Yi Jing 易经 (I Ching WG) - The Book of Changes
The Yi Jing ‘Book of Changes’ is foremost among the five ancient classics of China. Kongfuzi (Confucius) said “If years were added to my life, I would dedicate fifty to study the ‘Yi Jing’, then I might approach perfection” (Analects 7.16) . “The Yi Jing thinks of nothing, does nothing; in tranquility, unmoving, it fathoms what is at the back of everything in the world” (Great Appendix to the Yi Jing). Many great scholars have studied the ‘Yi Jing’ (which is still widely known as ‘I Ching’ following the Wade Giles system) as a source of contemplation and reflection. Marcel Granet ➚ has described it as “the Cosmos in capsule form”. It served as a broad method for characterizing all things, people, events and situations systematically. As many objects and actions are associated with a particular hexagram it was used as a proto-science - putting everything in its appropriate logical category. In Imperial China its influence was all pervasive. The Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi’s edition of the I Ching had by 1715 accumulated no less than 218 commentaries written by esteemed scholars. Emperor Kangxi never tired of it, spending over six months studying it - twice - and consulted the book to determine such things as the just punishment of rebels. He considered it of great depth touching on both fortune-telling and morality. His son, the Emperor Yongzheng consulted it widely including when pondering what to do with the case of the traitor Zeng Jing ➚, his Yi Jing consultation gave hexagram 61 ‘Inner Trust’ and he interpreted this to mean he should treat him with leniency.
It is called ‘Book of Changes’ because it is rooted in transformation. In the classic divination method two hexagrams are cast at the same time, the one changing to the other representing past and present or present and future.
Feng Shui, Confucianism and Yin/Yang all contribute to the ‘(Book of Changes ➚’). Nowadays it is best known as a popular fortune telling system, but its foundations go far deeper. It builds ‘hexagrams’ made up of six lines that are either yang (solid) or yin (broken). The hexagrams are called 卦 guà in Chinese. It can be thought of as a combination of two trigrams stacked on top of each other (a trigram is made up of three lines). These eight trigrams (bagua 八卦) are shown surrounding the traditional taiji (yin-yang) figure in the illustration. Two trigrams combine to give the six lines that represent each of the 64 possible hexagrams. The Book of Changes muses on the meaning when one of the six lines are changed from yin to yang or yang to yin. For more on some of the numerical properties and associations of the trigrams see our Luo Shu (magic square) section.
The Yi Jing was consulted for scientific inquiry and astronomy as hexagrams are associated with both the lunar and daily (solar) cycles. Each particular day of the month or time of day has its own associated hexagram. From this evolved the practice of carrying out certain actions on particular days and at particular times. Because it claimed to provide an explanatory system for all things it became an obstacle to further scientific development. It was incompatible with western science when this reached China in the late 19th century. The great scholar Joseph Needham ➚ considers that Chinese scientists ‘would have been better to tie a millstone round the neck of the Yi Jing and cast it into the sea.’
The basic text covers all sorts of subjects, animals and mentions all sorts of occupations, it was not written just for the ruling class. There are few mentions of ghosts and spirits, indeed the supreme god Shangdi only gets one mention. There are however many mentions of sacrifices but no mention of the sea. The lengthy line omens for hexagram 1 (Qian) are likely to refer to the the blue-green dragon 苍龙 Cāng lóng making a journey through the seasons.
Each of the six lines is either broken (yin) or unbroken (yang). It is thought that the origin may been in bamboo sticks used for divination, half of them straight (between joints) and half with a joint in the middle; another theory is that strings with one knot (yang) or two knots (yin) were used. Yin and yang are best when in balance, one can not exist without each other so the Qian hexagram (all yang) is no better than Kun (all yin)
To consult the I Ching, a person makes six choices between yin/yang; short/long; broken/straight; or heads/tails. Each line is called a 爻 yáo and is represented by the number 9 for yang 阳爻 yáng yáo or 6 for yin 阴爻 yīn yáo. The meaning and interpretation are strongly influenced by the two trigrams that make up the gua, for example the trigrams for ‘water’ (坎 kǎn) and ‘fire’ (离 lí) combine to give hexagram 63 (jì jì 既济) which has the meaning of ‘transformation’ as water puts out fire and also fire dries out dampness.
Some idea of the pervasiveness of the Yi Jing can be seen from the belief that the invention of wooden boats is predicted by the book. The hexagram 59 is associated with the wood element and is composed of ‘wind’ over ‘water’. The commentary states that it is advantageous for crossing a great stream and this suggests wood is the suitable material to use for making boats.
The foundation of the Binary system
The yin-yang division is a binary system and this stimulated Leibniz in the 18th century to believe that the Chinese had developed a binary counting system centuries before the West, however this is not true, the Yi Jing had never been used for counting.
Joseph Needham ➚ used the term ‘resonance’ to describe each hexagram's relationship to the world. This needs a little explanation. From ancient times it was noted that a stringed instrument will cause a string tuned to the same frequency to vibrate (resonate) even if some distance away. The Yi Jing can be thought as a set of 64 strings that will resonate at different frequencies and so cover a full spectrum. However the idea of resonance has a wider application, not just in sound, one color can be said to resonate with another and the same can be said of many other attributes. The 64 hexagrams are from this perspective a set of assorted things that have some ‘resonance’ with each other. There is harmony with the natural process of change. So for example ‘south’ and ‘sun’ seem a natural association.
History of the I Ching
The Yi Jing dates back about 3,000 years when it was probably used only for divination. Although it is claimed to date from the start of the Zhou dynasty there is no direct evidence to support this. Individual hexagrams have been found on Shang dynasty ‘oracle bones’ but there is no evidence that these were related to the Yi Jing as we know it today. It's likely that there were several divination schemes in use. It is likely that the basic text of omens stabilized around 800BCE. The oldest text is called 周易 Zhōuyì after the name of the dynasty and is attributed to legendary Emperor Fuxi (c. 2800 BCE) and King Wen of Zhou 周文王. Fuxi is credited with the eight trigrams and King Wen with the sequence of hexagrams. It was certainly used in China during the Zhou dynasty long before the birth of Confucius (551BCE).
To the ancient text were added ten commentaries attributed to Confucius that are called the ‘ten wings’; but these were probably written long after Confucius during the Han dynasty. Yì 易 can be translated as ‘easy’ as well as ‘changes’ possibly because this method of divination was quicker and easier than analyzing the previous method of studying the pattern of cracks on oracle bones. A large boost to its widespread study was its inclusion in the list of five Confucian classics in 136BCE. It is the Yi Jing commentaries that have as great a value as the hexagrams themselves, they reveal much about Chinese thought, history and philosophy. Daoists hold the book in great esteem just as much as followers of Confucius. The commentaries lifted the system from one purely from fortune telling to one of great philosophical and spiritual value. From around 600BCE the usage spread from purely divination to use in literature to make rhetorical points. In the Han dynasty two schools of study emerged: the School of Images and Numbers with concentration on numerical properties, the five elements and magic squares and the School of Mind with concentration on meditation. It was as late as the Tang dynasty that the five element theory embraced the Yi Jing. All this has made it a far richer system than other mere ‘fortune telling’ systems such as Tarot cards ➚.
The original method used in ancient times to cast a hexagram involved a bundle of 50 yarrow sticks 蓍草 shī cǎo. The sticks are separated into two piles six times to give the lines - see divination method section for a detailed guide. In the Tang dynasty a faster method using three coins was introduced. The probabilities are not the same in the two methods. Both systems generate four possible outcomes rather than two, as well as yin and yang it also produces ‘changing’ versions of yin and yang. Two readings are produced, one for the present and one for the ‘change’ representing either the past or future. The two readings together give 64x6 (384) possible readings making it a very large and comprehensive system.
Each set of three lines a ‘trigram’ (八卦 Bàguà has its own name and meaning. They are traditionally thought of as pairs heaven & earth; mountain & lake; water & fire; thunder & wind. See our yin-yang section for more on derivation and background.
|Trigram and Name||Name||Element||Season and Direction||Associations|
|☱ 兑 duì||Lake 泽 zé or Marsh||Lesser Metal||Autumn, west||Marsh; monkey; youngest or third daughter; joy; serenity; enjoying; sheep; children|
|☰ 乾 qián||Heaven 天 tiān||Metal||Autumn, north-west||Sky; lion; father; creative (all yang); energy; vitality; virility; dragon; horse; helpers|
|☵ 坎 kǎn||Water 水 shuǐ||Water||Mid-winter, north||Snake; curves; flowing water; danger; sinking; pig; career|
|☶ 艮 gèn||Mountain 山 shān||Lesser Earth||Late winter, north-east||Bear; third or youngest son; stillness; stopping; fruits; dog; rat; knowledge|
|☳ 震 zhèn||Thunder 雷 léi||Wood||Early spring, east||Flying dragon; eldest son; excitement; arousal; galloping horse; family|
|☴ 巽 xùn||Wind 风 fēng or Wood||Lesser Wood||Late spring, south-east||Wind; Phoenix; eldest daughter; gentle; flexible; growth; vegetation; wealth|
|☲ 离 lí||Fire 火 huǒ||Fire||Summer, south||Second or middle daughter; dependent; attaching; weaponry; drought; rooster; fame|
|☷ 坤 kūn||Earth 地 dì||Earth||Late summer, south-west||Qilin (unicorn); mother; receptive; yielding (all yin); docility; mare; ox; marriage|
Two trigrams together make a hexagram or gua of the Yi Jing.
Order of the I Ching Hexagrams
There are actually three Yi Jings, the best known is the most recent the 周易 Zhōu yì or ‘Change of Heaven’ from the Zhou dynasty which begins with the 乾 Heaven gua . The 连山 Liánshān ‘Link to Mountain’ on the other hand begins with 艮 Mountain and is attributed to the Red Emperor or Shennong a thousand years earlier. The third 归藏 Guīcáng ‘Save in Earth’ ordering starts with 坤 ‘Earth’ and is attributed to the Yellow Emperor. However only the Zhouyi has survived intact and has the all important commentaries.
The Zhouyi ordering is also known as the ‘King Wen system of hexagrams’. It does not follow a mathematical progression. One might expect the binary nature of yin-yang to be reflected in a binary sequence so mathematically 111111 (乾 qián all yang) might be followed by 111110 (姤 gòu) gua 44 or by 011111 ( 夬 guài) gua 43. The ‘Ahead of Heaven’ ordering of the Shao Yong ➚ of the Song dynasty follows this strict binary order but the King Wen arrangement is in pairs of inverses or negatives so qián is followed by 000000 (坤 kūn all yin). As qián is symmetric (it is its own inverse) its negative gua ‘kun’ is chosen as its pair. As a ‘Book of Changes’ it is appropriate that guas are ordered in transformed pairs.
The next pair (3 and 4) begins with 010001 (屯 zhūn) and its mirror is 100010 (蒙 mēng) in this case the pair reverses the order as if seen in a mirror. Why Zhun (3) follows on from Qian and Kun is not obvious. The arrangement of hexagrams has puzzled scholars for centuries as there are strong patterns within the ordering but no obvious rules to determine which pair should follow which. As the original text was written so long ago the original symbolism and meaning has been lost and reconstruction is a matter of scholarly conjecture.
It is widely considered that the ideal structure for a hexagram is for yin lines to occur at 2 and 4 but yang lines at 3 and 5 (counting lines from the bottom). The alternating nature of the ‘ideal’ figure highlights the Chinese desire for balance and counter-balance rather than a desire for pure yin or pure yang. The top two lines are associated with heaven (spirit), the middle two with people (mind) and the bottom two with earth (body)
The sequence is split into two unequal groups: the Upper Canon 上经 shàngjīng 1-30 (where yang is broadly dominate: the ‘Dao of Heaven’) and the Lower Canon 下经 xiàjīng 31-64 (where yin is broadly dominate: the ‘Dao of Humanity’). Why it is not split into two equal halves 32 guas is another curious mystery.
|No.||The hexagram number in the King Wen ordering of the Hexagrams.|
|Gua||The Chinese character and pinyin of the hexagram (gua). The pinyin has a link to a page that provides a full description of each gua.|
|Name||Two suggested translations for the gua in English. This is tricky as translators choose different words.|
|Composition||The names of the two trigrams that make up the hexagram, these often give a strong hint on interpretation.|
|Element||The Chinese element associated with the gua.|
|Month||Chinese lunar month number associated with the gua, or else event in solar year.|
|Opp.||The number of the Opposite or Negative gua, that is the one where each yao is changed yin to yang or yang to yin.|
|Inv.||The number of the Inverse or Mirror gua, where the hexagram is turned on its head.|
|Mut.||A re-arrangement of the lines and selective inversion give a related or Mutual gua. This leaves out the top and bottom lines.|
|Associations||Some of the known associations of the hexagram.|
Find a hexagram
Because the hexagrams in the King Wen ordering are not placed in numerical order it's not obvious where to find a particular hexagram. This table lists all the hexagrams ordered by the two trigrams that make them up. The top trigram is along the top and the bottom trigram is on the left side. Simply follow the row and column to where they intersect and click on the gua link for more information about the hexagram.
I Ching Transformation
The authentic methods for casting a hexagram give four not two outcomes for each line of the hexagram. These are yin, yang, changing yin and changing yang. If any of the lines are ‘changing’ this gives two hexagrams, the first using the initial choice and the second where all ‘changing yin’ or ‘old yin’ lines are changed to yang and all ‘changing yang’ or ‘old yang’ lines are changed to yin. The commentaries of the Yi Jing only give an ‘omen’ when there is a single changing line. In the less likely case that more than one line changing skill is required to interpret the meaning, so instead the hexagram is often cast again.
Ten Wings 十翼 shíyì
The ten original commentaries (appendices) or 'wings' are split into upper and lower sections:1,2 : These two commentaries are attributed to King Wen of Zhou. They are called the 序卦传 Xù guà zhuàn and 彖传 Tuàn zhuàn
3,4 : The symbolism attributed to the Duke of Zhou and an explanation of the lines. 象传 Xiàng zhuàn
5,6 : The Great Treatise 大传 Dà zhuàn, the main commentary on the guas. 系词传 Xì cí zhuàn
7 : A meditation on the meaning on the 1st and 2nd guas (Heaven and Earth) and how they evolve into/generate all the remaining hexagrams. Called the 文言传 Wén yán zhuàn
8: The ‘Discourse on the trigrams’ looks at the seasons of the year and the compass points. 说卦传 Shuō guà zhuàn
9 : Looks at the rationale for the sequence of the guas, and muses as to why each gua naturally follows on from another. 杂卦传 Zá guà zhuàn
10 : Summarizes the meanings of the guas in a simple rhyme but does not follow the King Wen sequence.
The text and commentaries are hard to follow because they often allude to events and customs from the distant past. Some of them are put into poetic form with rhymes. This allows a modern reader to interpret the meaning in different ways.
There are many stories of how the Yi Jing was consulted st key points of Chinese history. For example the scholar Lu Gong took a reading near the end of the Ming dynasty and cast hexagram Pi changing to Tai, he interpreted this as meaning the Ming was in decline but soon his fortunes with the new Qing dynasty would turn around.
Although very much a Chinese tradition the I-Ching is well-known in other countries. Influence first spread to countries familiar with the Chinese script: Korea, Japan, Vietnam. Although the Jesuit missionaries (c. 1600-1750) studied and translated the Yi Jing into Latin it was not really until the late 18th century that widespread interest escaped narrow academic circles. There was a huge upwelling of interest in the 1960s when Wilhelm's much admired translation was available in English, it was avidly taken up in 'counter-cultural' circles that found the obscure and religious-free language of the book an inspiration.
The Yi Jing had wide influence; it inspired George Harrison to write ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’; John Lennon in ‘God’; John Cage to compose musical scores; Philip Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and it also inspired Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens.
The Yi Jing Universe
The all embracing nature of the Yi Jing can be seen from the associations of hexagrams. The lunar cycle follows through the hexagrams 51; 58; 1 (new moon); 57; 52 to 2 (full moon). While the daily cycle passes through 24, 19, 11, 34, 43, 1 (noon), 44, 33, 12, 20, 23, 2 (midnight).
In ancient China the Yi Jing was all pervasive, deciding what should be done and when; even the ministries of the government were associated with a particular gua. For example General administration (gua 1); Ministry of Education (2); Ministry of Rites (51); Executive (52; 57 and 30); Ministry of Justice (58) and Ministry of Public Works (29). The Yi Jing was consulted on all decisions in the Imperial system. In this way a single gua has a great number of important associations and forms a complex network with many related concepts. The Yi Jing provided the master plan for organizing and understanding everything in ancient China.
Why has the Yi Jing such widespread and longstanding appeal? It is enigmatic and spiritual without being a ‘Bible’, it does not preach or judge. It helps people ponder and discover their true attitudes and difficulties in the widest context. It is likely to remain one of the world's most loved and respected book: a true classic.