Friday, December 23, 2011

Review of "Heaven, Earth, and Man in the 'Book of Changes'" by Hellmut Wilhelm

Heaven, Earth, and Man in The Book of Changes is a collection of papers delivered by Hellmut Willhelm at the Eranos meetings held in the 1950s.  Picking up where his father Richard, the renowned scholar, left off, the book touches upon a variety of subjects directly and indirectly related to Yi Jing, or, the first book in the Chinese canon, The Book of Changes.  

The book is divided into seven papers.  The first two, “The Concept of Time” and “The Creative Principle”, provide an overview of the history and philosophical underpinnings of Yi Jing.  The two concepts innate to Chinese culture, these papers offer a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the origins of the book, particularly its relationship to Daoism and Chinese mythology, and the fundamental principles underlying its intent.  The third paper, “Human Events and Their Meaning” moves to the abstract, particularly the transcendence of the moment - fate or destiny, as it were. The book is approached from a practical stance, however, rather than one involving the supernatural or the divinitive.  The fourth and fifth papers, “The ‘Own City’ as the Stage of Formation” and “The Interaction of Heaven, Earth, and Man” attempt to locate physical representations of Yi Jing throughout history and humankind.  The arguments weak but unprovable, Wilhelm cites the abandonment and traditional layout of cities as the result of Yi Jing in the former, and the uniqueness of humanity as being the result of its position between the heaven and the earth in the latter.   This essay the most specious, Wilhelm attempts to use a more modern Chinese philosopher’s matrix for change as proof against the original, all too poor effect.  The last two papers, however, “Wanderings of the Spirit” and “The Interplay of Image and Concept” deal more with the concrete aspects of Yi Jing and are therefore sustained by less fallible research.

Throughout these seven papers Wilhelm makes ample use of the 64 hexagrams as examples supporting his claims.  The numerological aspect of Yi Jing glossed only briefly, readers looking  for knowledge on the more mystical or spiritual side of The Book of Changes should look elsewhere.  More in the vein of Levi-Strausse, Eliade, Frye, Campbell, or Jung, Wilhelm instead approaches Yi Jing as his father: a scholar.  As a result, the readings, though often debatable, are in the vein of 20th century Western critique.  Symbolism and allegory in full bloom, analogies are drawn not only amongst the hexagrams, but amongst world philosophy, mythology, and conceptual allusion, as well.  A smattering of Chinese poetry, history, and philosophy round out the work.  Aside from dialectic matters, the main complaint would be that the book contains no graphs or pictures.  Though constantly referencing the variety of castings possible, no map or plan of the hexagrams exists, though it often would have gone far toward providing pictorial support for Wilhelm’s lines of reasoning.

In the end, this book will undoubtedly prove interesting for people with general interest in Yi Jing or more seasoned experts.  Whether they agree with Wilhelm’s interpretations or not, the content is there for critique and sourced properly.  All others deciding whether or not to purchase this book should cast yarrow stalks.

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