More on those four great mysteries…

When I was in Suzhou a few weeks ago, I gave a talk about my [amazon text=Sixty-Four Chance Pieces&asin=B00W0LPFDO] at the wonderful Bookworm bookshop, called ‘Four Great Mysteries’ (see the blog post here). In preparation for the talk, I scrawled the following notes, and although the talk itself diverged occasionally wildly from what I’ve written here (the wine helped, as did the fun of working with two exceptional interpreters), I thought that I’d share the text for anyone who might be interested.

~O~

Introduction

I’m delighted to be here in Suzhou to talk about my new book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a novel of sorts based upon the Yijing, or the Chinese Book of Changes. And I’m very grateful to the Bookworm for generously hosting this event. What a beautiful place Suzhou is, and what a lovely place the Bookworm here in Suzhou is! It’s really a pleasure to be here.

I’m here because, several years ago, I decided to write a kind of novel based upon the Yijing. Now, if there is anything that almost everybody knows about the Yijing, it is that it is a very mysterious book. So what I’m going to talk about today are what I am going to call Four Great Mysteries related to the Yijing, and to my own book that is based upon the Yijing, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces. So I’ll talk a little bit about these Four Great Mysteries, and then I’ll read a story from the book, to give you a flavour of the what I’m doing. Then we can open the floor up to questions.

So what are these Four Great Mysteries that I want to talk about? Let me put them down as briefly as I can.

  • Mystery number one: What the hell is the Yijing?
  • Mystery number two: What the hell does the Yijing mean? What is it for? What is its purpose?
  • Mystery number three: How the hell did a foolish and ignorant laowai like me come to get involved in all this stuff?
  • Mystery number four: What the hell is Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, this book I ended up writing as a result? Is it travel-writing? Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? Is it philosophy? Is it an unholy mess? Or is it all of these, or none of these?

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Five Chance Questions About the I Ching

Now that my I Ching-based book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces is out (see the page here for how to get hold of a copy), I thought I’d post this quick interview that I did recently about the book. So here are five chance questions about my sixty-four chance pieces about the I Ching.

Why did you write Sixty-Four Chance Pieces?

It started out as a whim. I wanted to write sixty-four intriguing stories, using the I Ching simply as a means to this end. But then the I Ching got the better of me. If you mess with a book that has survived for three thousand years, it is going to get the better of you. So I found myself getting sucked in. The project was supposed to take a couple of years. But in the end—what with learning Chinese, doing the research and all that—it took almost a decade.

What has an old Chinese book got to do with global 21st century people?

Old books are not to be underestimated. The I Ching has had a huge influence on China and, increasingly, on the rest of the world. Whilst writing this book, I was surprised by how many people confessed to me that they used the I Ching in their daily life. One student I met in Suzhou asked me whether it could be trusted when it came to fashion advice. I’m still not sure about this. I am not the person to ask about fashion advice.

Do you believe in fate? Do you think the I Ching reflects some higher power?

I don’t believe in fate. The world seems to me to be too messy and chaotic for things to be preordained. So one of the reasons that I like the I Ching is that it encourages me to think about change, uncertainty and mess. One of the biggest problems, perhaps, is that we suffer from too much certainty. The I Ching sows confusion in a very useful fashion. As for other powers, whilst I don’t think that the I Ching reflects a higher power, I think that it is a curiously cunning book. You have to be cunning (or else very stubborn) to survive that long.

How do the stories link to the I Ching?

Sometimes the links are very direct, sometimes they are more oblique and obscure. I wanted all the stories to be linked organically to the hexagrams of the I Ching, rather than being imposed upon them. Some stories came quickly, some I had to wait for a year, two years, or five years before they started to work.

What do I get as a reader from reading this?

Because I’m interested in uncertainty, I hope that readers will get things out of the book that I hadn’t even anticipated. When I was writing the book, I wanted it to be entertaining and intriguing. I take the I Ching seriously, but I don’t think seriousness is opposed to lightness and playfulness. So I didn’t want to write a heavy book. One of my early readers said to me that they were afraid that the book would be like Ulysses, but when she read it, she found herself laughing out loud. This was encouraging.

Graffiti and Numerology in Leicester

The I Ching, it seems, gets everywhere. This morning, as I was walking into town here in Leicester, I spotted some strange symbols painted onto a building-site hoarding outside Tesco, just by the park. The first thing that caught my eye was an image of the trigram dui () ☱, or ‘lake’.

 

Lake

 

In case of any ambiguity, next door was written the word ‘lake’, as follows…

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