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German sinologist Dennis Schilling: How does ‘I-Ching’(the Book of Changes) influence the Western world?

Since the 17th century, the Chinese classic I-Ching, also known as the Book of Changes, has been introduced to the West by Jesuit missionaries. It has been subsequently translated into English, French, German, Russian, and other languages, published in the United States and Europe, and has garnered significant attention in Western philosophy and science.

Why does the I-Ching serve as an exemplar of cross-cultural communication? Dennis Schilling, a German sinologist and visiting professor at the School of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, and the translator of 'Yijing - Das Buch der Wandlungen,' recently participated in an exclusive interview conducted by the East-West Exchanges Program. According to Schilling, the thinking from one culture does not exist in isolation upon encountering another culture. Instead, it is the amalgamation of ideas and cultures inspiring one another that fosters new developments through osmosis, ultimately constituting genuine communication.

China News Service Reporter: Since the 17th century, I-Ching has been translated into English, French, German, Russian, and other languages and has been published in the United States and Europe. The research topic has been also extended to include philosophy, religion, history, science, psychology, and divination. What was the historical development of I-Ching research in Western countries?

Dennis Schilling: When Jesuit missionaries traveled to China, they were excited by another kind of thriving book culture. Then, missionaries did lots of translation when bringing I-Ching to the West to portray an attractive image of China and introduce Chinese culture and nature to Europe.

Among them, there were two influential works written by missionaries, an introduction to I-Ching and a book that translated Qian Gua and Liu Yao, known as the "Six Stacked Horizontal Lines," into Latin. They translated Qian Gua to emphasize the ethical value of Confucianism, so that others believed that there were many similarities between Christian and Confucianism. This strategy of spreading Christianity by adapting to Chinese culture received the Pope's support.

Initially, Jesuit missionaries showed little interest in I-Ching. They just viewed it as a book of divination and Tai-Chi philosophy of the Neo-Confucianism that differed from their own beliefs.However, some missionaries, especially French missionary Joachim Bouvet, found I-Ching intriguing. Bouvet believed that Christian belief has already existed in Chinese culture and found such ‘indications’ in I-Ching and other Chinese classics. I-Ching also contained future prophecies that could predict change of time, much like those found in the Bible.

Visitor passing by a line of statue of Chinese and Foreign sages including Socrates, Confucius, Laozi, Jesus, Gautama Buddha, and Marx in ‘National Museum Centennial: Exhibition of 100 Years of Chinese Sculpture Works’ (Photo by Zhang Hao)

To oppose his theory of indication, other missionaries began translating I-Ching in the 18th century to prove that Joachim Bouvet’s idea was groundless. The first complete Latin translation of I-Ching was their common result. However, this book remained hidden in the Royal Library of France (currently in The National Library of France) for a long period. It was not until the 19th century that a German scholar accidentally found the translation and printed this book. At the end of the 19th century other translations of I-Ching came out.

At the end of the 17th century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German scientist, invented the binary numeral system. However, he did not publish the paper because he was unsure about it. In 1701, Leibniz received I-Ching and documents on Eight Trigrams from Joachim Bouvet and felt astonished that the binary system has been already used and explained in Sixty-Four Hexagrams, thus confirming his idea.

At the second half of the 19th century, many European sinologists translated I-Ching. There were nearly six translated versions including French, English, and German. Among them, the English translation of I-Ching by James Legge was the famous one.

At the beginning of the 20th century, German missionary Richard Wilhelm was the first person to translate I-Ching into German. He believed that I-Ching was full of unconscious psychological symbols and languages.

Eight Trigrams in Taiqing Palace, Laoshan, Qingdao (Picture by Vision China)

Richard Wilhelm introduced I-Ching to Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, who researched extensively on divination in different cultures and proposed ‘the Principle of Synchronicity’ as an explanation for the effectiveness behind divination methods.

The German edition of I-Ching by Richard Wilhelm was translated into English in 1950 by U.S. translator Cary Baynes and published in the United States. Gustav Jung wrote the preface for this version. Considering his reputation, I-Ching garnered widespread attention and sparked a phenomenon known as 'I-Ching enthusiasm' across the United States and Europe.

Many Western scholars regarded I-Ching as a theory of mysticism since it could prophet, inspire deeper minds, and predict the future. It also influenced a huge amount of people in the New Age Movement.

After Jung wrote the preface, there were lots of translations and explanations of I-Ching like how to use I-Ching to tell one’s fortune.

Richard Wilhelm translated Qiangua as ‘The Creative.’ That is why most people are fond of I-Ching since it inspires creativity.

The common ground shared between Eastern and Western researching on I-Ching is centered around its practical application and source of inspiration. Meanwhile, some scholars studied I-Ching from the literary, historical, and philosophical perspective. However, more should be done in academic research on I-Ching from the West.

China News Service Reporter: How does I-Ching influence the West?

Dennis Schilling: Initially, I-Ching was not regarded as a philosophical work. It was later considered as a book of wisdom.

I-Ching (Picture by Vision China)

The biggest influence of I-Ching on the West comes from positive attitude from the West. Earlier, Christianity used to totally reject divination. But later, many Western scholars recognized the legitimacy of divination, which had a significant influence beyond the borders of China.

One culture does not exist in isolation when arriving in another culture. It is a combination of ideas and cultures to inspire each other that led to the new development by osmosis to constitute genuine communication. The widespread acceptance of I-Ching in the New Age Movement can be attributed to its mystical nature, which exhibited similarities to Western concepts, resulting in a fusion of the two.

I-Ching influenced Western literature. In ‘The Glass Bead Game’ written by German author Hermann Hesse, there were many paragraphs related to Chinese philosophy. For example, it cited the saying ‘When we are still ignorant, we should take the initiative to seek advice from others rather than waiting for others to teach us.’ from Menggua of I-Ching. In his book, the young protagonist met a person called ‘The Elder Brother’(Daxiong). The Elder Brother helped him use the‘I -Ching’for divination and taught him the philosophical principles behind it.

I-Ching influenced Western arts. U.S avant-garde classical musician John Cage learned from Sixty-Four Hexagrams to discover aleatoric music and music without sound. His famous music work 4'33" did not have any notes.

The dance drama “Yi·Wen”, which was created jointly by Chinese and foreign artists, uses the hexagram text of the Qian Gua in the “Book of Changes” and utilizes the body’s movement trajectories between dots and lines to artistically portray the cycle of life. (Photo by Ma Mingyan)

The U.S. physician Fritjof Capra explained in his book ‘The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism’ that “eastern mysticism offered a consistent and perfect philosophical structure. It can accommodate the most advanced theory of physics”.

China News Service Reporter: What are the differences between your Yijing - Das Buch der Wandlungen and Richard Wilhelm? How to translate this book to ensure that Western readers can easily understand?

Dennis Schilling: In 2007, some publishing houses invited me to translate the I-Ching into German again, which took me about three years and published in 2009. Yijing - Das Buch der Wandlungen is the annotated version with first 250 pages of translation and annotation in the following 400 pages.

Yijing - Das Buch der Wandleungen translated by Dennis Schilling (Photo by Bian Zhengfeng)

I focus more on context, which means the social and historical background of certain thoughts. I am trying to explain the historical significance of I-Ching through translation. I also discuss two parts of I-Ching (Jing & Zhuan) separately as each has its own purpose and background.

Another crucial aspect to consider was the textual source of Gua Yao. I-Ching contained a lot of content related to myths and legends such as King Wu of Zhou overthrew King Zhou of Shang dynasty and stories about mythical figures in Xia dynasty. Therefore, I annotated a lot in the book, which was different from previous translations.

It is difficult to understand Gua Yao since as many sentences do not have the subject. Translators should have a deep understanding on the meaning of the text, historical background, and context so that they can translate accurately. I referred to a variety of sources such as literature in Western Zhou dynasty, Bronze Inscription and Classic of Poetry. I also compared the sentences of I-Ching with Classic of Poetry and Book of Documents from a literary perspective.

Qing Dynasty’s rubbings of the Tang dynasty’s Kai Cheng Stone Classics, the Confucian Four Books and Five Classics (Picture by Vision China)

I also want to write a book to explain I-Ching. This is even more important than translating I-Ching. It will help western readers to understand its content.

China News Service Reporter: Currently, the world situation is complex and constantly changing. Regional conflicts are escalating. The course of human civilization is becoming a major issue of global concern. In light of today’s world, what insights can we glean from the I-Ching?

Dennis Schilling: The world needs constant communication and consideration of different ideas to deepen understandings, yet the world still lacks such communication.

When examining the hexagram system in I-Ching, we know that one situation can not last forever. In addition, we acknowledge that the current state is more than what we can see. There might be some other factors. In the fifth line, it says when a flying dragon is in the sky, it is fitting to see the great man, which means a developing process or a strong power. However, the ninth line says ‘The arrogant dragon will have regrets,’ suggesting that when power becomes obsolete and wanes.

Hexagrams in I-Ching embody both rigidity and flexibility, as well as principles of Yin and Yang. Hexagram that comes from divination can reveal hidden hexagrams that may be in opposition. They can also evolve to remind people to self-reflect. We can learn that we should put in other people’s shoes to enhance understanding and inclusiveness.

Youli City, Tangyi County, Anyang, Henan Province - The Birthplace of I-Ching (Picture by Vision China)

When reviewing the cultural exchanges on I-Ching, it offers some inspirations for cultural exchanges today.

Cultural exchange is a complex but reciprocal process. Sometimes, interacting with other culture, mindset or lifestyle often involves discussion on one’s own social issue, which is quite different from original background. For example, I-Ching was recognized as a smart system of communicating between human and universe after the second world war. This was largely related to the spread of religious aspirations and rediscovery of spirit among some social circles in United States and Europe.

On the other hand, when looking at the way of accepting the Book of Changes (I- Ching) after the Second World War in the Western world, it became a book for personal divination.In fact, its individualized nature dates back to the early Chinese history. More than 2,700 years ago, divination was controlled by the fortune teller of the Zhou royal court. After the philosophy of Wang Bi and Cheng Yi, the I-Ching became a book that everyone could consult with. Zhu Xi's "Original Meaning of the Book of Changes," described divinatory practices that could be conducted by anyone at home.

I-Ching is like a good friend. It can give you the advice, inspiration and value.

Guest Profile

German Sinologist Dennis Schilling (Photo by Bian Zhengfeng)

Dennis Schilling is the German Sinologist and the visiting professor of the Renmin University of China. From 1985 to 1987, he studied Chinese philosophy in Wuhan University. In 2004, he received a PhD in Sinology from the University of Munich. He mastered German (mother tongue), Chinese and English, with skilled usage of Latin, Japanese, French, and Russian and functional knowledge of Sanskrit and Manchu. His research fields include Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy, and sinology. He is the author of Yijing - Das Buch der Wandlungen and other monographs.


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