- Karl Thunemann
My Favorite I Ching Translations
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Over the decades I have used more than a dozen English translations of the I Ching. One of my favorite translators organized his discussion of each hexagram by relating a personal experience. For a time, I loved it. But after while I tired of seeing these stories again and again. So I stopped. And now I no longer remember his name. In old age, that has become my nature.
But this list promises to be enduring—well, as long as I consult and remember the I Ching. I have five favorites, including the John Blofeld, which I just ordered from my favorite used-book mart.
1. The Complete I Ching: The Definitive Translation by Taoist Master Alfred Huang.
I don’t recall how this book first came to my attention, but it quickly became my favorite. Huang sets out to do what Richard Wilhelm intended—and does so without the improbable gobble-dee-gook about how the world was once perfect, governed by masters. Still, Huang carries the enigmatic quality that is the oracle’s hallmark. Huang tells his harrowing story. Born in China in 1921, he was imprisoned for years—and sentenced to death—by the Maoist regime; his participation in an I Ching study group made him a dangerous reactionary. When released, he wasted little time in leaving China, winding up in Hawaii, where friends urged him to translate the I Ching into English.
An important part of Huang’s work is the attention he pays to the ideograms associated with each hexagram. He describes what each meant at the time it was promulgated and characterizes how they changed—both in substance and interpretation—over the centuries.
The result is splendid. He draws connections between hexagrams, What if you have more than one changing line in a reading? He offers a rubric that tells which line to read. Huang published a 10th anniversary of this book in 2010 that adds historical material, but I haven’t read it. He will turn 100 in late October. How will the world mark such longevity and excellence?
2. I Ching: Walking Your Path, Creating Your Future, by Hilary Barrett.
I stumbled upon this unprepossessing book while engaged in a research project: investigating all versions of the I Ching in the collection of the King County library system. Chasing down an obscure online reference, I found an ambitious commentary that assessed dozens of I Ching translations. Reading the remarks about the several versions I had encountered, I discovered that I agreed whole-heartedly with this commentator.
I had never heard of the author, Hilary Barrett, but I looked her up online and eventually found her book at my local Half-Price Books. It is slender and modest, devoting two pages to each of the 64 hexagrams. She uses simple language and subtly strips the work of the male-dominance perpetuated in most translations. She does so without eliminating the distinction of gender. And she kicks off each hexagram reading with two or three pointed questions that always sharpen my mind.
Barrett’s empire is unusually complex. Besides her book, she runs an online emporium where you can consult the oracle through your computer. You can seek her comments on your readings. She has posted many articles discussing aspects of the I Ching. As I’m familiar with all my favorites (except, of course, so far, with Blofeld, I can double-check Barrett’s interpretations against the others.
Here is Barrett’s URL:
I Ching translations | I Ching with Clarity (onlineclarity.co.uk)
3. The Shamanic I Ching, by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsey, with Zhao Xiaomin.
I discovered this remarkable book sometime in the late 1990s, when it began showing up in the used-book world. How can it be characterized? In some respects, it is quite simple. Palmer and Ramsey set out to publish the initial readings of the I Ching, created about 2600 years ago. So the text of each hexagram is presented in its minimal glory, and Ramsey’s “shamanic poems,” meant to evoke each reading, fill the facing page. Nothing new in this approach, as China was imbued with shamanic practices long before the I Ching came into existence.
When I was actively introducing people to the I Ching, I found that women tended to prefer this shamanic version. The feeling of the poems is profound. I think of women being more intuitive than men; this is their version. My wife was a fan of this book and set out to amass a collection. She vowed to corner the market on used copies. But the more she bought, the more came on sale! (Right now I am using a copy decommissioned by the East Flushing Branch of Queens Library in Flushing, NY. Talk about degrees of separation!)
The book has a small section on the ideograms, not as detailed as Huang’s. It has abbreviated contemporary comments on each hexagram and its individual lines.
Here’s what really sells me. Palmer, a theologian, provides a lengthy essay explaining the probable origins of the I Ching. Far more than a collection of mystical incantations, it tells a story! We can thank archaeological work in the mid-20th century. Basically the hexagrams track the creation of the Chou dynasty (1046 BCE to 256 BCE) as warlords organized to cross the Yangtse River and overthrow the corrupt Shang dynasty (1600 to 1046 BCE.
Palmer tells how the new army traveled, relying on the divinations of its shamans. The first 30 hexagrams describe the military campaign; the remainder deal with the shock of learning to govern. Palmer breaks this down succinctly. I accepted this all along, though sometimes it was shocking. Take the 28th hexagram, which describes a structure overweighted at the ridgepole, ready to collapse. My fellow travelers and I all interpreted this as a reference to the supposed inquirer, whose world was about to fall apart. Be prepared! But no: This was great news for the rebels. The falling house was the Shang dynasty. It was unable to defend itself, and the fathers of the Chou should (and did!) press on to victory!
At first I thought this should be a lesson to our modern seekers. We should consider all hexagrams through Palmer’s revised prism—every hexagram should be viewed through the lens of its origins. At first, I blamed my failure to start this work on my nature: I was too disorganized and self-absorbed to even consider such a project. But later, I realized this wasn’t the point. Everyone I know who has worked seriously with the I Ching has discovered a different body of work—one that reflects our own experience and proclivities. My I Ching, observing my idiosyncratic sense of humor, peppers me with jokes and puns. This is why I believe that in contemporary times the oracle serves well to improve our understanding of our own sense of intuition.
So how did the I Ching’s journey from being the Chou epic to be hailed as one of the great Five Classics of Chinese literature? Palmer describes a slow process that began with annual re-creations of the of the saga. Eventually it captured the rapt attention of all corners of the Chinese empire. And it extends beyond: In Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States scholars have studied the moral and intellectual challenge of wrestling with the I Ching. Wilhelm, pre-eminent for half a century, is now suspect. Palmer quotes another scholar’s dismissal of Wilhelm’s work, saying that it belonged to “the department of utter confusion.” But Wilhelm still has a hold on me.
4. The I Ching or Book of Changes, translated by Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes.
It must take a lot of gall (and I have plenty, probably because my gall bladder was removed a few tears ago—where does all that gall go?) to criticize a particular translation of a book and then include that very edition among your five favorite versions. But I have no choice. Had I not been introduced to Wilhelm in my early twenties, how would I have ever spent the next two decades as a student of the I Ching, trying to penetrate Wilhelm’s sometimes confusing vision, learning to accept that the I Ching was chiding me and using jokes to get my attention?
Oh, sure, I would have listened to the four-minute chats on NPR every Friday between host Bob Edwards and Red Barber, the legendary sportscaster. Yes, they did talk about the oracle, or at least Red did, but only on occasion. Barber was an immense fan of Wilhelm and promoter of his book. So big that when Princeton University Press produced its one millionth copy of the book, it paused for a ceremony to present the book to Barber. Would I have cared?
And only today, searching the internet for references to the Bob-Red friendship, do I discover that Edwards immortalized it his 1993 book, Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship. Not that the show was central to my experience of the oracle. Over the decades Wilhelm helped me memorize his titles for all sixty-four hexagrams. At my peak, I could recognize each reading from a glance at its six-line hexagram. Alas, that power has slipped away.
At the box office, Wilhelm is still the champ. Amazon is only too happy to let us know this is still the juggernaut’s best-selling version of the I Ching.
And I loved the foreword by C.G. Jung, in which he described synchronicity and asked the I Ching how it regarded being translated into English. To paraphrase, it replied that it contained a great deal of information that might be subject to abuse. I always recommend this delightful, provocative essay to new students of the I Ching. The book “belonged” to Jung, as he was instrumental in bringing the I Ching to America.
Wilhelm and Jung were friends. As one story has it, Jung had a dream of Wilhelm on the night the latter died, but Jung recounted it as a vision a few weeks before Wilhelm’s death. Jung once said, “I owe to Wilhelm the most valuable elucidations. …”
I wondered for years about the identity of Cary Baynes, who translated Wilhelm’s work into English. Internet searches produced nothing. I didn’t even know whether Baynes was male or female. Finally a call to the Princeton Press confirmed Baynes was a woman, but they knew little else about her. Now I find photographs on the internet, even her own entry on Wikipedia! She led an intense life and was part of Jung’s inner circle. A perfect candidate for a Netflix biopic.
May I always express gratitude for the influence Wilhelm and Baynes—and let’s not forget Jung—have exerted in opening a world that carried me so far beyond the boundaries of my early life. And—oh yes—may I order a copy of Bob Edwards’ book from my favorite used book seller!
5. I Ching: The Book of Change, By John Blofeld
As I labored over this ambitious epistle, I found myself cloaked in foreboding. How could I have committed to including Blofeld among my favorites without ever putting my hands on this book? Of course I have read several books by this author and hold him in high esteem—his adult life was spent almost entirely in China and Thailand—but what if this slender volume proved too simple?
At first I resolved to fake it. I searched for a short laudatory review to quote or reprint. But the best candidate felt obliged to jibe at Blofeld for a sin that seemed most unlikely. Then I found a speech Blofeld made in 1978 about the question faced by those engaged in religion in the modern world. I could discuss it and provide a link. No, too cowardly. But luckily my dithering allowed the U.S. mail to deliver the copy of Blofeld I had ordered two weeks before.
So I might be spared! How should I introduce myself to this book? I decided against using my venerated Chinese coins, so imbued with hundreds of questions posed via other translations. In a flash, I decided to employ bibliomancy. Most often associated with the Bible—opening the book at random in search of guidance—the practice can be used with other books of wisdom. Martin Palmer, already secure among my I Ching favorites, recommends it. So I sat still, contemplating the book, and opened my Blofeld, finding myself on page 118:
P’I STAGNATION, OBSTRUCTION
Not a favorable omen for the superior man, “but he must not slacken his righteous persistence.”
What makes obstruction? The nature of heaven is to rise; of earth, to subside. The two trigrams are pulling away from one another.
Wilhelm agrees, also calling this reading Standstill. My heart dropped. Why couldn’t I have turned to page 116, Peace, its very opposite? How often has the I Ching warned me of stagnation when I longed for peace?
But still, I persisted, browsing through the book at length. It is a remarkable book. I feel anxious about the “reading,” and decide that “stagnation” is not a portent. It described the state that has possessed me of late. I can choose to exit it. But back to the text. Blofeld has given us more than a book of wisdom—it is also a personal account. Blofeld writes with a particular intensity and addresses the I Ching as if it too were a person, though far wiser. Here I will focus on two of his stories.
In 1962, crisis erupted in Asia with a military face-off between China and India. With his fondness for both peoples, Blofeld asked what would happen, and the I Ching described “an army in the hills (China) looking down upon the marshy plain below (India). If its leaders were wise, they would halt their attack at the very moment when everything was going well for them … A week or two later, this is exactly what happened.” The answer came replete with details. Blofeld makes no assertion that his inquiry provoked the stand-down but says that friends were amazed when he showed them his question and the oracle’s response.
In 1962 I was a high-school senior, I gave no thought to China or India, and even when I took up the I Ching a few years later, it never occurred to me to ask it about grand international events. I still have not taken that up, but Blofeld has me wondering if I should broaden my horizons.
Soon afterward, Blofeld posed a follow-up question. “I asked the I Ching whether I could now consider myself as a qualified interpreter of its oracles and freely make use of its power to influence the lives of those of my friends who had faith in it. … In effect I was informed that one who sought to interpret the Book of Change for people who would rely upon his reading of the answers must possess a considerable number of intellectual and moral virtues, several of which were named directly or by implication. … ‘Do you really suppose you have these qualities in any marked degree?’ My cheeks could not have been redder if I had been unexpectedly reproved by a living person whose high opinion I particularly desired.”
Over the years I too have received similar reproofs from the oracle. One in particular occurred nearly 40 years ago when I lent my coins to a friend to use in her consultation. After she had tossed the coins twice to establish the bottom two lines, I envisioned the final result, replete with changing lines. I was embarrassed and did not tell her of my vision of her reading, which would proceed as I foresaw. I decided it was unwise to lend my coins; they were too imbued with my karma. In the future I would be a supportive witness. Others should use their own coins, even random pennies, for they deserve the right to determine whether they have experienced synchronicity, not to depend on a well-meaning guide to confirm it.
Other perceptions of Blofeld’s I Ching crowd into my consciousness. I want to share them all: His modesty, his sense of humor, his respect for Wilhelm and care to characterize the differing aims of their work. He speaks to his inability to understand one of Jung’s more finely made points but guesses that if he could discuss it with Jung he might be able to see it better. Blofeld’s account is packed with the sense of his being a person, not an expert holding everything at arm’s length.
So, this version of the oracle commands a place in my practice. If I should have an end-of-life visitation from any of my I Ching heroes, may it bear the spirit of John Blofeld.