Seeking the Oracle
Review by Christopher Dow
Richard Smith’s friends and colleagues warned him not to tackle the evolution of the Yijing. The topic is too big, they said. Too complicated.
“There is probably no work circulating in the modern world that is at once as instantly recognized and stupendously misunderstood as the Yijing,” said Smith, the George and Nancy Rupp Professor of Humanities and professor of history at Rice University. “Although most people know that the Yijing originated in China, few are aware of how it evolved, and even Chinese scholars can’t agree on its basic nature. It’s been described as a book of philosophy, a historical work, an ancient dictionary, an encyclopedia, an early scientific treatise, and a mathematical model of the universe. To some, the Yijing is a sacred scripture, to others it is a work of awesome obscurity.”
Smith said his friends’ warnings were valid, calling the Yijing—also known as the I Ching and Book of Changes—“a black hole within the China field, a dense and immense space that allows no possibility of escape for anyone drawn by its powerful pull.” But the Yijing also is one of the most important documents not only in Chinese history but, arguably, in world history as well, and Smith couldn’t resist its attraction.
The result is Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I-Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China (University of Virginia Press, 2008), the first full-length work in any Western language on the development of the Yijing. While Smith admitted that his book barely scratches the surface of the Yijing’s history, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He collected massive amounts of research material from nearly everywhere the document has been—enough, he said, to fill several books.
In addition to exploring the foundations of the Yijing itself, Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World provides a rough map of the historical and intellectual terrain that led to the several stages of its genesis. Smith’s intent is to give readers a good sense of how scholars and practitioners talked about and used the Yijing and to explore the vast field of interpretive possibilities the text presented to creative minds over time and across space.
Written for the specialist and nonspecialist alike, Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World can be a daunting read but rewarding for those who are curious about this ancient and ubiquitous Chinese text.
Reprinted from Rice Magazine #3, 2009.