Culture  /  Explainer

The I Ching in America

Europeans translated the "Chinese Book of Changes" in the nineteenth century, but the philosophy really took off in the West after 1924.

One key to the I Ching’s popularity in the US seems to be the way that it could be interpreted in the service of all sorts of different endeavors and ideas. Physicist Fritjof Capra’s bestselling The Tao of Physics (1975) attempted to draw connections between quantum mechanics and various Asian philosophical systems, including the I Ching. Terence and Dennis McKenna suggested that the patterns contained in the I Ching reflected the same “chemical waves” that powered the use of psychedelic plant medicine in the Amazon. Others found parallels to twentieth-century psychology. Jung’s foreword to Wilhelm’s translation, printed in English in a popular new 1961 volume, framed the divination text as a tool for self-evaluation, prompting the birth of a branch of Jungian psychology, followers of which used the text for purposes including dream interpretation.

Starting in 1950, experimental composer John Cage used the I Ching as a source of random numbers for a complex mathematics-based process of writing music. Other musicians, poets, and artists, including Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and John Lennon referenced it. And it played a major role in Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle. By the start of the twenty-first century, the amount of media available specifically about the I Ching—books, CDs, cards, software, and more—was overwhelming, suggesting both enduring interest in the text and the unlimited forms that interest could take.