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  • Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I-Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China
  • Tze-ki Hon
Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I-Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China. By Richard J. Smith. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008. Pp. xix + 393. Hardcover $35.00.

The study of the Yijing (I Ching, or Book of Changes) has undergone a paradigmatic change over the last two decades. Rather than viewing the Yijing as a revered classic containing a timeless wisdom, scholars now consider the Yijing an open text that evolves over time through redaction, canonization, and exegeses.1 Underlying this [End Page 144] new approach is the notion that the Yijing is multidimensional. It is multidimensional, first and foremost, in its textual body, which consists of visual images (the trigrams and hexagrams), written documents (the hexagram and line statements), and early commentarial materials (the “Ten Wings”). Second, it is multidimensional in its reception, which has produced hundreds of commentaries preserved in the Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist canons.

A key player in this paradigmatic change is Richard J. Smith. In 1991, he published Fortune-Tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society, in which he demonstrated the multiplicity of the Yijing in the local practices of divination and geomancy during the Qing period (1644–1911). In his new book, Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China, he again highlights the multiplicity of the Yijing by exploring its manifold manifestations in history. Although sharing the same goal, the new book is markedly different from the earlier one in scope and scale. Rather than focusing on the Qing period, it covers the entirety of Chinese history, from the beginning to the present. Instead of limiting analysis to the mantic practices, it includes all sorts of activity ranging from alchemy and the calendar to mathematics and metaphysics. In short, in the new book Smith offers “a biography of the Yijing” (p. xi).

In demonstrating that “there are as many versions of the Changes as there are readers of the documents and commentators upon it” (p. 1), Smith makes three significant contributions. First, in dating the sources of the received text (chapter 1) and its canonization as a Confucian classic (chapter 2), Smith skillfully utilizes recent archaeological discoveries to show that there were alternative traditions besides the Confucian Yijing orthodoxy. In so doing, Smith complicates the picture of how the early Yijing (also known as the Zhouyi) was transformed from a manual of divination into an ethical and philosophical treatise. Aptly and fairly, Smith argues that the existence of alternative versions did not diminish the authority of the canonized Yijing. Instead, these different versions (including the silk manuscript found in Mawangdui) show that “the received version of the Changes represents a careful selection of various texts and interpretative approaches drawn from these divergent works and traditions” (p. 56).

Second, in his account of the history of Yijing commentaries (chapters 3–7) Smith gives equal attention to every period and every commentarial style. He reiterates what is widely known, such as the Han exegetes’ emphasis on cosmological correspondence and the Song-Ming commentators’ focus on moral-metaphysics. He also draws attention to what is often forgotten or suppressed, such as the contribution of the Han Apocrypha, the uniqueness of the Yuan commentators, and the significance of the Daoist and Buddhist interpretations of the Yijing. As a whole, Smith gives us the most comprehensive account of Yijing commentaries in the English language.

Third, in extending his study to the modern period (chapter 8), Smith focuses our attention on the checkered story of the Yijing in its encounter with nationalistic revolution, cultural iconoclasm, and global capitalism. On the one hand, with the abolition of the civil service examinations in 1905, the end of the imperial system in 1911, and a widespread attack on Confucianism in the 1920s, the main pillars that had made the Yijing a venerated text were destroyed one after another. Seemingly hopeless [End Page 145] and helpless, the Yijing was thrown into a blind alley where it...