History of an Enigma

Review by Christopher Dow

While most books come and go, a few remain as true classics of human expression. Of these, only a handful can trace their roots as deeply as the I Ching, which dates back at least 3,000 years.


Even more amazing than its antiquity and central place in Chinese culture is the continuing impact of the I Ching on the modern world. Its philosophical, sociological and psychological insights have attracted and influenced admirers in the West ranging from writers and artists to philosophers, businesspeople, and politicians.


As with all books of similar antiquity, the genesis of the I Ching is obscured by the veils of time. But that hasn’t stopped Rice University’s Richard Smith, the George and Nancy Rupp Professor of Humanities, from attempting to unearth its development across the centuries. In his latest book on the subject, The I Ching: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2012), Smith tells the extraordinary story of how this cryptic and once obscure book became one of the most widely read and extensively analyzed texts in all of world literature.


Smith’s historical survey traces the evolution of the I Ching in China and throughout the world, explaining the book’s complex structure, its manifold uses in different cultures, and its enduring appeal. He shows how the indigenous beliefs and customs of Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet “domesticated” the text, and he reflects on whether this Chinese classic can be compared to religious books such as the Bible or the Qur’an. Smith also looks at how the I Ching came to be published in dozens of languages.


An entry in Princeton University Press’s the Lives of Great Religious Books series, The I Ching: A Biography is written primarily for the nonspecialist and offers an unparalleled look at an enigmatic ancient classic that has become a global phenomenon.



Reprinted from Rice Magazine, #13, 2012.

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