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The I Ching: A Biography

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The I Ching originated in China as a divination manual more than three thousand years ago. In 136 BCE the emperor declared it a Confucian classic, and in the centuries that followed, this work had a profound influence on the philosophy, religion, art, literature, politics, science, technology, and medicine of various cultures throughout East Asia. Jesuit missionaries broug The I Ching originated in China as a divination manual more than three thousand years ago. In 136 BCE the emperor declared it a Confucian classic, and in the centuries that followed, this work had a profound influence on the philosophy, religion, art, literature, politics, science, technology, and medicine of various cultures throughout East Asia. Jesuit missionaries brought knowledge of the I Ching to Europe in the seventeenth century, and the American counterculture embraced it in the 1960s. Here Richard Smith tells the extraordinary story of how this cryptic and once obscure book became one of the most widely read and extensively analyzed texts in all of world literature. In this concise history, Smith traces the evolution of the I Ching in China and throughout the world, explaining its complex structure, its manifold uses in different cultures, and its enduring appeal. He shows how the indigenous beliefs and customs of Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet "domesticated" the text, and he reflects on whether this Chinese classic can be compared to religious books such as the Bible or the Qur'an. Smith also looks at how the I Ching came to be published in dozens of languages, providing insight and inspiration to millions worldwide--including ardent admirers in the West such as Leibniz, Carl Jung, Philip K. Dick, Allen Ginsberg, Hermann Hesse, Bob Dylan, Jorge Luis Borges, and I. M. Pei. Smith offers an unparalleled biography of the most revered book in China's entire cultural tradition, and he shows us how this enigmatic ancient classic has become a truly global phenomenon.


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The I Ching originated in China as a divination manual more than three thousand years ago. In 136 BCE the emperor declared it a Confucian classic, and in the centuries that followed, this work had a profound influence on the philosophy, religion, art, literature, politics, science, technology, and medicine of various cultures throughout East Asia. Jesuit missionaries broug The I Ching originated in China as a divination manual more than three thousand years ago. In 136 BCE the emperor declared it a Confucian classic, and in the centuries that followed, this work had a profound influence on the philosophy, religion, art, literature, politics, science, technology, and medicine of various cultures throughout East Asia. Jesuit missionaries brought knowledge of the I Ching to Europe in the seventeenth century, and the American counterculture embraced it in the 1960s. Here Richard Smith tells the extraordinary story of how this cryptic and once obscure book became one of the most widely read and extensively analyzed texts in all of world literature. In this concise history, Smith traces the evolution of the I Ching in China and throughout the world, explaining its complex structure, its manifold uses in different cultures, and its enduring appeal. He shows how the indigenous beliefs and customs of Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet "domesticated" the text, and he reflects on whether this Chinese classic can be compared to religious books such as the Bible or the Qur'an. Smith also looks at how the I Ching came to be published in dozens of languages, providing insight and inspiration to millions worldwide--including ardent admirers in the West such as Leibniz, Carl Jung, Philip K. Dick, Allen Ginsberg, Hermann Hesse, Bob Dylan, Jorge Luis Borges, and I. M. Pei. Smith offers an unparalleled biography of the most revered book in China's entire cultural tradition, and he shows us how this enigmatic ancient classic has become a truly global phenomenon.

30 review for The I Ching: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Grady

    Part of a series of biographies of famous texts, this book offers a rich entry-point into study of the history of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. However, it includes so many names - of versions of the the text, of other books, of commentators across two millennia - that I found it impossible as a lay reader to retain much. Perhaps someone with a deeper background in Chinese philosophy or intellectual history would find this a helpful summary. For a reader like me, it will function as a gatewa Part of a series of biographies of famous texts, this book offers a rich entry-point into study of the history of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. However, it includes so many names - of versions of the the text, of other books, of commentators across two millennia - that I found it impossible as a lay reader to retain much. Perhaps someone with a deeper background in Chinese philosophy or intellectual history would find this a helpful summary. For a reader like me, it will function as a gateway text leading to other more focused studies, and I'll probably need to reread portions of the book to absorb the major (sequential) schools of interpretation of the I Ching. This is the kind of book one reads out of interest in the subject, not because the book itself is compelling, although the writing is thoughtful and clear. One strong takeaway is that the text of the I Ching has been radically reinterpreted over the centuries, with original and perhaps fairly concrete meanings being replaced with increasingly abstruse or metaphorical interpretations. That's certainly a pattern one can see in the history of core texts from a number of cultures, including (for the West) the Bible - not just that writers or thinkers change how they interpret the original text, but that they assert - objectively incorrectly - that the original text has always meant to readers what the current commenter believes it means now.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John Eliade

    Professor Smith is wildly intelligent. This book is the simplified version of his "Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the Universe," representing the 5,000 year history of the Yijing. In this book, like in his longer version, Smith gives short biographies, summarizes whole schools of thought, covers, briefly, the political developments and intellectual culture of China, all in a brief and understandable way. I really enjoyed this book because it's intensely understandable, and not overly dense. I Professor Smith is wildly intelligent. This book is the simplified version of his "Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the Universe," representing the 5,000 year history of the Yijing. In this book, like in his longer version, Smith gives short biographies, summarizes whole schools of thought, covers, briefly, the political developments and intellectual culture of China, all in a brief and understandable way. I really enjoyed this book because it's intensely understandable, and not overly dense. I've met too many people who think the Yijing is literally magic without understanding where it came from or how it got here other than the vague notion of, "China, some time ago." As a developing philologist, I really enjoy this series because it acknowledges that what makes these books special is the spiritual power that people imbue them with, while then telling a true historical story about how we ended up with the books we know and love (or hate) today. Smith, a long-time Sinologist, presents a compelling, interesting, and true history of one of the worlds oldest and mysterious pieces of literature that is accessible and should be read by anyone who approaches the Yijing casually.

  3. 5 out of 5

    C. Varn

    Richard J. Smith offers a solid biography of Zhou Yiching and its commentary texts, but unless one has a pretty good grasp of the very periods of classical Chinese history, it can seem like a sea of names. Smith does document how much the Confucian--and later Daoist, Buddhist, and Western--commentary has altered a divination text that was focused on practicality and even sacrifice decorum into a text of moral guidance and a Confucian classic. He demonstrates how much of an effect the book has ha Richard J. Smith offers a solid biography of Zhou Yiching and its commentary texts, but unless one has a pretty good grasp of the very periods of classical Chinese history, it can seem like a sea of names. Smith does document how much the Confucian--and later Daoist, Buddhist, and Western--commentary has altered a divination text that was focused on practicality and even sacrifice decorum into a text of moral guidance and a Confucian classic. He demonstrates how much of an effect the book has had on East Asian culture--surprisingly to me, including Tibetan--and on the counter-cultural movements that adopted in the middle of the 20th century in the West. Smith also demonstrates how odd the Yi-ching is for a classic religious text: it has a rich commentary history that is almost Talmudic, but it doesn't concern itself with a lot of the functions of religion even from an East Asian perspective. The primary problem with this book is that the length makes its more breadth at the expense of depth.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Cody

    This is a good overview of the origins of the I Ching (Yi Jing). I feel like I learned a lot about why this divination method has stayed around, and why it's not only seen as a divinatory tool. Still not 100% sure how you read/ cast Yi Jing, but I know where it came from and how it got popularized so that's something. Very well written and enjoyable read. If you're interested in the history of the Yi Jing, I highly recommend this book. This is a good overview of the origins of the I Ching (Yi Jing). I feel like I learned a lot about why this divination method has stayed around, and why it's not only seen as a divinatory tool. Still not 100% sure how you read/ cast Yi Jing, but I know where it came from and how it got popularized so that's something. Very well written and enjoyable read. If you're interested in the history of the Yi Jing, I highly recommend this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Patty Chang

    Another clear book about the I Ching (or yijing) I’m Really liking this guy for writing informative, clear texts in this area. Goes into how it has been adapted/interpreted in other countries as well.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    Despite its title and place in a series of short books introducing religious classics, this book is best suited for readers already familiar with the I Ching, or as he transcribes it in the text but not title Yijing. Smith provides lucid overviews of the difference between the most influential Chinese schools of interpretation (focusing on "images and numbers" on the one hand, "principles and meanings" on the other) and traces the book's spread from China through East Asia (Japan, Vietnam, Korea Despite its title and place in a series of short books introducing religious classics, this book is best suited for readers already familiar with the I Ching, or as he transcribes it in the text but not title Yijing. Smith provides lucid overviews of the difference between the most influential Chinese schools of interpretation (focusing on "images and numbers" on the one hand, "principles and meanings" on the other) and traces the book's spread from China through East Asia (Japan, Vietnam, Korea and to a lesser extent Tibet) and on to the West, mostly in forms which reflect the ulterior motives of missionaries and scholars. There's a brief overview of the best known English language translations, but there are much more thorough versions easily available (and noted in Smith's bibliography, which is a gem). Some cool illustrations spice up the serviceable but never exciting prose. I found the illustrations of how the I Ching has been used a bit opaque. While my familiarity with consultation methods allowed me to follow them, I think they'd be murky to newcomers. This reflects my own bias, but I would have liked a much more detailed consideration of the Jungian/existential resonances of the Yijing for readers who first encountered it as part of a counterculture mix but have dug deeper over the years.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kerfe

    This book is part of a series exploring the origins, influences, and changing interpretations of Great Religious Books. The I Ching is, as the author states, more philosophical than strictly religious; yet, its spiritual influences are vast and continuous, on a parallel with works such as the Bible and the Koran. About half of the text is pretty scholarly. I skimmed those parts, but managed to learn a lot about not only Chinese history, but the hold its classical Confucian thought and culture has This book is part of a series exploring the origins, influences, and changing interpretations of Great Religious Books. The I Ching is, as the author states, more philosophical than strictly religious; yet, its spiritual influences are vast and continuous, on a parallel with works such as the Bible and the Koran. About half of the text is pretty scholarly. I skimmed those parts, but managed to learn a lot about not only Chinese history, but the hold its classical Confucian thought and culture has had on not only neighboring Asian countries, but, increasingly, the world. The I Ching is mercurial and flexible and has been interpreted and applied in a large variety of ways. One approach has stresed numerical calculations; others have been concerned with correct behavior, or one's place in society. And divination has always been a primary use. Emperors, generals, artists, priests, and musicians have all been inspired by its images and words. The author sees three main reasons for its "remarkable longevity": its intellectual challenge, its psychological insight (Jung was a fan), and the powerful symbolism and magical language that provides creative inspiration. I haven't looked at my Wilhelm translation (the one that popularized the I Ching in the United States in the 60's) in years. But I'm inspired to find it and give it another, more informed, look.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Edward III

    In this "biography" of the I Ching, Smith traces out the book's history and influence, while providing an overview of its content and issues of interpretation, as well as of its many English translations. This book includes a large number of footnotes and annotations, and an extensive bibliography. The author clearly knows a great deal about his subject, and is not afraid to criticize the Wilhelm translation--one which your garden-variety I Ching expositor tends to praise uncritically. That said In this "biography" of the I Ching, Smith traces out the book's history and influence, while providing an overview of its content and issues of interpretation, as well as of its many English translations. This book includes a large number of footnotes and annotations, and an extensive bibliography. The author clearly knows a great deal about his subject, and is not afraid to criticize the Wilhelm translation--one which your garden-variety I Ching expositor tends to praise uncritically. That said, despite the book's copious footnotes Smith seems to have relied particularly heavily on one source: Shaughnessey's "The Composition of the Zhouyi." Overall a good resource on a fascinating and difficult work.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Part of an excellent short series on the histories of major religious texts, Smith investigates the creation and two thousand year cultural effect of the I Ching, including the many times it has influenced Chinese history, the larger cultural, aesthetic and political region of East Asia and its second life as a Western Counter-Cultural document.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas Hudson

    The three stars are due not to his writing or scholarship, which is excellent, but simply because while the book is a wonderful introduction to the Yijing and the various uses and interpretations it has had and still does have, it is nonetheless still an introduction.

  11. 4 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian (9 Mar 2012) KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian (9 Mar 2012)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mikey

  13. 5 out of 5

    Forestofglory

  14. 5 out of 5

    William Wang

  15. 5 out of 5

    * Bar *

  16. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Tyson

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tyler Smith

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melanie Fae

  19. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen Witzler

  21. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  22. 5 out of 5

    Holger

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  24. 4 out of 5

    Gary D.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Chad

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kerem

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kaloy Añana

  29. 4 out of 5

    Yago Colas

  30. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

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