An yi for an yi

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子曰:「加我數年,五十以學易,可以無大過矣。」
Confucius said: “If I was given a few more years, I would devote fifty to the study of the Book of Changes so that I may be free from serious mistakes.”

This is one of those passages in the Analects that has caused more controversy and speculation among scholars and commentators than is probably merited – not just as a result of its rather clunky syntax but also disputes over possible typos in the copy.

The main point of contention is over the character易 (), which most commentators believe refers to the I Ching (易經), otherwise known as the Book of Changes. However, some of a more, shall we say, puritanical bent were so appalled at the thought that the great sage would wish to study this esoteric text and – gasp! – gain wisdom from it that they argued that the yi had been written incorrectly and that it should be the homonym 亦 (), an adverb meaning “also” instead.

Although they buttress their argument by saying that the Book of Changes doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Analects, with the possible exception of Book 13, Chapter XXII, it’s extremely unlikely that a man of Confucius’s intellectual curiosity would not have been interested in what was during his times and is still now a seminal text – even if this would take him fifty years.

Substituting the yi for the yi, so to speak, would also involve a creative re-rendering of some of the syntax of the first part of the text. The alternative would be something like this: Confucius said: “Give me a few years until I have completed fifty years of study so that I will be free of serious flaws.”

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