Why use Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching?

Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Inner Structure of the I Ching: The Book of Transformations, (1981) has this to say:

The only person who approached the book [I Ching] as document of culture and worked with scholars steeped in the still living tradition of the greatest philosophies of China, was Richard Wilhelm, who was himself not only a scholar, but a man with an open mind, honest enough to set aside his own religious convictions in recognition of the cultural values of Chinese tradition. Instead of trying to teach the Chinese, he found it more profitable to learn from their achievements. After a lifetime of work and study in China, he returned to Europe in order to bring the fruits of his labors to the West, and to establish a greater understanding between the cultures of the West and the Far East. Even if we disagree with small details of his work on logical or historical grounds according to modern research, this does not detract from his great understanding of Chinese culture.
The work which he has created stands as a landmark of our knowledge and a monument of one of the greatest books of humanity. He himself writes in his forward to the Book of Changes: “When Tsingtau became the residence of a number of the most eminent scholars of the old school, I met among them my honored teacher, Lao Nai Hsuan. I am indebted to him not only for a deeper understanding. . . but also because he first opened my mind to the wonders of the Book of Changes. Under his experienced guidance I wandered entranced through this strange and yet familiar world. The translation of the text was made after detailed discussion. Then the German version was translated into Chinese and it was only after the meaning of the text had been fully brought out that we considered our version to be truly a translation.” (Govinda, p. 68)

Lama Govinda is quoting Cary F. Baynes translation from the German into English which first was published in 1950. That publication has a Foreword dated 1949 by C.G. Jung. In the 3rd edition, published in 1977, the quote above can be found on page xlv, dated, Peking, in the summer of 1923.

To summarize, Wilhelm had the help of the oldest practicing Chinese scholars. When he translated the I Ching into German, it was then translated back into Chinese to see what the scholars thought. Evidently they felt the Chinese translation from the German reflected their understanding of the text. This is why Lama Govinda likes this version. He read it first in German and quotes the English translation above.

Many of my students have asked me if there is an easier translation. The words are daunting, they require a sophisticated college level of understanding and a background in philosophy is also helpful. I have been studying this text since 1973. I have a Masters in Philosophy and understanding the text took me many years. A friend, who has a PhD in Psychology and teaches Qi gong, told me, after several hours of conversation over a period of years, that I have internalized the Book of Transformations, that I understand it as well as he does. He has been studying Qi gong since the 1960s and Chinese philosophy all that time. So I guess this text is challenging in and of itself. But it is worth the effort. Sometimes the struggle is what makes the learning meaningful. We have to “make it our own” through grappling with the text.

My wife, Athena Bizakis Melville, found she resonated with the I Ching from the very beginning; it seemed clear to her intuition.  We must have consulted the I Ching on a daily basis for over 25 years before we separated.  Our conversations helped me understand the text, especially the image of two lakes touching, which says, “Knowledge should be a refreshing and vitalizing force.  It becomes so only through stimulating intercourse with congenial friends with whom one holds discussion and practices application of the truths of life.  In this way learning becomes many-sided and takes on a cheerful lightnesss, whereas there is always something ponderous and one-sided about the learning of the self-taught. (Baynes, trans., pp. 224-5)”

About Michael J. Melville

People describe me as a Spiritual Catalyst because their spiritual evolution speeds up when they share their process with me. Discussing dreams, addictions, sacred medicines, family histories, or personal relationships moves one closer to the core, where the inner child dwells. Once contact with her/him is made, growth resumes.
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