Hilary Barrett, I Ching

EclecticEnergies YiJing

Ewald Berkers’ YiJing translation is available for download in pdf format. It’s worth having. I’d recommend you buy your own copy.

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Now that’s a review in Ewald-style: succinct, straightforward, conveying the main point with enviable clarity. But since I’m naturally a wordier animal than he is, I’ll write a little more…

The book begins with a nice, simple introduction, compressing all the necessary to get started from scratch (with three coins) into a short space. He finishes up by telling you how to reduce the texts to read when you have multiple moving lines – not to an extreme, he allows you to read all the lines if up to three are moving, but beyond that suggests ignoring them altogether. I’m not personally an enthusiast for these simplifying methods: it’s been my experience that on the rare occasions when Yi offers a dauntingly complex reading, there’s a reason for this. Still, Ewald’s seems as modest and practical as any. I’d be happier if he had presented it as an option, though, rather than as an instruction on the same level as ‘the hexagram is built from the bottom up’.

It ends with a couple of Appendices: one on forming questions, one containing the Images. Good sense is talked here about questions, particularly about when or why not to ask. Of the Images, Ewald says: “they are ‘mostly about issues relevant to rulers… they are not really texts illustrating the hexagrams, and sometimes are not even about related issues…’ . He’s clearly not that interested in them, but the translations are all the same not half bad.

Inbetween comes the meat of the book: the Zhouyi, Judgements and lines. (The only Wing represented is the Images, in that second appendix.) Each is briefly translated and commented on in a couple or four sentences – rarely more. So there’s plenty of white space on the page, plenty of room for thought.

The overall air is one of simplicity and straightforwardness, with a strong undercurrent of psychological intelligence. Though you do sometimes feel the lack of a native-English-speaking proof-reader, the writing is always lucid: there’s never any doubt as to what’s meant.

As for the contents of the translation and commentary – that ranges from bland and pedestrian, to remarkable light-bulb moments, to the downright startling. Open it to Hexagram 15, for instance…

“Line 1
Humble, humble is the noble one,
using this to cross the big river.
Good fortune.

Meaning: Being humble in order to get something done that is not easy. Things go well.

(The big river is much stronger than you. That force needs to humbly be [sic] respected in order to cross the river safely.)”

“The big river is much stronger than you” – of course. A small lightbulb goes on: I like this.

Then the next line -

“Line 2
Making humble sounds.
Persistence brings good fortune.

Meaning: showing humbleness. Persisting makes things go well.”

Well, naturally that’s what it ‘means’, it’s what it says. Perhaps there is nothing more to add – and I can see the wisdom of not spinning out great essays on simple lines. But then again, there’s a fine line between simplicity and over-simplifying, and making the oracle out to carry less meaning than it does. These, for instance, aren’t just any ‘sounds’, they’re the characteristic cries of birds and animals. There are other examples like this, where some meaning seems to have been simplified away.

But there is also a steady flow of new ideas, and enough lightbulbs going on all over the place that it starts to look like Christmas.

At line 7.5, “There are birds in the field, better stop speaking.” Why? Because you’d startle the birds and give your position away. (Why had I never thought of that?)

At 3.3, you’re close to deer without preparation. (A perfectly reasonable alternative translation to ‘forester’.) So this is a sign of seeing a real opportunity, but one you’re not prepared for, which is why pursuing it would be a bad idea. (And why on earth hadn’t I seen that?)

This is where Ewald’s work is at its best. There’s some tiny shift in translation, and it opens out a new meaning: generally something that seems tremendously obvious and unmissable, afterwards.

At 48.6, the well receives. Ewald comments:

“Someone (or something) who is providing now needs to take in. Like a teacher who now needs to listen and learn, someone who usually nurtures who now needs to be nurtured, or a giver who needs to receive.”

Another lightbulb. There are plenty more!

Tucked away in amongst this blend of brilliance and blandness come some startlingly different translations. Hexagram 12, for existence: instead of some variation on Wilhelm’s, “Evil people do not further the perseverance of the superior man,” we have:

“This is not the other not benefiting the noble one’s persistence.”

In other words, as Ewald glosses it:

“This isn’t the other going against one’s interests, actually. Blaming someone may make one feel better, but isn’t helpful at solving the problem.”

Which, in a couple of small unassuming sentences, turns the meaning neatly on its head.

Some of these novel translations seem exciting to me, some (like translating 44 as ‘Providing’) seem odd. Likewise, some of the new interpretations are undeniably brilliant, and some are – well – odd. You never know, looking things up in here, whether you’ll find bland reduction, or real new light.

I have another four examples here in my notes of unexpected translations, and (at a quick count) fifteen of insights I particularly liked. I’m going to remove them from this post now, and get some more work done instead. I suggest you make your own discoveries.

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