• Karl Thunemann

Recommending John Blofeld’s I Ching

My brother, John Scarborough, has presented me with a challenging question: Would I recommend John Blofeld’s translation of the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes?

Here is his somewhat edited question:

A friend wants to know my opinion of Blofeld’s translation of the I Ching, i.e. should he buy it. I introduced him to Blofeld recently and he has read a couple of books now and wants to read more. My opinion is not based on my reading of B’s I Ching – which I haven’t – but on reading other Blofeld books. As Blofeld has long had a deep respect for ancient Chinese wisdom and Chinese literature in general, has lived in China, understands a few Chinese dialects, and is fluent in Mandarin, his interpretation is intended only to acquaint the reader with the symbolism and imagery used, not to give a 20th century repurposing of the ancient text. I imagine that his interpretations are as faithful to the text as possible (while still intelligible to someone like my friend and me). Is that OK? You’ve read and used many translations. Would you recommend his translation?

I DO recommend the book, though in all honesty I am not qualified to do so. I do not own a copy, but I have observed an interaction that showed that I should buy and use this book. Ah, sloth, you are my undoing!

I have been friends with Gertrude for more than 20 years, during which I taught her to use the I Ching, perhaps undercutting my frequent contention that I am not a teacher. We have joined in presenting several small workshops in consulting the I Ching. Gertrude’s approach is more visceral and spontaneous than mine, which is molded by my—using the word loosely—scholarship. Over the decades I have used more than a dozen translations of the oracle. I can’t recall the names of all the translators. There are dozens of English translations. Nobody seems to know exactly how many.

But getting on to my one experience with Blofeld’s version. For a time Gertrude belonged to a loose-knit co-op in Seattle which maintained a serviceable studio. All the other members were musicians. Gertrude and I would meet there, relying on the excellent coffee house next door. It was oddly satisfying to sit in the decrepit water closet and marvel at the eclectic array of books nearby, including a paperback of Blofeld’s I Ching.

Naturally, Gertrude threw the Blofeld in with the several copies of the I Ching I had brought to a workshop, and she and another woman used it in posing their questions to the oracle. They were exhilarated. Gertrude said the Blofeld had an element of kindness. As befits my faulty memory, I quickly forgot their questions, as well as their readings. But I do know that Blofeld’s version would be almost simple, not infused with the complexity and dubious assertions that characterized the Richard Wilhelm version, which first appeared in German in 1923, to be translated by Cary Baynes into English in 1950.

But what was the Blofeld doing on a shelf at the musicians’ co-op? Unquestionably, the book paid homage to musician John Cage, a leading member of the post-war avant-garde. He used the I Ching in his compositions. His book was in the loo at the co-op as an icon—an inspiration to musicians to expand their horizons. Blofeld influenced Cage. They were contemporaries. (Cage lived from 1912 to 1992; Blofeld from 1913-1987.)

Portrait of John Blofeld

So I suggest to my brother that his friend buy a copy of Blofeld’s I Ching. It is a major steppingstone. It is a historical piece, and affordable used copies are available online. Thriftbooks listed two used hardcover copies in good condition for $5.19. I bought one; maybe the other is still there. And buy another translation, just for the parallax view. I list my favorites in the companion piece “My Favorite Editions of the Oracle.”

I am excited. May my interest in the I Ching continue to expand my world.