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The Elements of the I Ching
by Stephen Karcher, Ph.D.
Element Books, Shaftsbury: 1997. 144 pages.
(currently out of print)
Stephen Karcher's version of the venerable I Ching is one of the most insightful I've seen. It also has some of the most radical departures from the typical interpretations. By going back to pre-Confucian sources, Karcher attempts to re-create a less hierarchically modeled Yi. The results are revolutionary and worth reading.
For many Thelemites, the I Ching is a frequent (if not constant) companion. In Magic in Theory and Practice, Crowley recommended the clear and practical advice of the I Ching over that of all other divination systems. Apparently the venerable work is highly popular with the general public as well; new versions of the I Ching appear almost yearly in bookstores, alongside the perennial bestseller, the Wilhelm edition, with its familiar yellow binding. That particular edition is more closely bonded to me than my cat. I regularly refer to my I Ching divinations as “going to talk to the 3000-year-old Chinese man.”
Most versions of the I Ching have followed upon the Wilhelm translation's general interpretation, which is derived from Confucian interpretive glosses that have accumulated over centuries. There are a few notable exceptions. Richard Cleary has come out with a Taoist I Ching that is very interesting, based upon 18th century Taoist texts. It provides an interesting slant on the Yi, particularly with regard to the complex energetics of yin-yang interaction.
During the 1990s, the most interesting new take has been that of Stephen Karcher. According to Karcher, the Confucian scholars re-interpreted the Tao of the I Ching as a means of navigating a rigid and hierarchical social structure. Karcher attempts a recovery of pre-Confucian interpretations of the Yi. He goes back to pre-Confucian sources and does an exhaustive linguistic analysis of the meanings of the Chinese characters that name each of the 64 hexagrams and describe the changing lines.
I couldn't begin to give an estimate of Karcher's accuracy, but I certainly admire his scholarship. His “definitive” translation, The I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change, is a massive tome running to some 800 pages. He certainly gets an “A” for effort. (For my personal use, I have Karcher's brief version, How to Use the I Ching, which at 184 pages is probably a little thin.)
Karcher's work is full of surprising and radical new interpretations. For example, hexagram 44, for Wilhelm and most interpreters, is “Temptation,” with the advice, “Do not marry such a maiden.” Most versions take this hexagram to be a very bad romantic omen. However, Karcher points out that the Chinese ideogram for #44 depicts sexual intercourse. The advice, “Do not marry such a maiden,” is re-read, “Do not act, grasp the woman.” Karcher's advice is, “You are coupled with a creative force. Do not try to hold onto things. These contacts come and go.” This is decidedly different from the more “establishment” views of Wilhelm et al.
I have been working with the Karcher version for some months, and have generally enjoyed (and been surprised by) the readings I've gotten. I’d like to work with it some more to see how well, and on what levels, Karcher's interpretations can be integrated with what he calls the “neo-Confucian” interpretations that I am familiar with. I can certainly recommend the book, and would like to hear from other Thelemites who have been using it.
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