Translating the I ching (Book of Changes)

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For the last two decades or so, my brother Denis and I have been working on a translation of the Yìjīng 易經 (Classic of Changes).  We shall probably finish the first draft within a year.

Of all the Chinese classics, the I ching is the one that most Sinologists do not want to touch because of its maddening opacity.  In this regard, it is worth quoting at some length the words of James Legge (1815-1897), the Victorian translator of all the Confucian classics, a monumental achievement that still stands today as an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to acquaint him/herself with these essential texts of early Chinese civilization.

On the I ching / Yi jing, Legge opines:

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.


From: Legge, James (1882). The Yî King. In Sacred Books of the East, vol. XVI. 2nd edition (1899), Oxford: Clarendon Press; reprinted numerous times.  Preface, pp. 14-16.

What Legge says about the difficulty of understanding the I ching and rendering it into another language, to varying degrees, is true of all other texts written in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese.  Many of them are brutally difficult to fully understand in their entirety.  That is why I always spend the first few days of my Introduction to Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese trying to dissuade all those students who I think are not prepared for the excruciating challenges they will face during the coming year in my class, and, indeed, for as many years as they persist in reading texts written in this dead language.  Achilles Fang (1910-1995), one of my mentors, also did the same thing in his classes.  He would ask us, "Why do you want to read these 'dirty books'?" and he referred to our profession as "Assinology".  Once you convinced Achilles that you were determined to stick with the daunting task of learning how to read Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, he would go all out for you, and he was devoted to teaching you all the intricacies of utilizing all the tools and techniques at your disposal, if only you had the stamina to do so.

Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese is not for the faint of heart, and I am grateful to Achilles for imparting that wisdom to me.

Incidentally, my recollection is that Achilles did not have much use for the I ching, nor, for that matter, did any of my other teachers and colleagues.  Many of them scorned it openly — and yet, it is the most lastingly influential of all the Chinese classics.  It is this Gordian knot that Denis and I trying to untangle in the way we translate, interpret, and explain the Yì 易 (Changes).

See also:

"Philology and Sinology" (4/20/14)

"Which is harder: Western classical languages or Chinese?" (3/6/16)

"Chinese, Greek, and Latin" (8/8/17)

"Chinese, Greek, and Latin, part 2" (8/15/17)

[Thanks to Jane Reznik]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    October 11, 2017 @ 6:10 pm

    Do you and Denis subscribe to Legge's view of Chinese characters, as being "not representations of words, but symbols of ideas"? According to this view would suggest that pinyin and other romanisations could never hope to capture the essence of Chinese characters.

    I would love to tackle Literary Sinitic, by the way. Where is the best place to do it?

  2. cameron said,

    October 11, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

    Yeah, "symbols of ideas" – what on earth can that even mean?

    "Idea" is such a basic term in early modern philosophy, but the early modern philosophers tend to throw it around without defining it. Much of the secondary literature on figures Like Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Arnauld, and Berkeley consists of scholars trying to sort through the maddeningly many contradictory senses that this little word acquires, even as a technical term in the work of a systematic thinker.

  3. Arthur Waldron said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 12:48 am

    My and Willard Peterson’s experience using yj during tenure fight thirty years ago was so uncannily accurate as to stupefy and terrify both of us. I will never consult it again. Ever. This was true for its famous German translator as well. One question convinced him to lay it aside. As the sainted Martha Eischen of my Church of the Good Shepherd Rosemont observes, there is a lot of stuff out there you don’t want to touch. (As well as Confucian,Buddhist etc but not Shinto I am also a serious English Catholic) Good luck Victor and Denis but this text comes from another dimension ! No joke Arthur

  4. Arthur Waldron said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 1:10 am

    Victor not only your mind but also your office arrangement show much influence from the great Achilles Fang. During the tenure fight at Princeton thirty years ago Bill Petersonand I consulted the yj. The response was so astonishing and uncannily correct as to stupefy and terrify both of us. I will never touch it again. Ever. Others have had similar expperieces. A lot of stuff out there you don’t want to touch. Good luck Victor and Denis but this text is from another dimension. Arthur

  5. Scott P. said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 9:42 am

    Legge here seems to be drawing from a tradition going back to the later Middle Ages that Chinese was a true 'symbolic' language, that it was a stepping-stone to a 'universal' language based on concepts, not on grammar or syntax. There were many attempts to create such a universal symbolic language, particularly in the 16th-18th centuries.

  6. James Z said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    I don’t know whether Legge’s principle of “seeing of mind to mind” is altogether different from translating the “spirit” rather than “letter” of a text, but I thought it might be interesting to compare his translation with that of Regis et al., whom he says that he followed in his earlier edition by putting “so many English words, with little or no mark of syntactical connexion.”

    As an example, the first entry for ䷆師 is:

    shī: zhēn, zhàng rén, jí wú jiù

    Legge translates (according to what Ctext has): “Shi indicates how, in the case which it supposes, with firmness and correctness, and (a leader of) age and experience, there will be good fortune and no error.”

    Regis et al. (in the edition, 1834 ed. J. Mohl) give as a translation for the same sentence: solidum uir egregius; bonum sine ullo malo.

    This is, as Legge suggests in the extract, a 1-to-1 replacement of the Chinese with Latin (貞 = solidum, 丈人 = uir egregius, etc.). Simply substituting English words would in turn give: “Firm[ness], excellent man; good without any ill.” But according to the conventional way of construing Latin, and given the punctuation, one’s tendency is to read: “An excellent man is a firm thing; he is a good thing [or: there is a good thing/it is good] without any ill.” Whichever path one takes (and the former seems better), it’s easy to see what Regis et al. are trying to do, but harder to make sense of it without treating it as pure translationese. If you couldn’t compare it with the Chinese—or at least know something about how literary Chinese works—could you still understand what they are trying to do with the Latin? If not, is it really a translation, or just a Latin crib for those trying to figure out the Chinese?

  7. Chris Button said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 11:46 am

    My brother (not a Sinologist by training) used to jokingly refer to this as the "Itching" based on how the Wade Giles spelling looked to him.

    … the written characters of the Chinese are not representations of words, but symbols of ideas…

    As mentioned above, this is of course discredited now. However, it is worth noting that in instances when members of xiesheng series (characters written with the same phonetic) preserve a connection with the phonetic heads of their series (i.e. are not written with another homophonous or similar sounding phonetic which is of course very often the case and grew even more common with later coinages), then we are afforded little etymological glimpses at the words' origins that have not been more heavily obscured by an alphabetic spelling that segmentally incorporates historical sound changes.

  8. David Cowhig said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 11:46 pm

    Thank you.

    When I saw " 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. " I thought about how seeing ancient Chinese texts together with the very different commentaries from different dynasties.

    At first I thought it would be interesting to translate a text together with the commentaries but then if you do that, you end up "taking the side" of some of the commentaries against the others so then your translation isn't faithful to the unresolved ambiguities/possibility of multiple interpretations that gave rise to multiple commentaries. But then again, we can't really 'blame' the author of the text for not having prevented various interpretations that arose from the unknowable cultural, linguistic and religious contexts in what was that writer's unimaginable future even though it is now our distant past.

  9. Tom S. Fox said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 1:24 am

    “We shall probably finish the first draft within a year.”

    “Shall”? Seriously?

  10. John Swindle said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 1:38 am

    But this is excellent news!

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 7:59 am

    @Tom S. Fox


  12. Christopher Coulouris said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 10:25 am

    Wonderful news that you are working on a new translation of the Yijing Professor Mair. I am curious, which version of the text are you and your brother working from? I remember that Edward Shaughnessey used the Mawandui text for his. Richard Lynn used Wang Bi's interpretation for his translation. John Minford's recent translation is broken into to halves, acomplete translation of Yijing and a translation of the Zhouyi. He draws from different commentaries Chinese and Western.

  13. Tom Ace said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    In the 1980s I kept a copy of the I Ching in my office, not that it was important for the job I had (software engineering). One day my boss came into my office and asked if I had three cents. I gave him three pennies and asked, "Do you want the I Ching too?" He had no idea what I was talking about.

  14. Noel Hunt said,

    October 14, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

    The Yi Jing has at least some peripheral association with computing in that in the Seventh Edition of the Unix operating system there existed a command 'ching', albeit under the category of 'Games'. It also existed in early BSD editions of Unix, a manual page for which may be found at It makes for delightful reading.

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