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  • The I Ching: A Biography by Richard J. Smith
  • Christine A. Hale (bio)
Richard J. Smith. The I Ching: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. 304pp. Hardcover $24.95, isbn 978-0-691-14509-9.

The I Ching: A Biography presents an accessible and succinct overview of this three-thousand-year-old Chinese classic. Smith’s use of the word “biography” in the title indicates the notion of a living text, a text that has survived and thrived hermeneutically in transcultural and transhistorical contexts. The I Ching: A Biography not only addresses the movements and influences of the Yijing,1 but also the contentious interpretive issues that have surrounded this enigmatic text.

Smith begins the story in the Zhou period (ca. 1045–256 b.c.e.), whereby the judgments and line statements emerged for each of the sixty-four hexagrams (comprised of upper and lower trigrams). The hexagrams “represented the basic circumstances of change in the universe . . . and [by] correctly interpreting the various symbolic elements of each, a person could gain insight into the patterns of cosmic change and devise a strategy for dealing with problems or uncertainties concerning the present and the future” (p. 5). This statement opens up the perennial issue that continues to surround the Yijing: its value as a tool of divination. Smith addresses this underlying issue of interpretation and usage of the text in each turn of the Yijing’s journey through time and culture. This book is an essay [End Page 483] describing the enculturation of the text, not only throughout China’s history, but also as it became known throughout East Asia and eventually the West. This crosscultural and historical adaptability, as Smith describes, is due to the Yijing’s depiction of the universality of our humanness as parelled symbolically with the cycles of the natural world. The Yijing—over and beyond its attributes of divination—is predominantly a text for pragmatic self-cultivation.

The I Ching: A Biography is divided into two parts: “The Domestic Evolution of the Yijing” and “The Transnational Travels of the Yijing.” Each section, respectively, identifies the courses the Yijing has undergone in the various social, political, and intellectual contexts within a given time and place. The Yijing, more than any other classic, lends itself to the hermeneutical processes of reinterpretation and adaption, which Smith captures in this concise and well-organized volume.

Part 1 begins by making a comparison between the Yijing and classical texts from other cultures, underscoring that the Yijing stands alone, being “based on the natural observations of the ancient sages; the cosmic order or Dao [the Way] that it expressed had no Creator or Supreme Ordainer” (p. 17)—a spiritual, as opposed to a religious, text. The Yijing, as an unsystematic, predominantly poetic narrative, has evolved through interpretations and commentaries of scholars and sages throughout the last three millennia. In 136 b.c.e., it officially became a Confucian classic by imperial sanction and eventually became the primary Confucian text within China over the subsequent two thousand years.

The Yijing influenced not only the Chinese intelligentsia (to the extent that, from 600 b.c.e., quotes from the text were used rhetorically as a debating technique), but the imperial court also employed it as a tool of divination for military and political planning. The Yijing became so embedded in Chinese culture that it influenced art, music, medicine, and agriculture. Moreover, its spiritual aspect directed humans to connect to the will of heaven, the Way or dao. Smith depicts how the metaphysical basis of Confucianism—the interdependent elements of the triad heaven, earth, and the human world—is captured in the kinetic essence of the Yijing and is applied to daily situations with the aim of creating social harmony.

The second section follows the text’s transcultural travels, first into East Asia: Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. This transition was enabled by the fact that not only classical Chinese was the lingua franca of the scholars and the literati of these countries, but they were—from peasantry to elite—essentially Confucian cultures. Nevertheless, the interpretations and usage of the Yijing were subject to hermeneutical variations as the text journeyed abroad from...