By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Chinese “I Ching,” sometimes known as the “Book of Changes,” is an ancient divination text, sometimes treated as a work of philosophy, and one of the best-known Chinese texts in the West. It owes a great deal of its Western popularity to the translation into German prepared by Richard Wilhelm, a noted sinologist, in 1923. Bettina Wilhelm, granddaughter of Richard, explores her forebear’s life and work in her new documentary film, “The Secrets of I Ching,” available now on VOD and/or digital media.
Bettina Wilhelm was born in Shanghai, but left as a child and has little memory of it. She moved to Hong Kong for a time, and did not return to mainland China until she was an adult, impressed by “that fizzing energy of the many people and the incredible speed of transformation, the contrast between old Chinese tradition and the Western style modernity, all that hectic traffic and unbearable smog in the cities, and the peace and clean air in a Daoist mountain monastery.”
It was a family tradition to “throw the Ching” (toss the divination coins associated with the hexagrams in the text) at New Year’s Eve, to get a sneak peek at what the New Year would bring. “I don´t speak or read Chinese,” she explained. “So I mainly know the I Ching from the translation of my grandfather. He translated it with the help of the Chinese scholar, Lao Nai Hsuan. However, I sometimes use other translations, where the interpretations are from a psychological point of view and more modern and accessible, without really differing very much. But most of these versions seem to be based on the translation of my grandfather.”
Wilhelm attended film school in London, where her heroes included the powerful and influential Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, who shot both documentaries and dramatic films. “Mainly,” she summed up, “I was taught, ‘Don’t just look, see!’”
She had already directed two films, “All of Me” and “Julie’s Spirit,” before a bout with cancer left her laid up for a considerable time. Recovering, she hatched the idea for a spiritual film, and that led her back to her grandfather’s work.
“First, I met the German sinologist and I Ching specialist, Dr. Henrik Jaeger,” she said. He became the scientific adviser on the project. He was a former student of Professor Wolfgang Bauer, who published a book on Richard Wilhelm.” She also credits Professor Sonu Shamdasani, who wrote a great deal about her grandfather’s work in relation to C.G. Jung and Jaeger.
“A friend in London, Ronit Tlalim,” she added, “pointed me in the direction of the American China Historian Professor Richard Smith.” Smith dedicated 40 years of his academic life to studying the I Ching and publishing fantastic books on the subject. “It was magic to see his huge knowledge unfolding in a passionate, lively, and incredibly profound way of great directness in front of the camera.”
The film crew also shot quite a bit in China, ranging from Qingdao, where Richard Wilhelm spent most of his time in China, to the mountains around Qingdao, where Lao Nai Hsuan, Wilhelm’s mentor and collaborator, grew up. Retracing the professor’s steps, and sometimes his inspirations, they also shot in Shanghai, Beijing, and Qufu, near the grave of Confucius.
“We were surprised by the openness of the Chinese people,” she said. “There was no camera shyness. On the contrary, we had wonderful encounters, planned and unplanned… Richard Wilhelm genuinely was a friend of the Chinese people and we were received in a friendly manner. The fact that I was his granddaughter opened up doors as well.”
One of Wilhelm’s four sons, Hellmut Wilhelm, became a professor of Chinese history and literature at the University of Washington. Bettina Wilhelm regrets not knowing her uncle well. She used some his own writings on the I Ching as helpful texts, and later screened the completed film to Hellmut’s two sons.
Over the course of filming, Bettina Wilhelm said she gained an increased appreciation for how almost everything and anything in life can be condensed into the Ching’s archetypical images and texts.
“The Secrets of I Ching,” directed by Bettina Wilhelm and narrated by Jonathan Pryce, is currently available on the web. For more information, go to wisdom-of-changes-i-ching-the-movie.com.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.