Read a good book recently: Richard J. Smith's The I Ching: A Biography. Composed by an accomplished academic, it is written for a general audience. Smith provides a concise and clear background to the text and how it emerged into "classic" status in China. He goes into some of the numerology that various Chinese commentators have applied to the text, and he shows how the book's influence spread throughout East Asia and, eventually, to the West. I had known that John Cage used it in some of his music, but had been unaware of I Ching's significance in Mexico. Interesting stuff.
In a larger sense, Smith's study feeds into my expanding interest in the movement of ideas, concepts, theories from one historical-cultural context to another. This is important to me because, well..., I just did that in my forthcoming book. How can we take ideas from Confucius or the I Ching and apply them to contemporary issues? Meanings change. But translation, and cultural transposition, is, I believe, possible; indeed, it happens all the time. But some meanings are lost in translation, while new meanings are created. Which meanings persist and how do new ones take hold?
Big questions, I know. But Smith's survey of the I Ching's historical development reminds us that we should not assume that there was, somewhere in the mists of the past, a singular, coherent and authentic source of ancient texts. We like to invent mythic progenitors, like Fuxi in the case of the I Ching. But reality, Smith shows us, is always more complex:
Recent archaeological discoveries have shown, however, that there were several different traditions of Yijing-related divination in the latter part of the Zhou period, and that hexagram pictures and divinatory procedures took a variety of forms in different localities and at different times. (22-23)
Is one of these early forms more genuine or real than the others? It hardly seems worth it to ask the question. Better to assume and accept a plurality of practices and meanings. And that has always been the case historically. Yes, certain forms of the classic texts were standardized as literary canons were defined and reproduced. Yet even in those conditions, variation in interpretation and understanding continued.
David R. Knechtges gives us a very good sense of this variability in his article, "The Perils and Pleasures of Translation: The Case of the Chinese Classics." He analyzes translations of the Yijing into Western languages, beginning with what appears to be the first such effort by Philippe Couplet, a Jesuit, in the late 17th century. But Knechtges also reminds us of the vast commentarial tradition in China. For each classic text there has developed, over the centuries, various schools of interpretation and understanding. Should we use Wang Bi's or Zhu Xi's edition when translating the Yijing into English? Knechtges quotes Richard John Lynn:
In my view, however, there is no one single Classic of Changes but rather as many version of it as there are different commentaries on it. The text of the classic is so dense and opaque in so many places that its meaning depends entirely on how any particular commentary interprets it. (8)
Much the same can be said of most other pre-Qin texts. Thus, there is no one "Confucian" point of view but, rather, a range of possibiities within a "Confucian" field of meaning.
Things get more complex when moving from one language to another. Knechtges makes a good point along these lines:
Translation is in effect another commentary on the text.
When we translate we bring a text from one historical-cultural context into another historical-cultural context. Though the distance from pre-Qin China to, say, contemporary American may be further than that between pre-Qin China and Song China, the problematique is fundamentally the same. Zhu Xi lived in a very different political and cultural environment than did Confucius; he had to adapt the thought of his predecessor to the context of his own times. Even though the linguistic medium provided a certain continuity, Zhu still faced problems of meaning and interpretation given the commentaries that had already amassed before him and the intellectual demands of his own intellectual millieu.
Don't get me wrong. I absolutely recognize that translation can distort meanings. Interpreters can make mistakes. But that problem is not limited to the interpretation of texts across wider periods of history and culture. Distortion and error and manipulation can occur with cultures as well as across them. My contemporary adaptations of Confucius and Zhaungzi might be challenged by others who hold different views. I excpet and welcome that. But I do not offer my interpretations as ultimately and unalterably "true" or "authentic." They are, as Knechtges might suggest, simply another form of commentary on the texts.