- The I Ching: A Biography by Richard J. Smith
A volume in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series of Princeton University Press, Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: A Biography is a history of the Yijing written for a general audience. In a series of five chapters, along with a brief introduction and conclusion, Smith explores its “evolution, longevity, domestic significance, and global spread” (p. 13). Divided into two parts, the three chapters of part 1 cover the domestic significance of the Yijing, discussing its history in China. Part 2 addresses its global spread. Throughout both parts Smith describes the Yijing’s remarkable ability to evolve and adapt to the needs of time and place, thus ensuring its longevity.
Chapter 1 relates the Yijing’s origin as a work of divination, focusing on the eight trigrams with their Judgments and Line Readings. Smith also shows the insight into Shang and Zhou–era China that can be gained from them. The next chapter concerns the Ten Wings and how they added a cosmological and ethical dimension to the Yijing, making it stand out from a host of other divinatory manuals. Finally, chapter 3 outlines the major commentators on the Yijing, ranging from early ones such as Kong Yingda and Wang Bi to modern ones like Guo Moruo and Fang Dongmei. Though space only allows for thumbnail sketches, Smith carefully balances showing what makes each interpretation unique and noteworthy while stressing the eclectic nature of many of these commentaries. Particularly helpful is his inclusion and discussion of many diagrams, such as the Yellow River chart. The chapter concludes with accounts of how the Yijing was, and still is, used for guidance in China, from the Kangxi emperor wondering how to handle factional politics to a commoner uncertain what to do with an illness in the family.
Part 2 covers the Yijing’s history abroad. The first chapter relates how it was received in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet, paying attention to how local circumstances changed its significance and interpretation. For instance, Smith relates how some Japanese gave a Shintoist reading to the Yijing and how some nationalist Koreans argued that it is of Korean origin. In the final chapter of the book, Smith [End Page 657] discusses the reception of the Yijing in the West. He starts with the early Jesuit missionaries and, after a brief account of various translators and their interpretations, moves on to modern uses of the Yijing. Here there is a plethora of information, revealing how people ranging from Mexican artists such as Octavio Paz to American musicians like John Cage have been deeply influenced by the Yijing. In these last two chapters, Smith shows that the Yijing is not just part of the fabric of Chinese life, but, in often surprising ways, permeates the cultures of East Asia and the West as well.
Finally, in his conclusion, Smith argues that while the Yijing is different from many of the world’s other religious books, for example the Bible or the Vedas, like them it has been and will continue to be a source of meaning, inspiration, and insight in China and throughout the world. [End Page 658]
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