A Review of Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm & The I Ching (Documentary)


Bettina Wilhelm, the granddaughter of Richard Wilhelm (the man needs no introduction for any Westerner who has dabbled with the I Ching) directed a poignant, artistic, and sentimental documentary on the man who was her grandfather and who is credited with introducing the West to the I Ching. I selected the foregoing three adjectives with great care. The documentary through and through was poignant, artistic, and sentimental.

I admit not knowing much about the man prior to watching this documentary and walked away with great admiration for his pioneering spirit and independent mind. I admire his compassion and the contribution to and what seems to be genuine concern and respect for the welfare of the Chinese people while he was in China. I appreciate that he did not go there to baptize people and preach, but rather, simply practiced the teachings of Christianity with the hope that his actions would speak louder than words, which they did. The film is an incredible tribute to Richard Wilhelm and provides a great deal of historic context for the China he was living in and experiencing.

What made both Hubby and me uncomfortable, however, was the narrative arc of the documentary: white people shit on other culture and deem them heathens, abuse, torment, and treat them worse than dogs, and then lone white hero comes in, defies his own race, comes to admire the “simple” beauty of the “heathens” and, oh, saves them all. Statues are then built in his honor in said foreign land.

Don’t get me wrong it was not intentional and not for a second do I think that arc was intended by the director, but it is almost inevitable. I should even note that when Hubby was setting up the DVD for me, we had some technical difficulties, and while he was working on it, he skipped through sections of it while I wasn’t there. He told me he did so and I asked, “So what is your first impression of the documentary?” Said Hubby deadpan: “White people destroy China. One white guy doesn’t join in the destruction, however, and for not destroying someone else’s land and culture, he is venerated as a hero.”

Oh dear.

At one point while Bettina Wilhelm is narrating via voiceover, she says, and I am most definitely paraphrasing here but watch the film in the entirety and you’ll see she really does say this: good thing Wilhelm translated the I Ching for Westerners, otherwise the precious text would have been lost for good. Again, I don’t think there was any intentional presumption of superiority but it comes across that way. I mean, I’m sorry, if Richard Wilhelm didn’t translate the I Ching, there would be no I Ching at all right now? Seriously? Is that because the Chinese people are so incompetent and, well, “heathen” that there wasn’t any way they could have preserved their own art and cultural artifacts without the help of a white man?

Not to mention the title of the documentary seems to imply equal treatment of Richard Wilhelm, the man and I Ching, the text and practice. Yet the documentary most certainly focused heavily on Richard Wilhelm, the man, which is fine and a fine job was done at that, but the treatment of I Ching was cursory at best. If you’re even a beginner practitioner at the I Ching, then this film does not tell you anything you don’t already know about the I Ching.


I admit I am taking the documentary out of its context, however. The film is targeted at Westerners (and presumably white ones at that) with no familiarity of the I Ching, in which case it was a great film and succeeded at its purpose. As an Asian American, I would have appreciated more conscious humility. Richard Wilhelm didn’t “save the I Ching,” people. He did a remarkable job of translating an archaic text for European and North American consumption and the man himself possessed a benevolent soul, differentiating him from other Europeans occupying China at the time, and his affinity with the Chinese people is poignant. But when will the West move past the glorification of a Westerner just because he does not destroy another’s land and does not openly regard other races as heathen? That is what you are supposed to do: respect other people, be compassionate and kind, and do no harm. When did that become heroic?

To be fair, the director provided a hard, impartial, and at times difficult to watch depiction of the horrors that did go on and the mistreatment of the Chinese at the hands of Europeans (and later, the Japanese). She did not gloss over those darker hours of East West relations and I appreciate that. The film was also gently critical of the Christian proselytizing of the Chinese natives, which–hey–is better than what normally happens in these types of documentaries. Truly, I do believe much credit is due to Richard Wilhelm for learning Chinese and also for learning the I Ching, absorbing Chinese culture, rather than arriving with the mission to convert them all to conform with Western ideology.

I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary and making it was important work. Bettina Wilhelm herself makes appearances throughout the film and she exudes an incredible, beautiful, soft aura that gives me the impression that I would like her immensely if I ever meet her.

Read more about the documentary here: http://www.wisdom-of-changes-i-ching-the-movie.com/.

* * *

My parents assimilated into American society when they immigrated here. We speak English at home, my mother often cooked American cuisine for dinner, they integrated with the upstate New York folk, went to church, and socialized with their coworkers or our neighbors. Hubby’s parents, who I refer to as “China-Chinese,” meaning they’re very much still anchored in Chinese culture and ways, who only mingle among Chinese, only speak Chinese, and only eat Chinese food, are starkly different from my parents. They’re recluse and don’t much trust anyone who isn’t Chinese. They’re not even all that enthusiastic about the Taiwanese. (FYI I’m Taiwanese.)

After watching the documentary, Hubby remarked to me, “Now, can you fault the old Chinese like my parents for being recluse and not really trusting foreigners [non-Chinese]? Every time they’ve ever encountered foreigners, the foreigners have tried to wreak havoc on them. Can you blame them for staying to themselves?”

Hubby raised a darn good point. See, my parents grew up in a developed, wealthy, democratic Taiwan and didn’t much in the way “eat bitterness” (cliché Chinese saying), whereas Hubby’s parents lived in Cultural Revolution Communist China and what’s worse, his father lived in an area of rural China that was ravaged by famine. Several of his siblings died of hunger. I don’t think anyone in my family has ever died of hunger before. The documentary mentions the “carving up” of China (and its resources and wealth) among the Western nations during the height of imperialism and after they had taken everything they wanted to take, they left behind a plighted land, a country overpopulated as it was fighting amongst each other for what scraps the Westerners left behind. If you can understand that, then you can understand why the mainland Chinese are the way they are today.

In a way, the film “Wisdom” made me confront the China that my husband’s family grew up in. It left me with a more enriched understanding of why they are the way they are. When your parents’ parents lived through the era that Richard Wilhelm was in China and raise your parents with certain distrust of Westerners, it is no wonder your family would be reluctant to assimilate.


Photo Source: “Wisdom of Changes” official website, Triluna Films

One thought on “A Review of Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm & The I Ching (Documentary)

  1. JB

    It is difficult to know how to begin to address the distortions and misleading narrative present throughout this review. I am European, have lived in both China and Taiwan, and speak and read Chinese. I found this blog looking for details on the Wilhelm documentary.

    I haven’t had the chance to see this documentary but am familiar with Richard Wilhelm’s work, not solely his translation of the I Ching. Who says he’s a hero? The claim that he “saved” the I Ching, where does this occur? As far as I know, only C. G. Jung said something remotely similar, and then, any alert reader of Jung knows perfectly well how given he was to grandstanding. And Wilhelm translated the I Ching into German, hardly for North American consumption. It was students of Jung’s who then proceeded to translate the German version into English and French.

    Your sarcastic bemusement as to whether the Chinese could not have preserved their own culture stands in marked contrast to what you write further below concerning your in-laws’ experience during the Cultural Revolution. There’s your answer – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, since Chiang and co. had already started their aggressive modernization policies, following Sun Yat-sen’s lead. It was only during the Cultural Revolution that Chiang suddenly had this notion of “saving” Chinese culture, after trying to stamp it out for decades. Also worth looking into is the rather depressing story of how the Dunhuang treasures which remained in China fared out. It’s easy to get on the high horse, but do some research first.

    However, it is worth pointing out that traditional Chinese culture is not exactly a valued treasure anymore among the youth of either the PRC or Taiwan, who are far more interested in Japanese gadgets, American basketball and Korean soap operas than they are in Taoism, Confucianism, ancient poetry and what have you. What Wilhelm managed to do, for a Westerner, was to study, and practice, an ancient wisdom teaching in situ, in its living tradition. And that cannot be replicated without extreme difficulty. Perhaps only P.-L.-F. Philastre before him managed the degree of cultural assimilation it took to truly translate this remarkable work accurately and sympathetically for a foreign readership.

    The ironic thing about this – and many other more recent example spring to mind, concerning Chinese Buddhism, among other topics – is that Chinese are now rediscovering these cultural treasures through the works of foreign authors.

    Your husband’s remarks are telling: now why his parents would want to move to such a benighted land full of uncivilized, heathen, foreigners (actually, native Americans living in their own country, more like) is a mystery. Oh wait, the brutal Communist takeover, the Great Leap Forward and related famines, the Cultural Revolution, the denunciations, the persecutions and purges. All foreign-led, of course. Silly me.

    As to China during the late Qing dynasty and Republican period, you’d be better off reading about the sheer decadence and incompetence of the imperial court and the corruption of the early republic, marred by warlords and internal strife, rather than laying all the blame on the Englishman’s doorstep. Not that the foreigners are wholly innocent, far from it, but again, a bit of context and objectivity goes a long way.

    For what it’s worth, I lived in a rural Chinese province for many years, one which had been ravaged by famine. I recall speaking with some elderly people who remembered with fondness the help, educational, medical and so on, given by some French and Italian missionaries in the 40s. A stark contrast to the ‘friends of the people’ running the place. Later, in Taiwan, I encountered much the same feelings.

    However, and again, in contrast to your anti-western narrative, the “civilizationist prejudice” among Chinese, whether in the PRC or ROC or abroad, obviously remains as strong as ever, and often unjustifiably so. What is truly pitiful about this is that the genuine representatives of this rich cultural tradition are fewer to be found. I guess the West and its attractions are just more comfortable, fun, and safe.

    Liked by 2 people

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