text. This is because characters in ancient Chinese do not work in the same way as English words. The same character could sometimes be a verb, noun or adverb; it could be the object or subject of a verb. There’s practically no punctuation, and the translator’s choice of where to insert a comma can change the meaning completely.

Having a second translation isn’t about getting alternate versions to choose between. It allows you to catch glimpses of the character of the book behind the character of the translator – and it liberates you from the ideas of any translator, so you can begin to develop your own, personal understanding of the Yi itself.