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What Makes a Classic? Lessons from the Chinese Book of Changes

What an ancient Chinese divination manual reveals about the design and anthropology of great literature.

What makes a classic?

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

This definition comes from historian Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography (public library) — an ambitious and unprecedented history of the iconic ancient spiritual manual that originated in China some 3,000 years ago, and a fine addition to these essential meditations on spirituality. Smith argues that the I Ching, or Yijing, or Book of Changes, belongs with the world’s greatest works of literature, despite its unorthodox form in comparison to other fundamental literature:

And yet [the I Ching] seems so different from other ‘classics’ that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu vVedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.


Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of a sustained narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years — an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture.

A page from a Song Dynasty (960-1279) printed book of the I Ching
The eight trigrams of the I Ching

Smith goes on to explore what was so appealing and timeless about the document, from the histories and myths woven into its non-narrative to its use as a divinatory instrument of political and imperial power to its interpretations over the ages. Despite the spiritual nature of the text itself, however, The “I Ching”: A Biography is a study of form and function, of resonance across space and time in “different and dissimilar lands” — an uncommon lens on the symbolism, design, and anthropology of what makes a literary classic.

Published June 13, 2012




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