I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom

I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom

by John Minford

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A landmark new translation of the ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom

Pose a question, then toss three coins (or cast your yarrow stalks) to access the time-honored wisdom of the I Ching.

The I Ching, or Book of Change, has been consulted through the ages, in both China and the West, for answers to…  See more details below


A landmark new translation of the ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom

Pose a question, then toss three coins (or cast your yarrow stalks) to access the time-honored wisdom of the I Ching.

The I Ching, or Book of Change, has been consulted through the ages, in both China and the West, for answers to fundamental questions about the world and our place in it. The oldest extant book of divination, it dates back three thousand years to ancient shamanistic practices involving the ritual preparation of the shoulder bones of oxen. From this early form of communication with the other world, it has become the Chinese spiritual book par excellence. An influence on such cultural icons as Bob Dylan, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Philip K. Dick, and Philip Pullman, the I Ching is turned to by millions around the world for insights on spiritual growth, business, medicine, genetics, game theory, strategic thinking, and leadership, and of course for the window it opens on China.

This new translation, over a decade in the making, is informed by the latest archaeological discoveries and features a gorgeously rendered codex of divination signs—the I Ching’s sixty-four Tarot-like hexagrams. It captures the majesty and mystery of this legendary work and charts an illuminating path to self-knowledge.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A tour de force of erudition.” —The New York Review of Books

“Minford’s new translation is impressive and unique. . . . [It] artfully conveys . . . the runic quality of the original. . . . The erudition and scholarship are truly impressive. . . . The translations . . . are excellent. . . . Anyone with a special interest in the Yi or a general interest in Chinese culture will find a great deal of value in it. . . . The price is certainly unbeatable.” —Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy

“A nicely produced book with an enthusiastic spirit and scholarly credentials . . . [It] has a freshness and clarity about it and reads well [and] has the authority of a solid translator with great scholarly experience. [It] should certainly join the small handful of books that are worthy of consulting time and time again.” —Yijing Dao

“[This] new translation . . . explores the multi-dimensional aspects of this legendary yet largely elusive work in various ways aimed at personalising it and making it more accessible to the English-speaking world.” —South China Morning Post

“Consistently eloquent and erudite, this rendition of the I Ching will endure as a classic of the twenty-first century and beyond.” —Anthony C. Yu, Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Humanities, University of Chicago

“Readers familiar with the classic Wilhelm/Baynes translation can rest assured that John Minford’s new version has surpassed it. . . . It is a work of art. But it is also extremely user-friendly, especially for general readers who wish to consult their fortunes with this book. They will find here, in Minford’s many-splendored prose, a largesse of wisdom and sheer mystical power.” —Leo Ou-fan Lee, Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture, Chinese University of Hong Kong

“A creative masterpiece in itself, this translation by John Minford—one of the foremost cultural intermediaries of our day—throws fresh light on the great Chinese classic of the occult. It is a kind of unholy resurrection, a cable that disappears into the abyss of a darker time. In it the Bronze Age predicts to the Information Age the shadow of what is to come.” —Timothy Mo, three-time finalist for the Booker Prize

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The roots of the Chinese classic the I Ching, or the Book of Change, lie in ancient practices of Divination. More than three thousand years ago, in the Bronze Age society of the Shang dynasty, the Spirits of Nature and of the Ancestors were regularly questioned and placated by Kings, their Shamans, and their Scribes, through Divination and Sacrifice. These Rituals were accompanied by music and dance, the consumption of fresh and dried meats and cereals, the drinking and libation of alcohol, and perhaps the ingestion of cannabis.1 The questions posed often concerned the Great Affairs of State. Should the King go to war? Was it going to rain (and would the crops be affected)? Should human prisoners or animals be sacrificed, to bring an end to the drought? Should the King go hunting for elephants? Was the harvest going to be a good one? Sometimes the questions were more personal. Was the King’s toothache the result of an offense caused to an Ancestor? What was the significance of the King’s dream? In order to elicit answers to such questions, the shoulder bone (scapula) of an ox or the undershell (plastron) of a turtle was ritually prepared and anointed with blood. Carefully placed indentations were made on it, and heat was applied to the indentations with a rod of some sort, producing cracks on the opposite surface. The cracks were then “read” as an oracular response.

The bones and shells were often used several times, and were inscribed with the details of each Divination. They were stored in underground depositories, where they would lie forgotten for thousands of years. Occasionally a farmer might bring one or two to the surface with his plough. These Dragon Bones (as they were known) were ground into powder and used in traditional Chinese medicine. They were especially valued for the healing of wounds. It was only very recently—in the last years of the nineteenth century—that a number of scholars recognized their true nature and began avidly collecting them. The richest trove was discovered (not surprisingly) in and around the ancient Shang-dynasty capital at Anyang, in Henan Province. Since the first extensive excavations of the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Oracle Bones have been unearthed, and numerous volumes reproducing the inscriptions have been published.2 Chinese and non-Chinese scholars have engaged in the complex and arduous process of deciphering and interpreting the documentation of this early form of communication with the Other World. Their writings have shed fresh and often startling light on the Shang dynasty, revealing a society greatly at variance with the Way of the Former Kings as it was idealized by sage-philosophers of a later time, such as Confucius. The Shang Priest-Kings seem to have been hugely preoccupied with Warfare and Sacrifice, and in particular with large-scale Human Sacrifice. It was a gruesome business. As the contemporary archaeologist Robert Bagley has coolly observed, “Beheading was the normal method of Sacrifice, but some victims were dismembered or cut in half and a few children seem to have been trussed up and buried alive.”3

The powerful vassal state of Zhou from the western hinterlands finally conquered its eastern Shang neighbors toward the end of the second millennium BC, and founded its own dynasty. In the period that followed, the earlier shamanistic practices of Divination gradually lost ground to the more “civilized” or “secular” practice of achillomancy—Yarrow Divination—performed by casting the dried stalks of the yarrow, or milfoil, plant, Achillea millefolium.4 Mantic insight into the workings of the Universe and into the dynamic of a situation was provided by the casting of these Stalks.5 As a nobleman remarks in an entry for the year 644 BC in the early chronicle known as the Zuo Commentary, “The Turtle gives Images; the Yarrow gives Numbers.”6 At some point—and here the story becomes obscure—a body of traditional Divination lore seems to have been organized under a series of sixty-four diagrams, or Hexagrams, gua, each made up of six Divided (Broken) or Undivided (Unbroken) horizontal Lines. Traditionally the invention of these Hexagrams, or rather of the three-line Trigrams that were thought to constitute them, was ascribed to the legendary Fu Xi, divinely inspired by his observations of the Patterns of the Universe, of Nature, of Heaven and Earth. Some have speculated that it may have been the fall of the Yarrow Stalks themselves that gave rise to these patterns of Divided and Undivided Lines; others trace the Hexagrams back to early patterns scratched on the Oracle Bones.7 In any event, an oracular text, or “book,” became attached to the Hexagrams. This is as much as we can piece together of the hazy early story of the Oracle. There seem to have been several books of a similar nature. One (ours) was known as the Zhouyi, the Change of Zhou.8 In those days, it should be remembered, books were bundles of bamboo strips bound together with silk threads or leather thongs.

There have been many different explanations for the term Change itself, today pronounced yi, in ancient days closer to lek. In the Oracle Bone Inscriptions it is used for a change in the weather: “It will not rain, it will become [change to] overcast.” “Will it be [change to] an overcast day?”9 Sometimes the change in the weather was the other way round, and the sun came out. But there seems to be no “sun” element in the early graph, which looks more like drops of water (rain or mist) beside the moon.

As the American scholar Donald Harper has observed, there is simply too much that we do not know to permit a precise account of the development of the Hexagrams and of the evolution of the Zhouyi from Oracle to what I will refer to loosely as a Book of Wisdom, from achillomancy (Yarrow Divination) to bibliomancy (Divination by the Book known as the Change of Zhou).10 What is indisputable is that several of the early formulae used by the Diviners of the Shang era, as they occur in the surviving Inscriptions, are also found in the Bronze Age text of the Oracle. Richard Kunst has summarized this well: “The divinatory lexicon . . . took up in the late second millennium and early first millennium from where the Oracle Bone Inscriptions left off, then continued to develop through the years of the Zhou dynasty.”11

This Bronze Age text, which is the basis of Part II of my translation, seems to have gradually stabilized toward the middle of the dynasty (sometime between the ninth and sixth centuries BC). It was widely used by statesmen of the period, as we can read from several episodes in the Zuo Commentary. It was canonized as a classic, the I Ching, or the Book [Classic] of Change, in 136 BC, by which point it had already been provided with a series of commentaries.12 It has survived through the subsequent two thousand years of Chinese history, the strangest and most incomprehensible item in the Chinese canon, a text central to Confucian orthodoxy, and yet revered by Taoists and Buddhists; the “first of the Confucian Classics” and a pillar of state ideology, and yet at the same time a subtle and powerful vehicle for a wide range of heterodox ideas.

The book we have today, then—new editions of which, serious and not so serious, still appear with regularity in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—is the direct descendant of ancient Chinese Divination and Magic. Its core oracular text, the Change of Zhou, consisting of the Hexagrams themselves, the Hexagram Judgments, and the Statements attached to each Line, shares many of the preoccupations of Shang-dynasty Divination: the practice of Sacrifice, Ritual, and Warfare; the taking of captives; the activities of a pastoral society (herding, hunting, raising and gelding of livestock); sickness (its cause and cure); astronomical phenomena; and tinglings and other strange premonitions. Its language derives from the earliest known form of Chinese, used to record acts of Divination. If the Oracle Bone Inscriptions (and the later Inscriptions on Bronze Ritual Vessels) are the Chinese language in the making, the Change of Zhou is one of the earliest attempts to put that language to a coherent purpose.

In addition to divinatory formulae such as “It is Auspicious,” “A Sacrifice was Received,” “Supreme Fortune,” and “No Harm,” the early Oracle incorporated a patchwork of other popular oral materials—fragments of ancestral legend and myth, proverbs, songs, and rhymes—which became attached to a cyclical structure, the series of Sixty-Four Hexagrams. Joseph Needham, the great historian of Chinese science and thought, hazarded a guess as to the process whereby this took place: “First there were the collections of ancient peasant-omens (about birds, insects, weather, subjective feelings, and the like). . . . Somehow or other these collections coalesced [my italics] with the books of the professional Diviners, books which preserved traditional lore relating to scapulimancy, Divination by the milfoil sticks [Yarrow Stalks], and other forms of prognostication. . . . They remodelled the text and added elaborate commentaries on it. . . .”13 Each of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams in the series acquired a Name. The Names were not initially fixed, but varied from one version of the Oracle to another, as did their sequential order and the wording of the text itself—we can see this in the old bamboo-strip or silk transcriptions that have been excavated recently. But the wordless diagrams provided a crystalline structure to which the fluctuating text adhered.14 However the Hexagrams and their related texts themselves may have evolved, at this early stage in its history the words of the Oracle were linked to no system of ideas, to no Confucian or Taoist philosophy or Yin-Yang cosmology. In other words, the early oracular Change of Zhou was not yet a Book of Wisdom. It provided its readers (the kings and aristocrats who consulted it) with glimpses (often puzzling ones) of the workings of the Universe and man’s part in it, glimpses descended from the ancient shamanistic dialogue with the unknown. With time these glimpses were to be interpreted in terms of a holistic vision of the Universe, a vision contained in many of the I Ching commentaries, a vision associated with the central word Tao.15 Richard Lynn has summarized this evolution well: “Hexagram Divination . . . changed from a method of consulting and influencing Gods, Spirits and Ancestors—the ‘powerful dead’—to a method of penetrating moments of the cosmic order to learn how the Way, or Tao, is configured and what direction it takes at such moments and to determine what one’s place is and should be in the scheme of things.”16 Both Oracle and Book of Wisdom put the reader in touch with a greater scheme of things, opening a door to a “larger view” of the world.17


During the two periods of Zhou dynastic decline known as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States, the text circulated in this early oracular form among the states contending for leadership of the realm and was consulted for advice on pressing matters of state, and sometimes on lesser issues. When the draconian Qin state united the empire, it was one of the few texts to escape the “burning of the books” (in 213 BC), surviving intact, so tradition has it, precisely because it was regarded not as a work of philosophy (and therefore a potential source of dissidence) but “merely” as a useful handbook of Divination.18 A growing apparatus of quasi-philosophical commentaries was nonetheless already growing up around the urtext of the Oracle. These, known collectively as the Ten Wings and probably dating from the third and second centuries BC, were for many centuries attributed to more or less legendary figures. The Great Treatise (Dazhuan), perhaps the most important of these early commentaries, places the origins of the Trigrams in the remote past, setting the superlative tone adopted by many subsequent commentators.

Of old, when Fu Xi ruled the world,

He gazed upward and observed

Images in the Heavens;

He gazed about him and observed

Patterns upon the Earth.

He observed markings on birds and beasts,

How they were adapted to different regions.

Close at hand, he drew inspiration from within his own person;

Further afield, he drew inspiration from the outside world.

Thus he created the Eight Trigrams,

He made Connection with the Power of Spirit Light,

He distinguished the Myriad Things according to their Essential Nature.19

In a sense, it almost did not matter to whom the Trigrams, the Hexagrams, or the words attached to them were ascribed. In the eloquent words of the American scholar Kidder Smith, the I Ching was “the consummate written text, in that nearly every trace of human actors is absent from it. Its language is in this sense disembodied, and, by the same measure, empowered to roam freely throughout the natural world. It is in this sense shen, a ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual,’ a text less of culture than of Heaven-and-Earth, of Nature.”20 It continued to occupy this central spiritual space, as Book of Wisdom and Power, for over two thousand years. The central I Ching concepts, Yin and Yang, the Tao, Good Faith, and Self-Cultivation, have preoccupied almost every Chinese thinker until the twentieth century.21 To read or quote from the I Ching is to touch the very spiritual heart of things Chinese. Its “quality of mysterious holiness,” to quote the American scholar Michael Nylan, “has engaged nearly every major thinker in imperial China.”22 The influential Song-dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi considered it to be the Spiritual Book par excellence, “the mysterious home of the gods of Heaven and Earth.”23 In 1271, the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, at the suggestion of a Chinese adviser, named his Chinese dynasty “Yuan,” from the opening word of the Judgment for Hexagram I: yuan, Supreme or Primordial.24

The Classic and Its Many Commentaries

The Ten Wings were the first of many attempts to weave a more sophisticated web of ideas around the basic Oracle, adapting the mantic tradition of the Hexagrams to a philosophical or cosmological scheme. They became an inseparable part of the classic.25 The layers of text and commentary (and their traditional attributions) are best shown in tabular form.

Layers of Text

The Core Oracular Text

   • The Eight Trigrams (Ba gua) and the Sixty-Four Hexagrams (Liushisi gua), attributed to Fu Xi.
   • The Hexagram Judgments (Tuan), attributed to King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty.
   • The Line Statements (Yaoci), attributed to the Duke of Zhou, King Wen’s son, regent for the second Zhou king.

The Ten Wings (Early Commentaries)

Wings 1–2

On the Judgment (Tuanzhuan). This is divided into two parts, Commentary A (Hexagrams 1–30) and Commentary B (Hexagrams 31–64). I give all of this commentary, but do not reproduce this division.

Wings 3–4

On the Image (Xiangzhuan). Again divided into two parts, Commentary A (On the Image of the Hexagram) and Commentary B (On the Image of the Lines). In my translation, I place Commentary A immediately beneath the Commentary on the Hexagram Judgment, and Commentary B beneath each relevant Line.

Wings 5–6

The Great Treatise (Dazhuan; Xici). Also divided into two parts. This cosmological and metaphysical treatise in rhapsodic form is assembled from various sources. A copy of most of it has been found at the Mawangdui excavations, datable to c. 195 BC. Extracts from this important commentary are scattered throughout my translation.

Wing 7

On the Words (Wenyan). A commentary attached to the first two Hexagrams.

Wing 8

The Trigrams Expounded (Shuo gua). The origins and symbolism of the Trigrams. I have given samples of this puzzling commentary under the eight Doubled Trigram Hexagrams.

Wing 9

On the Sequence of the Hexagrams (Xu gua). Mnemonic verses. I do not include any of this.

Wing 10

Miscellaneous Notes on the Hexagrams (Za gua). Rhymed glosses on Hexagram Names. I do not include any of this.

A characteristic passage from the Great Treatise extols the book’s Spiritual Power:26

The I Ching has the measure of Heaven and Earth.

It comprehends the Tao of Heaven and Earth.

Gazing upward, it contemplates the Patterns of Heaven,

Looking down, it scrutinizes the configurations of Earth.

It knows the underlying causes of the occult and the evident.

It traces them back to their origins; it follows them to their ends.

It knows the meaning of birth and death,

How Essence fuses with Energy to form Being,

How the Wandering Soul departs, to be transformed.

It knows the conditions of Spirits and Souls.

It resembles Heaven and Earth; it never transgresses their Tao.

Its knowledge embraces the Myriad Things, its Tao succors All-under-Heaven.

It never goes astray.

It roams widely but is never exhausted.

It rejoices in Heaven, it knows Heaven’s Decree.

It is forever free from care.

It is at peace with the land.

It is kind, and can therefore love.

It models itself on the Transformations of Heaven and Earth

And can never go astray.

It follows every twist and turn of the Myriad Things.

It omits nothing.

Its knowledge Connects with the Tao of morning and evening.

Its Spirit knows no boundaries.

The I Ching has no form.

The I Ching does indeed have “no form” (in the conventional sense), thanks to the unique nonverbal, cyclical device of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams. It neither begins nor ends anywhere. In this it emulates the cyclical movement of the Universe itself. It “has the measure” of Heaven and Earth. It has no date or location other than the moment and place of each reading. It has no story. It has no author. It lives by virtue of the sheer Power that flows from each consultation.

It was widely believed for many centuries that Confucius himself had a hand in some of the I Ching commentaries. This belief was already being questioned in the Song dynasty, and is no longer taken seriously. Indeed, the words from the Great Treatise just quoted have more in common with currents of early Taoist thought than they do with Confucius or the Confucian Sage Philosopher Mencius. The practice of writing commentaries in the margins of this powerful text became with the centuries not so much a scholarly pastime as an act of participatory meditation, a therapeutic exercise in its own right, keyed to the Sixty-Four Tarot-like archetypal Hexagrams—Heaven, Earth, The Well, The Cauldron, etc. For the purposes of this new translation, a very few words will have to suffice on the subject of I Ching commentary and exegesis. There are literally thousands of such commentaries, and exhaustive studies of some of these are available in English.27 I give here as an example part of the preface to the influential commentary by the Song-dynasty philosopher Cheng Yi, which harks back to the much earlier Great Treatise. Cheng reflects on the strange properties of this book, on the way it provides the reader with literally “everything”:

The Book of Change [yi] is Transformation [bianyi]. It is the Transformation necessary if we are to be in tune with the Movement of Time, if we are to follow the Flow of the Tao. The Book is grand in its scope; it is all-encompassing. It is attuned to the very principles of Human Nature and Life-Destiny; it penetrates the underlying causes of both the occult and the evident. It exhausts the very Reality of Things; it reveals the Tao of endeavor and completion. . . . The principles governing Fortune and Calamity, the process of waxing and waning, the Tao of Progress and Retreat, of survival and extinction—these are all to be found in the text of the Book. By delving carefully into it, by investigating the Hexagrams, we can understand the process of Transformation. . . . Its Principles are deep and subtle, its Images crystal clear. In essence and function they share a single source. . . . To those who contemplate this shared depth and connection, and who practice its inherent discipline, the text will provide everything.28

I have not followed any one of the countless “schools” of exegesis. In the composite running commentary I have created for this translation, I have been unashamedly eclectic, choosing whatever seemed to me most helpful for today’s reader. In contrast with this, Richard Lynn’s fine translation scrupulously follows one influential interpretation, that of Wang Bi. My selection does, however, include generous extracts from the commentary of the eighteenth-century Taoist Liu Yiming, the Master Awakened to the Primordial (Wuyuanzi), which I found to be inspiring. I call him Magister Liu. For Liu, as a Taoist belonging to the lineage of the Complete Reality [Quanzhen] School, the I Ching symbols represent phases in the Inner Alchemical Work of Self-Cultivation. To read it is to “study the fundamental principles of Nature, and to arrive at the meaning of life.” It is “a basis for living in harmony with existential time.”29 It is a tool for the attainment of a heightened level of consciousness.30 Magister Liu’s vision of the human condition is eloquently expressed in his commentary on Hexagram XLIX, Change:

To achieve Change is to get rid of something and not use it anymore. . . . This is Illumined Change, achieved through Self-Cultivation. It frees one of Yin Energy, of personal Desire. This is to be rid of Self. Man is born pure, with the True Energies of Yin and Yang intact and unpolluted. True Essence shines within, the Spirit is full of Light. Emotions such as joy, anger, discontent, and happiness have not yet tainted the Heart-and-Mind. Influences such as wealth and poverty have not yet perturbed the Flow of Life. Tiger and rhinoceros can cause no Harm. Swords cannot hurt. Neither Water nor Fire can impinge on Life. Life and Death are of no concern. A child such as this eats when he is hungry and puts on clothes when he is cold. He has no thoughts or cares. His Inner Strength is Illumined. Then, when he reaches the age of sixteen, the Yang cycle comes to a Conclusion, and Yin is born. Conditioned Life begins. A hundred cares confuse the Heart-and-Mind, endless affairs take their toll on his bodily frame. He comes to think of False as True. As the days and years go by, habit accumulates on habit, estranging him from his True Nature. The Strength of his Inner Light is dimmed. To undergo Change is to get rid of these habits. It is to cast aside all this Ignorance and find a way back to Illumination, back to the Primordial Energy of the Tao. In order to do this, one needs first to understand Self. Then the Change will be Sincere. Then there will be Good Faith. With Sincerity and Good Faith, and once the True is distinguished from the False, all human beings are capable of Change. This is indeed their Supreme Fortune! This is the Tao. [My italics.]


What Magister Liu is proposing is a program of Self-Cultivation. It is, as Joseph Needham remarks of Taoism in general, “a programme for our time as well as theirs.”31 Some readers may already be wondering what the words Tao and Taoism (which will occur countless times in these pages) actually mean. The opening lines of that most venerable of all Taoist classics, The Tao and the Power, sound a warning note: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.” We speak of it at our peril. The moment we do, it slips through our fingers. Angus Graham has called it a “makeshift name for the unnameable in union with which we are spontaneously on course.”32 Perhaps it is best to say to the inquiring reader, “Words are inadequate for the Tao. But it is nonetheless real. What we can point to are clues left by those who have experienced this liberating way of looking at the world.” One such man was the poet Tao Yuanming. He wrote:

I pluck chrysanthemums beneath the eastern hedge,

And gaze afar at the southern mountains.

The mountain air is fine at evening of the day

And flying birds return together homewards.

Within these things there is a hint of Truth,

But when I start to tell it, I cannot find the words.33

The ancient teacher Master Zhuang, whose brilliant parables pointed to his own experience of the Tao, was more inscrutable: “This is that, that is also this. When this and that are not seen as relative opposites, this is the Axis of the Tao. When the Axis is in the center of the circle, then there is an infinite Resonance.”

Taoist Self-Cultivation. An Adept meditating on the Trigrams Kan and Li. In the Taoist alchemical scheme of things, the Kan Trigram (one Yang line surrounded by two Yin, Yang within Yin) represents the Yin, or Female, element (Water, Kidneys, White Tiger, Earthly Anima), while the Li Trigram (one Yin line surrounded by two Yang, Yin within Yang) represents the Yang, or Male, element (Fire, Heart, Green Dragon, Celestial Animus). In his practice, the Adept extracts True Yang from within Yin (in the Kan Trigram), and True Yin from within Yang (in the Li Trigram).

Just as the “true Tao” cannot be spoken, so the I Ching achieves something beyond mere words. It gives expression to pure spirit. That is why its decoding of the Universe is profoundly liberating. In the words of the Great Treatise, it drums it and dances it!

The Sages created Images to give full expression to meaning.

They constructed Hexagrams to give full expression to Reality.

They attached words to these Images and Hexagrams

To give full expression to speech.34

With all of these Transformations,

Communication became possible,

A full expression of what is beneficial.

They drummed it, they danced it,

To give expression to Spirit.35

The I Ching does not think, it is sine meditatione.

It does not act, it is sine actu.

In its solitude, in quiete,

It is motionless, sine motu.

In its Resonance, it reaches the core of the World,

It uncovers the rerum omnium causam.

In all the World, only the I Ching can accomplish this.

It is a most Spiritual Entity, summus spiritus!

Through the I Ching the Sage plumbs the greatest depths,

Investigates the subtlest Springs of Change.

Its very depth penetrates the Will of the World,

In intima finemque rerum mundi.

Knowledge of the Springs of Change

Enables terrestrial enterprises to be accomplished.

This Spiritual Entity makes speed without haste,

It arrives without traveling.36

The poet Ruan Ji echoed this sentiment, this fundamental link between the I Ching and the Tao, several hundred years later. “Understand the I Ching, and the Tao will remain with you. Its application knows no end. It makes True Connection possible.”37 His life was a “searching out of the truth somewhere between Taoist mysticism and the I Ching.” The Tang-dynasty poet Meng Jiao described the overwhelming (and wordless) experience of visiting an I Ching Recluse by the name of Yin:

My Teacher spoke of Heaven and Earth,

He spoke with the voice of the Spirit Turtle.

Mystery upon mystery, things beyond men’s understanding—

One by one, he made all clear.

The autumn moon oozed the whiteness of night,

The cool breeze sang the music of the clear stream.

Listening beside him, I followed deep into Truth,

And suddenly we found ourselves in a distant realm,

Our Spirits Resonating in a Stillness with no need of words.

That moment of enlightenment unravelled a myriad knots.

That evening’s thoughts washed away the day’s every care.

Now my wanderer’s skiff is restless on the moving tide.

My parting horse neighs as the carriage rolls away.

Hermit Yin, in his mountain fastness,

Shared Truth with his newfound friend.38

A thousand years later, the poet Qi Biaojia built himself a studio where he contemplated the mysteries of the I Ching:

When the Master becomes wearied of the sights of his garden, he can spend his days with a copy of the I Ching in hand, painstakingly working through the text, achieving in the process a sense of release from the vexations of life.39

We may not wish to climb a mountain to seek out a Hermit, and we may not have the means to build our own I Ching studio. But the path to Self-Cultivation that generations of Chinese readers have found in this book is open to us.


The I Ching first reached the West in the eighteenth century. Ever since that time, Western perceptions of the book have varied greatly, from the highly reverential to the baffled, utterly sceptical, or dismissive. In 1728, the French Jesuit Claude de Visdelou, prevented by blindness from reading or writing himself, dictated the following words from the French Indian enclave of Pondicherry: “It [the I Ching] is not strictly speaking a book at all, or anything like it. It is a most obscure enigma, a hundred times more difficult to explain than that of the Sphinx.”40 Hardly encouraging words for today’s reader or would-be translator! The British sinologist Herbert Giles referred to “the apparent gibberish of the Book of Changes.”41 Bernhard Karlgren, the Swedish philologist, called it a “barely intelligible rigmarole.”42 “It would have been wiser,” wrote a frustrated Joseph Needham in 1956, “to tie a millstone about the neck of the I Ching and cast it into the sea.”43

From the Jesuits to James Legge

Three French Jesuits of the early eighteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Régis, Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, and Pierre Vincent de Tartre, produced a complete Latin translation, Y-King: Antiquissimus Sinarum Liber, with a highly literate, discursive running commentary.44 It circulated in manuscript transcriptions for a hundred years, and was published in Germany in two volumes (1834 and 1839).45 The Jesuits’ work presented the book as accurately as any translator has ever done. As the German editor Julius Mohl writes in his preface, it brings out both the work’s auctoritas and its obscuritas. When James Legge, the redoubtable missionary from Aberdeen, began translating the book into English in the nineteenth century, he freely acknowledged his debt to the Jesuits: “The late M. Mohl said to me once, ‘I like it; for I come to it out of a sea of mist, and find solid ground.’”46 Legge admitted that they had laid the foundation for his own translation: “Their work as a whole, and especially the prolegomena, dissertations, and notes, supply a mass of correct and valuable information. They had nearly succeeded in unravelling the confusion, and solving the [book’s] enigma.”47 In his own understanding of the text, Legge essentially followed the Song-dynasty neo-Confucian commentators, while conceding that there were still times when it seemed to mean very little. “If, after all,” he pleaded, “there is often ‘much ado about nothing,’ it is not the translator who should be deemed accountable for that, but his original.”48

Richard Wilhelm and Carl Jung

By far the most influential version of the twentieth century was Richard Wilhelm’s I Ging: Das Buch der Wandlungen, first published in 1924. It transformed the book’s reception in the modern Western world. Wilhelm had as his guide a remarkable end-of-empire Chinese scholar, Yao Naixuan. But he also had a complex spiritual pedigree of his own. He was a Lutheran missionary working in the German treaty port of Qingdao, but his thinking was also influenced by contemporary currents of thought in his native Germany, such as those of Count Keyserling’s Darmstadt School of Wisdom, and the writings of Carl Gustav Jung. Wilhelm died in 1930, not long after his return to Germany. An English version of his translation by Cary F. Baynes was begun before the Second World War while Wilhelm was still alive, but was published only in 1950.49 Jung wrote a lengthy foreword for it. During the 1960s and 1970s this English version became a cult book. It has continued to be influential, inspiring among many others the novelists Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle) and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the rock band Pink Floyd, and the avant-garde composer John Cage. Delight in the “oracular game” of the I Ching runs through Hermann Hesse’s great last novel, The Glass Bead Game (1943). Both Hesse and Jung found in the I Ching the same liberation and enlightenment, the same sense of Resonance and freedom from care, that the Tang poet Meng Jiao described.

A Middle Ground

I myself feel that there is a middle ground somewhere between Meng Jiao, Wilhelm, Hesse, and the Jungians, on the one hand, and the scepticism of the work’s many bewildered readers on the other. Even Joseph Needham grudgingly admits that the resolution of doubts through Divination may have some validity: “As a solvent for neuroses of indecision the method [of the I Ching] probably paid its way.”50 In so doing, he is merely restating a famous passage from the Zuo Commentary, where an officer of the southern realm of Chu argues, “We consult the Oracle in order to resolve doubts [my italics]; where we have no doubts, why should we consult it?”51 This middle, psychological, ground has been well described by Richard Lynn:

[The reader should] allow the work to address the primary issues with which it is concerned: the interrelatedness of personal character and destiny; how position defines scope of action; how position and circumstances define appropriate modes of behavior; how the individual is always tied to others in a web of interconnected causes and effects; how one set of circumstances inevitably changes into another; and how change itself is the great constant—and flexible response to it the only key to happiness and success. There is a core of insights here concerning the structure of human relationships and individual behavior that can, I believe, speak to this and any other age—if we but allow it to do so.52

The American scholar Michael Nylan echoes this, characterizing the I Ching as a book “designed to instill in readers a simultaneous awareness both of the deep significance of ordinary human life and of the ultimately mysterious character of the cosmic process.”53 These writers are saying more or less the same thing: that this is a book which when used properly has the ability to open doors, to reconnect the individual with the larger Universe and its rhythms. Angus Graham puts it with characteristically cool and dispassionate clarity:

There is no reason to doubt that Divination systems do help many people to reach appropriate decisions in situations with too many unknown factors, and that the I Ching is among the more successful of them. Unless we are to follow Jung in postulating an acausal principle of synchronicity, we must suppose that the I Ching serves to break down preconceptions by forcing the Diviner to correlate his situation with a chance set of six prognostications. . . . Since . . . the Hexagrams open up an indefinite range of patterns for correlation, in the calm of withdrawal into sacred space and time, the effect is to free the mind to take account of all information whether or not it conflicts with preconceptions, awaken it to unnoticed similarities and connexions, and guide it to a settled decision adequate to the complexity of factors. This is conceived not as discursive thinking, but as a synthesizing act in which the Diviner sees into and responds to everything at once, with a lucidity mysterious to himself. The I Ching . . . assumes in the Diviner that kind of intelligence we have discussed in connexion with [the Taoist Master] Zhuangzi, opening out and responding to stimulation in perfect tranquillity, lucidity and flexibility. . . . One consults [the I Ching] . . . as though seeking advice from a daimonic presence.[My italics.]54

Reading the I Ching in this way is an interactive process, requiring the creative participation of the reader. There is ultimately no “book” out there, no “reader” in here. If there is total Sincerity in the process of consultation, book and reader come together. They are one. The book is you, the reader. It is your reading of it. No more, no less. It is what you find in yourself, in order to understand it. It is what you make of it. In that sense, you are the book. The experience of reading gives you (and any reader) Power. Its/your Power is limitless.55

A Game

Let me put this in another way. The I Ching is a game, a most demanding game. One does not just read it, one does not just translate it. One plays it, one plays with it, one interacts with it. It plays too, in deadly earnest. “No two games are alike. There are only infinite possibilities.”56 The act of reading creates a new dynamic, triggering reflections and conversations that might otherwise never take place. To call this a game is not to be irreverent, it is not to trivialize it. On the contrary, it is to elevate it. “Games after all are not only games, they are games, just as an elephant is not only an elephant, it is an elephant. Games are also Rituals, Patterns and Symbols of life itself. . . . As Symbols they can at once be rejoiced in and treated with respect as the mysterious providers of that intense peace which is both action and contemplation.”57 The game of the I Ching constantly urges its readers to attune themselves to the Resonance of the Tao, to Connect, to tune in to the Springs, or Intimations, of Change all around them, to see themselves as part of a larger whole. To enter into a dialogue with the I Ching is to enter into a dialogue with the Tao, with Nature itself, to pass through a “door into the cosmic unity of a Natural Order.”58 The book’s roots in Divination, in the powerful early shamanistic Rituals and Sacrifices through which Connection was established with the Other World, are what makes that Connection and Resonance still possible today. Hexagram XI, Tai, Grandeur: “With Communion of Heaven and Earth, the Myriad Things Connect.”

In consultations I have observed that the most important thing is to approach the reading with the utmost Sincerity, to put aside all pretense and self-deception. Once this premise is established, the book talks back; the response comes “from the deeper mind.” It is (as Angus Graham says) a daimonic presence.


When I was already well embarked on the enterprise, I asked the I Ching, “Is this an Auspicious moment for a new translation?” It gave a sobering response: Hexagram I, Qian, Heaven, with Unchanging Yang in each of the lowest five Lines, and a solitary Changing Yang Line in Top Place. “The Dragon overreaches himself. There is Regret.” [My italics.] Was I engaged in an act of hubris? Should I commit my manuscript to the flames? But then, with the Top Yang Line changing to Yin came Hexagram XLIII, Kuai, Resolution. “Good Faith cries Danger. It serves as a Light. . . . The True Gentleman . . . does not pride himself on Inner Strength.” My favorite commentator, Magister Liu, writes, “Good Faith is the means whereby the elimination of Yin will be achieved, the means whereby the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao can establish itself and become Master. Be aware of Danger. Practice Caution and Self-Cultivation. Let Resolution stem from Good Faith, from Sincerity, not from Pride or Conceit.” I acknowledged the initial warning, I recognized the Danger of pride. I also took heart from the encouragement. This Offering—this new version of the most Chinese of all Chinese books—must be made in Good Faith and Sincerity. I hope my readers will understand this, and forgive the faults that surely remain, shortcomings in both scholarship and wisdom.

One of the difficulties of translating this work is that there is no author to be beholden to, and no conventional reader to speak to. The I Ching was not “written” in the normal sense of the word. It came into being through a process of accretion; it is the accumulated residue of generations of Divinations, wrapped in the wisdom-cocoon of further generations who have consulted its oracular pages and added their own thoughts in the form of commentaries. Its Chinese “readers” did not read it like any normal book—they consulted it. They rarely if ever began at the “beginning” and continued to the “end.” The same will doubtless be true of readers of this translation. They will “read” according to their individual circumstances. Their expectations will differ from those of readers of a “normal” work of literature. The relationship between translator and reader will be correspondingly different. My translation is a spiritual Offering. To translate or to read the I Ching is to wrestle with Spirit, to search for Truth. We are not only gazing into the remote past. We are also face to face with ourselves and our own age.

The translator’s first question must surely be “Which I Ching?” Is this to be a translation of an Oracle (an ancient promptbook for Divination practice, a series of cryptic, sphinxlike utterances)? Or a translation of a Book of Wisdom (a revered scripture, an elaborate treatise on the nature of the Universe and of human civilization)? I found it more and more impossible to make such a choice. From the first I was drawn to the fresh, enigmatic text revealed by the inspired scholarship and guesswork of Wen Yiduo, Li Jingchi, Arthur Waley, and others in the first half of the twentieth century, and the groundbreaking work done by American scholars in the 1970s and 1980s. I found the scepticism of these scholars refreshing. Clearly many of the old myths surrounding the origins and nature of the text were doubtful at best—including its authorship by a series of Ancient Kings and Sages. But as I studied this “revisionist” material, the newly deciphered Oracle Bone Inscriptions, and the ever more startling archaeological findings, I had a growing feeling that for all the new light being shed, something important was being lost. Where was Fu Xi, the caveman-sage wrapped in his furs, contemplating the origins and mysteries of the Universe, inventing the Eight Trigrams to make some sense of it all? In the words of the Great Treatise already quoted, he “gazed upward and observed Images in the Heavens [the ‘night sky’—he was an astronomer]; he gazed about him and observed Patterns upon the Earth [he was a geologist, a geographer, a geomancer]. He observed markings on birds and beasts [he was a naturalist], how they were adapted to different regions [he was an ecologist]. . . . He drew inspiration from within his own person [he was a psychic, a psychologist]; further afield, he drew inspiration from the outside world [he was an empirical scientist].”59 I missed too the inspired musings of later generations of philosopher-commentators. Modern attempts to divest the original Bronze Age Oracle of all its traditional clutter, despite their brilliance, somehow seemed dry and futile. In short, I missed the essential spiritual quality of the I Ching.

So the question “Which I Ching?” became less and less simple, and in the end my answer was: “Both. Oracle and Book of Wisdom.” The Book, to interpret at greater length the shorthand utterances of the Oracle, and give inspirational guidance; the Oracle, to contribute its primitive word-magic to “quicken” the teachings of the Book, and bring them down to earth. I have therefore ended up presenting my I Ching in two parts: Book of Wisdom (Part I) and Bronze Age Oracle (Part II). I explain, in the introductory remarks to each Part, how this decision has influenced the way I go about things, the procedures involved. The individual reader will decide which of the two versions to consult first. I have found that some prefer to concentrate on Part I and to read Part II separately, more out of curiosity, and for the light it sheds on early Chinese society and culture. Some have even said that they find Part II completely irrelevant to their purpose.

The Gulf Between Oracle and Book

Three concrete (and well-known) examples may help to illustrate the difference between Oracle and Book more clearly. The Chinese word fu, which occurs often (42 times) in the core text of the Oracle, was interpreted by early commentators, and thereafter by virtually all subsequent readers, Chinese and Western, to mean Sincerity (cheng). Hence the Name of Hexagram LXI (Zhong Fu) was translated by Wilhelm as Innere Wahrheit (Inner Truth in Baynes’s English version). This is the scriptural understanding, and by and large I have followed it in Part I, the Book of Wisdom, adopting the term Good Faith for this fundamental concept.60 But in 1928 the young Chinese scholar-poet Guo Moruo was among the first to claim that the word originally referred to captives and booty taken in warfare.61 This rereading had been made possible by the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, and by other epigraphic and archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century. In Part II, I have accordingly translated fu as Captives. Other frequently occurring characters have been radically reinterpreted in the same light. Heng/xiang, which occurs 50 times (see my commentary on the first Hexagram in Part II), seems originally to have meant Sacrifice—the dominant activity in early Chinese society. In Part II, I have translated it accordingly as Sacrifice Received (with minor variations). But in later I Ching interpretation, the word gradually came to include in its range of meanings not so much the actual Sacrifice, but the happy results of a Sacrifice well received by the Ancestors or Spirits, thus Fortune. This is how I have translated it in Part I.62 Zhen (111 occurrences) seems (again on the basis of Oracle Bone studies) to have originally meant the act of Divination itself, rather than the quality of Steadfastness understood by later commentators (Wilhelm’s Beharrlichkeit, Baynes’s Perseverance). These three examples illustrate the evolution of the core text from Oracle to Book of Wisdom, the way in which “sentences that had been written as pithy Oracles became moralizing statements.”63

The Name of Hexagram IV, Meng, is a fourth and striking example of the gulf separating Oracle and Book. Traditionally it came to be understood as Ignorance or Youthful Folly (Wilhelm’s Die Jugendtorheit), and this idea permeated the understanding of the entire Hexagram. Arthur Waley, however, writing in 1933 under the influence of the new school of I Ching critics, speculated that meng was in fact a parasitic mistletoe-like plant, the dodder. This sent him off in a completely new direction. His interpretation, according to which the whole Hexagram is about the qualities and significance of the dodder, is based on a combination of philological and anthropological scholarship, with a substantial dose of his own creative imagination. I have taken up some of Waley’s ideas in Part II, while following more traditional readings in Part I.

This is not a translation for sinologists or scholars, although many sinological and scholarly writings have helped in its gestation. I have worked closely with the Chinese text. So far as possible I have kept away from any preconceived Western notions as to its meaning. The discovery of that meaning I leave to each individual reader. My translation strives above all to present this extraordinary Chinese phenomenon in a form that can be consulted in the English-speaking world.

The Chinese contains passages of great poetic and numinous beauty. It has exercised an abiding influence on Chinese literati for over two millennia. In addition to being a “spiritual entity,” it is also a cultural commonplace book, an encyclopedia of proverb, imagery, and symbolism to which reference has been made throughout the ages. But it is not just a work of literature. It is not just a Chinese book. It is the Chinese Book, daunting though that may seem.

My translation is “offered” in the awareness that no translation of this awe-inspiring and deeply puzzling book can ever hope to capture more than the faintest echo of the original. These are always going to be “coloured pictures of the wind,” as the twelfth-century scholar Qiu Cheng wrote in his poem “On Considering Certain Lines of the I Ching, and Showing Them to Zheng Dongqing”:64

These Images do but sketch the principles of Change.

Deepest Tao defies the mind.

Scholars expound its mysteries in vain,

Their words but coloured pictures of the wind.

There can never be a definitive version of this book, in any language. Its meaning is simply too elusive. Part of the book’s Power and Magic is precisely that. It has over the years meant so many different things to so many different readers, commentators, and translators. It meant one thing for the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, quite another for Richard Wilhelm working with Lao Naixuan in the immediate aftermath of the Chinese revolution of 1911. This chameleon quality was something David Hawkes stressed in our last conversation on this subject, in the summer of 2009, shortly before his death. “Whatever you do,” he said, “be sure to let your readers know that every sentence can be read in an almost infinite number of ways! That is the secret of the book. No one will ever know what it really means!” Even the most scholarly, even the most spiritually penetrating reading, Chinese or non-Chinese, of this strange book is in the end an act of the Imagination, a search for Truth. It is my belief that if that search is conducted in Good Faith, the book will yield its secrets.


1. K. C. Chang made this suggestion about the early Shamans in “The Rise of Kings,” in The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective, ed. K. C. Chang and Xu Pingfang (2005), p. 129. “When communicating with Heaven, the Shaman was in a trancelike state, which was often drug-induced, particularly through cannabis, or achieved through physical and mental exercises similar to today’s qigong. . . . [Shamans] often had animal assistants. These included dragons, tigers and deer. Dancing was one of the tasks of the Shaman. The Shaman’s paraphernalia included tattoos, plaited hair or a serpent-like head covering, and ring ornaments around the penis.” Chang was one of the most exciting scholars working in this area, where anthropology and archaeology meet. See, among his many books, Art, Myth and Ritual (1983), especially p. 55.

2. Li Chi, the pioneer Chinese archaeologist, gives an account of this in chapter 1 of Anyang (1977). His account is itself based on the classic account by his fellow scholar Tung Tso-pin. The story has been told many times. Peter Hessler’s work Oracle Bones (London: John Murray, 2006) is a fascinating excursion around the subject. See especially “The Voice of the Turtle,” pp. 135–47. One of the most scholarly accounts is by the Jesuit Father Lefeuvre, “Les inscriptions des Shang sur carapaces de tortue et sur os: Aperçu historique et bibliographique de la découverte et des premières études,” in T’oung Pao, Second Series, vol. 61, livr. 1/3 (1975), pp. 1–82. The Academia Sinica in Taiwan has an attractive Oracle Bone website: http://oraclememory.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/e-collection.htm.

3. See Bagley’s long account, “Shang Archaeology,” in Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds., The Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999), pp. 124–231.

4. The yarrow is a plant botanically related to chamomile and tarragon. See Richard Rutt, The Book of Changes (1996), p. 151. Yarrow was traditionally used in England for Divination, being placed under the pillow to induce dreams. James Halliwell-Phillipps recorded another mode of Divination with this plant which enabled a person to dream of a future husband: “An ounce of yarrow, sewed up in flannel, must be placed under your pillow when you go to bed, and having repeated the following words, the required dream will be realized: Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree, / Thy true name it is yarrow; / Now who my bosom friend must be, / Pray tell thou me tomorrow. This plant, in the eastern counties, is termed yarroway, and there is a curious mode of Divination with its serrated leaf, with which you must tickle the inside of your nose, repeating the following lines. If the operation causes the nose to bleed, it is a certain omen of success.” See Halliwell-Phillips’s Popular Rhymes (1849), p. 223: “Yarroway, yarroway, bear a white blow, / If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.” Other European cultures also associated the plant with Divination—and later with forbidden knowledge of other worlds, as suggested by its common names such as Devil’s Nettle and Bad Man’s Plaything. For interesting information on this subject, see the website greenramblings.blogspot.com.au.

5. I use “mantic” to refer in a broad sense to any method of communication with the “other” world that gives access to hidden knowledge, as in oneiromancy (through dreams), cheiromancy (through observation of the hands), geomancy (through scrutiny of the Earth’s configuration).

6. Legge, Zuo Commentary, p. 169. This chronicle, nominally attached to the Spring and Autumn Annals of the state of Lu, has been tentatively dated to the fourth century BC, although this dating is highly controversial. The authenticity of the I Ching “episodes” in the Zuo Commentary has also been questioned.

7. See Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2, p. 347.

8. Bishop Rutt’s summary of information on this topic (in his chapter “Divination”) is clear and informative.

9. See Liu Zhiji et al., eds., Hanying duizhao jiaguwen jinyi leijian (2005), pp. 155 and 428.

10. Loewe and Shaughnessy, Cambridge History of Ancient China, p. 859.

11. Richard Kunst, “The Original Yijing: A Text, Phonetic Transcription, Translation, and Indexes, with Sample Glosses” (1985), p. 201.

12. Kidder Smith Jr., “Zhouyi Interpretations from Accounts in the Zuozhuan,” HJAS 49, no. 2 (December 1989), p. 426.

13. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2, p. 311. Here, as throughout this Introduction, all italics are mine.

14. For an explanation of the structure of the Hexagrams, see “How to Consult the I Ching,” p. xxxvii. For the internal relationships of the Lines, see such entries as “Place” and “Resonance” in the Glossary, p. 795.

15. Tao (or Dao, as it is written in modern Pinyin transcription) was and still is a term shared by all Chinese schools of thought, including that of the Taoists. I continue to spell it in the old way, because it has become so widely used in the English language.

16. Lynn, The Classic of Changes: A New Translation (1994), p. 1. Here and elsewhere, for the sake of consistency, I have capitalized words such as “Divination” that are capitalized in my own translation. I have also standardized all references to the book as I Ching, so as not to confuse the reader.

17. For the “larger view,” see Hexagram XX.

18. Richard Smith, Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China (2008), p. 31. For a skeptical view of the “book burning,” see Michael Nylan, The Five “Confucian” Classics (2001), pp. 29–31 and 204.

19. The Great Treatise, part II, section 2. See Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes, The I Ching, or Book of Changes (1950), pp. 328–9; Chen Guying and Zhao Jianwei, Zhouyi jinzhu jinyi (2004), p. 650; James Legge, The Yi King (1882), p. 382; Richard Lynn, p. 77; G. W. Swanson, “The Great Treatise: Commentary Tradition to the Book of Changes,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington (1974), p. 175; Kidder Smith Jr., “The Difficulty of the Yijing” (1993), p. 5.

20. Kidder Smith Jr., “The Difficulty of the Yijing,” p. 5.

21. I refer readers to the entries in my Glossary for further thoughts on the meaning of these terms.

22. Nylan, p. 204.

23. For Zhou Dunyi, see Nylan, p. 204.

24. Liu Ts’un-yan, “The Syncretism of the Three Teachings in Sung-Yuan China,” in New Excursions from the Hall of Harmonious Wind (Leiden: Brill, 1984), p. 58.

25. Donald Harper, in New Sources of Early Chinese History: An Introduction to the Reading of Inscriptions and Manuscripts, ed. Edward L. Shaughnessy (1997), p. 229, fn. 26.

26. The Great Treatise, part I, section 4.

27. One of the most comprehensive book-length surveys is Richard Smith’s excellent Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World (2008).

28. Cf. Iulian Shchutskii, Researches on the I Ching (1979), p. 72; Cheng Yi, Chengshi yizhuan daodu (2003), p. 49; and Kidder Smith’s Ph.D. dissertation, chapter 5.

29. Thomas Cleary, quoting Liu Yiming in his introduction to The Taoist I Ching, pp. 6–7.

30. The words are those of the poet and I Ching commentator Yu Yan, quoted by Richard Smith in Fathoming the Cosmos (2008), p. 153.

31. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. V: 5, p. 65. Opposite this page, Needham reproduces the picture of the Taoist Adept meditating on the Trigrams Kan and Li, from the Xingming guizhi (Pointer to the Meaning of Human Nature and Life-Destiny), probably of the seventeenth century.

32. A. C. Graham, index to Disputers of the Tao (1989), p. 497.

33. Based on William Acker’s translation, in Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology, ed. John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau (2000), pp. 503–4.

34. “Attached Words” was another name for the Great Treatise.

35. Kidder Smith Jr., “The Difficulty of the Yijing,” p. 7. The Great Treatise, part I, section 12. Cf. Lynn, p. 67; Legge, pp. 376–7; Wilhelm, p. 322.

36. The Great Treatise, part I, section 10. Cf. Lynn, p. 63; Wilhelm, pp. 315–16.

37. These are the concluding words of Ruan Ji’s essay on the I Ching. Cf. Donald Holzman, Poetry and Politics: The Life and Works of Juan Chi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 98–99, 101, 130–4.

38. For this famous poem, see Richard Smith, Fortune Tellers, p. 124; Richard Smith, Fathoming the Cosmos, p. 223; also Shchutskii, p. 234.

39. Duncan Campbell’s translation, from his forthcoming Anthology of Garden Literature.

40. “Ce n’étoit pas proprement un livre, ni quelque chose d’approchant, c’étoit un énigme très obscure, et plus difficile cent fois à expliquer que celle du sphinx.” This is to be found in his “Notice of the Yi King,” sent to the Cardinals of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

41. Rutt, Book of Changes, p. 48; Herbert A. Giles, History of Chinese Literature (London: Heinemann, 1901), p. 23.

42. Bernhard Karlgren, “Loan Characters in Pre-Han Texts,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Stockholm) 35 (1963), quoted by Rutt, p. 43.

43. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2, p. 311.

44. Dates for these and all historical figures mentioned in this book are given in “Names and Dates,” p. 789.

45. It is now available online at Google Books, but unfortunately several pages are missing.

46. Legge, Yi King, translator’s preface, p. xcvi.

47. Legge, Yi King, translator’s introduction, p. 9, and fn. 2.

48. Legge, Yi King, translator’s preface, p. xcvi.

49. Cary Baynes (née Fink) was a seasoned Jungian translator. There is a useful biographical note (written by William McGuire) in the Journal of Analytical Psychology 23 (July 1978). She and her second husband, H. G. Baynes, collaborated in translating several of Jung’s works. Jung had asked her to translate Wilhelm’s German I Ging into English before 1930, while Wilhelm was still alive. The translation finally appeared two decades later, after the Second World War, in 1950. Cary Baynes died in October 1977, at the age of ninety-four.

50. Needham, Science and Civilisation, vol. 2, p. 347.

51. Zuo Commentary, Duke Huan, Year 11; Kidder Smith, “The Difficulty of the Yijing,” p. 7; Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 5, pp. 55–7.

52. Lynn, Classic of Changes, p. 9.

53. Nylan, Five “Confucian” Classics, p. 207.

54. A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao (1989), pp. 369–70.

55. One perceptive reader found an earlier draft of this paragraph “over the top.” I agree. But I have kept it, since after all it is no more “over the top” than the repeated Chinese claims for the I Ching! See, for example, the extracts from the Great Treatise and Cheng Yi above.

56. Kidder Smith Jr., “The Difficulty of the Yijing,” p. 13; Richard Smith, Fathoming the Cosmos, p. 1. François Jullien echoes the idea: “C’est du seul jeu de ses figures [my emphasis], de leurs effets d’opposition et de correlation, de leurs possibilitiés de transformation . . . que naît du sens.” See his introduction to the 1992 reprint of Philastre’s French translation, p. 5. Li Ling’s preface to his recent edition of the I Ching devotes several pages to the same idea (Sheng si you ming, fu gui zai tian, 2013, pp. xxix–xlii).

57. J. B. Pick, The Phoenix Dictionary of Games (London: Dent, 1952), introduction, p. 17.

58. Francis Westbrook, “Landscape Transformation in the Poetry of Hsieh Ling-Yün,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 100, no. 3 (July–October 1980), p. 238.

59. The Great Treatise, part II, section 2. See above.

60. For this and other key words and concepts, see the Glossary.

61. Rutt refers to this early essay by Guo on p. 220. The original (it was many times reprinted) was published in Eastern Miscellany (Dongfang zazhi) 25, no. 21 (November 10, 1928), pp. 79–93. Kunst gives a very full account of the word fu on p. 159ff.

62. See Rutt, p. 127ff.

63. All of this is admirably summarized by Rutt. As usual, he bases his summary on the prior work of Shaughnessy and Kunst.

64. Cf. Shchutskii, p. 235. The original poem can easily be found in the Tushu jicheng section on the I Ching.

I Ching Diagrams

The generative process of Change, of Nature in Transformation, is represented visually in two traditional diagrams. In Fu Xi’s Sequence of the Eight Trigrams (Fuxi ba gua cixu), the Eight Trigrams (seen in the top row) are “generated” by the Four Bigrams, which are combinations of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang proceed from the Supreme Ultimate (Taiji), the original state of Non-Being, of undifferentiated, inchoate chaos (hundun) that preceded Being (the Phenomenal World of the Myriad Things). This is represented by the famous “gyre within a circle” (sometimes known as the Yin-Yang Fish), which shows in visual terms the all-pervading synergy of Yin and Yang. The whole diagram dates most probably from the Song dynasty and the great neo-Confucian renaissance of I Ching studies. Zhou Dunyi, in his “Explanation of the Taiji Diagram,” wrote:

The Supreme Ultimate, in Movement, generates Yang.

Movement reaches its Ultimate Limit, to become Rest.

Rest generates Yin.

Rest in turn reaches its Ultimate Limit,

And once again there is Movement.

Thus Movement and Rest alternate.

They are each other’s Source or Root.

The division into Yin and Yang establishes the Two Bigrams.


The second diagram, an extension of the first, is known as Fu Xi’s Sequence of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams (Fuxi Liushisi gua cixu). I like to think of it as an I Ching keyboard, the sort of instrument on which the Castalian Master of Music might have improvised in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. The black “notes” represent Yin, the white “notes” Yang. The various combinations signal the different tonalities or modalities of the Hexagrams. The entire spectrum of Sixty-Four Hexagrams is generated by all the possible sixfold combinations of Yin and Yang. On the extreme right, read vertically from the top, is the First Hexagram, Qian, Heaven, made up of six Yang Lines (all white). On the extreme left, again read vertically, is the Second Hexagram, Kun, Earth, made up of six Yin Lines (all black). And so forth.

Both of these diagrams, and others, present the reader with vivid visualizations, aids to meditation on Yin and Yang, on the Trigrams, the Hexagrams, and the entire process of Change. Through contemplation of such images, one can be helped to attain a mindful perspective on the world, a calm and objective attitude, conducive to a wise response and an appropriate decision. As Zhu Xi himself put it, such diagrams are Images of the Natural Pattern (ziran zhi li) of the I Ching. They show the Pattern of Change. To meditate on them can therefore be helpful in reaching an understanding of that Pattern and of Change itself.

How to Consult the I Ching

These are some simple, practical guidelines for Divination with this book.

One should begin in a quiet and receptive state of mind, and approach the Divination with Sincerity and Good Faith. This is important whatever one’s actual beliefs. The I Ching reflects the state of mind of the Diviner (the person consulting it), providing a glimpse of the Potential Energy of the moment. This reflection, this glimpse, can be true only when the mental state of the Diviner is still.

First, the question is posed. It can be written down, or not. Formulating the question carefully and clearly is a key part of the Divination process. The response, arrived at through one or other of the Divination methods described below, is presented as a six-fold combination of Yin and Yang Lines. Each Line is characterized as either Changing (6 or 9) or Unchanging (7 or 8). When a reading gives Changing Lines, those Lines take on a great significance, since they represent the dynamic forces at work in the evolution from one Hexagram to another.

Yarrow Stalk Method

This traditional method was described in detail by the neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi, whose commentary became standard for many centuries. Arthur Waley and his Bloomsbury friends used matchsticks instead of Yarrow Stalks!

The Diviner should choose a clean and quiet place as the place of Divination, with a table in the center of the room, facing south, not too close to a wall. The table should be about five feet long and about three feet wide. Before it is set an incense burner. Fifty Yarrow Stalks are kept wrapped in a length of perfumed silk, and stored in a black cylindrical container. Take them out and place them on the table. The container can be made of bamboo, of hardwood, or of lacquer. The Stalks, once removed and held in both hands, should be ceremonially purified in the smoke rising from the burner. “The incense, the silence and the slow movements indicate that Spirits are being consulted rather than a book.” Of the fifty Stalks, one is put aside. This one stalk represents the Supreme Ultimate (Taiji), which stands outside the Changes of Yin and Yang.

Next the remaining forty-nine Stalks are divided into two “random” piles, which represent the two poles of Yin and Yang. The two piles are placed one at each end of the divining-table.

A single Stalk is now taken from the right-hand pile and placed between the last two fingers of the left hand. The left-hand pile is then placed in the left hand (some people leave it on the table) and reduced by four Stalks at a time, until there are either one, two, three, or four Stalks left. These are placed between the next two fingers of the left hand (i.e., between the fourth finger and the middle finger). Now the same procedure is applied to the right-hand pile, which is reduced by fours until there are only one, two, three, or four Stalks left in that pile; these are inserted between the middle and index finger of the left hand.

The Diviner now has in the left hand a total of either five or nine Stalks (1 + 1 + 3, or 1 + 2 + 2, or 1 + 3 + 1, or 1 + 4 + 4). He places these five or nine Stalks in a separate pile.

By a process of conversion, 9 is considered to be the equivalent of 2, and 5 the equivalent of 3. If this process is repeated three times, the Diviner will end up with a Line of the Hexagram that is a multiple of 2 and 3. There are four possibilities:

2 + 2 + 2 = 6, or Old Yin, a Changing Line

2 + 2 + 3 = 7, or Young Yang, Yang “at rest,” an Unchanging Line

2 + 3 + 3 = 8, or Young Yin, Yin “at rest,” an Unchanging Line

3 + 3 + 3 = 9, or Old Yang, a Changing Line

By doing this six times, the Diviner arrives at the composition of a six-line Hexagram. There are sixty-four possible permutations. If the Lines are all of them Unchanging—i.e., either 7 or 8—then the Diviner pays attention only to that Hexagram, to its Judgment, to the Commentary on the Judgment, and to the Commentary on the Image of the Hexagram. The Lines and their Statements do not enter into the picture (although some may wish to read them anyway). If, however, there are Changing Lines (6 or 9) in the Hexagram, then the Statements attached to those Changing Lines become relevant, and must be consulted. And with the change or changes brought about by the transformation of a Changing Line (or several Lines) into its “opposite” (i.e., when a Yang Line becomes a Yin Line, or vice versa), it becomes necessary to consult the Judgment and Judgment Commentaries of the new Hexagram created as a result.

Here is a hypothetical example. The Divination (whether by Yarrow Stalks or coins) has created the sequence 8/9/7/8/7/8, giving the Lines for Hexagram XLVIII, The Well. Do not forget that one always counts up from the base when building a Hexagram.

9 (Old Yang, a Changing Line) is in the Second Place, and is the only Changing Line in the Divination. The Diviner should first consult the overall Judgment and Commentaries for this Hexagram, and should then pay special attention to the Statement attached to this Changing Line in Second Place. Then, as a result of the dynamic of this Changing Line, the Hexagram evolves into Hexagram XXXIX, Adversity, with Yin in Second Place:

The Diviner should pay attention to the overall Judgment and Commentaries for this second Hexagram.

Coin Method

This method is a lot simpler, and is the most commonly used nowadays, although it lacks the ritual complexity and antiquity of the Yarrow Stalk Method. It may have come into use sometime during or after the Tang dynasty.

Three coins are tossed. Heads counts as 3, Tails as 2. With old Chinese coins from the Manchu, or Qing, dynasty, such as the ones I use, Heads can be the side with Chinese characters, Tails the side with Manchu writing. But one can create one’s own conventions.

The possible results are the same as with the Yarrow Stalk Method:

2 + 2 + 2 = 6, or Old Yin, a Changing Line

2 + 2 + 3 = 7, or Young Yang, Yang “at rest,” an Unchanging Line

2 + 3 + 3 = 8, or Young Yin, Yin “at rest,” an Unchanging Line

3 + 3 + 3 = 9, or Old Yang, a Changing Line

Once the Six Lines have been determined, the rules for the remaining procedures (building the Hexagram, consulting the Judgment and Lines) are the same as those for the Yarrow Stalk Method.

Online Methods

There are many methods available online that simulate the Yarrow Stalk Method or the Coin Method. I personally do not recommend them, since they introduce an element into the process which discourages a thoughtful and calm attitude.


In order to help readers with their Divinations, I here present a couple of recent consultations, going through the process step by step. I used the Coin Method.

Consultation 1

Step 1. The Question

The first thing for the reader to do is to formulate a question. In this, as in every subsequent step, the most essential thing is the reader’s attitude. For the Divination to “work,” this attitude must have the quality of Good Faith and Sincerity, the prime quality stressed throughout the I Ching. In other words, the Question must be a truthful expression of the Inner Mind.

The question for this first consultation was as follows: “What can the I Ching say to me in this day and age? How can I make sense of it?”

Step 2. Arriving at the Hexagram

The Diviner threw the three coins six times, to arrive at a Hexagram (Heads/Chinese = 3; Tails/Manchu = 2). Each throw of three coins was bound to produce one of the following four numbers:

6, Divided Line (Old, or Changing, Yin)

7, Undivided Line (Young, or Unchanging, Yang)

8, Divided Line (Young, or Unchanging, Yin)

9, Undivided Line (Old, or Changing, Yang)

The Hexagram was then “built” from the bottom; i.e., the first throw gave the number for the First, or bottom, Line. The last throw gave the Last, or Top, Line.

In this consultation, the six numbers arrived at were, in the following order:

8 (Young Yin)—Bottom Line

7 (Young Yang)—Second Line

8 (Young Yin)—Third Line

8 (Young Yin)—Fourth Line

7 (Young Yang)—Fifth Line

8 (Young Yin)—Top Line

The Diviner inverted the order, since Hexagrams are always built from the bottom.

Next, the two constituent Trigrams were identified, formed by the top three numbers, 8/7/8, and the bottom three numbers, 8/7/8. Using the Finding Table for Hexagrams on pages 856–57, the Diviner found the Trigrams, and then derived from them the resultant Hexagram. The Upper Trigram was Kan (third from the left in the Top Line of the Table); the Lower Trigram was also Kan (third down on the left-hand side of the Table). These two “met” in the square occupied by Hexagram XXIX.

So the resultant Hexagram was XXIX. The Diviner turned to the relevant page in Part I and found the opening section of the Hexagram organized on the page as follows:



The Abyss




Step 3. What to Notice About the Hexagram and Its Structure

The first thing the Diviner noticed about this Hexagram was that all the Lines were Unchanging. In other words, in this reading there were no Lines with the numbers 6 or 9. (It might not have been so: if the coins had fallen differently, and the result had been 6/9/6/6/9/6, for example, the Hexagram would still have been XXIX, but every Line would have been Changing.) Since there were no Changing Lines, the Diviner went on to consult only the first section of text—i.e., the Name, the Judgment, and the two Commentaries, On the Judgment and On the Image of the Hexagram. The Diviner did not consult the Line Statements.

The next thing the Diviner paid attention to was the Hexagram structure. There could be lessons to be learned from this. The structure of this Hexagram is formed by the doubling of the same Trigram, Kan, Water or The Abyss. That Trigram is made up of two Yin (Divided) Lines around a single Yang (Undivided) Line. The Hexagram Name is also Kan. It is Kan Doubled. This is significant.

Step 4. What to Read in the Hexagram

After the number of the Hexagram, XXIX, comes the Name. This is the brief “tag” given to each Hexagram, which often, but not always, encapsulates some aspect of the Hexagram’s meaning. In my translation, I always provide the Chinese character for the name, in this case, followed by its romanization, or spelling in Western letters, in this case Kan, and lastly the translation, The Abyss. Many Names are graphic, and in themselves provide clear clues as to a Hexagram’s meaning. Good examples of this are The Well, Hexagram XLVIII, and The Cauldron, Hexagram L. Names such as these provide clear Images that dominate the subsequent text. It is not always as simple as this.

In the layout used for my translation, after the Name comes a graph for Turtle, . This is a device I have used throughout my translation to separate sections of the text, for the convenience of the Diviner.

Next the Diviner considered the symbolism or imagery of the Trigram Structure—in this case, Water over Water. What do Water and The Abyss mean in the context of the I Ching?

Then the Diviner read the Judgment, the brief mantic Statement that begins the text, followed by the Commentary on the Judgment (under the heading “On the Judgment”), and the Commentary on the Image of the Hexagram (under the heading “On the Image of the Hexagram”). These provide the basic amplification of the Divination response.

In this case, what did the Judgment say? Good Faith. Fortune in Heart-and-Mind. Actions are honored. A Diviner new to the I Ching might wish at this point to refer to the Glossary, at the back of the book, where there are entries for Good Faith, Fortune, Heart-and-Mind, Act, and Action. This Judgment in effect presented the salient characteristics of the Hexagram response, which was to a great extent positive. The Diviner was being told that the answer to the question was to be found in the basic attitude underlying the whole process of I Ching Divination: Good Faith. That, in other words, is what it is “saying in this day and age.” With Good Faith, the Divination will “make sense.” There will be a good result (Fortune) arising from the Diviner’s ability to “make sense” of the I Ching. This Fortune stems from the Inner Heart-and-Mind. The Fortune in its turn leads to subsequent decisions and Actions being “honored.”

Next, in the Commentary on the Judgment (under the heading “On the Judgment”), the Diviner went on to read the first (and oldest) expansion or interpretation of the brief Judgment. This began to explore the symbolism of the Hexagram. The two prominent symbols here were The Abyss and Water. These are linked to the overall idea of Danger or Peril. Often in this Commentary there are remarks about a Line being Centered, True, Firm, or Yielding—these are qualities of Lines and of their interaction, and also of types of response to situations in life. Again, a Diviner may wish to consult the Glossary for these words.

Next the Diviner consulted the Commentary on the Image of the Hexagram (under the heading “On the Image of the Hexagram”). This Commentary often goes one step further in interpreting the symbolism of the Hexagram. Water flows, in an uninterrupted current. The True Gentleman acts from constancy of Inner Strength. It stresses two things: the need to emulate the flowing quality of Water, and the importance of cultivating Inner Strength before putting anything into “practice,” before teaching, before passing on anything to Others.

Gradually, as the Diviner read these two early Commentaries, it became possible to build up a picture of the Hexagram’s meaning. Next, in the Composite Commentary following the graph for Dragon, , the Diviner read a series of (hopefully) enlightening comments by later commentators. This was read from beginning to end, but not all of it was immediately or directly relevant to the question. The general message of the Hexagram Kan, The Abyss, emerging from the Composite Commentary was that Water flowing through an Abyss or Gorge would bring with it Danger or Peril; that this Danger would need to be faced; and that by facing Danger with Good Faith, one would become stronger, more able to deal with challenges.

This is a Doubled Trigram Hexagram (Kan above Kan). There are eight such Doubled Trigram Hexagrams in the I Ching. For all of these I have translated extracts from an additional early commentary (another of the Ten Wings) known as the Trigrams Expounded, describing a whole list of qualities associated with the Trigram. This Wing may be a little difficult to make sense of; it may seem little more than a sequence of random images, colorful but of little relevance to your question. You may wish to skip it.

Step 5. Contemplation of the Hexagram

Sometimes we may find that at first reading it is indeed hard to make out what the I Ching is “saying.” To refer back to the wording of the Diviner’s Question, it may seem to make little sense, in this or in any day and age. This is where the fifth step, contemplation, becomes so important. In the end, the Book “says” little that is not already in the mind of the Diviner. It draws things out of the Diviner’s mind. It functions as a mirror. (See the quotations from Richard Rutt, Angus Graham, and others in my Introduction.) The more you think about the reading, the more you contemplate it, the more likely it is that content will come forward from your own consciousness. So even if things appear at first to make little or no sense, persevere. You are the one who will ultimately make sense of it all.

It is often necessary to interpret certain words in a broad and figurative sense, not to take them too literally. This is where a commentator like Magister Liu (Liu Yiming) can be most helpful. I quote from him in my commentary to this Hexagram, for example, as saying that “with Good Faith the Auspicious interaction between Yin and Yang can be emulated; the perilous, uninterrupted torrent of Water can be navigated through the Abyss.” As a practicing Taoist, Liu is telling the Diviner that the Danger or Peril portrayed in the Hexagram is an Inner Danger; it is the challenge of confronting Self, of exposing and dealing with one’s own vulnerability. This Danger can be a positive thing. Liu is tying together aspects of the Hexagram so that they “make sense” in the framework of the Taoist Self-Cultivation that lies at the heart of the I Ching (as he sees it).

Throughout this process of reading and contemplation, Good Faith continues to be essential. Cynicism will disconnect the Diviner from meaningful interaction with the text.

Step 6. Conclusions

The Diviner needed to draw the Divination to a conclusion. What did it all amount to, as a response to the question posed? Was there an overriding message in the Hexagram? In order to answer this, it was necessary to synthesize the symbols and mantic statements in such a way that they “made sense.” To put it another way, it was necessary for the Diviner to make sense of them himself, or herself. In this case, one possible Conclusion might have been as follows:

Life presents us with certain critical passages, seemingly dangerous moments, like the Waters of a torrent rushing through a Gorge. In dealing with such situations, we ourselves must be like Water. We can then turn Danger to our advantage. We can learn from it. In order to succeed in this, we must be adaptable, not aggressive. This is possible only if we have a reservoir of Inner Strength.

Consultation 2

The first Divination arrived at a Hexagram with six Unchanging Lines. This is relatively rare. There are usually one or two Changing Lines. I therefore thought it a good idea to try a second, in the hope that the I Ching would present some Changing Lines. Sure enough, it did.

Step 1. The Question

This time, I was the Diviner, and I posed my own question: “Is this new translation timely?” By that I meant, Does it have something to offer its readers that is relevant to this moment in time?

Step 2. Arriving at the Hexagram

I threw three coins six times. The following six Lines resulted:

9 (Old Yang)—Bottom Line

6 (Old Yin)—Second Line

7 (Young Yang)—Third Line

8 (Young Yin)—Fourth Line

9 (Old Yang)—Fifth Line

7 (Young Yang)—Top Line

Inverting the numbers, I arrived at the following Hexagram:


Jia Ren

The Family




This Hexagram has three Changing Lines (9 in First Place, 6 in Second Place, and 9 in Fifth Place). These Changing Lines and their Statements became important elements in the reading.

Step 3. What to Notice About the Hexagram and Its Structure

The Trigram structure of Family is composed of Wind over Fire. This can be visualized as smoke rising out of the household hearth, an Image evoking the idea of Family.

Step 4. How to Read the Hexagram

At first sight, this Hexagram, Family, is indeed all about the way in which the Family is run—through Discipline, with a focus on what was considered the suitable role for the woman in the traditional Chinese Family, one of docile subservience. Once Discipline is established, the Diviner is told, all is well. This is the True Tao of the Family. When the Family is True, then the World is settled and at peace. At first the Diviner might well wonder what all of this has to do with the question, the timeliness or otherwise of a new translation of the I Ching. What in this context are we to understand by the Family? With the Changing Line in First Place, Magister Liu begins to explain. Discipline enables order to prevail and prevents things from occurring that would lead to Regret. The first to be disciplined should be Self. For this, the Heart-and-Mind must become Empty, Inner Thoughts must fade away. Liu understands the discipline of the Family in a metaphorical sense, to mean the way one manages Self, the Inner Family made up of all the various thoughts and emotions that drive us on, that cloud the Heart-and-Mind and prevent it from attaining the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao. The Changing Second Line emphasizes the woman’s role in the Family. It is her task to provide food at the Center. To be Steadfast is Auspicious. Once again Magister Liu interprets this figuratively. The “woman” is a Yin Image of Yielding and Centered Truth, of the Yielding Tao of Self-Cultivation, of the Calm that governs Movement. The emphasis is on Emptiness and Calm. The new translation that is the subject of the question requires this above all else, if it is to function like a Family, spreading the True Tao. The Changing Fifth Line strikes a new and more positive note. The King comes to his Family. There is no cause for anxiety. This is Auspicious. The Yang King is in the Center, writes Magister Liu. The Heart-and-Mind is True. All-under-Heaven is at peace. Love prevails. Again, he interprets this in terms of Self-Cultivation.

Since these three Lines change, the reader is presented with not one but two Hexagrams. When Lines 1, 2, and 5 change, they modify the original Hexagram, to produce a second, Blight.







Step 5. What to Notice About the Second Hexagram and Its Structure

With this new Hexagram, the emphasis changes yet again. The Mountain of the Upper Trigram now rises above the Wind of the Lower Trigram. The Wind is checked and driven back.

Step 6. How to Read the Second Hexagram

The Diviner is now confronted with Blight, a critical situation, and the enterprise in question (the new translation) is seen in a new light. Supreme Fortune. It Profits to cross a Great Stream. Three days before, three days after, the first day, Jia. This last sentence is all about timing, about the need for things to happen at an appropriate time. There is Supreme Fortune, and the implication is that the timing is right. On the Judgment: A Great Stream is crossed, an enterprise of moment undertaken. Each ending is a commencement. This is the Movement of Heaven. The Great Stream crossed is an Image of embarking on any challenging enterprise, such as a new translation of the I Ching. The Movement of Heaven, the cycle of the Tao, is such that each ending is the commencement of something new. Once again Magister Liu is very helpful. This second Hexagram portrays a time of disorder and decay, such as the present. Things are scattered in disarray. This is the idea of Blight, a state in which things are going to ruin, as if through poison or venomous worms. The Hexagram advises how to halt this Blight, how to abandon the False and Return to the True, how to restore soundness and vigor. In the Upper Trigram, the single Yang at the Top signals a Return to the Root, a Return to Life, remedying the harmful, decaying effects of Yin Energy, Cultivating the Tao. This explains the Augury of Supreme Fortune. Great effort will be required, however, as in crossing a Great Stream. Great Danger and Adversity will be confronted. One must temper oneself, in the Dragon’s Pool and the Tiger’s Cave—in the furnace of the world and its troubles—in order to rediscover True Self. Careful consideration is necessary: of the events that have brought about the Blight, and of the measures required to remedy it.

Step 7. Contemplation of the Hexagrams

From Family to Blight. This is the overall movement of the reading. First the I Ching presents a picture of Family and the need for discipline, the need for “womanly” Yielding Calm at the Center—of both Family and Self. Without this, no enterprise (including a new translation) will be True. Then it announces the arrival of the King in his Temple—a major event. In the subsequent Hexagram, Blight, the I Ching proposes that the enterprise (the new translation) may indeed be timely, provided it is undertaken in the right spirit. Then it may make a contribution to halting the decay which blights the modern world.

Step 8. Conclusions

This at least was my understanding of the reading. I should persevere in the undertaking, which has the potential to be helpful in our time, but do so in a spirit of Calm. It is interesting to compare this with the reading in my Introduction, which also had a bearing on the translation, and which gave comparably balanced advice: On the one hand, proceed with Humility. On the other hand, persevere in a worthwhile undertaking.


Let us take the third Hexagram as an example.


Each Hexagram is numbered from 1 to 64.

The Chinese character for the Hexagram Name.

The Hexagram itself, composed of six Lines.


The Hexagram Name in the Pinyin system of romanization.

Difficult Birth

Translation of the Hexagram Name.

Early graph for Turtle, used to divide sections of text.


Name of Upper Constituent Trigram.



Name of Lower Constituent Trigram.


Heading of first section of Core Text, composed of mantic statements.

Supreme Fortune . . .

Text of Judgment itself.

Early graph for Dragon, used as symbol for Composite Commentary, or Digest of Commentaries.

Abyss above Quake. The Chinese graph for Zhun, writes Legge . . .

Text of Composite Commentary.

On the Judgment

Difficult Birth . . .

Text of first of the Ten Wings, or early commentaries, relating to Judgment.

On the Image of the Hexagram

Clouds and Thunder,

Nubes et tonitrus . . .

Text of second of the Ten Wings, a commentary relating to Hexagram Name and Hexagram as a whole. Latin is sometimes used for a mantic formula.

This first “mixed” Hexagram of the I Ching contains both Yin and Yang Lines . . .

Text of Composite Commentary.


Section of the Hexagram giving each Line and its Statement.

Yang in First Place

The “quality” of the First Line as reached by the individual Divination, and the “quality” of the place itself. These may coincide, or they may not.

Hesitation . . .

The Statement of this particular Line.

On the Image

Despite hesitation . . .

The part of the Commentary on the Image relating to this particular Line.

Yang Line in Yang Place. This First Line, writes Legge, is Undivided (Yang) and Firm . . .

Text of Composite Commentary.

The remaining text follows the same structure.

The Sixty-Four Hexagrams

Page numbers refer to each Hexagram as it appears in Part I and Part II. Only one Name is given for a Hexagram if the Names are identical in both parts.

Heaven/Sun Rising9/505
Earth/Earth Flow31/513
Difficult Birth/Sprout47/520
Youthful Folly/Dodder56/525
The Army78/537
Closeness/Side by Side87/542
Slight Restraint /Lesser Husbandry94/546
Great Measure130/567
Pulling Apart/Stripped193/601
Freedom from Guile/Possession206/608
Great Restraint/Greater Husbandry213/612
Great Excess227/619
The Abyss/Pit233/623
Fire/Net, Oriole243/627
Great Might/Wound273/646
Darkness /Pelican Calling288/654
The Family296/659
Adversity /Stumbling312/668
The Well374/702
The Cauldron389/711
The Marrying Maiden420/730
The Wanderer /Sojourner433/742
Good Faith/Captives Taken467/758
Slight Excess475/762

A Note on Pronunciation and Other Conventions

In this book, Chinese names and place names are in general spelled according to the Chinese system known as Hanyu Pinyin, or Pinyin for short. There are one or two exceptions. In the Pinyin system, the names of this book are spelled Zhouyi (Change of Zhou) and Yijing (I Ching). I use the old Wade-Giles spelling, I Ching, throughout, simply because it has become so familiar to Western readers. Similarly, for the Tao, which is written dao in Pinyin, I continue to use the old spelling, again because it is so widely used in English.

The following very short list of approximate equivalents may help readers with some of the more difficult aspects of the Pinyin system:

c = ts

q = ch

x = sh

z = dz

zh = j

The following rather longer list may also be of some use:

Bang = Bung

Bo = Boar (wild pig)

Cai = Ts’eye (“It’s eye,” without the first vowel)

Cang = Ts’arng

Chen = Churn

Cheng = Churng

Chong = Choong (as in “book”)

Chuan = Chwan

Dang = Darng or Dung (as in cow “dung”)

Dong = Doong (as in “book”)

Feng = Ferng

Gui = Gway (as in “way”)

Guo = Gwore

Jia = Jeeyar

Jiang = Jee-young

Kong = Koong (as in “book”)

Li = Lee

Long = Loong (as in “book”)

Lü = Lew (as in the French tu)

Mo = More

Qi = Chee

Qian = Chee-yenne

Qing = Ching

Rong = Roong (as in “book”)

Shi = Shhh

Shun = Shoon (as in “should”)

Si = Szzz

Song = Soong (as in “book”)

Sun = Soon (as in “book”)

Wen = Wen (as in “forgotten”)

Xi = Shee

Xiao = Shee-ow (as in “she-cow” without the c)

Xin = Shin

Xing = Shing

Xiong = Sheeoong

Xu = Shyeu (as in the French tu)

Yan = Yen

Yi = Yee

You = Yo [-heave-ho]

Yu = Yew (as in the French tu)

Yuan = “You, Anne

Zha = Jar

Zhe = Jerrr

Zhen = Jurn

Zhi = Jirrr

Zhou = Joe

Zhu = Jew

Zhuang = Jwarng

Zi = Dzzz

Zong = Dzoong (as in “book”)

Zuo = Dzore


I have used capital letters rather liberally to indicate important practices and concepts within the overall scheme of the I Ching. I am aware that some readers may find this tiresome. I have found it to be necessary, because the book has more or less invented its own terms and indeed its own language—some would go so far as to call it I Ching–speak.

In Part I, capitals are used mostly for terms that became widely accepted in later I Ching commentary, such as Self-Cultivation, Stillness, Steadfast, Sincerity, Good Faith, and Illumination. Illustrations of some of these terms are to be found in the Glossary. In Part II, capitals are reserved mainly for terms from the earlier period, such as Divination, Sacrifice, Ritual, Ancestor, and Temple.

Dates for dynasties, people, and books are not given in the main body of the text. They are to be found in the Names and Dates section at the back of the book.

Other information on the traditional ways of arriving at a Hexagram for a consultation, and the particular arrangements of this edition, can be found in “How to Consult the I Ching.”


This is the I Ching, the Book, or Classic, of Change, canonized as “first among the Classics” in 136 BC, with extracts from a number of its earliest commentaries, known as the Ten Wings. To these I have added a digest of later Chinese commentaries, from the Han dynasty to the present day, and of a few non-Chinese commentaries, along with my own linking remarks as translator and editor. The aim is to provide the lay reader with a consultable work, a Book of Wisdom that has grown over the centuries, obscuring the original Oracle beneath its accretions.

Readers can, if they wish, turn to Part II for a glimpse of that early Bronze Age Oracle. Here, in Part I, they will find a “received” text that has been used over the past two millennia by the Chinese people, from the poorest peasant trudging to the temple fair to have his or her fortune told, to the general contemplating his next military move; from the most sophisticated poet, the most sensitive landscape painter, to the most arcane philosopher, the most highly skilled physician. Over this long period of time it has been a spiritual resource for men and women from all walks of life. I believe it can serve a similar function today, in its translated form. This is a scriptural translation, a compendium of the perennial philosophy of China through the ages, crystallized around this ancient text. For the British scholar and poet Angus Graham, as I have mentioned in my general Introduction, reading the I Ching is “a synthesizing act in which the Diviner sees into and responds to everything at once, with a lucidity mysterious to himself.” But while this lucidity may always remain a mystery, it also has discernible benefits. My own teacher and friend Liu Ts’un-yan, to whose memory this translation is dedicated, certainly believed in its practical value. He would push under my door slips of paper inscribed with I Ching readings, shorthand encouragements to persevere in my studies—to be Steadfast. In the same spirit, in his last years, more than thirty years later, he insisted in many conversations that simple Good Faith was what mattered most, with the concomitant ability to discriminate between True and False (an emphasis shared by many I Ching commentators). “Ah!” he once said with a rueful sigh about a mutual acquaintance, a celebrated colleague. “Completely False!” Brilliant, successful, but False.

I have sought to give each of my two versions a distinctive voice. The Oracle will at times sound brusque. The Book speaks in more deliberate tones—even when the two versions are essentially saying something similar. This is intentional.

The early Jesuit Latin version, to which I have referred in the Introduction, has a peculiar resonance for the contemporary reader. Phrases such as “Nullum malum” and “Nulla est culpa” still have a powerful ring to them. From time to time I have shamelessly quoted a few Latin tags from the early Jesuits to supplement my English. As Joseph Needham once remarked, Why should we not make use of numinous phrases from our own civilization? (He certainly did!) Sometimes I have modified the Latin slightly, or substituted a Latin version of my own. This may strike some readers as odd. After all, who knows or reads Latin these days? But it is not done out of a perverse desire to obfuscate or impress. I sincerely believe that these occasional Latin snatches, which I have used mainly for the incantatory formulae of the Chinese, can help us relate to this deeply ancient and foreign text, can help create a timeless mood of contemplation, and at the same time can evoke indirect connections between the Chinese tradition of Self-Knowledge and Self-Cultivation on the one hand, at the center of which has always stood the I Ching, and, on the other, the long European tradition of Gnosis and spiritual discipline, reaching back as it does to well before the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to before Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Aquinas, to Antiquity and beyond. It was the Delphic oracle, after all, that counseled visitors to its shrine to know themselves. We all come to places and books such as this seeking answers to questions that are fundamentally the same. As the Chinese put it, “We humans share the same Heart-and-Mind; that Heart-and-Mind shares the same reasons.” This has always been my personal motto as a translator.

But there is another reason for insinuating the odd piece of Latin, a reason that is harder to articulate. Again, as I have stated in the Introduction, over many years I have gradually come to realize (as many others have before me) that there can never be a definitive version of the I Ching in any language. Its “meaning” is simply too elusive. All interpretations and translations are works in progress. Part of the book’s Power is precisely that it has meant so many different things to so many different readers and commentators over the ages, including its translators. With the passage of time, much of the old accepted understanding fades away. We are bereft of much that was inseparable from the reading of this book, much that gave that reading its Power. In our modern world, the numinous has been for decades in retreat, becoming little more than a faint memory, disappearing with the same alarming rapidity as many natural species. Like the inhabitants of Russell Hoban’s visionary post-holocaust masterpiece Riddley Walker (1980), or of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s equally haunting and prophetic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), we scavenge for shards of old belief and myth, we piece together whatever fragments we can, from a remote and half-forgotten past. China is no exception. My little scraps of Latin embedded in this I Ching are an acknowledgment of this. They serve as slightly subversive reminders that we will never be out of the dark, that we can hope to do little more than clutch at the disjecta membra of the past. These half-remembered mumblings (Non est poenitendi locus!) are a bit like the dog-Latin and Provençal ravings of Salvatore, the gargoyle vagabond heretic of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. “Penitenziagite! Watch out for the draco who cometh in future to gnaw your anima!” He could so easily have been half-remembering Hexagram I, First Line: “The Dragon lies hidden, Draco est absconditus. Do not act, Nole uti.”

In Part I, the layout is as follows: (1) The core text comes first, centered and in largest type: Hexagram, Hexagram Name, Judgment, and Line Judgments. (2) This is followed, centered on the page again but in slightly smaller type, by a selection from the oldest commentaries, the Ten Wings: On the Judgment, On the Image, On the Words, the Great Treatise, The Trigrams Expounded. These sections are set off from each other by an old graph for Turtle. (3) In smaller type still, following an old graph for Dragon, is my own eclectic digest of later Chinese commentaries and poets, from the Han dynasty onward, together with the thoughts of a few non-Chinese translators and commentators. These I have reworked and often reworded, weaving them together into one collective voice. Where I am adding my own thoughts, I signal this with the initials JM.

In the last years of this long project, I benefited enormously from the work of three commentators in particular. The first is Liu Yiming, a most remarkable individual of the eighteenth century, who brought to his reading of the I Ching insights from his lived experience as a Master in the Dragon Gate School of Complete Reality [Quanzhen] Taoism. During his late teens, Liu suffered a nearly fatal illness, and was restored to health by a Taoist monk. (This, incidentally, was also true of my teacher Liu Ts’un-yan. As a youth in Peking he suffered very poor health, which improved only when he received instruction in Self-Cultivation from a monk in the White Cloud Monastery, one of the main centers of Complete Reality Taoism.) Liu Yiming’s experience opened his eyes. He set off wandering around remote areas of China, “seeking the Tao,” until at the age of twenty-two, in the Northwestern province of Gansu, he encountered a Taoist Master known as the Old Man of Sacred Shrine Valley, who initiated him into the discipline of neidan, or Inner Alchemy. This branch of Taoist practice is no mystical mumbo-jumbo, but a carefully thought-out and long-established method of Self-Cultivation. It has been well described by Isabelle Robinet as “a technique of enlightenment, a method of controlling both the world and oneself,” a process of “existential and intellectual integration.”

Purists may find my exposition of Liu’s complex alchemical terminology overly simplistic. To borrow the words of the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, I do not have “a scholarly understanding of alchemy.” Rather I see in Liu’s interpretation of the I Ching a “lived alchemy,” a pointer toward the “transformation of base elements and some sort of union of important elements” in the reader’s life.1

Inner Alchemy uses the symbolism of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams of the I Ching (interpreted within the framework and lexicon of the Alchemical Work) as an aide-mémoire or map for the practice of Cultivating the True Heart-and-Mind of the Tao. This is what makes Liu’s I Ching commentary so fascinating. For him the book is a Taoist Companion to Life, the Hexagrams themselves becoming aids to visualization, steps on the Path to Self-Knowledge.

After many further years of Self-Cultivation of this sort and more wandering around China’s remoter regions, doing all sorts of odd jobs, Liu finally settled in a hermitage in Gansu, offering Taoist teachings and medical advice to all comers. Among his many other writings is a commentary on The Journey to the West, which was influential in Anthony C. Yu’s monumental translation and interpretation of that great novel. I have found Liu’s I Ching commentary inspirational, and I quote from it liberally, under the rubric “Magister Liu.” I have not attempted to convey in any detail the full intricacy of his neidan thinking. Instead I have tried to spell out the broad implications of his Taoist reading of the I Ching. The most helpful guide for the modern reader wanting to go further into the subject of Chinese Inner Alchemy is to be found in the two books by Isabelle Robinet listed in my bibliography.

The second commentator whose work I have found most helpful (even if I have not always agreed with his interpretations) is the contemporary Taiwanese philosopher and Taoist scholar Chen Guying. Chen has led a colorful and eventful life. Beginning in the early years of martial law in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek, he acquired a reputation as an engaged and controversial political figure, teaching in the Philosophy Department of Taiwan University, and providing outspoken leadership for student protests. He began writing about Existentialism in the 1960s, and went on to rediscover Chinese philosophy and especially Taoism, so he himself says, as the result of his early studies of Nietzsche. His edition of the I Ching, with prolific notes and commentary, was done in collaboration with the Beijing scholar Zhao Jianwei. It was first published in Taiwan in the late 1990s, and was reissued in Beijing in 2005. It places the I Ching in a proto-Taoist context, and makes important and enlightening connections between it and early Taoist texts such as The Tao and the Power and the Book of Master Zhuang.

The third of my “late companions” on this journey has been Professor Mun Kin Chok (Cantonese pronunciation of Min Jianshu—we share a surname!), Professor Emeritus of Marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and economic adviser to the Chinese government. Professor Mun, now in his late seventies, is a True Gentleman and a delightful individual. In a 2006 study written in English, he derived a “Chinese leadership wisdom” from the I Ching. His commentary is designed for the executive or would-be executive. Since 2006, Professor Mun has gone on to write extensively in Chinese developing the same theme. All of his books are published in Hong Kong. The clarity and practical common sense of his explanations provide a useful counterweight to the Taoist musings of Magister Liu. And yet in a way Magister Liu, Professor Mun, and Professor Chen Guying are all doing the same thing. They are applying the text to life. They are using it to help readers take decisions in their outer and inner lives.

This is not an academic translation, and I have chosen not to clutter the pages with lengthy citations. Instead, I have given further details of sources online on my website, johnminford.com. Interested readers are welcome to visit this website, where they may also find further refinements of this “work-in-progress,” and can put their own questions to the translator directly.

I have chosen to follow a format similar to the one I used in my earlier translation of The Art of War, breaking the core text into short lines to reflect its pithy, often poetic and parallelistic, nature, at the same time centering it on the page. Commentaries from the Ten Wings are also centered.


1. Robertson Davies, The Cornish Trilogy (1-vol. ed.) (London: Penguin Books, 1991), vol. 2, What’s Bred in the Bone, p. 701.








Supreme Fortune.



Heaven above Heaven. Pure Yang. This is the first of eight Hexagrams formed by doubling a Trigram of the same Name (these are I, II, XXIX, XXX, LI, LII, LVII, and LVIII). The word chosen for the Trigram/Hexagram Name, Qian, whatever its original meaning may have been (and there are many understandings of this—see Part II, Hexagram 1), came in later times to be used more and more as a shorthand for Heaven, emblem of Yang Energy and Creativity. The two first Hexagram Names, Qian and Kun, when joined together into a single word, qiankun, came to mean the Universe in its entirety, Heaven and Earth and everything in between. A short poem by the monk-poet Hanshan Deqing begins:

Snow fills the Universe [qiankun],

The Myriad Things are new.

My body is wrapped

In a radiant silver world.

In a verse drama, the Complete Reality Taoist Master Ma Danyang sings of the Spiritual Process, or Work, of Inner Alchemy:

Achieve purity and tranquillity,

Retain them within,

And Heaven-and-Earth will return

To dwell in the inch-space

Of your Heart-and-Mind,

The Universe [qiankun]

In a crucible.

Then you will know

The futility of artifice.

Over the years the I Ching has provided a compendious ragbag of key words and proverbial expressions; it has been a cultural commonplace book. Joseph Needham called it a “repository of concepts, to which all concrete phenomena in Nature could be referred.”

On the Judgment


Grandly Supreme.

Font of Matter,

Master of Heaven!

The clouds pass,

The rains fall,

The Array of Matter

Flows into Form.

Crystal Comprehension

Of End and Beginning.

Each of the Six Places

Comes in its True Time.

Each of the Six Dragons

Rides Heaven in due order.

The Tao of Qian

Is Transformation,


To things it gives their True Nature,

Their True Life-Destiny.

It preserves the Great Harmony.

This Profits,

This is Steadfast,

The head raised high

Above the Multitude of Things,

The Myriad Kingdoms

All at Peace.

Grandly Supreme For the often-recurring oracular formula “Supreme Fortune. Profitable. Steadfast,” see below, and the discussion of yuan-heng-li-zhen in Part II, Commentary to this same Hexagram.

Master of Heaven The Tao of Heaven, writes Zhu Xi, has a Heavenly and Supreme Quality, yuan. It has Grandeur, Primordiality. Its Masterly Power is the Font of Creation, of the Myriad Things, of the phenomenal world. Through the Tao of Yin and the Tao of Yang, comments Magister Liu, the Sage Masters both Heaven and Earth. Qian, for Zen master Zhixu, is the Buddha Nature.

The clouds pass, the rains fall The Tao of Heaven moves, comments Cheng Yi. It acts and interacts with Earth. In so doing, it creates, it gives birth to all things. This is Fortune, heng, writes Yang Wanli; this is the positive manifestation of the Qian Hexagram. Clouds and rain are the Energy (qi) of that Fortune. Matter is the form into which that Fortune or Energy flows. Qian is not just Fortune, adds Yu Yan. It is Supreme in that it lies at the very Origin of Pure Energy, before material distinctions come into play. Its Fortune is to be found in the Flux, in the Flowing into Form, at the point where the Array of Distinctions—those material things that are massive or minute, high or low—becomes manifest. Nothing, comments Jullien, following Wang Fuzhi, illustrates better than clouds the continuous Gestation of Heaven, its continuously evolving Flux, its Movement. Nothing illustrates better than rain Heaven’s kindly Enrichment of the Earth, its Fertilization of Life. The positive current of Yang Energy passes through all things, charging and renewing them according to their kind. Through it, the world of Matter “becomes,” it constantly realizes itself. JM: The cosmic “mating” of Heaven and Earth during rainstorms, the intercourse of Yang and Yin in Nature, is an ancient Chinese motif. “Clouds-and-Rain” has always been the image par excellence of sexual union and consummation, a reminder that the human microcosm functions like the cosmic macrocosm, that the union of man and woman is simply the interaction of the forces of Nature “writ small.” It is an intrinsic part of the intercourse of Heaven and Earth. The two levels interact. They have a Resonance. In an essay entitled “Seeking Rain,” the Han-dynasty scholar Dong Zhongshu even proposed that husbands and wives, in order to ensure the timely precipitation of rain, should have sex with each other on every gengzi day in the sixty-day cycle. This, wrote an anonymous commentator of the time, would be sure to secure the Harmony of Yin and Yang in the world of Nature—an example of “sexual sympathetic magic.” A century earlier, in his preface to a famous poetic rhapsody, the poet Song Yu celebrated sexual ecstasy on a mountaintop, describing the union of a Former King and a Shamaness. This was the locus classicus for the “Clouds-and-Rain”:

The King lay with her,

And at their parting

She spoke these words:
“My home is on the southern slope

Of Shaman Peak,

Where from its rounded summit

A sudden chasm falls.

At dawn I am the morning clouds,

At dusk, the driving rain. . . .”

Crystal Comprehension This, writes Zhu Xi, is the Comprehension of the Sage, who “gets” the Tao of Qian with crystal clarity, both as to its End and as to its Beginning. Hence his Supreme Fortune. Wang Fuzhi understands it to refer to the Tao itself, the all-comprehending, all-knowing Process of Qian and of Heaven. The Tao knows all.

Each of the Six Dragons The Six Dragons, writes Zhu Xi, are the Six Lines of this Hexagram, in their respective Places. The Sage comprehends the significance of each—Hidden Dragon, Dragon Seen, Flying Dragon, Dragon Leaping into the deep, etc.—and can therefore act in the appropriate way at the appropriate moment. He rides the Dragons as they progress through the Heavens. In Seclusion, writes Wang Bi, ride the Hidden Dragon. In the Open, ride the Flying Dragon. Ride each of the Six Dragons in due and proper order. Ride the Transformations, take control of the Great Vessel of Heaven. At Rest, be concentrated. In Movement, be straight and true. Never lose sight of the Great Harmony. Is this not the True Essence of Human Nature and Life-Destiny? JM: Again, this passage concerns the Sage, or the Tao, or both. Zen Master Zhixu comments that the Six Places, and hence the Six Dragons, represent stages of Enlightenment, the gradual revelation of the Buddha Nature. They are also, writes Professsor Mun, the six different stages of development in an enterprise. The Lines advise the Leader of an Organization how to adapt to changing conditions.

Profitable and Steadfast We come now to the key “oracular” words Profit/Profitable, li, and Steadfast/Steadfastness, zhen, found in this first Judgment, and many times hereafter throughout the I Ching. How, asks Zhu Xi, can one ensure that one’s actions bring Profit? How and when should one be Steadfast? The answer is to be found in understanding Transformation, the gradual process of Change, the constantly shifting situation and its dynamic; and in understanding Change itself, the final outcome of Transformation, the underlying Reality. One must be in tune with that process, with the True Nature of things, with their True Life-Destiny. The Great Harmony that this understanding brings and preserves is the Harmony of Yin and Yang, the creative fusion of their twin Energies through Transformation. The Transformations of the Tao of Qian Profit all things. Through these Transformations every thing perfects its True and Steadfast Nature and Life-Destiny. Heaven, comments Jullien, following Wang Fuzhi, never deviates from its correct course (visible in the stars and the seasons). Heaven is always True and Steadfast. In the same way, the Sage is judiciously Steadfast in his pursuit of Truth; he is finely attuned to the Inner Logic of the process of Transformation, participating in that process in the appropriate manner at the appropriate stage. Thereby he achieves results that are both Profitable and Steadfast. The Transformation of Reality, the process of Change, is ongoing, constant, and uninterrupted. But each individuation receives from this very process its True individual identity, its True Nature and Life-Destiny. If all beings respect the inner demands of their True Nature, then individual existences and Destinies will be united and reconciled in the Great Harmony.

High above the Multitude Heaven, writes Cheng Yi, is Ancestor of the Myriad Things. The King is Forefather of the Myriad Kingdoms. When the Tao of Heaven, of Qian, the Head, “is raised high above the Multitude,” then the Myriad Things will all enjoy Fortune together. When the Tao of the Ruler respects the Place of Heaven, then everything within the Four Seas will fall into place. When the King embodies the Tao of Heaven, then the Myriad Kingdoms will be at peace. JM: Again, the Head can be understood as the “head” of the Hexagram Qian, the “head” of Heaven and the Tao, the “head” of the Dragon, or the “head” of the King, the Ruler, the Sage, or of all at once.

On the Image of the Hexagram

Strong is the Movement of Heaven.


The True Gentleman

Tempers himself.

Heaven is the Image of Qian, writes Zhu Xi. The Movement of Heaven is strong; it is a powerful “revolution” repeated each day, today’s revolving Movement giving way to an identical Movement tomorrow. This celestial phenomenon is fueled by Supreme Cosmic Strength. In the I Ching, as Jullien insists, “reality is never the product of creation, always of interaction.” Joseph Needham repeatedly emphasizes that the Chinese have no “spiritus rector.” The True Gentleman models himself on this, he “works on himself,” never allowing petty human desire to harm the Inner Strength of Heaven’s Power (the Power of the Tao). The great seventeenth-century painter Shi Tao (Stone Wave), also known as the Bitter Melon Monk, refers to these very words when talking of the artist’s training, his quest for Self-Cultivation. The painter must never tire; he must be indefatigable in his application, in his training, in his development as an artist.

The Trigrams Expounded

Qian is Heaven,




Qian is





Qian is deep red.

It is head.

Fine horse,

Old horse,

Skinny horse,

Piebald horse.

Fruit of tree.


Yang in First Place

The Dragon

Lies hidden,

Draco est absconditus.

Do not act,

Nole uti.

On the Image

Yang in lowly Place.

Yang Line in Yang Place. Here Yang Energy occupies a lowly Place, writes Cheng Yi. The True Gentleman abides in that Place. He lies low. His time has not yet come. The Dragon is a strong Yang creature, comments Zhu Xi, but Yang in First occupies the lowest Place of the Hexagram, and must therefore not be drawn into ill-conceived Action. Hence the Image of the Hidden Dragon. Hence the Divination “Do not act.” When encountering this Hexagram, and especially if this is a Moving Line, observe this Image well, ponder its significance, writes Zhu Xi. For the Duke of Zhou, brother and adviser to King Wu, and considered by legend to be the author of the Line Statements of the Hexagrams, the Dragon, writes Legge, was symbol of the Superior Man, the True Gentleman, the Great Man, the one who exhibits the virtues or attributes characteristic of Heaven. The creature’s proper home is in the water (the word for “hidden” has the water radical), but it can disport itself on the land, and can also fly and soar aloft. The Chinese Dragon has indeed from earliest times been the emblem of the highest dignity and wisdom, of sovereignty and sagehood. Here, in this First Line of the First Hexagram, comments Jullien, following Wang Fuzhi, the Dragon is still hibernating, nourishing his Energy before soaring into the skies. The Vital Force of the Tao continues to irrigate his roots. The Dragon Sage is in Retreat, he rests in obscurity, in anticipation and preparation. He studies but does not teach. He cultivates his moral character in silence, he is content to lead a frugal life, unnoticed. Capacity and Aspiration are there, but the time has not yet come. JM: In the fourteenth chapter of that wonderful Taoist classic the Book of Master Zhuang, a story is told of Confucius’s having visited the venerable Taoist Laozi (Master Lao, the Old Master, sometimes written Lao Tzu). A disciple asks Confucius about the visit. “I saw a veritable Dragon!” he replies. “A Dragon at one moment coming together into a body, and at the next dispersing to form a colored brilliance. It rides on the clouds of Heaven, it is nourished by Yin and Yang. My mouth fell open in amazement!” The Dragon is the prime image of the I Ching, and one of the most powerful. It has been the subject of much rhapsodic speculation. What do we really know about the long, the Chinese Dragon, especially in ancient times? As Robert Bagley has remarked, “the literature of Chinese archaeology commonly applies the label Dragon to almost any imaginary animal.” The early (c.AD 100) dictionary Shuowen jiezi merely says (rather unhelpfully, and clearly itself quoting the early I Ching commentaries) that the Dragon “rises up to Heaven in the Spring, and sinks into the Abyss in the Autumn.” Today we can see with our own eyes in the museums of the world a rich array of stylized early Chinese Dragons, especially on the extraordinary bronze vessels of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. But do these representations really help? Was this creature in fact no more than a construct, inspired by the discovery of various antediluvian dinosaur remains? Was the Dragon closest to snake, crocodile, or fish? Or are these simply the wrong questions? The chameleon-like Chinese Dragon could change shape at will. It was, and is, an emblem of Change. The contemporary art historian Wu Hung, commenting on the strange animals of hybrid form that pervade Chinese mythology and religion, writes vividly of one surviving bronze Dragon, dating from the Warring States period: “Half-feline and half-reptilian, the Dragon has dorsal spikes and pinioned wings. Its body is covered by linear volutes filled with dots. But its sharp wings, horns, and fins convey a strong sense of three-dimensionality. . . . The mythical animal, bending its cylindrical neck and tightening its sinews and muscles, is about to leap in the air.” This is just one among many such Dragon-like creatures. A relatively early, partly Taoistic text, the Book of Master Guan, informs us: “The Dragon [like the Turtle] lives in the water. It can acquire the five colors of water, and become a Spirit. If it so wishes it can make itself as small as a silkworm or a caterpillar. Or it can make itself so large as to cover the whole world. If it wishes to rise up, it can fly among the clouds; if it wishes to descend, it can visit the deepest springs. It changes constantly; it can go up or down whenever it so wishes.” Clearly this is far from the fire-breathing Western dragon, the evil creature with which St. George (or St. Michael the Archangel, or Cadmus, or Beowulf, or Siegfried) so heroically fought. It is no monster guarding a hoard of treasure, nor is it an archetypal dark shadow against which the Inner Hero must do battle. Far from it. The Chinese Dragon is a creature of light, positive and numinous “symbol of the electrically charged, dynamic, arousing force that manifests itself in the thunderstorm,” as Richard Wilhelm puts it so eloquently. It symbolizes the very process of Change itself, disseminating not fire but water, fertilizing the Earth with its Creative Energy. In the Chinese art of geomancy, fengshui, the channels in the landscape through which the Energy of the Earth flows are termed Dragon Veins (longmai), and the focal points where Positive, or Yang, Energy is concentrated (sites suitable for graves) are termed Dragon Hollows (longxue). In astronomy, the Dragon was an important cluster of stars (see Part II). Later, and more generally, the Dragon came to stand for China and for the whole of Chinese culture and history. The Chinese were “Heirs of the Dragon.” A song of that name by the contemporary Taiwan singer Hou Dejian became extremely popular among Chinese of all persuasions in the 1980s.

The Chinese Emperor (in later times Prime Dragon), before ascending his throne, was Dragon in Hiding. “Hidden Dragon” indeed became a stock phrase for a man of parts biding his time. The great wizard and strategist of the Three Kingdoms period, Zhuge Liang, when he retreated to the countryside and became a hermit, was known as the Sleeping Dragon. The Leader of an Organization, writes Professor Mun, is advised to keep a low profile, to store Energy for a future move.

On the Words

The Master said:

He possesses Dragon Power,

But stays concealed.

He does not Change

For the World’s sake,

Does not crave success or fame.

He eschews the World.

Neither oppressed by solitude,

Nor saddened by neglect,

In Joy he Acts,

In sorrow stands aside.

He is never uprooted.

This is the Hidden Dragon

In lowly place;

This is Yang Energy

Concealed in the deep.

The True Gentleman acts

From Perfection of Inner Strength.

His Actions are then visible daily.

Here he is


He is

Not yet visible,

His conduct is not yet


He does not


Yang in Second Place

The Dragon

Is seen in the fields,

Draco in campis.

It Profits

To see a Great Man,

Magnum virum.

On the Image

Inner Strength

Spreads its influence far and wide.

On the Words

The Master said:

This is

Dragon Power.

True and Centered,

In daily words


In daily conduct


He guards against depravity;

He preserves

Good Faith.

Good works are done

But never boasted of.

Inner Strength spreads far and wide;

It Transforms.

Yang Line in Yin Place. Centered. The fields lie upon the Earth, writes Cheng Yi. Now the Dragon emerges, visible above the Earth, manifesting Inner Strength, influencing others in a process of universal extension. The Sage Shun cultivated the Earth and caught fish. It Profited him to see a Great Man of Inner Power, the Sage Yao, in order to implement the Tao. Equally it Profited the Sage Yao to see before him a subordinate of Inner Strength, and to enlist his support. The Leader should seek wisdom and advice, writes Professor Mun, from knowledgeable people (Great Men) both inside and outside his Organization. Then he can announce new plans and new products, while maintaining the principles of sincerity, balance, and uprightness. With this Yang Line in Second Place, comments Jullien, following Wang Fuzhi, Dragon Energy becomes manifest; it begins to be openly deployed. Just as in the natural world plants grow and bear fruit, so this Line represents an emergence into the open, above ground. The “fields” can also be seen as the Inner Ground of the Sage’s being, a Spiritual Space to be cultivated and made fruitful.

Yang in Third Place

The True Gentleman is vigilant

Throughout the day;

He is

Apprehensive in the evening.


No Harm,

Nullum malum.

On the Image

He walks the Way of the Tao,

Back and forth.

On the Words

The Master said:

The True Gentleman

Cultivates Inner Strength,

Fulfills his task,

Through Trustworthiness,

Through Good Faith,

Refining his words,

Building Sincerity.

He knows the limits,

He keeps within them.

He grasps the Spring of the Moment.

He knows Completion,

He perfects Self within it,

He preserves Righteousness.

He occupies height

Without pride,

A lowly place

Without being downcast.

He is vigilant and apprehensive.

He is in tune

With Situation and Time.


No Harm,

Nullum malum.

Yang Line in Yang Place. This Third Line, writes Cheng Yi, shows us a person not yet entirely risen from the ranks of the lowly, but whose distinction is already apparent. Such was the case when the subtle Inner Strength of the humble Sage Shun became known. Day and night, without fail, he was vigilant and apprehensive. Although in a dangerous situation, he incurred no Harm. Whether in Advance or in Retreat, whether in motion or at rest, he was always attuned to the ebb and flow of the Tao, always flexible and walking on its path. Only by being conscious of the difficulty of the situation, comments Jullien, following Wang Fuzhi, by not moving too precipitately toward achievement of a goal, can one avoid Harm. The lesson is to persevere, but at the same time to be prudent. The True Gentleman, comments Thomas McClatchie, is the Prince, the Sapiens of the Stoics; the Dragon-man, Fu Xi, the human manifestation of Qian, or Heaven, the First Man, Sage, and Emperor, rising up out of the Abyss.

Yang in Fourth Place

He leaps

Into the deep,

In profundis.

No Harm,

Nullum malum.

On the Image

In Advancing,

There is

No Harm.

On the Words

The Master said:

High and low

Have no Constant Rule.

Eschew the irregular.


Knows no Fixed Rule,

Neither Advance

Nor Retreat.

Be not distant from fellow men.

The True Gentleman

Cultivates Inner Strength;

He fulfills his task.

He tunes Self

To the Moment,

And thus incurs

No Harm.

Yang Line in Yin Place. The deep, writes Cheng Yi, is the Dragon’s natural place of repose. Leaping into the deep at an opportune moment, the Dragon finds rest. In similar fashion, the Sage always stirs (into Action) at an opportune moment. He calculates before advancing; he judges the moment, and thereby avoids Harm. Advance is possible, comments Zhu Xi, but not necessary. Here a certain hesitation and uncertainty are implied. The leap takes place with no apparent cause, without any sense of urgency or flight. The deep may be the space above, or the caverns beneath—places dark and unfathomable. The Dragon bides his time. He may descend, but he may also leap upward toward Heaven. The Leader, writes Professor Mun, is at a crossroads and needs to make a decision whether he should move forward or not, in a calm and balanced manner, without being impulsive. JM: Tao Yuanming, in his poem “Rhapsody on Scholars out of Their Time,” drew on the imagery of these lines:

Hidden Dragon,

Leaping Dragon:

All is

Ordained. . . .

The Enlightened Man’s Vision

Bids him eschew office,

Bids him

Retreat to his farm.

Yang in Fifth Place

The Dragon

Flies in Heaven,

Draco volans in coelo.

It Profits

To see a Great Man,

Magnum virum.

On the Image

The Great Man

Sets to work.

On the Words

The Master said:

Sounds of the same sort


Creatures of the same Energy


Water flows to moist ground,

Fire rises to that which is dry.

Clouds follow the Dragon,

Wind follows the Tiger.

The Sage stirs the Myriad Creatures

Into Action.

Pay heed:

Whatsoever derives from Heaven,

The Heaven-bound,

Is drawn to what is above;

Whatsoever derives from Earth,

The Earth-bound,

Is drawn to what is below.

Each follows its kind.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Consistently eloquent and erudite, this rendition of the I Ching will endure as a classic of the twenty-first century and beyond.” —Anthony C. Yu, Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Humanities, The University of Chicago

“Readers familiar with the classic Wilhelm/Baynes translation can rest assured that John Minford’s new version has surpassed it. . . . It is a work of art. But it is also extremely user-friendly, especially for general readers who wish to consult their fortunes with this book. They will find here, in Minford’s many-splendored prose, a largesse of wisdom and sheer mystical power.” —Leo Ou-fan Lee, Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture, Chinese University of Hong Kong

“A creative masterpiece in itself, this translation by John Minford—one of the foremost cultural intermediaries of our day—throws fresh light on the great Chinese classic of the occult. It is a kind of unholy resurrection, a cable that disappears into the abyss of a darker time. In it the Bronze Age predicts to the Information Age the shadow of what is to come.” —Timothy Mo, three-time finalist for the Booker Prize

“A nicely produced book with an enthusiastic spirit and scholarly credentials . . . [It] has a freshness and clarity about it and reads well [and] has the authority of a solid translator with great scholarly experience. [It] should certainly join the small handful of books that are worthy of consulting time and time again.”—Yijing Dao


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Meet the Author

John Minford is the translator of the acclaimed Viking Penguin edition of The Art of War and a professor of Chinese at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

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