04/22/2014 01:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Video Review: Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm and The I Ching, a Documentary by Bettina Wilhelm


At the turn of the twentieth century when 'Iolani graduate Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China was leading a revolution, German Protestant missionary Richard Wilhelm was also breaking new ground in China.

Modest and self-effacing, in 1899 Wilhelm began his own revolutionary passage to China -- single-handedly bringing the jewels of ancient Chinese wisdom to the West. By the end of his life in 1930, he had translated, among other works, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, The Secret of the Golden Flower, and perhaps most famously -- the I Ching.

This missionary, who never baptized a single person was to influence Western culture profoundly, in ways he could never foresee.

His translation efforts were monumental and at the time, largely unsung. His task was made doubly difficult given the tumultuous era of Chinese history he was living in. He also labored at a time when many Westerners thought of the Chinese as no better than coolies, who needed to be civilized with a heavy dose of Christianity.

Much to the chagrin of his church, Wilhelm eschewed baptizing the masses. His respect for the Chinese was too great. He said did not want to "make distinctions between Christian and Pagan so that the hypocrites would push their way in and honest hearts will be repelled."

Wilhelm's genius -- his ability to interpret faithfully the spirit of the classical Chinese philosophers -- was recognized by C. G. Jung, one of the intellectual trailblazers of the twentieth Century. Jung's 1949 forward to the English translation of Wilhelm's I Ching, is considered a classic of the Jungian canon.


Wilhelm's remarkable life is chronicled in a new documentary film, Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm & The I Ching. Written and directed by Bettina Wilhelm (his granddaughter), it was screened at a March 2014 conference held at the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. A well-known feature film maker in Germany Ms. Wilhelm had no expectations that her documentary would be anything other than subjective.

Her goal was to discover her grandfather, who died more than twenty years before she was born. This undertaking took four visits to China -- two for research and two shooting the video.

Set amid the upheaval of fin du siècle China, there are really three protagonists in this story -- Richard Wilhelm, China, and the Book of Changes -- a work that is as seminal to Chinese culture as the Bible is to the West. One of the oldest of the classic Chinese texts, the I Ching provides an ancient divination system that is used to this day to gain insight into every facet and circumstance in life.

Since its first publication in 1924 in German it has inspired a plethora of art, philosophy, literature, and music outside China. It has touched artists and intellectuals ranging from Herman Hesse to George Harrison.

This was a work that Bettina Wilhelm was familiar with, even as a young child. Not surprisingly, a copy of it sat on the family bookcase. It was pulled from the shelf as a family tradition every New Year's Eve to divine the future.


The I Ching takes a lifetime to assimilate in one's weltanschauung and the video does an admirable job of providing a primer. Wisely, the director allows others to expound on the Book of Changes through interviews with some very articulate academics, Richard Smith and Henrik Jäger.

A caveat. If you haven't used the I Ching, understanding this arcane text is challenging. A viewer who has even a cursory experience with the book will be better able to appreciate the video.

If you take away nothing else from the documentary, you'll appreciate the dedication and pure grit that characterized Richard Wilhelm. Not only did he toil in obscurity at translating intellectually daunting works -- he labored sometimes in the midst of war zones.

Viewers with a Jungian bent would not be surprised that Wilhelm understood the innate intelligence of the unconscious. Shortly before finding the ultimate I Ching master who would eventually convince him to translate the Book of Changes, he had a prophetic dream that foretold their meeting -- right down to the man's name.

Wilhelm approached the world intuitively and it helped him to function on a number of levels, but particularly as a brilliant translator. His intellect, combined with his intuition, enabled him to grasp the profound and nuanced teachings of China's greatest thinkers. This task would have been challenging for an educated Chinese speaker, much less for a foreigner.

Not surprisingly, it was his intuition that landed him in trouble with German academia, which couldn't accept his nonlinear modus operandi. This wasn't a problem, however, for Carl Jung, who met him in Europe and developed a lifelong friendship and collaboration.


As the filmmaker stated, "he was an unconventional but religious man."

He was also a man of courage and great humanity. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, when German troops attacked Chinese villages, he intervened as mediator, helping to avoid further bloodshed. Similarly, at great personal risk, Wilhelm agreed to remain in China as head of the Red Cross during the First World War.

Ms. Wilhelm does a stellar job of balancing Chinese history, the I Ching, and the life of her grandfather in an 87-minute film. It has been beautifully shot by Peter Indergand -- an Academy Award nominated videographer. Bettina Wilhelm has also deftly employed marvelous still photos obtained from dozens of archives.

It is not difficult to understand why it took her six years to complete this masterpiece.

My advice -- purchase the video. You will need to see it several times.