The Yi Jing ‘Book of Changes’ was foremost among the five ancient classics of China. Kongfuzi (Confucius) is reputed to have 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 context. In Imperial China its influence was all pervasive; the Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi's edition of the I Ching had by then accumulated no less than 218 commentaries written by esteemed scholars. The Emperor 'never tired' of studying it, spending over six months studying it - twice - and consulted the book to determine such things as the just punishement of rebels. He considered it of great deepness touching on fortune-telling and morality.
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.
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 deeper. It builds ‘hexagrams’ made up of six lines that are each either yang (solid) or yin (broken). A hexagram is termed a gua 卦 guà in Chinese. It is a combination of two trigrams made up of three lines to form one of eight trigrams (bagua 八卦); that are shown surrounding the traditional taiji (yin-yang) figure in the illustration. Two trigrams combine together to give the six lines that represent one of 64 possible hexagrams.
The Yi Jing was consulted for scientific inquiry, for example in alchemy; and astronomy as hexagrams are associated with both the lunar and daily (solar) cycles; as each particular day of the month or time of day had its own associations. From this evolved the practice of doing certain actions on particular days and at particular times. The yin-yang division is a binary system and this stimulated Leibniz ➚ to think that the Chinese had developed a binary counting system centuries before the West, however this was not true, the Yi Jing had never been used for counting. Because it attempted to provide an explanatory system for all things it became an obstacle to further scientific development and was incompatible with Western science when it reached China in the 20th century. Needham ➚ considers that scientists ‘would have been better to tie a millstone round the neck of the Yi Jing and cast it into the sea.’
To consult the I Ching, a person makes six choices between yin/yang; short/long; broken/straight; or heads/tails arranged in two sets of three. Each line is called a 爻 yáo and is represented by the number 9 for yang 阳爻 yángyáo or 6 for yin 阴爻 yīnyáo. 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 power of the Yi Jing can be seen from the belief that the invention of wooden boats first came from 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 so it is interpreting as stating that wood is the suitable material to use for making boats.
The Yi Jing dates back about 3,000 years when it was probably used purely for divination. Although it is claimed to date from the start of the Zhou dynasty there is no direct evidence to support this. The oldest text is called 周易 Zhōuyì after the name of the dynasty and attributed to legendary Emperor Fuxi (c.2800 BCE) and King Wen of Zhou ➚ 周文王. 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.易 yì can be translated as 'easy' as well as 'changes' and it could be considered that this method of divination was quicker and easier than analyzing the original divination method of studying the pattern of cracks on oracle bones. It is the Yi Jing commentaries that have as great a value as the hexagrams themselves, they illustrate much about Chinese thought, history and philosophy. Daoists just as much as followers of Confucius hold the book in great esteem. All this has made it a much more sophisticated system than other mere ‘fortune telling’ systems such as Tarot cards ➚.
The slow, ancient method of casting a hexagram uses a bundle of 50 yarrow sticks 蓍草 shīcǎo (split six times to give each line - see below for a guide). In the Tang dynasty a faster method using three coins was introduced. However the probabilities are not the same in the two methods. The more complex system uses four choices rather than two, instead of just yin and yang this method produces both ‘continuous’ and ‘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 in combination give 64x64 (4096) possibilities which make it a very large and complex system.
|兑 duì||Lake 泽 zé||Lesser Metal||Autumn||West||marsh; monkey; youngest 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; sinking; pig; career|
|艮 gèn||Mountain 山 shān||Lesser Earth||late Winter||North-east||bear; 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||Lesser Wood||late Spring||South-east||wind; phoenix; eldest daughter; gentle; flexible; growth; wealth|
|离 lí||Fire 火 huǒ||Fire||Summer||South||middle daughter; dependent; attaching; weapons; 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 give a hexagram or gua for the Yi Jing.
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 归藏 Guīcáng ‘Save in Earth’ 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 Song dynasty follows this strict binary order. King Wen's arrangement is in pairs of inverses or opposites so qián is followed by 000000 (坤 kūn all yin). As qián is symmetric (it is its own inverse) its opposite 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 begins with 010001 (屯 zhūn) and its inverse is 100010 (蒙 mēng) in this case the pair reverses the order. The arrangement of hexagrams has puzzled scholars for centuries as there are strong patterns of related concepts within the ordering. 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.
The most 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), these give most benefit. 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 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’).
|No.||The hexagram number in the King Wen ordering of the Hexagrams.|
|Gua||The Chinese character, pinyin and old seal script form of the hexagram (gua).|
|Name||Two attempts at translating the gua into English. This is tricky as different translators use different words. Here we provide a link to a web page that provides a full description of each gua.|
|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 gua, that is the one where each yao is changed yin to yang or yang to yin.|
|Inv.||The number of the Inverse 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.|
|Associations||Some of the known associations of the hexagram.|
Because the hexagrams in the King Wen ordering are not placed in numerical order it can take time to look-up a 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 follow the link for more information.
Dà zhuàng 
Dà xù 
Xiǎo xù 
Dà yǒu 
Wú wàng 
Shì kè 
Wèi jì 
Xiǎo guò 
Dà guò 
Tóng rén 
Jì jì 
Míng yí 
Jiā rén 
Guī mèi 
Zhōng fú 
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’ lines are changed to yang and all ‘changing yang’ lines are changed to yin. The commentaries of the Yi Jing only give a commentary when there is a single changing line. In the less likely case that more than one line is changing great skill is required to interpret the meaning of the change, quite often the hexagram is cast again.
The ten original commentaries or 'wings' are split into upper and lower sections:1,2 : These commentaries are attributed to King Wen of Zhou. They are called the 序卦传 Xù guà zhuàn and 彖传 Tuàn zhuàn
The text and commentaries are hard to follow because they allude to unknown events and customs in 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.
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 particular gua: General administration (1); Ministry of Education (2); Ministry of Rites (51); Executive (52; 57 and 30); Ministry of Justice (58) and Ministry of Public Works (29). In this way a single gua has a great number of important associations and forms a complex network with many other related concepts. The Yi Jing provided the master plan for organizing everything.
There are a variety of methods for casting a Yi Jing, to adapt to modern times where speed is a factor, shortcuts are often used. The oldest and most complex method uses Yarrow sticks produces different outcome probabilities compared to modern versions.
64 sticks each marked with one hexagram are placed loosely in a vase. The vase is then tilted at an angle and shaken until one of the sticks slowly works itself loose and falls out of the vase. This method yields one gua (hexagram) each time .
It was as long ago as the Tang dynasty that coins started to be used to cast a Yi Jing. Sets of three 'I Ching' coins were, and continued to be, minted specifically for this purpose. There are two distinct methods:
Only one coin is needed and all you do to build a hexagram is to toss it six times and record the outcomes. Traditionally heads are counted as yang and tails as yin. The hexagram is built from the bottom up.
This is a more authentic method as it produces two hexagrams. The three coins are tossed to give each line of the hexagram starting, as ever from the bottom. Three heads give changing yang; two heads (one tail) unchanging yin; one head (two tails) unchanging yang and three tails gives changing yin. The probability of a changing yin or yang is 12.5% (1 in 8) and for unchanging 37.5% (3 in 8), so this method does favor the stable forms but yin and yang are equally likely.
The yarrow stick method is considered the most ancient and authentic, but it can take several minutes to cast a hexagram.
Yarrow sticks are stalks of the herb Achillea sibirica ➚ (Siberian Yarrow). It is a close relative of the ornamental plant 'Achillea' grown in gardens. Yarrow was used medicinally to both staunch bleeding and cause nose bleeding giving it a powerful association with life. In Asia a simple method of divination was to insert the foliage in the nose and the answer was determined by whether or not the nose started to bleed. The reason for the Western botanical name ‘Achillea’ was chosen is because Achilles ➚ used it to staunch the bleeding of his troops according to the Illiad ➚.
50 yarrow sticks are used, the first step is to take out one stick and set it down parallel in front of you, this is the 'observer' and takes no further part in the process. This leaves 49 sticks. The following steps are repeated six times once for each line of the hexagram starting at the bottom.
The mechanism of counting in fours is a little more complex than you might first think. As the remainders can be 1 to 4 you might expect the counts of the groups to be anything from 1+1=2 all the way up to 4+4=8 but this is not the case. In the first round there were 49 sticks, the second and third rounds only used the 'fours' so they are always a multiple of four. To appreciate how it works you need to go through the mathematics. If there are 'n' sticks in the left hand, then the first remainder of the left hand pile can be 1, 2, 3 or 4 sticks but this leaves 49-1-n sticks in the right hand pile. The remainder of the right pile can only be 3, 2, 1 or 4 respectively. So the total for the left and right remainders can only be 4, 4, 4 or 8 respectively. With the extra stick from the right side this requires the total for the first bundle to be only ever 5 or 9. If your total is not 5 or 9 then you have miscounted. In effect you only need to count the sticks in the left hand, those in the right hand just confirm you have counted correctly. You will also note that the probability is not 50:50 as it would be for tossing a coin. This accounts for the different probabilities of outcomes in the yarrow stick method.
In the second and third round of divisions there are a multiple of 4 sticks to start with not the original 49 so the mathematics is different. Although the left hand remainder can again be 1, 2, 3 or 4 sticks for the right hand the remainder can only be 2, 1, 4 or 3 respectively. Adding the two sets of remainders gives 3, 3, 7 or 7. With the extra stick from the right side this requires the total for the second and third bundles to be only ever 4 or 8. If you have a total other than 4 or 8 in total then you have miscounted just as in the first round. However in this case there is an equal probability of getting a total of either 4 or 8, as with tossing a coin.
Now comes the task of converting the counts into one line of the hexagram.
9+8+8 = Changing yin; (chance 0.25x0.5x0.5 = 6.25%)
9+8+4 or 9+4+8 or 5+8+8 = yang (chance 6.25+6.25+18.75=31.25%)
9+4+4 or 5+4+8 or 5+8+4 = yin (chance 6.25+18.75+18.75=43.75%)
5+4+4= Changing yang; (chance 0.75x0.5x0.5 = 18.75%)
Note the unequal distribution; changing yin and unchanging yang are less likely so the process favors yin.
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