The Yi jing
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taijiThe Yi jing (I Ching in Wage-Giles transliteration) is the most ancient of the five prime Confucian classics of China. The earliest extent version was found in the 1973 in the Mawangdui tombs in Hunan province. That version dates to the second century BCE, but the book is doubtless much older.


At the root of the Yi jing is the binary system known as yin/yang. According to Taoist cosmology, in the beginning there was only undifferenciated qi (energy), which separated into yin (female) and yang (male). The interaction of these opposing forces gives birth to eternal change. This is expressed in the taiji symbol, in which yin (dark) and yang (light) are represented as constantly changing into the other; each, moreover, contains within itself the seed of the other.

The Taiji Symbol and the Trigrams and Hexagrams

The taiji symbol is sometime shown surrounded by eight trigrams (as above). Each trigram is made up of three lines. An unbroken line represent yang; a broken line represents yin. The opposition of yin and yang is in a sense an illusion, for everything is really one, or the tao. Any binary system that is dynamic suggests the number three: As yin/yang emerge from the old or give birth to the new, or as they are seen in reference to the one tao, the two becomes three. So the trigrams consists of three lines, each representing yin or yang, and yeilding a total of eight (23=8).

There is some dispute about whether the trigrams preceded the hexagrams historically, and the meanings of the trigrams are variously rendered. I’ve indicated the component trigrams in the commentary section of my renderings, following Wang Bi (226-249), as: heaven (|||), thunder (|::), water (:|:), mountain (::|), earth (:::), sun (:||), fire (|:|), and lake (||:).

Doubling the trigrams produces the 64 hexagrams of the Yi jing (26=64).

The Zhou yi and the Confucian Overlay

What I have said so far derives from the ancient shamanistic and Taoist Chinese tradition. Historically, however, in China the Yi jing has been viewed through the lens of Confucian ethical and philosophical commentary. "Most translations are principally derived directly or indirectly," according to Richard John Lynn, "from some combination of the commentaries of the Neo-Confucians Cheng Yi (1033-1107) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200)." In fact, the Yi jing is considered one of the five classics of Confucianism. Much of what is understood by many Westerners to be the text of the Yi jing is really the translation of this commentary.

The names Zhou yi and Yi jing are often used interchangeably. Applied more precisely, Zhou yi refers to the core document, which dates from the Bronze Age, while Yi jing refers to the later work, which adds to Confucian commentary. According to legend, the Zhou yi hexagrams were created by an ancient ruler named Fuxi.

Consulting the Yi jing

The Chinese have been interested in divination since ancient times, and the Yi jing probably evolved from oracle bone prophesy. Divination seems to be the aspect of the book that most appeals to Westerners. To the educated elite of post-Song China, who would have closely studied the philosophical and ethical commentaries surrounding the text, foregrounding this aspect to the detriment of the philosophical dimensions would be seen as trivializing the book. Yet divination (usually with yarrow sticks or coins) was undeniably a key function of the book -- indeed, it was likely first a divination manual and only later a philosophical text.

If, conscious of the likely limits of your understanding of the work, you would nonetheless like to consult the Yi jing, frame a question in your mind and then click the buttom at top right. I think it's fair to say that thinking deeply about the hexagram that emerges will yield a key that should assist in unlocking the question.

About this rendering

If you are interested in how the text given here came about, see this page.


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The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps.
  -- Carl Jung


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