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I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom, translated by John Minford

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, defies easy description. “No one will ever know what [the I Ching] really means,” the eminent sinologist David Hawkes told this volume’s translator. Likewise, the Jesuit missionary Claude de Visdelou said of the I Ching:

I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom, translated by John Minford
I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom, John Minford (Viking Books, October 2014)


It is not strictly speaking a book at all, or anything like it. It is a most obscure enigma, a hundred times more difficult to explain than that of the Sphinx.


It seems prudent therefore to begin with an account of the I Ching’s history, before any attempt is made to extract meaning from this confounding text.

The I Ching emerged from the culture of divination which flourished in the Bronze Age society of the Shang Dynasty. The Shang would ritually inscribe turtle plastrons and ox scapulae with important questions pertaining to the state or the emperor, before applying extreme heat to them. The cracks which resulted were then “read” as a response to the matters of state enquired about. Many thousands of these so-called oracle bones have been unearthed in the hundred years or so since their importance was first recognised (before their provenance was known, these “dragon bones” were especially prized for their medicinal properties when ground), and we owe much of what we know about the Shang dynasty—which some had previously believed to be mythical—to the corpus of written information they provide.

The state of Zhou, who conquered the Shang in the second century BC, kept alive the culture of divination, but somewhat secularised and codified it. Rather than heating shell or bone, the Zhou adopted a method involving the casting of yarrow stalks. The casting of the stalks resulted in a series of numbers—which related to a series of 64 hexagrams or gua. Made up of six either broken (Yin) or unbroken (Yang) lines, these gua are the organisational principle of the I Ching.

The process of consulting the I Ching is initially relatively straightforward. One poses a question and then, by either casting yarrow stalks or tossing coins, arrives at one of the 64 gua. At this point, however, the divination process becomes considerably more subjective. As John Minford writes in his introduction that


reading the I Ching [...] is an interactive process, requiring the creative participation of the reader [...] The act of reading creates a new dynamic, triggering reflections and conversations that might otherwise never take place.


Each hexagram is named individually, and is accompanied by a judgement which must be interpreted. For example, in response to a question I posed regarding a particularly vexing current project of mine, the multiple tosses of a coin led me to hexagram 29—The Abyss—and the following judgement:


Good Faith.
In Heart-and-Mind
Actions are honoured.


Particularly when read with the short commentary on the judgement which follows, the message of this hexagram seems clear—have faith and stay the course.

Such a reading is, however, complicated (not unproductively) by the other commentaries which accompany the entries for each hexagram. For the I Ching is not simply a single book, written in one place and time and one author and unchanging thereafter. Rather it should be seen as a collaborative work, a palimpsest, with layers of meaning having built up over centuries, added by those generations of readers who have consulted it.

Countless commentaries have been written on the I Ching; some, such as the early texts known as the “Ten Wings”, have become an intrinsic part of the overall work. Minford adds to these a digest of more recent Chinese commentaries along with his own observations. Thus each hexagram entry runs to around 8-10 pages—offering a good deal of provocation to inference and reflection, and nothing that could be called a simple answer.

John Minford has, however, endeavored to keep the presentation of the text as straightforward as possible, avoiding the cluttering of footnotes or other citations. The interpretations of those commentators to which he repeatedly refers tend to clarify rather than obfuscate. This is a translation intended to provide a clear and readable version of the text, and to open to all the elliptical musings of this profoundly influential text—to be considered, according to Minford, as “the Chinese book”.

Dr Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World: The Work of Bruce Chatwin.