...life can be translucent

Stephen Karcher – Total I Ching

The introduction

Stephen Karcher is an author whose introductions you do not want to skip. This one is essential reading if you are to make full use of the rest of the book, as well as being fascinating in its own right. It describes Yi’s birth and evolution, and moves on to map out the physical and mythological landscape for the oracle as a whole: the world of spirits and human intermediaries; the annual cycles of ritual and sacrifice integrating spiritual and physical realities; the vital connection to the ancestors.

Then come the ‘Tools for Change’. This begins with the same basics that most I Ching books do (two kinds of line, hexagrams, trigrams, relating hexagrams…), though with some revitalising differences even here – trigrams, for instance, are the ‘Eight Helping Spirits’. Then come the more subtle, fruitful tools that you will not find discussed in any detail (often not at all) in other books: Pairs, Steps of Change and Change Operators, building up to a complex ‘reading layout’.

But probably the most important contribution of the book is not any of this, but the new understanding it suggested of the web of interconnections within the I Ching. You can see more detail on what this is and how it works at Stephen Karcher’s website. The introduction shows how pairs of hexagrams lead to pairs of lines, and how these connect to pairs of ‘step of change’ hexagrams and thence to specific events and years of your life. This sounds simplistic, literal-minded, associating hexagrams 19-20 with your experiences when you were 19 or 20, but it can work – and often enough to be worth thinking about.

And finally, the introduction provides the basic essentials: how to form a question, how to cast a hexagram with three coin, yarrow or 16 token methods, a miniature ‘glossary’ of key omen words, and a guide for reading and responding to your answers. This section also includes advice on which sections of the book to omit if you are only looking for a quick reading.

The translation

The whole translation is arranged by Pairs: before you begin on hexagram 21 or 22, you read the ‘Paradigm’ for the landscape they define together as ‘inspiration’ and ‘manifestation’, and the ‘nodes’ and ‘shadow site’ they connect with. Then, for each hexagram, there are ‘myths for change, the story of the time’ – a sometimes dizzying wealth of historical, ritual and mythological associations. The great majority of the oracle’s text is here – Judgement, Image, Contrast, Sequence, lines and their commentary – as the introduction says, in a ‘poetic rather than a historical translation’. The ‘Scholar Speaks’ is a paraphrase and interpretation of the Commentary on the Judgement; the Shaman Speaks is the Image, followed by commentary that integrates it with the Shuogua and with Five Element theory.


The translation is very poetic and free – and, for me at least, too free to use on its own. There are many places where Karcher (often following the best scholarly opinion) has altered or added to the text to make better sense of it, and to identify these you have to compare it against a word-for-word translation, like LiSe’s or Wu Jing Nuan‘s. I understand why he’s done this, but I feel I need to have straightforward access to the Yi’s actual words before crossing over into interpretation. This is one reason why I wish the book were crammed with scholarly footnotes – though I realise not everyone shares my footnote fetish ;).

The basic parts of the commentary – those that you’re directed to if you are looking for a quick, concise reading – are almost identical with the commentary in his I Ching with Concordance. There are some changes, and there are more clues to the direction of Karcher’s thought in the elaborations on the translation, but I would have loved to have seen more hints on incorporating new understandings from the paired line omens and ‘stories of the time’.

Presentation: there are no hexagram names or numbers at the tops of the pages, which makes it harder to use. Also, the paper and binding aren’t great quality and don’t hold up well.

(Or in other words – I’d like the book to be twice as long, and printed and bound at twice the expense!)

Summing up

The ‘tools for change’ set your individual readings in a broader context and gives you much more sense of what they are about on a larger scale – in other words, you can connect the oracle’s words with real-life issues with greater specificity. But by setting each Pair in the context of its web of interconnections and echoes around the whole oracle, the Total I Ching also enables you to connect the particular issue you asked about with key events in your own life.

What makes this into a real, potent experience (not just another ‘system’) is its integration with the ‘stories of the time’. Drawing on the work of many scholars (there’s a considerable Bibliography), not least on Steve Marshall’s Mandate of Heaven, Karcher sketches in an overarching structure of human development, through its successive sacrifices and transformations. Accessed via the echoes and interconnections of the ‘tools’, these answer the old question ‘Where am I?’ with great precision and depth. Seeing Yi as an interconnected whole is bound to mean seeing your life as an interconnected whole. It reveals blind spots, shatters defences, and greatly heightens your sense of owning it all in the present moment.

Total I Ching wouldn’t be the obvious choice for a quick, ‘instant advice on what to do’ consultation, of the kind where you dip in, consult, and then carry on with life much as before. Nor is it just ‘another one for the collection’: this book is likely to change how you do readings.

I like

  • the innovative use of ‘Tools for Change’ for interpretation
  • the integration of history, myth and legend

I wish

  • for footnotes giving sources
  • for a word-by-word translation

Recommended for

readings for deep-dive exploration, for people comfortable swimming in a sea of imagery. Not so much for beginners.

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