What Is the I Ching?

By Richard W. Brooks

Originally printed in the January-February 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Brooks, Richard W. "What Is the I Ching?" Quest  93.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUAY 2005):20-23

Theosophical Society - Richard Brooks is a retired professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan. As a Theosophist of more than fifty years, he served on the national board for many years. His specialties are logic, Indic and Chinese philosophy, and parapsychology.

The Chinese classic called I Ching (sometimes written Yi Jing, as it should be pronounced) has been interpreted a number of ways by different scholars and devotees of the text. Is it, as many who consult it claim, a book of pination? Is it more fundamentally a book of wisdom, offering suggestions of what one might do in various situations? Is it a remarkable insight into the basic archetypal possibilities of the human psyche, as Carl Jung believed, and perhaps also related to his notion of synchronicity? Is it basically a resource book that gives us some insight into the social structure of ancient China, as some scholars claim? Is it an early example of a binary number system, anticipating by millennia the switching structure of the modern digital computer? Or is it somehow all of these at once?

The great German Sinologist Richard Wilhelm translated the I Ching in 1923 based on his years of familiarity with the text and his consultation with Chinese who used it. His German translation was then rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes at Jung's request; the revised edition was printed in a new format with a preface by Richard Wilhelm's son, Hellmut, also a Sinologist. Other translations exist, of course, including one published by the Sinologist John Blofeld in 1965. The Chinese scholar Wing-tsit Chan preferred James Legge's 1882 translation. But many of us who have become intrigued with the text and cannot read the Chinese original prefer the Wilhelm-Baynes translation, even though it is, as Chan points out, "interpretative to some extent" (795). Jung, in fact, states that Legge "has done little to make the work accessible to Western minds" (Wilhelm-Baynes, xxi).

Since the Chinese language lacks inflection, the title could be translated either "Book of Change" or "Book of Changes." I prefer the former, since constant change is a basic assumption of ancient Chinese philosophy. The basis of the text is the philosophy of yang and yin, the former being associated with light, strength, affirmation, and so on, and the latter with darkness, weakness, yielding, negation, and so on. Neither is considered superior, since in some situations a dominant and forthright attitude is appropriate, while in others a more submissive attitude is needed. The proper attitude depends on one's situation and the desired outcome.

The yang principle is indicated in the I Ching by an unbroken line and the yin by a broken or pided line, hence the binary aspect of the system. The various combinations of these two lines are made by two trigrams (combinations of three lines) placed one atop the other to create a hexagram (a combination of six lines), making a total of sixty-four possible combinations. The method of reading them is from the bottom upwards. Each trigram is given a Chinese name, as is the combination of the two trigrams in a hexagram. The first hexagram according to the usual system of organization, is called in the Wade-Giles transliteration system Ch'ien, The Creative (or in Gregory Winecup's translation using the pinyin system of transliteration Qian, Strong Action), and is composed of all yang lines. The second hexagram, composed of all yin lines, is K'un, The Receptive (or Kun, Acquiescence). The subsequent hexagrams are all composed of various mixtures of yang and yin lines.

The traditional way of consulting the book is by means of yarrow stalks. It is suggested that this is because the stalks originally come from living organisms and hence are appropriate instruments for consulting what is considered to be a dynamic or living system. It is also a slower method and allows—according to some, including myself—psychokinesis (PK) to influence the stalks at a subconscious level of the psyche. The assumption seems to be that some deeper aspect of ourselves already knows what would be best for us to do in any specific situation, even if our brain-dominated consciousness does not. And that aspect of ourselves somehow influences the way the stalks are pided and counted out. If this is correct, as I believe it is, it implies that one should never consult the I Ching flippantly, disrespectfully, or casually, nor for trivial questions or problems one could easily solve for oneself. It should be used infrequently and only when one has a serious dilemma. In other words, one must attempt to get in touch with one's deeper self and not with some more superficial aspect of one's psyche.

Another method of consulting the book is by tossing ancient Chinese coins. Although they do not have the metaphorical association with life that yarrow stalks do, they at least preserve the association with ancient China. Whether PK—and one's unconscious self—can influence the result as readily is difficult to determine, although PK experiments have been conducted by parapsychologists with such materials, often with statistically significant, although not usually very exuberant, results. Some Americans use ordinary modern currency such as copper pennies, considering that they are comparable to ancient Chinese copper coins. Still more recently, a computer program has been developed that chooses one's hexagram electronically. With all such modern methods, the element of ritual involved in the use of yarrow stalks is bypassed. The few times I have witnessed these modern methods, I felt that the resulting hexagram was somehow inappropriate to the question being asked, often completely unintelligible. That is why I prefer the slower, ancient method using yarrow stalks as is described in Wilhelm-Baynes text (721—24).

Because there are obviously more than just sixty-four different situations one might find oneself in, the text offers a variety of alternatives. There are actually four possible outcomes for each of the six lines when consulting the yarrow stalks. These lines are identified either as "young yang," "young yin," "old yang," or "old yin." The young lines are fixed; that is, they remain unchanged. The old lines are moving; that is, they change into their counterparts: An old yang changes into a young yin and an old yin into a young yang. It is unusual to arrive at a hexagram containing only fixed lines, which suggests a situation that one cannot change and simply has to accept. Equally uncommon would be to arrive at a hexagram with six moving lines, indicating an extremely fluid situation. More common is a hexagram with at least one or two moving lines. In that case, one gets two hexagrams: the starting one and the one it changes into. That suggests possibilities for solving (or resolving) one's present situation creatively instead of reactively, which often happens when one deals with life's problems based on past habit patterns.

Another important aspect of the I Ching is that each hexagram has both a judgment and an image associated with it (collectively called the kua-tz'u), both of which are expressed in metaphors. The text describing each of the possible moving lines (known as the yao-tz'u) is also expressed metaphorically. The vagueness involved in both is important, since it allows one's subconscious—perhaps even one's higher self—to interpret the hexagram in a way that is appropriate to oneself. Two people with two different problems arriving at the same hexagram might appropriately interpret it in different ways according to the nature of their question. In other words, the I Ching is a remarkable book with an almost infinite range of possible answers to life's dilemmas.

In addition to the kua-tz'u and yao-tz'u, there are several commentaries, probably appended to the basic text over several centuries. The most interesting from a theosophical point of view is the wen yen, which stresses the philosophical and ethical implications of the hexagrams. As Wing-tsit Chan observes, it is upon that commentary and some appended remarks (hsi-tz'u), as well as comments on some of the trigrams, "that much of Chinese philosophical speculation has been based" (262).

Just when the I Ching was compiled is difficult to determine. Tradition ascribes the eight trigrams to the legendary hero Fu-hsi (traditionally dated prior to the twenty-third century BCE) and their development into the hexagrams to King Wen (reigned 1171—1122 BCE), although modern scholars dispute this. Hellmut Wilhelm points out only that it is generally agreed that there are several layers of the text, the present form having been reached "in the century before Confucius" (Wilhelm-Baynes xiv). It is known that Confucius (551—479 BCE) included it among the classics (ching) he required his students to study, and it is believed that he wrote a commentary on it (called "The Ten Wings"), although this also has been disputed by some scholars (Chan 262). One assumes that Confucius considered it a book of wisdom rather than of pination, perhaps relating to earlier times before China began to degenerate into interstate warfare (which started during his lifetime but became endemic during 403—222 BCE, called the Warring States period). Confucius looked to the past as a model for restoring political order. In any event, the I Ching assumed great importance in later centuries in China, especially when the examination system required aspirants for government positions to write essays on the Confucian classics.

Theosophical references to China are scarce and to the I Ching even scarcer. H. P. Blavatsky makes several references to Confucius in The Secret Doctrine, but most of them make little sense and none relates in any obvious way to the I Ching. It is a shame, because this Chinese classic, however it is construed, is most interesting. And when it is used as a book of pination—or, if one prefers, of wisdom—it can be extremely illuminating. I have known several theosophists, including both my wife and myself, who consult it when confronted with a difficult situation that we cannot solve with either reason or intuition. It has always proven useful. In one case, which occurred at a theosophical planning seminar I attended, the hexagram, Splitting Apart (po or bo), was a literal description of our situation. It also gave us sensible advice for resolving our impasse, which we did. However, in many cases, the really difficult thing is not interpreting its recommendations but putting them into practice!


Chan, Wing-tsit. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Wilhelm, Richard, trans. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes. Bolllinger Series XIX. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971

Richard Brooks is a retired professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan. As a Theosophist of more than fifty years, he served on the national board for many years. His specialties are logic, Indic and Chinese philosophy, and parapsychology.