Rediscovering the I Ching

The I Ching on the Net


Hexagram 1
strong action

Hexagram 21 biting through

The I Ching, or "Book of Changes," was written as a divination manual, a book of power. Ancient soothsayers used it to predict the outcome of their patrons' plans. The classic commentators, however, reinterpreted the Changes in moral and metaphysical terms.

Rediscovering the I Ching attempts to rediscover the original meaning of the I Ching, which is simpler and more direct than the traditional interpretation followed by other translations. For a sample, see Hexagram 1, "Strong Action."

The Changes was composed almost three thousand years ago, during the Chinese Bronze Age. It was not until several centuries later that commentators laid down the classic interpretations of the text.

By this time, the Changes' archaic language had already become difficult to understand. The power and subtlety of the symbol-system of the Changes allowed the commentators to persuade themselves that it was less a divination handbook than a philosophical work, expressing moral and metaphysical truths in the form of divinations.

New studies reveal the Changes as a poetic but pragmatic manual of divination that allowed court shamans to tell ambitious noblemen how to deal with concrete situations in their lives. It is less philosophically profound than the traditional version of the Changes, but much more direct.

The words I Ching (also written Yijing) probably mean "change classic" (there is some doubt).

The "Classic of Change" was one of the approved classic texts decreed during the Han Dynasty, around 100 BC. It consisted of an ancient core text dating from 1000-500 BC, to which were appended several more recent commentaries (only dating from 400-100 BC ;).

The core text is also called the Zhouyi or "Changes of Zhou." Zhou was an ancient kingdom whose ruler, King Wu, became King of China around 1000 BC.

The Zhouyi was probably composed orally by diviners serving the court of the rulers of Zhou, both before and after Zhou rose to rule all of China. The text was likely written down by 500 BC.


The basis of the Changes is a set of 64 six-line diagrams known as "hexagrams." Each of these symbolizes a different human situation, and each of a hexagram's six lines symbolizes a different stage or aspect of that situation, evolving forward in time and upward in society from the bottom of the hexagram to the top.

There is a passage of text to explain and illustrate the symbolic meaning of each hexagram, and there are separate passages for each of its lines. For an example, see my interpretation of Hexagram 1, "Strong Action."

The symbolism of the Changes is based on seeing solid lines as strong and active, and broken lines as weak and acquiescent. The meanings of all the hexagrams are ultimately derived from this simple symbolism.

Each hexagram can be analyzed into an upper group of three lines and a lower group of three lines. These are called the upper and lower "trigrams."

There are eight different trigrams and each of them has a specific symbolic meaning based on its arrangement of solid and broken lines. For example, a weak line under two solid lines makes the trigram "Kneel in Submission."

The meanings of the hexagrams are related to those of the trigrams that make them up. For example, the hexagram "Subjugated" consists of the trigram Kneel in Submission under the trigram Strong Action, which is made up of three solid lines.

To make a divination, the diviner randomly sorted 50 small plant stalks to pick a hexagram and put an emphasis on one or more of its lines.

studied at the University of Toronto and the University of London, and worked in the Far Eastern Department of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He now lives on Vancouver Island, off Canada's Pacific coast. He is also author of The Heart of Chinese Poetry.

Updated 01 April 2008
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