What is the Yi Jing?

The Yi Jing or I Ching is known in English as the "Book of Changes". It has been used in China and the East for well on three thousand years both as a divination tool and as a philosophical text for seekers of wisdom.

The following is a basic primer for those unacquainted with the Book of Changes and its symbols.

Basic Introduction

The Yi Jing or Book of Changes comprises sixty-four figures known in English as "hexagrams". Each of these hexagrams has a name in Chinese, for example JIA REN, FENG or JUE. Each of these 64 hexagrams is said to represent a particular life situation or phase, and the full sixty-four are held to stand for all the possible situations in life. They are as such archetypes, and whether used in divination or as a way to wisdom, their study can help to make clear elements in life which may be at first sight confusing.

These hexagrams are constructed of six lines. These lines may be either broken in the middle or unbroken. The number sixty-four represents all the possible combinations of six of these broken or unbroken lines. The broken line is known as a YIN line and the unbroken line is known as a YANG line. The YIN line is said to stand for such qualities as darkness, passivity, yielding and receptivity. The YANG line is said to stand for such qualities as light, activity, firmness and creativity. However, these attributes are not fixed, as they are relative to each other and also relative to the situation. It is the interaction of these two basic line types in their collection of six lines which gives each of the sixty-four hexagrams its unique characteristics.

A more detailed picture of the situation represented in the hexagram is given in the text which goes with each of the hexagrams. This text clarifies the situation in terms of an image of some kind and usually an omen. It is known in Chinese as the TUAN, usually translated in English as "The Judgement". The 64 hexagrams and their texts are presented in a sequence and are numbered accordingly. This sequence is known as King Wen's sequence, named after the culture hero (around 1000BC) of the Dynasty in which the Yi Jing developed . Although alternative sequences exist, King Wen's sequence is the one in which the hexagrams are most usually given. The first two of the hexagrams in the sequence are QIAN consisting entirely of unbroken or YANG lines, followed by KUN, composed wholly of broken or YIN lines. Throughout the san shan edition, hexagrams are referred to with their Chinese (pinyin) name, followed by the translation of that name into English, and then the number of that hexagram in the King Wen sequence. For example, QIAN, Creativity, [KW01].

How is the Yi Jing used?

There are two basic approaches which have existed side by side for almost three millenia: some have read it as a repository of wisdom and others have used it as a divination tool. Fashions have come and gone, and most of the great Chinese philosophers have at some point contributed to the huge corpus of literature which continues to proliferate around the Book of Changes. Some have stressed the former approach and others the latter, the debate at times becoming heated and mutually exclusive. In one's initial encounters, simply opening the book at random and reading the Judgement or line texts, while applying the overall situations of the hexagrams to one's past experiences can be of great value.


When the Yi Jing is used for divination, one holds a question in mind as one either throws three coins or counts through 50 dried yarrow sticks. After each throw or counting off a number is generated, either a 6, a 7, an 8 or a 9. Each number is then represented as a line, broken or unbroken. The number "8" is represented by a YIN or broken line, and the number "7" by a YANG or unbroken line. Each throw of the coins results in one line, and these are built from the bottom up until the hexagram is formed.

The hexagram is then identified and the texts read and interpreted in the light of the question asked. In divination, the hexagram QIAN, Creativity, [KW01], would be formed if one received the number "7" for each throw of the coins or counting off of the stalks. If, however, one's coins result in the numbers "6" or "9" then the lines are said to be "changing" or "moving", ready to change into their opposites. Thus the number "6" is a YIN line ready to change into a YANG, and the number "9" is a YANG line ready to change into a YIN. A YIN line which is changing or ready to change into its opposite is written as a broken line with a cross in it, and a YANG line which is changing or ready to change into its opposite is written as an unbroken line with a circle in it. These changing or moving lines are in a sense the key to the entire system as presented in the Yi Jing, namely that the universe is an everchanging unfolding of events; situations are never really static, but always simply a phase in the process of change. The hexagrams are an image of these archetypal situations.

If in one's divination one has received the numbers 6 or 9, that is to say one has received moving lines, then two things happen. The first is that in one's reading of the hexagram one reads the texts accompanying that moving line. Each line of a hexagram has a text as well, but it is read only when the line is "moving". This provides further help in clarifying one's situation. How these texts relate to the situation featured in the question is a matter for one's own experience with the Yi Jing. The second thing which happens when one's hexagram has moving lines is that those lines having a value of 6 or 9 change into their opposites, thus forming a new or second hexagram. This new hexagram presents an entirely new image and situation. The entire oracle consists of the overall judgement text and the text to the second line of QIAN, and in addition the overall judgement text for the second hexagram, TONG REN. This second hexagram signifies the situation which may pertain following that presaged by the first hexagram. It may show what could happen if the advice is followed or not.


In the centuries immediately prior to the beginning of the Christian era, the great humanist philosophers of China also turned their attention to the Yi Jing, and interpreted the texts in terms of either Confucian, Daoist or Buddhist philosophy. It also drew the attention of magicians and number symbolists. Because of its central importance in Chinese society, for any doctrine wishing to prove its credentials it was essential to find relationships within the Yi Jing to that doctrine. This is a trend which has persisted and the present day is no exception.

It is through use and experience that the hexagrams will speak. The language of the texts is at times archaic and the imagery is from a Bronze Age feudal society. It speaks of concubines and carriages, of meeting one's lord and the act of sacrifice. These days we do not have lords in the feudal sense, but we do have managers and employers. We do not perform sacrifices, but we often focus our will in order to empower ourselves. We do not have concubines, but we often find ourselves in inequitable situations. Interpretation depends upon one's ability to translate these archetypes into one's present situation. It is axiomatic in the Yi Jing that all situations are covered, in whatever place and at whatever time.

What is necessary is the involvement of the individual human psyche within the process. For both Confucius and for C.G Jung, the most important element in the process of using the Yi Jing, whether in divination or simply when reading it as a book of wisdom, was this relationship between the individual human being and his inner consciousness, and the universal images it sets forth. The process of examining one's motives, one's behaviour, one's actions and one's inner life is what makes human beings both themselves and of the human race. This has not changed in the passage of time from the Bronze Age to the present day. The system of the Book of Changes is based on the belief that everything which happens at a particular moment in time is imbued with or resonates with the characteristics of that moment. Even a seemingly "chance" event (the tossing of a coin) is a mirror of the moment. To the mind of the Yi Jing diviner, there is no such thing as "chance", because every event is connected by virtue of its belonging to the same moment. Therefore the hexagram, formed as it is at a particular moment, is nothing more than a mirror of reality, both internal and external. It enables consciousness to realise itself and its place in the everchanging flow of time.

This point of view, that events are acausally connected, is somewhat alien to the Western mind. To the Western mind, events follow one anther in a chain of causality. Any event which is not caused by another is labelled random or chance, and therefore has no validity. Central throughout the Yi Jing is the concept of Change itself, whereby it is held as axiomatic that everything changes. These changes are not random or accidental but follow pre-ordained patterns or cycles, which, if understood, allow one to synchronise one's life with that of the unfolding of things as they naturally are. It is in man's nature to attempt to distill meaning from his own life and place it against a greater meaning. The Book of Changes represents one of the first recorded attempts to do so, and its validity is testified by its continuing relevance through the centuries.

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