Hellmut Wilhelm and the I Ching

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"He brought to us an unrivaled knowledge of the Chinese language, history, philosophy and poetry and thereby helped to make the China faculty of the University of Washington one of the best, if not the best, in the country."

--George E. Taylor footnote 1

The late Hellmut Wilhelm (1905-90) was an internationally acclaimed scholar of Chinese history, literature, and thought. He joined the UW in 1948 where he served on the faculty of the Department of Far Eastern Slavic Languages and Literature, and was a member of the Far Eastern and Russian Institute, until retiring in 1971.

Over the years, Wilhelm taught almost every aspect of Chinese studies, including literature and philosophy, politics and religion, and ancient and modern history. But he is perhaps best known for his work to study and interpret the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, carrying on the work of his father, renowned sinologist Richard Wilhelm, who in the early decades of the twentieth century had translated I Ching and many other great classics of early Chinese civilization for Western readers. The I Ching is an early Chinese oracle text that became the most important book of wisdom and philosophy in the Chinese tradition.

Hellmut Wilhelm was born and received his early education in China in Tsingtao, Shandong Province, where his father was teaching. After World War I, the family returned to Germany. Eventually, after the death of his father, Hellmut decided to pursue doctoral studies in sinology at the University of Berlin, completing his degree in 1932. He then returned to China, where he remained until after the World War II, first working as a correspondent for German and Swiss newspapers, and then as professor of German Languages and Literature at National Peking University.

During this period in China, Wilhelm lectured and published on a range of topics in Chinese studies. A first set of lectures, published in 1942, presented a broad survey of Chinese history. A second set treated the development of Chinese social structure and political thought, published in book form in 1944. His lecture series on the I Ching, first published in German in 1944, was translated into English under the title Change: Eight Lectures on the I Ching. "This remains the most widely-read introduction to the Book of Changes in a Western language,"footnote 3 says noted sinologist David Knechtges, UW professor of Asian Languages and Literature.

"Hellmut was a scholar, whose tireless support of the highest standards of scholarship found actualization in the published work both of himself and of those whose graduate work he supervised...; a teacher boundlessly admired by generations of students...; a colleague's colleague, always supportive, always constructive even when he found it necessary to be critical, tolerant of the infinitely wide range of views and commitments other scholars might have, always protective of the precious jewel that the Far Eastern and Russian Institute and specifically its China program were, academically speaking, in the crown of the University of Washington."

--Donald W. Treadgold footnote 2

"Professor Wilhelm's first love was the I Ching, a book that he believed embodied the essence of Chinese thought and values," notes Knechtges. A series of lectures on the subject, presented by Wilhelm over the period from 1951 to 1967, was published in 1977 by the UW Press under the title Heaven, Earth, and Man in the Book of Changes. In that work, he says, "Professor Wilhelm showed how the I Ching addressed the most profound questions of human life: the place of man in the cosmos and his relationship to nature; change versus continuity; peace as an intellectual concept; leadership and authority; freedom."footnote 3

"He was a leading member of the grand constellation of Far Eastern and Russian specialists that was created in Seattle under the leadership of George Taylor," says Knechtges, noting that graduate students came to the UW from all parts of the globe to pursue advanced degrees in Chinese studies with Wilhelm. "Many of these students are now professors at distinguished universities around the world," he adds.footnote 3

George E. Taylor (see George E. Taylor: The Northwest's Expert on Asia and International Trade) founded the UW Far Eastern and Russian Institute (FERI) in 1946. He spearheaded the entire effort to create new academic programs and to stimulate research in the field, setting up the teaching of Asian languages, constructing a curriculum, working out degree requirements, recruiting staff, and building up an infrastructure, including an extensive library. At a symposium to honor Wilhelm after his death, Taylor affirmed:

The best friends are those with whom you have done something significant. Hellmut and I worked together, with others, to build the Far Eastern and Russian Institute, the name for the device we used to develop Asian and Soviet studies. That is why I suggest that Hellmut's greatest contribution in the academic world was his assistance in one of the most important academic revolutions of our times.... [H]e was among the strongest supporters of our efforts to get the social science disciplines to commit themselves to the study of the non-western world.footnote 1

In a memorial for Wilhelm, Donald Treadgold, former Professor of Russian and East European Studies, noted that Wilhelm was one of the key participants in three special seminars and colloquia of the FERI: the Modern Chinese History Project, the Russia in Asia Project, and the Inner Asia Project. Treadgold remembers Wilhelm as

...an enthusiastic and solid contributor to all three, which together generated the liveliest, most fruitful, and most exciting intellectual atmosphere I have ever seen--an atmosphere whose equal I have not encountered on any of the 50 campuses on which I have lectured or in the UW since that time. We discussed, we argued, we disagreed, on occasion we shouted, but the upshot was a string of remarkable books, articles, speeches, conferences, and courses--for the research findings...found their way into teaching, exactly as they are supposed to do...footnote 2

  1. "Hellmut Wilhelm Memorial," George E. Taylor, University of Washington, Seattle, October 26, 1990.
  2. "Hellmut Wilhelm: Scholar, Teacher, Colleague, Donald W. Treadgold, Seattle, October 26, 1990.
  3. David R. Knechtges, Seattle, May 27, 1992.

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