Understanding the I Ching

Understanding the I Ching

The I Ching is best understood in the context of the culture it reflected, influenced, and evolved.  The wisdom of the I Ching informed the Zhou Dynasty during more than 1,000 years of prosperity and benevolent leadership in China.

The wisdom of the I Ching can be assimilated through reflection and meditation.  Use over time enables one to shape a life meaningfully and find peace within by acting in harmony with natural law.  Perhaps the most remarkable gift of this ancient oracle is the unique connection to and guidance from Spirit available to anyone at anytime.

Legend & History

For 5000 years of recorded history and reaching beyond into deep antiquity, the I Ching has expressed Chinese cosmology and informed all that is great in culture and statehood in China.

Authorship is credited to four sages, Fu Xi, King Wen, Duke of Zhou, and later layers attributed to Confucius.  The I Ching represents continuity of Chinese culture over thousands of years of slow organic growth.

Fu Xi, the legendary and representative leader of the Chinese people in antiquity, 2500 BCE and before, is credited with initiating Chinese writing.  These early written symbols Included the eight trigrams we know today as the primary symbols used by the I Ching.  According to legend, the trigrams were revealed supernaturally.

Initially, the ridgepole made the line.  With the line comes duality, above and below, dark and light, right and left.  This tension between polar forces represents a potential to unite and regenerate.

This potential to unite and regenerate is key in Chinese cosmology where every event in the visible world is viewed as the effect of an image, an idea in the unseen world.

These opposing forces do not manifest as a duality in combat, rather a complementary relationship representing the potential for resolution.  Each resolution sets in motion forces for the next extreme, again a potential for the next resolution.

The universe is a cosmos, not a chaos.  Heaven, unseen and above, regulates and determines.  Earth, below, manifests form.  Humanity is between, subject to both natural and moral law.

These primal forces are always in motion.  The cycle continues without interruption in harmony with natural law.  Innovated in deep antiquity, the eight trigrams are images of states of change.

King Wen of Zhou was founder of the Zhou dynasty and an early epic hero in Chinese history.  The son of Ji Li of Zhou, King Wen learned benevolent rule from his family lineage.   Early in his life King Wen (then known as the Duke Wen of Zhou) was a popular ruler because of his benevolent generosity and because he reputedly placed himself along side those he ruled.  The Duke and his family wore the same clothes as common people and worked with the people in the fields.  Slaves came from far lands because under the Duke Wen of Zhou they had rights to own land and to freedom.

Because this popularity threatened the Emperor of Shang, the Emperor put Duke Wen of Zhou in prison for seven years.  During this time, Duke Wen of Zhou planned a revolution to liberate the people from the emperor’s tyranny.  The plan for this revolution came as Duke Wen of Zhou arranged the eight trigrams into 64 hexagrams representing all the possible combinations of the eight trigrams.

Of these combinations, the first and second, heaven over heaven, and earth over earth, came to represent the cornerstones of his strategy.  These two combinations provided the polar tension for resolution in unity, the firm becoming yielding and the yielding becoming firm.

During his time in prison, Duke Wen of Zhou wrote Decisions for each of the 64 hexagrams.  He wrote these Decisions to guide him in leadership of the revolution to free the people from the Tyrant of Shang.  These Decisions offered guidance based on the image represented in the hexagrams and thus, the I Ching came to offer moral guidance to complement natural law.

Duke Wen of Zhou died before the revolution was fully complete.  His son, Duke of Zhou named him King Wen posthumously.  And this Duke of Zhou, son of King Wen, wrote the guidance associated with the Change Lines that provide further possible interpretations of the Decision for each hexagram.

Duke of Zhou, son of King Wen, became known as King Wu and led the people to unite all of China, a unity that lasted nearly 1000 years.  For this time, the principles of leadership were found almost entirely in the guidance offered using the I Ching for divination to learn the most prudent and best possible outcome for any given situation.

These founders of the Zhou Dynasty, Kings Wen and Wu, were venerated as ideal monarchs.  Confucius taught that these rulers were guided by moral law, benevolence, and a preference for justice.

Hundreds of years later, Confucius dedicated his later life to study of the I Ching.  Confucius and his students wrote the Commentaries to each of the 64 Decisions.  These commentaries have been translated and published as the Ten Wings.

During the Han dynasty, there was an effort to combine the Five Elements and numerology.  This began an era of mystery and mysteriousness for the I Ching.

Scholars since have recognized the contributions of these four sages, Fu Xi, King Wen, Duke of Zhou, and Confucius – the Images, the Decisions, the Lines, and the Commentaries as the essential elements of the I Ching.


Dates as reported by Alfred Huang (Huang 1998)


Lines, Trigrams & Hexagrams

In mythical antiquity, a collection of lines was used as an oracle.

Yes was a solid line.
No was an open line.

In time there came a need for more differentiation so the single lines were combined in pairs, then a third line added to each pair.  These stacks of three lines, ideographs that became the Trigrams, suggested images representing natural events, all that happens in heaven and earth and that which is constantly undergoing change.  Patterns of lines represent aspects of character, images, and familial position.

Change is constant motion of opposite complementary forces coming to resolution: night becomes day and day night, the moon full and then dark, summer blooming and then winter, the firm becomes yielding and the yielding becomes firm – the cycle of movement on which life depends.

The solid line came to represent heaven, light, the firm, the principle of movement.

The open line came to represent earth, dark, yielding, the principle of rest.

In the heavens, there is constant movement and change, and on Earth, fixed and lasting conditions.

The character of the line combines with the character of its position in the trigram and the hexagram.   The result is great variety in possibility of conditions.

Lines of correct character and position within the hexagram result in Conditions of equilibrium – great harmony prevails.

Lines of incorrect character and position within the hexagram result in Disturbed equilibrium – confusion prevails.

Things in nature are determined by a tendency toward order.  The attraction of related elements brings harmony.  As heavenly forces affect life on earth, there is a time of things coming together, germination, growth, blooming.  The resolution of this cycle is a time of things coming apart, harvesting, digesting, resting.  And the cycle begins again.



In the ancient tradition Shén (spirit) informed the oracle.

When King Wen added the Decisions to the oracle, he provided counsel for correct conduct and thus the reader to share in shaping outcomes.  His son, Duke of Zhou, continued the legacy and wrote the guidance contained in the Change Lines. Now one could receive wise counsel from the I Ching reading and experience freedom from the tyranny of events because responsibility for outcome is based on choice and action as well as subjective intention.

When we understand natural law we can live in harmony with the heavens, the earth, and each other.  Thus, through metaphor and archetypal symbols, the I Ching provides wisdom principles for sculpting a conscious life of integrity, compassion, and service.

Use of the I Ching is referred to as divining as distinct from fortune telling.  Divining is seeking divine or spiritual guidance from an oracle.  Approaching the I Ching with reverence leads to deep and valuable results.  (Theo Cade 2011)

When you consult the I Ching, you are able to tap into the animating force of the universe, Spirit, if you will.  The I Ching consistently communicates synchronistic readings for one who approaches with sincerity.  The readings are synchronistic in the sense that the most important aspect of the situation to consider at the time of the reading is revealed.  (Theo Cade 2011)

This direct experience of Spirit through synchronicity is the meeting ground of empirical evidence and intuitive knowing.  In this manner, one can avoid the inherent error of limiting to only one or the other.  The quality of a life can be vastly improved with openness to a mystical perspective and direct spiritual guidance.  (Theo Cade 2011)


Throughout its rich history, scholars have revised and integrated contemporary systems and thoughts into use of the I Ching.  Those who become deeply fascinated with the I Ching may wish to make their own investigations.

There are now hundreds of translations, paraphrases, and renderings of the I Ching.  Two classic translations and one interpretation are presented here.

The Richard Wilhelm Translation
Richard Wilhelm lived and studied in China in the early 1900s.  With a long residence in China, mastery of the language both spoken and written, and a special relationship with Chinese cultural leaders, Richard Wilhelm began a translation from Chinese into German after the Chinese Revolution of 1911.  His methodology included a verification of the German by translating back into Chinese.

During World War I, the scholars who had collected themselves in Tsingtao (today Qingdao City in Shandong Province) left this city, which had become a center of Chinese culture.  Later, Lao Nai-hsüan, the honored teacher of Richard Wilhelm returned to Tsingtao and together they worked to complete the translation into German.

Richard Wilhelm died in 1939 before the English translation was completed.  His son, Dr. Hellmut Wilhelm championed the work with Cary F. Baynes, translator, and checked the English against the Chinese using the many volumes his father had referenced.

The result is a true and poetic translation that includes a forward by Carl Jung, a detailed history and orientation to the I Ching, a translation of the Ten Wings, commentaries by Confucius and his students, and two translated versions of the oracle, one with less detail than the other.  This is a translation revered by many.

Taoist Master Alfred Huang
Alfred Huang is a third generation master of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Kung, and oriental meditation, and a professor of Taoist philosophy.

Alfred Huang felt privileged to study the I Ching with a group of elders under Master Yin before the Cultural Revolution in China.  In 1966 Huang was imprisoned and sentenced to death.  During 22 years of confinement he found comfort in the teachings of Master Yin and in his faith that the extreme political conditions would shift… when events proceed to their extremes they give birth to their opposites. (Huang 1998)

Alfred Huang’s translation is from the Chinese directly into English.  He first translated the original symbols, the eight trigrams, from the ‘dead’ language of the original ideographs into contemporary Chinese, then into English.

This version is best for understanding the ancient images in light of contemporary spiritual living.

Theo Cade
A psychologist who has studied the I Ching over 30 years, Cade offers an interpretation of the I Ching integrating optimism and positive psychology.

As we evolve to our true nature as planetary citizens living in ever increasing harmony, we need practices to support a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.  We need a language and views to support this harmony.  In Theo Cade’s interpretation, the challenge becomes the process of transcending and including.  The warrior transforms into the healer.  The alone and alienated individual becomes part of the whole, shifting experience from alone to all one.  We expand, learning self-validation and inner peace becoming people who integrate earth and heaven toward the shift, All Win – total permanent world peace and prosperity.

The I Ching needs to be examined in light of the era from which it came.  King Wen was imprisoned by a tyrant.  While in prison he wrote the Decisions for the 64 hexagrams to plan his revolution to free the people from an oppressive rule.  His son, Duke of Zhou, wrote the Change Lines to describe the difficulties uniting an empire of nearly a hundred kingdoms and over 500 feudal land holders.

Today, many find oppression from within.  To evolve our inner states, it is imperative we shift from an adversarial to a compassionate stance.  I Ching Version for Optimism supports this journey and creates a positive self-fulfilling prophesy by taking into account the inherent value in the ancient texts and transcending the adversarial to reflect a more evolved personal and social stance prevalent for many today.

Optimism means dealing with the tough issues, not from denial, rather from the energy of the solution.  In this way, our evolutionary leaps become integrated with the wisdom traditions.


The I Ching offers guidance without requiring any leaps of faith, only directly experiencing and honoring and respect of natural cycles and wisdom that is found throughout the wisdom traditions.

As Richard Wilhelm said, the I Ching is …appropriate for thoughtful reflective people who like to think about what they do and what happens to them. (Richard Wilhelm 1990)



Cade, Theo. I Ching, Version for Optimism. Indianapolis: Xlibris.com, 2011.

Huang, Alfred. The Complete I Ching. Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions, 1998.

Wilhelm, Richard. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Third Edition. Translated by Cary F. Baynes. Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 1990.

Image Credits

Fi Xi, Duke of Zhou, Confucius are from Wikipedia and are faithful photographic reproductions of original two-dimensional works of art.  The works of art themselves are in the public domain because the copyrights have expired.

King Wen has been reproduced from http://history.cultural-china.com/en/46History1568.html n.d.   Permission for non-commercial use has been requested.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.