The Garden Bookshop can be found on Changle Road in the French Concession, a quiet locale in busy downtown Shanghai. It’s a convenient place to meet friends, read books or enjoy coffee and ice cream. The front counters are invariably loaded up with English language titles playing to the tastes of foreigners (laowai): how to make a fortune in China, how to understand the Chinese mind (and make a fortune), as well as intriguing tales of old Shanghai and the ‘new China’. You can buy almost anything you want, from self-help, literary classics and encyclopaedias, to instruction books on Chinese language, Internet slang and culture.
One day in May 2015 I was loitering upstairs in the dimly lit space where staff put stuff with less obvious appeal to the passing laowai such as books on tea, acupuncture, martial arts, and treatises on traditional arts. By chance I came across Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a book written by a laowai! It was just what I needed that day. I bought a copy, read the first few chapters, then returned the next morning and bought five more copies to give friends. I also persuaded the staff to put the book on the front counter (although I am not sure they really understood why I would suggest this).
Sixty-four Chance Pieces, according to its author Will Buckingham is a ‘novel of sorts’: its 64 short tales are a mixture of myth, fable, and travel writing, tales of Jesuit missionaries, unfortunate goats, non-existent emperors, mythical creatures, frustrated poets, mathematicians, Daoist monks and Confucian scholars. Behind the creation of these stories is the Book of Changes, sometimes called the Yijing, I Ching, or Zhouyi, a work of philosophical wisdom that evolved from the divination practices of the Shang and Zhou dynasties (circa 1600 – 256 BCE). During this time of great upheaval, diviners dispensed advice. The diviners later became Confucian officials and advisors known as junzi.
Prior to the existence of written records tortoise shells were exposed to heat. The role of the diviner was to make a judgement on the cracks in the shells that was pleasing to the ruler, obviously a task fraught with responsibility. The Book of Changes evolved from these early divination practices and it became a required study text in the Confucian examination system. It consists of 64 short sections, each headed by a different hexagram, a figure made up of six horizontal lines either solid or broken, or a combination of solid and broken lines. Over time commentary was added, offering various interpretations, some of them obscure.
The idea of throwing a story is a bit like the idea of throwing the yarrow stalks to reveal the hexagrams, a method that replaced tortoise shells (obviously there was a finite number of tortoises in China). The stories in Buckingham’s collection are mostly witty, haiku-like, echoing the idea of serendipity and fate, and mostly incomplete, in keeping with the ideas of continuity and change. The last of the sixty-four hexagrams wei chi, meaning ‘not completed’, follows the sixty-third hexagram chi chi, ‘already completed.’ This incompleteness underpins the idea of becoming.
Buckingham admits to being a ‘foolish laowai’ in trying to fathom the mysteries of a book that baffles ordinary Chinese. He begins with a story about creation and China’s first Emperor, which comes from the hexagram qian (creative). He finishes (story 64) with a tale about the Emperor’s futile quest for immortality or non-ending. Each story has a hexagram followed by an explanation of its source; each story is footnoted by academic and scholarly references as well as the author’s casual observations, not always about China. The titles have tantalising names like waiting, obstruction, withdrawing, returning.
I have many favourites but perhaps the best (if I had to choose) is called ‘greatness in passing’, about a late blooming poet, who sent a short work to a literary magazine: ‘the good standing of which was in inverse proportion to its readership.’ What happened next to our poet is both ironic and tragic. Best read the book and find out.
The Book of Changes refers to changes (yi) in the world, not only natural changes but those introduced by humans. Central to The Book of Changes are several key Chinese concepts: dao (way), yi (change), yin-yang, and in particular, biantong (change with continuity). The essential principle is that all activities are composed of yin and yang forces. As the sinologist François Jullien writes: ‘Each moment alternates from modification, or from continuation…’ these are the ‘silent transformations’—think of global warming. One day we look and the mirror and discover ourselves changed. Change occurs because there is constant transition and an interplay between order and disorder. Buckingham writes:
To make use of the I Ching is to play at the boundaries of order between disorder. Nothing is both from order and disorder alone. For the arising of anything at all – solid bodies, stars, worlds, animals, human beings, poems, stories, in short that mass of phenomena that the Chinese designate as wanwu, or the ten thousand things – both order and disorder are necessary
There is so much in the book to savour if you like a taste of magic realism mixed with observations about change and the passing of time. History, scholarship and finely honed literary skills combine to produce a minor masterpiece. A book about philosophy, adventure, discovery, about life and death, yin and yang, it’s also about creative transformations. As the Daoist sage, Zhuangzi, noted: ‘The existence of things is like a galloping horse. With every moment it changes. Every second it is transformed’.
Sixty-four Chance Pieces is both a travel book and a book to travel with, especially in China where change is a constant and the acknowledgment of nature is ever-present, even amid the pollution driving people to despair. If you like it, you will probably be drawn to Buckingham’s other work including the eclectic Introducing Happiness: A Practical Guide, a detour of sorts through Western and Eastern philosophy.