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  • The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context: A Textual Archaeology of the Yi jing by Scott Davis
  • Stephen Field (bio)
Scott Davis. The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context: A Textual Archaeology of the Yi jing. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012. xxiv, 281 pp. Hardcover $114.99, isbn 978-1-60497-808-7.

Studies in the West purporting to solve the mystery of the King Wen sequence of Yijing hexagrams have usually been relegated to the margins of scholarship. The publication of the book under review should do a lot to correct this reputation. While there are certainly questions that one may pose about aspects of the study, there is much to recommend a close reading of Scott Davis’s magnum opus. The following review will attempt to unravel what most readers will consider an extremely dense analysis of one of the world’s oldest cultural artifacts.

In his introduction, Davis declares as his primary thesis that “every detail in the entire classic may have been sited to achieve certain design objectives” (p. xvi). Thus, in order to understand any individual element, one must discover its compositional, structural logic. The first chapter showcases the author’s skill in parsing this logic in his attempt to open up the design toolkit available to the authors of the Yijing. Using ontological, topological, and morphological analyses, Davis explicates the Chinese logograph dui 兑 and its trigram emblem (110, in binary representation) as symbolic of “uproarious laughter” and its religious connotations. [End Page 75]

In chapter 2, “Spirits of the Zhou yi,” the detail Davis isolates to demonstrate fully his thesis hinges upon the image of wine, which occurs in the lines of four separate hexagrams of the text. First, he locates textual loci based on the semantic context of the images (whether wine is accompanied with food, whether its containers are mentioned, and whether the drinking episodes are positive or negative). Then, he analyzes how this content is articulated upon the formal structure of the sixty-four hexagrams. Thus, each hexagram mentioning wine is composed of at least one trigram for water. The location of the images in individual hexagrams is a key to their interpretation: the higher the line, the more positive the image. Finally, when the line in one hexagram changes to its opposite, it results in either one of the other hexagrams in question or in another semantically related hexagram. Isolating these components and analyzing their hexagrammatic relationships, Davis claims to have discovered “a concern for rainfall and the means to procure water through bloody sacrificial offerings involving pits” (p. 32).

In chapter 4, “Framework Questions,” Davis states his second overall thesis: “[A] comprehensive structural study of the Zhou yi textual model. … aims to view synchronic relations of lines within hexagrams as functions of the diachronic order of the entire sequence as a whole” (pp. 70–71, italics in original). Furthermore, the individual textual components that partake in the order must be interpreted primarily as loci in the synchrony of the whole. That is, the meaning of any image is subservient to its function as an analogical locus, or actant, which, like an Internet hyperlink, serves as a vector to point to other meanings across the matrix. As such, the Yijing is a “holographic device,” where each apparent part contains within it the whole. Thus, attempting to assign invariable meanings to the text constricts its symbolism and “freezes” its workings (p. 81). This caveat appears throughout in the book, usually addressed to the sinologist whose methods are philological rather than anthropological.

The first structural diachrony postulated by Davis is the “age set” (chap. 3), which organizes the text into a sequence of ten-hexagram groups, or decades, of life. According to this hypothesis, the sequential number of individual hexagrams in the King Wen order corresponds to a person’s age in an idealized lifeline (p. 47). On top of this chronological structure, Davis further isolates “regional” structures—higher level units of organization that exhibit what he calls “triangulation,” whereby one subsystem links to other subsystems (p. 100). The most exemplary of such systems is the “Big and Little Hexagram” structure (the six hexagrams whose names begin with the words...


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