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Thorough Look on The I Ching: The Book of Changes

By Hosu Lee



            When I first started my research on the I Ching, the Book of Changes, I was surprised that I had never heard about it despites the fact that it has influenced almost every philosophy and religion in East Asian countries until now. I was aware of the benefits of the rapid modernization and westernization of South Korea since the Korean War in the mid 20th century, however, I did not realize that this “progress” left us significant problems especially in our generation. Our education system was simply replaced by a new strategy which imitates “factory model school” during modernization, and the schools mainly focus on educating students with the practical subjects by efficient methods. Now, many of young generation in South Korea regards the ancient texts of Eastern philosophy such as I Ching and associated religions simply as superstitious, and easily fail to make critical views on these subjects.

             In the time of Joseon dynasty which lasted for approximately five hundred years, now the territory of North and South Korea, I Ching was deeply considered as the root of our philosophy, and those mystical trigrams of I Ching and the symbol of Tao, yin and yang, were used everywhere until now in Korean flag. I realized that the schools in Korea during this time taught very sophisticated and refined level of studies heavily based on Confucianism and Taoism. It was quite irony to me that I finally got to know about the I Ching in Chicago, the very root of both Confucianism and Taoism, while learning about an American composer John Cage whose discipline was deeply influenced by these subjects. Furthermore, during the first half of the 20th century, the foundation of quantum mechanics was established, and it continuously challenged both conventional physics and general public cognition. The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics had awakened the notion of chance which was used as a key medium of I Ching manipulated by human to reveal one’s destiny. While the interest in the studies of I Ching along with other related eastern philosophy and religion has been rising in west, it clearly seems to be diminishing in the regions of the origin. I acknowledge that this is a natural process of cultural exchange between east and west, however, I also feel responsibility and aspiration to study the root of our culture and mind.

            The I Ching, or the Book of Changes, is one of the earliest efforts of human mind to observe the tendency of the universe at the moment to consult one’s destiny. It has influenced Chinese philosophy for three thousand years, possessing a long history of commentary and interpretation. The Book of Changes first set down as a book of oracles with a collection of linear signs, then deepened in meaning throughout the history by attaching the ethical values that may suggest action in accordance with the universe. Thus, the Book of Changes became a book of wisdom and eventually one of the Five Classics of Confucianism and provided the foundation source for both Confucianist and Taoist Philosophy. It has occupied the attention of the most eminent scholars of China down to the present day. The translation of the I Ching began in the early 20th century after the Chinese revolution.

           The purpose of I Ching is to consult the oracle of the subject by composing hexagram with coin tosses. This binary type of oracular pronouncement is the basis of this book. The hexagram is a combination of six lines, either broken or unbroken, negative or positive lines. However, in the interpretation of the hexagrams, they should always be perceived as composed of two primary trigrams which play a part according to the various types of their character. There are eight different trigrams composed of broken and unbroken lines which create symbolic images of changing transitional state of nature. These trigrams have their own inherent characters that give a unique manifold meaning to each one of them. For example, the name of the trigram with three negative lines is called the Creative which has the image of heaven and strong attribute and represent father. The interpretation of trigram must be supplemented by these attributes, images, and positions within the family sequence—father, mother, first son, second son, third son, first daughter, second daughter, and third daughter.

          In order to achieve a greater multiplicity, these eight trigrams were then combined with one another to obtain a total of sixty-four hexagrams. Each line in the hexagram is capable of change by its dynamic, and whenever a line changes, there is also change in situation represented by the given hexagram. For example, the hexagram, K’un, The Receptive, earth, has six broken lines. If the lowest line changes to unbroken or positive line, we have now the hexagram, Fu, Return. All the lines of a hexagram do not necessarily change; it depends entirely on the degree of dynamism revealed by the coin tosses. Furthermore, the position of the trigram must be taken into account. The lower trigram is below, within, and behind; the upper trigram is above, without, and in front. Also, lines in the upper trigrams are always characterized as forward; those in the lower trigram, as reverse. The hexagram also has so-called nuclear trigrams, ku kua, which is found in the four middle lines of each hexagram. The four lines overlap each other to make up a vertical pair of trigrams. For example, in the hexagram Li, The Clinging, Fire, the two nuclear trigrams are Tui, Joyous as upper, and Sun, the Gentle as lower part of the four middle lines. Thus, the structure of the hexagrams contains overlapping of different trigrams and their meanings.

         To obtain the hexagram, a set of three coins are tossed six times. Each cast of three coins produces one line of the hexagram. For each cast, each head gives the value of 2, and each tail give 3. These are then added together producing a number between 6 and 9. For instant, if you get two tails and one head, it is 3+3+2, thus 8. The middle values, 7 and 8, are referred to as young yin and yang which is considered to be stable elements. However, if a 6 or 9 is appeared on a line, the hexagram is considered more dynamic which tends to change to its opposite since the value of 6 or 9 is the result of a cast of entirely yin or yang values, all tails or heads. This means that the hexagram has the potential to change into any other hexagrams by those changing lines, thus a pair of hexagrams is produced from a single session of six tosses of three coins. So instead of 64 possible readings of hexagram, there are 4,096 ways of reading the hexagrams. Once a hexagram or pair of hexagrams is given, the Book of Changes provides the trigram chart to identify the number of hexagrams where the reading of the oracle is written.  

               The underlying idea of the I Ching is the idea of change. This idea is related to both Confucius who said, “Everything flows on and on like this river, without pause, day and night,’’ and Taoism of Lao-Tse whose profound aphorisms based on “the course of things,” and the “principle of the one in the many” (Wilhelm, lv).  Eight trigrams stand for the images as states of certain change. This view is associated with the concepts of the visible world which is the effect of “image,” the unseen world. This means that everything happens on earth is only a reproduction of an event in a metaphysical world beyond our sense perception. Thus, the trigram is considered as the sacred chance of immediate image of an event from the heaven. For example, the image of The Creative, Chi’en, is described as, “The movement of heaven is full of power. Thus, the superior man makes himself strong and untiring” (Wilhelm, 6). The ancient Chinese believed that the holy men and sages “have access to these ideas through direct intuition and are therefore able to intervene decisively in events in the world” (Wilhelm, lvii). Therefore, man is linked with heaven, transcendent world of ideas, and with earth, the material world, to form a trinity of the “primal power.”

              Another element fundamental to the Book of Changes is the judgement. The judgement basically translates the structure of the hexagram into words; they indicate whether the given action will bring fortune or misfortune, or humiliation. This makes it possible for a man to make decision regarding the situation of the moment. In this way, the judgement of each hexagram suggests that one can detach him/herself from the course of his/her karma. For instance, the judgement of The Creative, Chi’en, heaven, says, “The Creative works sublime success, Furthering through perseverance” (Wilhelm, 4). Most of the judgement is simple and precise in indicating symbolic meaning directly regarding the image and character of the hexagram. Further commentaries and explanations are attached to each judgement by the most eminent scholars over time to bring a deeper understanding to present. With the judgement and interpretation of the image, the Book of Changes opens to the reader the richest legacy of Chinese wisdom.

              After I studied history and the mechanism of I Ching, I quickly made an attempt to consult my oracle. Although the I Ching generally functions to express the actual circumstance of the universe at the moment, when it is used as means of seeking wisdom, the consultants usually bring up a question they want to ask. The question should not be either very specific or too simple like yes or no since the I Ching tells a broad spectrum of perspectives at the moment where no specific or simple action is written. I wrote my question on a piece of paper, “What sort of mindset do I need to have for this transition of my life? (after graduation),”and started tossing three pennies to build my hexagram. The result was quite fascinating in terms of the precise connection to my current situation regarding my question. I received a pair of hexagrams: Hsiao Kuo, Preponderance of the Small, and Shêng, Pushing Upward. It seemed to me that the transitional state of Hsiao Kuo into Shêng reflects my current situation very well by describing the past and future. I was also very surprised to see these two hexagrams opposing to each other. The image of Hsiao Kuo is a flying bird, and the judgement suggests that remaining “below” and staying grounded, as “the bird is belonged to the earth”, will bring good fortune, however, the image of Shêng depicts a growing wood upward, and the judgement suggests to advance and depart for good fortune (Wilhelm, 178). Also, while Hsiao Kuo tells that the small things are accomplished and great things should not be done, Shêng speaks, “the superior man of devoted character heaps up small things in order to achieve something high and great” (Wilhelm, p 179). I realized that having the question beforehand only helps to better and quicker understand the oracle but is not necessary at all since the oracle would directly consult the current situation which must include all the possible questions along with it. The process of consulting oracle was surprisingly simple to follow and brought a remarkable result considering the use of chance as the fundamental element, not of any analytic information of my current situation.

            John Cage, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, was deeply influenced by eastern philosophy range from Coomaraswamy to Zen Buddhism. He also quickly worked on the use of the I Ching for composing music when his friend, also American composer, Christian Wolff, gave him a copy of the new Bollingen two-volume Wilhelm-Baynes English translation (Kostelanetz, p 63). Though John Cage failed to utilize the Book of Changes in an orthodox sense, Cage sought a balance between the rational and the irrational by allowing the randomness to function within a controlled system. In his work the Music of Changes (1951), Cage first used the “chance operation” to assemble the materials from pre-composed chart and remove his intention and bias when composing music. His process of composing the Music of Changes is similar to that of consulting oracles by I Ching. First, he had a chart of pre-composed notes and tag a specific number to each one of them. Then, he made a bunch of hexagrams using coin toss method and find the number attached to each hexagram and assembled them as a continuous music. However, he was not able to completely free himself from his intention and bias in composing Music of Changes, so he later made the Imaginary Landscape No. 4 in which the performers used twelve radios to play sound from unintended station. Besides, not only John Cage used I Ching solely for the generation of numbers that could be translated into art, but also he used it personally when he felt trouble; he asked, such a question like, “what do you have to say about this?,” and then he just listened to what it said in order to get inspiration and guidance from the oracle (Kostelanetz, p 17).

              Although a number of creative applications of I Ching has recently been made by the modern artists, it is still remained as unfamiliar and unpopular discipline among young generation in South Korea. However, most of folk shamanisms and fortune tellers in Korea actively use chance as fundamental medium to seek the oracle from various revised versions of I Ching. They often use the casting of specks of rice to read the randomized pattern for seeking a divine guidance. Yet, the true purpose of I Ching is not to ask for such a guidance in order to avoid misfortunes. It is to “follow the order of the nature and of fate” that is to understand the current situation of universe, not to fulfill or change one’s destiny (Wilhelm, p 264). The I Ching suggests that human is the part of the flux of constant change, and every element of nature in this flux is set on eternal motion altogether. In this sense, none of a single action or element can be independent from the whole. This idea somewhat sounds peaceful and meditative, but helpless at the same time since one cannot escape from his/her fate unless one is godlike beyond human and the course of nature.



Jensen, Marc G. "John Cage, Chance Operations, and the Chaos Game: Cage and the "I Ching"." The Musical Times 150, no. 1907 (2009): 97-102.


Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.


Wilhelm, Richard, and Cary F. Baynes. The I Ching: or, Book of Changes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

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