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.

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