Thoughts on Scott Davis’ The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context by Denis Mair

Review by Denis Mair

The following is an insightful review of The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context: A Textual Archaeology of the Yi jing by renowned Yi jing expert, Denis Mair.

(A bio for Denis Mair follows his review)

See also the Cambria Press author Q&A session on this book.

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As a devoted student of the Yijing, I have come upon a trove of inspiring, thought-provoking materials in this “textual archaeology” by Scott Davis. I think textual archaeology is a good way of describing what he does in his book, The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context: A Textual Archaeology of the Yi jing. He really does uncover empirical evidence of design that was not noticed by commentators over more than two millennia. One wonders how that could have happened. Well, he was building on work by earlier commentators. Also, his knowledge of cultural anthropology, spanning many cultures, has helped him to notice relations among elements of the text which are there, even though they have not been spelled out in one or another ideological system which appropriated the text down through history.

I would like to relate an incident surrounding my reading of this manuscript. A couple of months ago my brother Victor remarked casually that he was reading a tremendously original manuscript about the Yijing. Right then I said, “Don’t tell me who it is—let me guess. It’s Scott Davis, isn’t it?” Of course I was right. I had read a couple of the chapters in earlier form on Steven Karcher’s website. I had also corresponded with Scott on several questions over the years, and he had read and commented on my articles. We have a pretty good rapport as correspondents. As far as I’m concerned, Scott is producing the most empirically rigorous and interpretively challenging material that I know of right now in Yijing studies.

Much of what Scott has to say was immediately recognizable to me as a way of ordering the inchoate material that I had thought about in my own studies on the Yijing. He has isolated several subsystems of associated images which recur at various places and which link to each other, I had realized that the placement of similar images at different contextual spots was important. (I used to view the text as an armature allowing one to “riffle through” varied aspects of a concept or image). However, I did not realize this interpretive strategy could be pursued to the extent that Scott has taken it.

I find his treatment of the container-content subsystem particularly important. The conceptual cluster around containers ties into mental development in childhood; it is a cultural universal imparting deep resonance to symbols which allude to it. Scott shows how the container/content theme was used in linking and associating constellations of experiences. His knowledge of work by Japanese philologists stands him in good stead, because they uncovered the ritual context of many words employed in bronze inscriptions and oracle bones. The building up of feelings that cry out for expressive release is one variation on the container theme—a variation which is expressed in “Dui,” a name of one of the eight trigrams. Yet the idea of container breaching gets linked into contexts that suggest rituals where human sacrifice was practiced. So “container breaching” can allude to breaking the body of a sacrificial victim to force his soul out. This does not necessarily conflict with the idea of expressive release, for in a context of ritual sacrifice, the performers or witnesses of ritual may experience a heightened sense of life’s intensity. (This is my own interpretation. In keeping with the subject matter, Scott leaves a lot of room for readers to do their own interpretation. In fact, I think his work is more meta-interpretation—-he is explaining features of the system which encourage a free play of interpretation.)

Scott does excellent work surveying the state of knowledge about the placement of certain activities (for example the Yu ritual) in the seasonal round. This is important because we need to be clear that the seasonal associations in the text should be kept distinct from later formulaic horary treatments.

The book’s treatment of age groups is excellent. It shows that age grouping in decades was important to archaic institutions, particularly those having to do with initiation, and they had a political significance which offset clan powers. Many images in the text fall into place and become interconnected in relation to this scheme. However, Scott Davis does not simplistically force any single image into an overarching scheme. He is trying to show that the text is an artifact characterized by many interwoven schemes. One example is his handling of the doubled mountain theme. It was relevant to royal power, because the royal house held ceremonies on raised earth mounds, a practice which affirmed ritual jurisdiction over more distant landforms. But it also ties into the age group scheme, because there was a ceremonial center near the Zhou capital where youths were taught ritual behavior and were prepared for initiation into adulthood.

Scott does a great job of explaining why the authors would want to link subsystems of richly suggestive images to make the text as it is. The text is unique because it represents an auto-ethnography by the early Zhou people, or at least a proto-ethnography. Its symbols allow people to visualize and describe how their own life experiences fit into a cultural matrix. As a corollary of such cultural self-expression  comes the necessity of operating the system in order to grasp what its internal relations are.

I was enlightened by the anthropological theory that Scott brought in to explain the motivation for constructing such an artifact and the appeal it might have had. Scott discusses the ideas of Helmuth Plessner, who has written about “eccentric” tendencies in human identity formation. Plessner draws parallels between cultural and musical forms, and he claims that de-centering is an important force in shaping cultures. The appeal of a melody often has to do with how far it can depart from a dominant chord while retaining its integrity. Hence the appeal of an associative system for placing one’s own experiences within a symbol matrix. Of course the divinatory context was an important precondition for such a system to be articulated.

Scott gives a macroscopic view of the text’s structure through his demonstration that many subsystems of imagery converge upon the final hexagrams, or what he calls the “capstone” of the pyramid. I had a bit of difficulty at first visualizing the pyramidal structure, but I eventually realized that 1) it is characteristic of Scott’s approach as a structural anthropologist; and 2) it proves to be a useful way of unifying the formal aspects of the text (proceeding from total yin-yang separation in hexagrams #1-#2 toward total mixing in #63-#64) with the thematic culmination toward which the text is heading.

Scott shows that thematic culmination in the last few hexagrams, particularly in the final pair, is made possible by a fusion of subsystems. The final hexagrams themselves mention some of the key images in new ways (for example, birds, vernacular rites, wine, carriages, containers). Moreover, they link back to other crucially placed hexagrams by single line changes. These threads of connection reach like whorled arms into the rest of the text. Reading Scott’s account of the structure, I was able to visualize (through the symbols) the idea that one’s life flashes before one’s eyes as one nears the end of life.

I love the details Scott uncovers in the approach to the culminating hexagrams. He develops an idea of a shift from the “diatonic” mode earlier on, with distinct swatches of yin and yang, to the “chromatic” later on, in which yin and yang engage in a kaleidoscopic swirl. The terminal pair and its lead-up are beautifully described as rainbow-like, mentioning that the rainbow has been an ominous sign in many cultures. The trigrams that are traditionally matched with the four directions appear in the penultimate and ultimate pair, and these trigrams are often associated with colors—green is springtime, placed in the east; red is summer, placed in the south, etc. They are like a nimbus around the final destination.

Reading Scott’s treatment of the terminal hexagrams reminded me that rainbows have ominous overtones for many ethnic groups. Tibetan Buddhists speak of rainbows surrounding the death of a great teacher—this seems to me an affirmation that the teacher has power to overcome threatening aspects of death, making rainbows into his personal “flower garland,” where before they had been a mark of implacable fate. The Navaho road of rainbows probably represents a similar road of overcoming or mark of courage. We Westerners have prettified the rainbow to make it seem like nature’s bunting cloth.

Scott mentions that there are six hexagrams at the beginning, right after Qian and Kun, that are linked to the terminal pair by single line changes. The names of the first two have overtones of chaos—“Difficulty at the Beginning” and “Unknowing.” All of these early hexagrams have water trigrams, alluding to watery chaos at the beginning. In the chaos of the beginning, at any given moment, one is really not very far away from death.

In the spirit of operating the system to understand it, I was immediately prompted to operate the system along lines suggested by Scott’s findings. For me, the line changes that lead to the terminal pair have a liminal feeling. For instance the third line of #3, Difficulty at the Beginning, says “Chasing a deer without a guide, one goes into the forest. The superior man discerns the signs—it would be better to let go. Going on will be rough.” Even in #5, Line two, one is simply waiting on the sand (maybe sunbathing, or just lolling on the beach), but this could be when the fact of one’s mortality might pop up for no reason in reverie. Sand grains on the beach are the “sands of time.” This reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ poem “An Ordinary Morning in New Haven” where a woman, amid the ‘complacencies of the peignoir,’ suddenly is beset by thoughts about death.

 The one-line-change proximity to the terminus does necessarily mean you’re getting ready to die. A line change always involves a tension as to whether or not one will cross/slip over. Just having it there latently adds to the symbolic atmosphere, even if the change doesn’t happen.

 For me there is symbolic grist in this, especially in hexagrams that connect to the end by single line changes. When the terminal pair is considered in its own right, #63 is about settling in, or being content with the point one has reached, while #64 is about striking out for new territory, But when taken together and looked at from within the rest of the sequence, this pair represents mortality—a terminus or ultimate transcendence.

And when you’re dealing with mortality there is an edge before passing over, a place where people go to have near-death experiences. Each change in the Yijing has a tension—a buildup of impingements that are resolved when the change finally happens. And the big change at #63-64 has a margin where one may hang back from death for a time. (Significantly, among hexagram pairs leading to the terminus by single line changes, in five out of six cases the first hexagram of the source pair leads to the first hexagram of the target pair.)

Every single hexagram pair represents a dialectical contrast between themes—they can be looked at first this way and then that way. So in the thematic tension (to flip or not to flip) of each pair, there is a margin—a holding back–just as there is at the terminal pair. So one is reminded that every change we must undergo is a little death—a little bit of death—because it takes us further toward the big death. It reminds us that final death is actually compounded of many little irreversible steps we take.

I hope these musings show that Scott’s book had the effect of stimulating me to think in new ways about the text. After reading it for many years, one can easily fall into certain tracks as the old-time commentators did. But Scott’s book shows that there is fresh new life in the old dragon still!

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This review will also be published in the Sino-Platonic Papers.

About Denis Mair:

Denis Mair holds an M.A. in Chinese from Ohio State University and has taught at Whitman College and Yunnan University. He translated autobiographies by the philosopher Feng Youlan (Hawaii University Press) and the Buddhist monk Shih Chen-hua (SUNY Albany Press). His translation of art criticism by Zhu Zhu was published by Hunan Fine Arts Press (Artists through the Eyes of a Critic, 2009). He has translated poetry by Yan Li, Mai Cheng, Meng Lang, Jidi Majia, and many others. He also translated essays by design critic Tang Keyang and art historian Lü Peng for exhibitions they curated respectively in 2009 and 2011 at the Venice Biennial. (See Lü Peng, From San Servolo to Amalfi, Charta Books, Milan, 2011). His interpretive essays about the Book of Changes can be found at


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