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I Ching

From Thelemapedia

The I Ching (易經 pinyin yì jīng) is the oldest of the Chinese classic texts. Alternative romanizations of the name include I Jing, Yi Ching, Yi King. Translations of its name into English include the "Book of Changes" or more accurately "Classic of Change".

It describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy, which is at the heart of Chinese cultural beliefs. The philosophy centres around the ideas of balance through opposites and acceptance of change. See the Philosophy section below for more.

The book is also known as Zhou Yi (周易 zhōu yì; alternately Chou I), the "Changes of Zhou", in ancient Chinese literature which indicates the book was based on work from Zhou Dynasty. See the History section below for more.

In the Western cultures, it is known mostly as a system of divination.

Table of contents


The I Ching symbolism is embodied in a set of 64 abstract line arrangements called hexagrams (卦 guà). These are each composed of six horizontal lines (爻 yáo); each line is either Yang (unbroken, a solid line), or Yin (broken, an open line with a gap in the centre). With six such lines stacked from bottom to top in each hexagram, there are 26 or sixty-four possible combinations and thus sixty-four hexagrams.

Each hexagram is made of two trigrams. There are 8 possible trigrams.

Each hexagram represents a state, a process, a change happening at the present moment. When an hexagram is cast, it is possible for one, many or all of the lines to be determined to be moving, ("old", or "instable") lines, i.e. their polarity is in the process of reversal and thus the meaning of the hexagram is completed and the "target" hexagram resulting from these changes is also considered.

Note that because the lines in the hexagrams are traditionally determined by biased random-number generation procedures, the 64 hexagrams are not equiprobable if generated in these ways.

There are a few formal arrangements of the trigrams and hexagrams with a traditional context. The bā gùa is a circular arrangement of the trigrams, traditionally printed on a mirror, or disk. Legend states that Fu Hsi found the bā gùa on the scales of a tortoise's back.

The King Wen sequence is considered the authoritative arrangement of the hexagrams.

Components of Hexagrams

The solid line represents yang, the masculine, creative principle. The open line represents yin, the feminine, receptive principle. These principles are also represented in a common circular symbol (☯), known as taijitu (太極圖), but more commonly known in the west as the yin-yang (陰陽) diagram, expressing the idea of complementarily of changes: when Yang is at top, Yin is increasing, and the reverse.

In the following lists, the trigrams and hexagrams are represented using a common textual convention: horizontally from left to right, using '|' for yang and ':' for yin. Note, though, that the normal diagrammatic representation is to show the lines stacked vertically, from bottom to top (i.e. to visualize the actual trigrams or hexagrams, rotate the text counterclockwise 90°).

There are eight possible trigrams (八卦 bā guà).

  1. ||| Force (☰ 乾 qián) = heaven (天)
  2.  ::: Field (☷ 坤 kūn) = earth (地)
  3. |:: Shake (☳ 震 zhèn) = thunder (雷)
  4.  :|: Gorge (☵ 坎 kǎn) = water (水)
  5.  ::| Bound (☶ 艮 gèn) = mountain (山)
  6.  :|| Ground (☴ 巽 xùn) = wind (風)
  7. |:| Radiance (☲ 離 ) = fire (火)
  8. ||: Open (☱ 兌 duì) = swamp (澤)

The first three lines, the lower trigram, are seen as the inner aspect of the change that is occurring. The upper trigram, the last three lines, are the outer aspect. The change described is thus the dynamic of the inner (personal) aspect relating to the outer (external) situation. Thus, hexagram 04 :|:::| Enveloping, is composed of the inner trigram :|: Gorge, relating to the outer trigram ::| Bound.

The Hexagrams

The text of the I Ching describes each of the 64 hexagrams, and later scholars added commentaries and analyses of each one; these have been subsumed into the text comprising the I Ching.

01. |||||| Force (乾 qián)

02. :::::: Field (坤 kūn)

03. |:::|: Sprouting (屯 chún)

04. :|:::| Enveloping (蒙 méng)

05. |||:|: Attending (需 xū)

06. :|:||| Arguing (訟 sòng)

07. :|:::: Leading (師 shī)

08. ::::|: Grouping (比 bǐ)

09. |||:|| Small Accumulating (小畜 xiǎo chù)

10. ||:||| Treading (履 lǚ)

11. |||::: Prevading (泰 tài)

12. :::||| Obstruction (否 pǐ)

13. |:|||| Concording People (同人 tóng rén)

14. ||||:| Great Possessing (大有 dà yǒu)

15. ::|::: Humbling (謙 qiān)

16. :::|:: Providing-For (豫 yù)

17. |::||: Following (隨 suí)

18. :||::| Corrupting (蠱 gǔ)

19. ||:::: Nearing (臨 lín)

20. ::::|| Viewing (觀 guān)

21. |::|:| Gnawing Bite (噬嗑 shì kè)

22. |:|::| Adorning (賁 bì)

23. :::::| Stripping (剝 bō)

24. |::::: Returning (復 fù)

25. |::||| Without Embroiling (無妄 wú wàng)

26. |||::| Great Accumulating (大畜 dà chù)

27. |::::| Swallowing (頤 yí)

28. :||||: Great Exceeding (大過 dà guò)

29. :|::|: Gorge (坎 kǎn)

30. |:||:| Radiance (離 lí)

31. ::|||: Conjoining (咸 xián)

32. :|||:: Persevering (恆 héng)

33. ::|||| Retiring (遯 dùn)

34. ||||:: Great Invigorating (大壯 dà zhuàng)

35. :::|:| Prospering (晉 jìn)

36. |:|::: Brightness Hiding (明夷 míng yí)

37. |:|:|| Dwelling People (家人 jiā rén)

38. ||:|:| Polarising (睽 kuí)

39. ::|:|: Limping (蹇 jiǎn)

40. :|:|:: Taking-Apart (解 xiè)

41. ||:::| Diminishing (損 sǔn)

42. |:::|| Augmenting (益 yì)

43. |||||: Parting (夬 guài)

44. :||||| Coupling (姤 gòu)

45. :::||: Clustering (萃 cuì)

46. :||::: Ascending (升 shēng)

47. :|:||: Confining (困 kùn)

48. :||:|: Welling (井 jǐng)

49. |:|||: Skinning (革 gé)

50. :|||:| Holding (鼎 dǐng)

51. |::|:: Shake (震 zhèn)

52. ::|::| Bound (艮 gèn)

53. ::|:|| Infiltrating (漸 jiàn)

54. ||:|:: Converting The Maiden (歸妹 guī mèi)

55. |:||:: Abounding (豐 fēng)

56. ::||:| Sojourning (旅 lǚ)

57. :||:|| Ground (巽 xùn)

58. ||:||: Open (兌 duì)

59. :|::|| Dispersing (渙 huàn)

60. ||::|: Articulating (節 jié)

61. ||::|| Centre Confirming (中孚 zhōng fú)

62. ::||:: Small Exceeding (小過 xiǎo guò)

63. |:|:|: Already Fording (既濟 jì jì)

64. :|:|:| Not-Yet Fording (未濟 wèi jì)

The hexagrams, though, are mere mnemonics for the philosophical concepts embodied in each one. The philosophy centres around the ideas of balance through opposites and acceptance of change.


Gradations of binary expression based on yin and yang (Old yang, old yin; young yang or young yin, see the divination paragraph below) are what the hexagrams are built from. Yin and yang, while common expressions associated with many schools known from classical Chinese culture, are especially associated with the Taoists.

Another view holds that the I Ching is primarily a Confucianist ethical or philosophical document. This view is based upon the following:

Both views may be seen to show that I Ching was at the heart of Chinese thought, serving as a common ground for the Confucian and Taoist schools. Partly forgotten because of the rise of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang dynasty, the I Ching came back to the attention of many scholars during the Song dynasty, concomitant with the reassessment of Confucianism by Confucians in the light of Taoist and Buddhist metaphysics, known in the West as Neo-Confucianism. The book, unquestionably an ancient Chinese scripture, helped Song Confucian thinkers to synthesize Buddhist and Taoist cosmologies with Confucian and Mencian ethics into a new kind of cosmogony that could be linked to the so-called "lost Tao" of Confucius and Mencius.


Traditionally it was believed that the principles of the I Ching originated with the legendary Fu Hsi. In this respect he is seen as an early culture hero, one of earliest legendary rulers of China (traditional dates 2852 BC-2738 BC), reputed to have had the trigrams (八卦 bā gùa) revealed to him supernaturally. Before the Zhou Dynasty, there was other literature on the "Change" philosophy, e.g. Lian Shan Yi (『連山易』 Lián Shān Yì) and Gui Cang Yi (『歸藏易』 Gūi Cáng Yì). The philosophy heavily influenced the literature and government administration of the Zhou Dynasty. It was refined over time and I Ching was completed around the time of Han Wu Di (漢武帝 Hàn Wǔ Dì) during the Han Dynasty (circa 200 BC).

In the past 50 years a "Modernist" history of the I Ching has been emerging, based on context criticism and research into Shang and Zhou dynasty oracle bones, as well as Zhou bronze inscriptions and other sources (see below). These reconstructions are dealt with in growing number of books, such as "The Mandate of Heaven: Hidden History in the I Ching", by S J Marshall, Columbia University Press, 2001, and Richard Rutt's "Zhouyi: The Book of Changes" from Curzon Press, 1996. Scholarly PhDs dealing with the new view of the Book of Changes include the dissertations by Richard Kunst and Edward Shaughnessy. These and other scholars have been helped immensely by the discovery in the 1970s by Chinese archaeologists of intact Han dynasty era tombs in Mawangdui near Changsha, Hunan province. One of the tombs contained more or less complete 2nd century BC texts of the I Ching, the Dao De Jing and other works, which are mostly similar yet in some ways diverge significantly from the "received" or traditional texts preserved by the chances of history. The tomb texts include additional commentaries on the I Ching, previously unknown, and apparently written as if they were meant to be attributed to Confucius. All of the Mawangdui texts are many centuries older than the earliest known attestations of the texts in question. When talking about the evolution therefore of the Book of Changes the Modernists contend that it is important to distinguish between the traditional history assigned to texts such as the I Ching (felt to be anachronistic by the Modernists), assignations in commentaries which have themselves been canonized over the centuries along with their subjects, and the more recent scholarly history aided by modern linguistic textual criticism and archaeology. Many feel that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but, for instance, many Modernist scholars doubt the actual existence of Fuxi, think Confucius had nothing to do with the Book of Changes, and that the hexagrams came before the trigrams.


The process of consulting the oracle involves determining the hexagram by some random method, and then reading the I Ching text associated with that hexagram. This method of divination is a form of bibliomancy.

Each line of a hexagram determined with these methods is either stable ("young") or changing ("old"); thus, there are four possibilities for each line, corresponding to the cycle of change from yin to yang and back again:

Once a hexagram is determined, each line has been determined as either changing (old) or unchanging (young). Since each changing line is seen as being in the process of becoming its opposite, a new hexagram can be formed by transposing each changing yin line with a yang line, and vice versa. Thus, reading the text of this new hexagram and viewing it as the result of the current change gain further insight into the process of change.


Several of the methods use a randomizing agent to determine each line of the hexagram. These methods produce a number, which corresponds to the numbers of changing or unchanging lines discussed above, and thus determine each line of the hexagram.

Cracks on turtle shell

The turtle shell oracle is probably the earliest record of fortune telling. A piece of a turtle shell had heat applied to it (sometimes with a hot poker), and the resulting cracks were interpreted for divination. The cracks were sometimes annotated with inscriptions, which are the oldest Chinese writings that have been discovered. This oracle predated the earliest versions of the Zhou Yi (dated from about 1100 BC) by hundreds of years.

A variant on this method was to use ox shoulder bones. When thick material was to be cracked, then the underside was thinned by carving with a knife.

Yarrow stalks

The yarrow stalk method of divination was the next major advance in oracle methodology after the turtle shell method. It was comparatively quick and easy to perform. A yarrow stalk is piece of dried stem from the yarrow plant, approximately 15-18 inches in length.

However, the yarrow oracles are not a truly randomized method, since it is statistically biased toward certain answers. It seems fairly clear that the ancient Chinese neither understood nor intended this statistical bias.

The yarrow stalk method is performed as follows:

Using this method, the probabilities of each type of line are as follows:


Three-coin method

The three coin method was the next major advance in oracular method, and occurred well over a thousand years later. It was also the quickest and easiest by far, which is probably why it has largely supplanted the yarrow stalks.

This is the most common "quick" method for casting a hexagram. Using this method, the probabilities of each type of line are as follows:

An alternative and equivalent method is to toss the coins and count the "tails":

Some find this approach easier than doing the computations.

Two-coin method

The problem with the three-coin method is that the probabilities differ so markedly from the yarrow-stalk method. Here's a method using two coins (with two tosses per line) that matches the yarrow-stalk probabilities:

Repeat the process for each remaining line.


Using coins will quickly reveal some problems: if you shake the coins in your cupped hands, it's hard to know whether they are truly being tumbled; if you flip the coins, they tend to bounce and scatter. It's much easier to use a die as a coin-equivalent: if an odd number of pips shows, count it as "heads"; if an even number of pips shows, count it as "tails." Obviously, the 50/50 probability is preserved--and rolling dice turns out to be easier and quicker than flipping coins.

Thus the three-coin method will use three dice, and the two-coin method two dice. Even better, if you have a backgammon set, you're likely to have two pair of dice, each pair having its own color--e.g., a pair of blue dice and a pair of white dice. You can then designate one pair to be the "first toss" in the two-coin method, and the other pair to be the "second toss." So one roll of the four dice will determine a line, with probabilities matching the yarrow-stalk method.

Marbles or Beads

This method is a recent innovation, designed to be quick like the coin method, while giving the same probabilities as the yarrow stalk method.

A good source of marbles is a (secondhand) Chinese checkers set: 6 colors, 10 marbles each.

Using this method, the probabilities of each type of line are the same as the distribution of the colours, as follows:

An improvement on this method uses 16 beads of four different colors but with the same size and shape (i.e., indistinguishable by touch), strung beads being much more portable than marbles. You take the string and, without looking, select a bead a random. The comments above apply to this method as well.

Rice grains

For this method, either rice grains, or small seeds are used.

One picks up a few seeds between the middle finger and thumb. Carefully and respectfully place them on a clean sheet of paper. Repeat this process six times, keeping each cluster of seeds in a separate pile --- each pile represents one line. One then counts the number of seeds in each cluster, starting with the first pile, which is the base line. If there is an even number of seeds, then the line is yin, otherwise the line is yang --- except if there is one seed, in which case one redoes that line.

One then asks the question again, and picks up one more cluster of seeds. Count the number of seeds you have, and then keep subtracting six, until you have six seeds or less. This gives you the number of the line that specifically represents your situation. It is not a moving line. If you do not understand your answer, you may rephrase the question, and ask it a second time.

Calligraphy brush strokes

Calendric Systems

There is a component of Taoist thought which is concerned with numerological/cosmological systems. This has also been applied to the I Ching as well. The noted Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher Shao Yung (1011-1077 CE) is the one who has done the most work in popularizing this concept and in developing/publishing oracular systems based on them. This is the most sophisticated usage of I Ching oracular systems.

The most readily accessible of these methods (the easiest to learn to do, and also to practice) is called the Plum Blossom Oracle. In fact, there are several variants of this method. One method uses the number of brushstrokes used in writing the question along with the date and time of the inquiry. Another method simply uses the date and time without an actual question. There are other variants as well, including not using date and time at all. The resulting numbers are used to select the trigrams (in either the Early Heaven or the Later Heaven sequence), which then identify the hexagram of the answer.

The most accurate of these methods is also the most complex. This is called the Ho Map Lo Map Rational Number method (and has been published in English as "The Astrology of I Ching"). It uses a very complicated series of operations with a series of tables to generate series of predictions which are entirely calendar-based.

It should also be noted that the original transmitted method contains an error, since two of the trigrams are not properly generated at times, and so sometimes causes erroneous predictions. This error is noted, and a correction published, in the book "I Ching for a New Age" in an endnote. There have also been a few computer programs employing this method, and this error complicates the situation, since they most likely do not include this correction.

Influence on Western culture

The I Ching has influenced countless Chinese philosophers, artists and even businessmen throughout history. In more recent times, several Western artists have used it.


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