Book Review: I Ching
translated from the Chinese by David Hinton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
It requires a particularly fervid combination of wisdom and insanity, a screech-pitched intensity of yin and yang, to attempt a translation of the I Ching, the oldest and most recondite of all the so-called “Five Classics” of ancient Chinese literature. And the results can be wildly uneven, as demonstrated by the radical differences between last year’s English-language translation by John Minford for Viking and this year’s new translation for Farrar, Straus and Giroux by David Hinton. For readers feeling a bit beleaguered by the abundance of the translated-literature offerings at their local snooty independent bookstore, the most immediately obvious difference between the two versions will be the fact that Hinton’s is a little over 100 pages long and Minford’s is a little less than 1000 pages long.
It’s a staggering difference, and with any other text, it would be impossible. If you were presented with two different translations of Homer’s Iliad and one was ten times longer than the other, you would immediately choose the longer version on the assumption that the shorter one was severely abridged (or, if you were an undergraduate, you would immediately choose the shorter version on the assumption that there is, in fact, a merciful God).
But in the case of the I Ching, you would then be reckoning without the thousand years of commentary that’s accrued upon the core text, and the commentary is vital, because the core text, as Hinton so circumspectly puts it, “frustrates expectations of coherence.” And the frustration goes much deeper than simple construction, although the simple construction is no jar of cherries:
Prepositions and conjunctions are rarely used, leaving relationships among lines, phrases, ideas, and images unclear. The distinction between singular and plural is only rarely and indirectly made. Verbs are not uncommonly absent, and when present they have no tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague … And very often subjects and objects are absent, which creates the sense of individual identities blurred together into a shared space of consciousness.
You will perhaps discern from that “shared space of consciousness” business that our current translator pretty much perfectly embodies the aforementioned fervid combination of wisdom and insanity, and there’s no denying the combination breathes inimitable life into his translation of this work he calls “both primordial and postmodern at once.”
As you might expect in a work that consists of random words instead of grammar and syntax, you’re not really supposed to read the I Ching – you’re supposed to use it. You gather the traditional little pile of yarrow-stems (or, if you’re one of the book’s 100 million fans who live in Hong Kong or Leeds or Croton-on-Hudson and don’t have ready access to fresh yarrow-stems, you can use a bunch of coins instead, you swine), use one or another scheme of time-honored mumbo-jumbo in order to separate them into smaller stacks, and once those smaller stacks yield their random numbers, you take those random numbers in their random sequence and you consult their random meanings on a random page of the I Ching. And since you already believe the book is an active and infallible source of divination, presto! You’re performing what’s known as cleromancy.
Hinton’s translation of the ancient glosses on the various hexagrams of the I Ching are clear and often quite lovely (“At rest in obstruction, a great sage finds good fortune. Is he lost, is he lost? He’s tethered always to the mulberry burgeoning from seed,” and so forth), but the best part of his I Ching, for non-cleromancers, will be the subtle and energetic ways he understands the text’s deeper ways of changing its readers:
The I Ching‘s assumption that one can influence one’s fate also reflects this transformation. Rather than simply obey political power and implore the spirits to shape your fate in positive ways, the question of wisdom arises, and the empowerment that wisdom offers: act wisely and good things happen, act unwisely and bad things happen. The I Ching hexagrams embody change in a schematic form, so they allow us to locate ourselves in the unfolding of change.
At the beginning of the universe, Hinton relates at the outset of his book, there were two great dragons with human heads, Root-Breath and Lady She-Voice, two primordial creatures who embodies “constant transformation, writhing through all creation and all destruction, shaping itself into the ten thousand things tumbling through their traceless transformations.” They gave birth not only to mankind, but to the arch-hexagrams that would later become the workings of the I Ching, and as Hinton tells the tale, that constant transformation is the birthright of all the book’s users. “So you see,” he writes, “we are descended from dragons: we have dragon hearts pumping dragon blood, dragon minds thinking dragon thoughts.”
Wisdom and insanity. Yin and yang. And, because Confucius smiles on the innocent, a nice skinny I Ching for the backpack.