In support of some writing projects I’ve undertaken in 2018, I decided it was time to investigate the I Ching. Since there are many expert academic backgrounders and information articles regarding the I Ching, I’m not going to provide a background on the book beyond reminding that I Ching means Book of Changes and that it has been an enormous part of Chinese culture for something like three to five thousand years. If I’m inexact on the dating, I’m also not going to quibble over millennia. It’s a long time.
I was fortunate in selecting Alfred Huang’s translation of the text. Not so much for the body of the text but for the introductory essays, formatting and the general exposition. I particularly appreciated Huang’s explanation that
The I Ching is a book that speaks in images, not words….the I Ching is a work of poetry, not prose. It has its own oracular language and conceals its meaning in metaphors, parables and images.
and further that
Once readers understand that reading I Ching does not mean reading sentences that make sense, but rather creating their own personal understanding from archetypal, poetic images,….they will come to value the I Ching as a great open-ended storehouse of ancient wisdom…in the same manner that the Chinese always have
Having read Huang’s recommendations for reading the I Ching, I feel that I am in a position to comprehend what the I Ching is. The I Ching is a practical, if mystically hyped-up, tool to inform and guide day-to-day decision making. Sure there are the rituals and the do-dads which turn the I Ching into a user-interfaced practice…but at root it uses culturally prescribed “metaphors, parables and images” to bear on whatever might be troubling the user. It really is rather brilliant.
I’m not going to say it is correct or incorrect. Only that it is brilliant. I suspect also effective. The mysticism, the prescribed meanings, the ritualized practices, the interpretive flexibility….it all blends to a muddy and cohesive whole that is inexact but specific.
I do see the value that Huang suggests, but I also see an amazing explanation of how and why poetry (including song lyrics) itself works. Poetry is a great open-ended storehouse of human wisdom; a storehouse that grows year over year. Annexed and re-annexed by successive generations of poets and readers such that ancient poetry subsides into the role of mystical archetypes and new poetry takes the form of highly specific technical manuals of humanity.
From time to time, I struggle with the diaphanous nature of poetry. Like so many people, I typically crave certainty and meaning. I want language to provide a reliable anchor in an environment which is too often stormy, dangerous and unpredictable. While that is often typical, I also value the flexible meanings, the shades of perspective that well-crafted language allows. Words are, after all, a kind of technology which serves to inexactly represent the dynamic biochemical operations of our minds and bodies. It seems reasonable that words will fall short of precision while providing a modicum of accuracy.
Note that my comments regarding the I Ching avoid any suggestion that its inherent mysticism is encouraged or supported. At least from my perspective, it is not. I dislike the gullibility which mysticism relies upon. But I often enjoy a decently worked up bit of metaphysics. I suppose that mysticism uses the established technologies of language and science to suggest as-yet unexplored meaning….while mysticism uses unexplored meanings to recommend language and science technologies.
Perhaps these are complementary systems. Perhaps I’m only playing with words, which is what I have.
References and Citations
- The Complete I Ching. Alfred Huang: http://www.masteralfredhuang.com/books/
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- Original draft: June 8, 2018
- Updated and Edited June 12, 2018