I Ching


by James Legge

I wrote out a translation of the Yî King, embracing both the Text and the Appendixes, in 1854 and 1855; and have to acknowledge that when the manuscript was completed, I knew very little about the scope and method of the book. I laid the volumes containing the result of my labour aside, and hoped, believed indeed, that the light would by and by dawn, and that I should one day get hold of a clue that would guide me to a knowledge of the mysterious classic.

Before that day came, the translation was soaked, in 1870, for more than a month in water of the Red Sea. By dint of careful manipulation it was recovered so as to be still legible; but it was not till 1874 that I began to be able to give to the book the prolonged attention necessary to make it reveal its secrets. Then for the first time I got hold, as I believe, of the clue, and found that my toil of twenty years before was of no service at all.

What had tended more than anything else to hide the nature of the book from my earlier studies was the way in which, with the Text, ordinarily and, as I think, correctly ascribed to king Wăn and his son Tan, there are interspersed, under each hexagram, the portions of the Appendixes I, II, and IV relating to it. The student at first thinks this an advantage. He believes that all the Appendixes were written by Confucius, and combine with the text to form one harmonious work; and he is glad to have the sentiments of 'the three sages' brought together. But I now perceived that the composition of the Text and of the Appendixes, allowing the Confucian authorship of the latter, was separated by about 700 years, and that their subject-matter was often incongruous. My first step towards a right understanding of the Yî was to study the Text by itself and as complete in itself. It was easy to >do this because the imperial edition of 1715, with all its critical apparatus, keeps the Text and the Appendixes separate.

The wisdom of the course thus adopted became more apparent by the formation of eight different concordances, one for the Text, and one for each of the Appendixes. They showed that many characters in the Appendixes, and those especially which most readily occur to sinologists as characteristic of the Yî, are not to be found in the Text at all. A fuller acquaintance, moreover, with the tone and style of the Appendixes satisfied me that while we had sufficient evidence that the greater part of them was not from Confucius, we had no evidence that any part was his, unless it might be the paragraphs introduced by the compiler or compilers as sayings of 'the Master.'

Studying the Text in the manner thus described, I soon arrived at the view of the meaning and object of the Yî, which I have described in the second chapter of the Introduction; and I was delighted to find that there was a substantial agreement between my interpretations of the hexagrams and their several lines and those given by the most noted commentators from the Han dynasty down to the present. They have not formulated the scheme so concisely as I have done, and they were fettered by their belief in the Confucian authorship of the Appendixes; but they held the same general opinion, and were similarly controlled by it in construing the Text. Any sinologist who will examine the Yü Kih Zăh Kiang Yî King Kieh Î, prepared by one of the departments of the Han Lin college, and published in 1682, and which I have called the 'Daily Lessons,' or 'Lectures,' will see the agreement between my views and those underlying its paraphrase.

After the clue to the meaning of the Yî was discovered, there remained the difficulty of translating. The peculiarity of its style makes it the most difficult of all the Confucian classics to present in an intelligible version. I suppose that there are sinologists who will continue, for a time at least, to maintain that it was intended by its >author or authors, whoever they were, merely as a book of divination; and of course the oracles of divination were designedly wrapped up in mysterious phraseology. But notwithstanding the account of the origin of the book and its composition by king Wăn and his son, which I have seen reason to adopt, they, its authors, had to write after the manner of diviners. There is hardly another work in the ancient literature of China that presents the same difficulties to the translator.

When I made my first translation of it in 1854, I endeavoured to be as concise in my English as the original Chinese was. Much of what I wrote was made up, in consequence, of so many English words, with little or no mark of syntactical connexion. I followed in this the example of P. Regis and his coadjutors (Introduction, page 9) in their Latin version. But their version is all but unintelligible, and mine was not less so. How to surmount this difficulty occurred to me after I had found the clue to the interpretation;—in a fact which I had unconsciously acted on in all my translations of other classics) namely, that the written characters of the Chinese are not representations of words, but symbols of ideas, and that the combination of them in composition is not a representation of what the writer would say, but of what he thinks. It is vain therefore for a translator to attempt a literal version. When the symbolic characters have brought his mind en rapport with that of his author, he is free to render the ideas in his own or any other speech in the best manner that he can attain to. This is the rule which Mencius followed in interpreting the old poems of his country:—'We must try with our thoughts to meet the scope of a sentence, and then we shall apprehend it.' In the study of a Chinese classical book there is not so much an interpretation of the characters employed by the writer as a participation of his thoughts;—there is the seeing of mind to mind. The canon hence derived for a translator is not one of license. It will be his object to express the meaning of the original as exactly and concisely as possible. But it will be necessary for him to introduce a word or two now and then to indicate what the mind of the writer supplied for itself. What I have done in this way will generally be seen enclosed in parentheses, though I queried whether I might not dispense with them, as there is nothing in the English version which was not, I believe, present in the writer's thought. I hope, however, that I have been able in this way to make the translation intelligible to readers. If, after all, they shall conclude that in what is said on the hexagrams there is often 'much ado about nothing,' it is not the translator who should be deemed accountable for that, but his original.

I had intended to append to the volume translations of certain chapters from Kû Hsî and other writers of the Sung dynasty; but this purpose could not be carried into effect for want of space. It was found necessary to accompany the version with a running commentary, illustrating the way in which the teachings of king Wăn and his son are supposed to be drawn from the figures and their several lines; and my difficulty was to keep the single Yî within the limits of one volume. Those intended translations therefore are reserved for another opportunity; and indeed, the Sung philosophy did not grow out of the Yî proper, but from the Appendixes to it, and especially from the third of them. It is more Tâoistic than Confucian.

When I first took the Yî in hand, there existed no translation of it in any western language but that of P. Regis and his coadjutors, which I have mentioned above and in various places of the Introduction. The authors were all sinologists of great attainments; and their view of the Text as relating to the transactions between the founders of the Kâu dynasty and the last sovereign of the Shang or Yin, and capable of being illustrated historically, though too narrow, was an approximation to the truth. The late M. Mohl, who had edited the work in 1834, said to me once, 'I like it; for I come to it out of a sea of mist, and find solid ground.' No sufficient distinction was made in it, however, between the Text and the Appendixes; and in discussing the third and following Appendixes the translators were haunted by the name and shade of Confucius. To the excessive literalness of the version I have referred above.

In 1876 the Rev. Canon McClatchie, M.A., published a version at Shanghai with the title, 'A Translation of the Confucian Yî King, or the "Classic of Changes," with Notes and Appendix.' This embraces both the Text and the Appendixes, the first, second, and fourth of the latter being interspersed along with the Text, as in the ordinary school editions of the classic. So far as I can judge from his language, he does not appear to be aware that the first and second Appendixes were not the work of king Wăn and the duke of Kâu, but of a subsequent writer—he would say of Confucius—explaining their explanations of the entire hexagrams and their several lines. His own special object was 'to open the mysteries of the Yî by applying to it the key of Comparative Mythology.' Such a key was not necessary; and the author, by the application of it, has found sundry things to which I have occasionally referred in my notes. They are not pleasant to look at or dwell upon; and happily it has never entered into the minds of Chinese scholars to conceive of them. I have followed Canon McClatchie's translation from paragraph to paragraph and from sentence to sentence, but found nothing which I could employ with advantage in my own.

Long after my translation had been completed, and that of the Text indeed was printed, I received from Shanghai the third volume of P. Angelo Zottoli's 'Cursus Litteraturae Sinicae,' which had appeared in 1880. About 100 pages of it are occupied with the Yî. The Latin version is a great improvement on that in the work of Regis; but P. Zottoli translates only the Text of the first two hexagrams, with the portions of the first, second, and fourth Appendixes relating to them; and other six hexagrams with the explanations of king Wăn's Thwan and of the Great Symbolism. of the remaining fifty-six hexagrams only the briefest summary is given; and then follow the Appendixes III, V, VI, and VII at length. The author has done his work well. His general view of the Yî is stated in the following sentences:—'Ex Fû-hsî figuris, Wăn regis definitionibus, Kâu ducis symbolis, et Confucii commentariis, Liber conficitur, qui a mutationibus, quas duo elementa in hexagrammatum compositione inducunt, Yî (Mutator) vel Yî King (Mutationum Liber) appellatur. Quid igitur tandem famosus iste Yî King? Paucis accipe: ex linearum qualitate continua vel intercisa; earumque situ, imo, medio, vel supremo; mutuaque ipsarum relatione, occursu, dissidio, convenientia; ex ipso scilicet trigrammatum corpore seu forma, tum ex trigrammatum symbolo seu imagine, tum ex trigrammatum proprietate seu virtute, tum etiam aliquando ex unius ad alterum hexagramma varietate, eruitur aliqua imago, deducitur aliqua sententia, quoddam veluti oraculum continens, quod sorte etiam consulere possis ad documentum obtinendum, moderandae vitae solvendove dubio consentaneum. Ita liber juxta Confucii explicationem in scholis tradi solitam. Nil igitur sublime aut mysteriosum, nil foedum aut vile hic quaeras; argutulum potius lusum ibi video ad instructiones morales politicasque eliciendas, ut ad satietatem usque in Sinicis passim classicis, obvias, planas, naturales; tantum, cum liber iste, ut integrum legenti textum facile patebit, ad sortilegii usum deductus fuerit, per ipsum jam summum homo obtinebit vitae beneficium, arcanam cum spiritibus communicationem secretamque futurorum eventuum cognitionem; theurgus igitur visus est iste liber, totus lux, totus spiritus, hominisque vitae accommodatissimus; indeque laudes a Confucio ei tributas, prorsus exaggeratas, in hujus libri praesertim appendice videre erit, si vere tamen, ut communis fert opinio, ipse sit hujus appendicis auctor.'

There has been a report for two or three years of a new translation of the Yî, or at least of a part of it, as being in preparation by M. Terrien de Lacouperie, and Professor R. K. Douglas of the British Museum and King's College, London. I have alluded on pages 8, 9 of the Introduction to some inaccurate statements about native commentaries on the Yî and translations of it by foreigners, made in connexion with this contemplated version. But I did not know what the projected undertaking really was, till I read a letter from M. Terrien in the 'Athenæum' of the 21st January of this year. He there says that the joint translation 'deals only with the oldest part of the book, the short lists of characters which follow each of the sixty-four headings, and leaves entirely aside the explanations and commentaries attributed to Wen Wang, Kâu Kung, Confucius, and others, from 1200 B. C. downwards, which are commonly embodied as an integral part of the classic;' adding, 'The proportion of the primitive text to these additions is about one-sixth of the whole.' But if we take away these explanations and commentaries attributed to king Wăn, the duke of Kâu, and Confucius, we take away the whole Yî. There remain only the linear figures attributed to Fû-hsî, without any lists of characters, long or short, without a single written character of any kind whatever. The projectors have been misled somehow about the contents of the Yî; and unless they can overthrow all the traditions and beliefs about them, whether Chinese or foreign, their undertaking is more hopeless than the task laid on the children of Israel by Pharaoh, that they should make bricks without straw.

I do not express myself thus in any spirit of hostility. If, by discoveries in Accadian or any other long-buried and forgotten language, M. Terrien de Lacouperie can throw new light on the written characters of China or on its speech, no one will rejoice more than myself; but his ignorance of how the contents of the classic are made up does not give much prospect of success in his promised translation.

In the preface to the third volume of these 'Sacred Books of the East,' containing the Shû King, Shih King, and Hsiâo King, I have spoken of the Chinese terms Tî and Shang Tî, and shown how I felt it necessary to continue to render them by our word God, as I had done in all my translations of the Chinese classics since 1861. My doing so gave offence to some of the missionaries in China and others; and in June, 1880, twenty-three gentlemen addressed a letter to Professor F. Max Müller, complaining >that, in such a work edited by him, he should allow me to give my own private interpretation of the name or names in question instead of translating them or transferring them. Professor Müller published the letter which he had received, with his reply to it, in the 'Times' newspaper of Dec. 30, 1880. Since then the matter has rested, and I introduce it again here in this preface, because, though we do not meet with the name in the Yî so frequently as in the Shû and Shih, I have, as before, wherever it does occur, translated it by God. Those who object to that term say that Shang Tî might be rendered by 'Supreme Ruler' or 'Supreme Emperor,' or by 'Ruler (or Emperor) on high;' but when I examined the question, more than thirty years ago, with all possible interest and all the resources at my command, I came to the conclusions that Tî, on its first employment by the Chinese fathers, was intended to express the same concept which our fathers expressed by God, and that such has been its highest and proper application ever since. There would be little if any difference in the meaning conveyed to readers by 'Supreme Ruler' and 'God;' but when I render Tî by God and Shang Tî by the Supreme God, or, for the sake of brevity, simply by God, I am translating, and not giving a private interpretation of my own. I do it not in the interests of controversy, but as the simple expression of what to me is truth; and I am glad to know that a great majority of the Protestant missionaries in China use Tî and Shang Tî as the nearest analogue for God.

It would be tedious to mention the many critical editions and commentaries that I have used in preparing the translation. I have not had the help of able native scholars, which saved time and was otherwise valuable when I was working in the East on other classics. The want of this, however, has been more than compensated in some respects by my copy of the 'Daily Lectures on the Yî,' the full title of which is given on page xiv. The friend who purchased it for me five years ago in Canton was obliged to content himself with a second-hand copy; but I found that the previous owner had been a ripe scholar who freely used his pencil in pursuing his studies. It was possible, from his punctuation, interlineations, and many marginal notes, to follow the exercises of his mind, patiently pursuing his search for the meaning of the most difficult passages. I am under great obligations to him; and also to the Kâu Yî Keh Kung, the great imperial edition of the present dynasty, first published in 1715. I have generally spoken of its authors as the Khang-hsî editors. Their numerous discussions of the meaning, and ingenious decisions, go far to raise the interpretation of the Yî to a science.


16th March, 1882