I Ching

Critical Mass I Ching by Payton Chung
Critical Mass I Ching by Payton Chung via Flickr

The I Ching (English: The Great Book of Changes) is an ancient Chinese book of divination which, in its most recent form, is based on ideas from Taoism and Confucianism.

Implied throughout the I Ching‘s worldview is the notion that one’s individual condition is intricately linked to the dynamic workings of nature (to include the cosmos and the Will of Heaven).

The earliest surviving version of the I Ching evolved out of Chinese nature philosophy and was written on bamboo strips. As legend has it, this first incarnation of the I Ching dates back to the mythical Emperor Fu-hsi, c. 2850 BCE. It was composed of eight trigrams (three lines each), which themselves might have been of foreign origin.

Around 1150 BCE, King Wen, who became the Duke of Chou, composed 64 hexagrams of six lines each (two trigrams) with short commentaries. Each hexagram apparently represented an archetypal situation. And each line of the hexagram is based on a binary system (either a solid or broken line) and is attained by selecting a single yarrow stalk from a randomly arranged heap and going through a specific set of operations.

The I Ching influenced Lao Tzu’s composition of another great Chinese work, the Tao-te-Ching, around 500 BCE. During the fifth-century BCE Confucius turned his attention to the I Ching and contributed to the “Ten Wings.” Each Wing is a commentary on an aspect of each hexagram.

Since then, the tyrant emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti ordered the burning of the I Ching and all Confucian commentaries, but some copies survived.

Around the third-century the scholar Wang Pi refashioned the book, emphasizing its wisdom instead of divinatory purposes (in contrast to the opportunistic court magicians of the day).

In the 17th century a Jesuit priest introduced the book to the philosopher Leibniz. Leibniz substituted the solid and broken lines of the hexagrams with “0” and “1” and found them to be arranged in a binary system that counted up from 0 to 63.

It’s noteworthy that computer programming uses binary code—the same ancient logic found in the structure of the I Ching.

In the 1960’s the I Ching became popular in the West, and tossing three Chinese coins six times became a viable (and marketable) alternative to the ancient method of selecting yarrow stalks.

Just before this, the psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote a forward to the sinologist Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching. Jung also mentions the I Ching in relation to his concept of synchronicity.

The Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen and other notables have, at some time in their lives, became fascinated with the I Ching’s attractive combination of depth and simplicity. Numerous interpretations and self-help books based on the ancient texts are available today and recent attempts have been made to connect the underlying philosophy of the I Ching with the notion of karma as found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

As for the ever skeptical John Lennon, he had this to say in the song “God” on the album, Plastic Ono Band:

I don’t believe in I Ching… I just believe in me.

Related Posts » Yin-Yang



  1. That’s a very well-done summary of the I Ching (or Yijing or Zhouyi)! Not many people know about its influence on modern binary via Leibniz.


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