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Commentary, Philosophy, and Translation: Reading Wang Bi's Commentary to the Yi Jing in a New Way*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 March 2015

Edward L. Shaughnessy*
Dept. of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637


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Review Articles
Copyright © Society for the Study of Early China 1997

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A review of Richard John Lynn, trans., The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. xii + 602 pp.


1. van Zoeren, Steven, Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis and Hermeneutics in Traditional China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Chin, Ann-ping and Freeman, Mansfield, Tai Chen on Mencius: Explorations in Words and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Gardner, Daniel K., Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsüeh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. Smith, Kidder and Bol, Peter, eds., Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Among dissertations that treat individual commentaries should be mentioned: Fendos, Paul George Jr., “Fei Chih's Place in the Development of I-ching Studies” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1988)Google Scholar; Goodman, Howard Lazar, “Exegetes and Exegeses of the Book of Changes in the Third Century A.D.: Historical and Scholastic Contexts for Wang Pi” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1985)Google Scholar; Hon, Tze-ki, “Northern Song Yijing Exegesis and the Formation of Neo-Confudanism” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1992)Google Scholar; and Schulz, Larry James, “Lai Chihte (1525–1604) and the Phenomenology of the Classic of Change (I Ching)” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1982)Google Scholar, as well as dissertations by Kidder Smith (on Cheng Yi), Joseph Adler (on Zhu Xi), and Don Wyatt (on Shao Yong) that are synthesized in Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching.

3. For the collected works of Wang Bi, see Wang Bi ji jiaoshi 王弼集較釋, ed. Yulie, Lou 樓宇烈, 2 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1980)Google Scholar, which is also the base text used by Lynn in his translation.

4. See Yijie, Tang 湯一介, Guo Xiang yu Wei Jin xuanxue 郭象與魏晉玄學 (Wuhan: Hubei Renmin, 1983)Google Scholar. Tang discusses Wang Bi on pp. 39–51, and draws the explicit parallel between xuanxue and metaphysics on p. 2.

5. Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類 (Siku quanshu ed.), 66.352a.

6. There have been at least three translations of Wang Bi's commentary on the Laozi: Rump, Ariane, in collaboration with Chan, Wing-tsit (trans.), Commentary on the ‘Lao-tzu’ by Wang Pi, Monographs of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, No. 6 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Chan, Alan K.L., Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho-shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-tzu (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991)Google Scholar; and Rudolf G. Wagner, “Philologie, Philosophie und Politik in der Zhengshi-Ära (240–249): Die Laozi-Schriften des Philosophen Wang Bi (Habilitationsschrift, Freien Universität Berlin, 1980; a draft English version of this important translation and study has now been prepared: Wagner, Rudolf G., “Philology, Philosophy, and Politics in Third Century China: Wang Bi on the Laozi” [Heidelberg, 1996; Albany, State University of New York Press, forthcoming])Google Scholar.

7. For monographic studies of Wang Bi's commentary to the Yijing, see Lizhen, Lin 林麗眞, Wang Bi ji qi Yi xue 王弼及其易學 (Taipei: Taiwan daxue Wenxueyuan, 1977)Google Scholar, and Bergeron, Marie-Ina, Wang Bi: Philosophe du Non-Avoir (Taipei: Institut Ricci, 1986)Google Scholar. Other Western-language studies include: Petrov, A. A., Wang Bi (226–249): His Place in the History of Chinese Philosophy (in Russian; Moscow: Academy of Sciences, USSR, 1936)Google Scholar, for which a synopsis has been provided by Wright, Arthur F. (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 10 [1947], 7588CrossRefGoogle Scholar). A celebrated article by Yongtong, Tang 湯用彤, “Wang Bi zhi Zhou Yi Lunyu xinyi” 王弼之周易論語新義, Tushu jikan 圖書季刊 ( n.s.) 4 (1943), 2840Google Scholar, was translated by Walter Liebenthal and published in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 10 (1947), 124–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar, though it should be noted that the translation is misleading in several important respects. Finally, the Ph.D. dissertation of Howard Goodman (cited in n. 2) discusses Wang Bi's family background.

8. Wang Biji jiaoshi, vol. 2, 609Google Scholar. Lynn badly overtranslates this passage:

Yet there are some who have convicted Qian of horsiness. They made a legal case out of its texts and brought this accusation against its hexagram, and, in doing so, they may have come up with a horse, but Qian itself got lost in the process! And then this spurious doctrine spread everywhere, even to the extent that one cannot keep account of it! (p. 32)

I will note a few other problems with his translation in the final section of this review.

9. For the most convenient survey of these exegetical techniques, see Wanli, Qu 屈萬里, Xian Qin Hang Han Wei Yi li shuping 先秦兩漢魏易例述評 (Taipei: Xuesheng, 1975)Google Scholar.

10. Yu Fan's comment is quoted in Dingzuo, Li 李鼎祚, Zhou Yi Jijie 周易集解 (jicheng, Wuqiubei zhai Yijing ed.), 11.19b–20a (pp. 570–71)Google Scholar.

11. In the Shuo gua, section 8, the trigram li ≡ is associated with a pheasant (zhi 維), whence “bird,” and in section 11 it is associated with fire.

12. In the Shuo gua, section 11, the trigram xun ≡ is associated with both wood and high.

13. The fourth line in this hexagram is a yang line, which according to notions of line position is inappropriate. If it therefore changes into a yin line, as would be proper to its position, it would cause the internal trigram of the second through fourth lines of hexagram to become zhen ≡; some of the images of zhen in the Shuo gua, section 11, are young bamboo and rushes or reeds, which may suggest the image of a basket and, thus, of a nest. However, the internal trigram here is xun and not zhen, which seems to be why Yu Fan says that the “nest image is not seen.”

14. Zhen ≡ is the trigram obtained for the top trigram if the top line changes from a yang line to a yin line. I know of no source where the image “laugh” is given for zhen the “first” position.

15. The “response” (ying 應)should refer to the third line of the hexagram, which is the middle line of the internal trigram xun. One of the images of xun trigram in the Shuo gua is “unfruitful” (buguo 不果), which may be consistent with the image “weep and wail.” Just as it would be reasonable within the Yi jing tradition to associate zhen with the “first” position, so too would it be reasonable to associate xun with the last or “later” position.

16. To “move” here means that the indicated line changes nature. If the third line of hexagram changes, the bottom trigram becomes kun ≡, a standard image of which is “ox”; if the fifth line changes, the top trigram becomes qian ≡. I confess I am not sure just how Yu Fan understands yi 易 (translated as “ease” in line with Wang Bi's interpretation) or how he associates it with the trigram qian.

17. The top line of a hexagram (the top line of the top trigram) is said to “respond” to the third line of the hexagram (the top line of the bottom trigram) if the two lines are of opposite nature. In this case, both the top line and the third line being yang lines, the top line “loses” its response. The same response relationship obtains between the fifth and second lines, which in this case are both yin lines; if the fifth line were to change, then it would respond with the second line.

18. As mentioned, notions of “line position” and “line virtue” hold that the odd numbered lines of a hexagram should be yang lines, while the even numbered lines should be yin lines. In the case of this top line of hexagram, since it is a yang line in an even position it “loses its position.” Since the third line, with which it corresponds, is also a yang line, it also has no “response.”

19. “Holding fast to it use the leather of a yellow ox” is the line statement of the Six in the Second line of Dun 遯, the hexagram created if the fifth line of (which as already noted is out of position) were to change. If the fifth line were to change to a yang line, then the yin line in the second position would correspond with it and, thus, “hold fast to it.”

20. Smith, and Bol, , eds., Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, 19Google Scholar.

21. Wanli, Qu, Xian Qin Hang Han Wei Yi li shuping, 129Google Scholar.

22. This understanding of “line position” is all but explicit in the Xiang zhuan and accepted by virtually all commentators on the Yi jing. Only Wang Bi's notion that the first and top lines have no fixed “virtue” (de 德; i.e., are neither inherently yang nor yin positions), outlined in the chapter “Bian wei” 辨位 of his Zhou Yi iüeli (Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 613), seems to have no canonical basis (even though Wang Bi cites the Xiang zhuan as the precedent for his interpretation). The only other feature of Wang Bi's exe-getical agenda for which there is no explicit canonical support is his notion, announced at the very beginning of his Zhou Yi lüeli (Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 591), that a single line governs a hexagram; I will return to the political implications of this exegesis later in this review.

23. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 403. The translation is that of Lynn (p. 366), though I will append notes to clarify some of the exegetical points made by Wang Bi.

24. Zheng 正, translated by Lynn as “righteousness,” has a primary sense here of being “correct” in position, a yang line in the fifth position (which, as noted above, is suitable for a yang line).

25. This fifth line, which is yang, is in correspondence with the yin line of the Six in the Second line (Second Yin, in Lynn's terminology).

26. As Lynn notes, the upper trigram of this hexagram is xun 巽, the standard characterization of which is Compliance (shun 順).In addition to this standard characterization, Wang Bi was doubtless prompted to include this comment because of the Xiang zhuan comment for the second line, which states: 六二之吉, 順以巽也 “The good fortune that Second Yin has is due to obedience and compliance” (Lynn, p. 365, though I would translate “is due to compliance through xun”).

27. “As the father behaves as father… the wife as wife” is quoted verbatim from the Tuan zhuan for this hexagram.

28. “With each attending to the other with love” is quoted from the Xiang zhuan for this line.

29. The italicized sentence here, which is a verbatim quotation from the Tuan zhuan for this hexagram, is missing from Lynn's translation.

30. For Western language studies of the Zhou Yi zheng yi, see Hon, “Northern Song Yijing Exegesis and the Formation of Neo-Confucianism/’ chapter 2; and Meyer, Andrew, “The Correct Meaning of the Five Classics 五經正義 and the Intellectual Foundations of the Tang” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1998), chapter 1Google Scholar. For a good overview of the early Tang Wu jing zheng yi project, see McMullen, David, State and Scholars in T'ang China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 7181Google Scholar.

31. I should note, however, that this tendency has been less apparent in recent scholarship on Wang Bi in China, with Chinese intellectual historians tending to be more sensitive to the political context in which Wang Bi lived and wrote. See, for example, Yijie, Tang, Guo Xiang yu Wei }in xuanxue, 137Google Scholar; Lizhen, Lin 林麗眞, Wang Bi 王弼 (Taipei: Dongda tushu, 1988), esp. 91137Google Scholar; Baoxuan, Wang 王鎖玄, Zhengshi xuanxue 正始玄學 (Ji'nan: Qi Lu, 1987), esp. 155–64, 299308Google Scholar; Zehua, Liu 劉澤華, “Wang Bi mingjiao chu ziran de zhengzhi zhexue he wenhe de junzhu zhuanzhi sixiang” 王弼名敎出自然的政治哲學和溫和的君主專制思想, Nankai xuebao 南開學報 1993.4, 22–31Google Scholar.

32. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 336–37. The translation given here is that of Lynn, p. 286; for his comment on the passage, see pp. 290–91 n. 3. For other discussions of this comment in English, see Yu-lan, Fung, A History of Chinese Philosophy, tr. Bodde, Derk (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), vol. 2, 180–81Google Scholar; Chan, Wing-tsit, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 320–21Google Scholar; Goodman, “Exegetes and Exegeses of the Book of Changes in the Third Century AD,” Appendix; Smith, , Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, 240–42Google Scholar.

33. I should specify here that I intend only that portion of the Zhou Yi zhu 周易注 that was authored by Wang Bi; i.e., the commentary to the hexagram and line statements, including the Tuan zhuan, Xiang zhuan, and Wen yan zhuan 文言傳 (Tradition of the words and phrases). In the commentary to the Xici zhuan, the notion of wu does take on more importance; however, this commentary was not authored by Wang Bi but rather by Han Kangbo 韓康伯 (d. c. 385). Although it is commonly assumed that Han Kangbo simply represented the interpretation of Wang Bi (for instance, Lynn, p. 5, states “Han was not an original thinker, but his remarks consistently seem to reflect Wang's approach”), in fact the commentary on the Xici is quite different in tenor from either Wang Bi's commentary to the Yi jing or his Zhou Yi iüeli.

34. As seen above, this quotation comes from the Tuan zhuan of Fu hexagram in the Yi jing.

35. This alludes to the Xiang zhuan comment on Fu hexagram, in which it states that “the former kings closed the border passes on the occasion of the winter solstice, and neither did merchants and travelers move nor sovereigns go out to inspect domains” (Lynn, p. 286).

36. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 93.

37. This point is demonstrated throughout Rudolf Wagner's translation and study of Wang Bi's Laozi commentary: “Philology, Philosophy, and Politics in Third Century China: Wang Bi on the Laozi.”

38. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 81.

39. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 75.

40. This is a quotation of Xici zhuan, B12.

41. In the passage from chapter 28 quoted just above, those who are “resources” (zi 資) are said to be those who are “not good” (bushan 不善), i.e., most of the people.

42. In this translation, I accept the emendations to this sentence given in Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 130 nn. 9–13.

43. The two passages within quotation marks here are quoted from the Laozi text of the same chapter 49 just before the line to which this comment is attached.

44. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 129–30.

45. Lynn's translations of these two passages do not reveal well Wang Bi's philosophy, and so I here present my own translations.

46. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 239. Lynn, pp. 158–59, translates:

“To take juvenile Ignorance and cultivate rectitude in it,” in fact, is the meritorious task of the sage,” As this is so, if one were instead to try to achieve perspicacity by cultivating rectitude [in others], this would be to misconstrue the Dao involved.

47. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 242. Lynn's translation (p. 162) is not so much wrong as ambiguous:

He does not take responsibility for supervising himself but instead relies on Second Yang for that. If he delegates authority so things can be done and if he does not belabor his own intelligence, efforts at achievement will be successful.

48. Wang Biji jiaoshi, 519; Lynn, p. 25.

49. Wagner, , “Philology, Philosophy, and Politics in Third Century China,” 320 n. 130Google Scholar.

50. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 604; Lynn, p. 31.

51. Wang Biji jiaoshi, 618; Lynn, p. 36.

52. For a selection of these passages, together with an argument that Wang Bi's political philosophy can be characterized as supportive of a benign despotism, see Liu Zehua, “Wang Bi Mingjiao chu ziran de zhengzhi zhexue he wenhe de junzhu zhuanzhi sixiang.”

53. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 464; Lynn, p. 444. Lynn follows Yulie, Lou, editor of Wang Biji jiaoshi, in pointing out (p. 449 n. 1)Google Scholar that this comment of Wang Bi's paraphrases a passage in the Shi ji 史記 biography of Gongsun Yang 公孫央, the famous Legalist philosopher; Shi ji (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1959), 68.2229Google Scholar.

54. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 465; Lynn, p. 445.

55. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 469; Lynn, pp. 451–52.

56. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 469–70; Lynn, pp. 452–53.

57. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 467; Lynn, p. 448.

58. Han Feizi (Sibu beiyao ed.), 2.8b; Watson, Burton, trans. Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 35Google Scholar.

59. Huainanzi (Sibu beiyao ed.), 9.1a.

60. In attempting to understand what is meant by the appellation “Huang Lao,” we should recall that Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145–c. 86 B.C.) singles out Han Feizi as a proponent of Huang Lao policies; Shi ji, 63.2146.

61. See Baoxuan, Wang, Zhengshi xuanxue, 128Google Scholar.

62. To Analects 15/4 (regarding Shun's 舜 rule through wuwei), He Yan comments: “It states that in employing officials, when you have gotten the right man then you rule through non-action” (言任官得其人, 故無爲而治; Lunyu He shi deng jijie 論語何氏等集解 [Sibu beiyao ed.], 15.2a).

63. For a general discussion of Legalist thought during the century leading up to the time of Wang Bi, see Balazs, Etienne, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme, tr. Wright, H.M. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 205–36Google Scholar.

64. Zhou Yi zhengyi (beiyao, Sibu ed.), Xu, 1a–bGoogle Scholar.

65. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 604; Lynn, pp. 30–31.

66. For Inter-Locking Parallel Style, see Wagner, Rudolf G., “Interlocking Parallel Style: Laozi and Wang Bi,” Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques 39.1 (1980), 1858Google Scholar. It is unfortunate that neither this nor any other article by Rudolf Wagner appears in Lynn's brief bibliography.

67. Wang Biji jiaoshi, 446; Lynn, p. 420.

68. Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 583; Lynn, p. 106.

69. As noted above (η. 33), the commentary to these parts of the Yi jing now found in the Zhou Yi zhu is by Han Kangbo, who lived a century and a half after Wang Bi. Despite the general belief that Wang Bi and Han Kangbo shared similar if not identical philosophical beliefs (a belief which I believe to be very much in error), it is certainly the case that their styles of writing are noticably different, which Lynn seems to acknowledge with the remark: “Han was not an original thinker, but his remarks consistently seem to reflect Wang's approach, and so, while in no way as vital and interesting as Wang's own commentary, they probably are reasonably close to the kinds of things Wang himself might have said if he had chosen to comment on these parts of the Classic of Changes” (Lynn, p. 5).