What Is the I Ching?

‘An Ancient Chinese Poet’; colored engraving of an original Chinese scroll
Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
‘An Ancient Chinese Poet’; colored engraving of an original Chinese scroll

The I Ching has served for thousands of years as a philosophical taxonomy of the universe, a guide to an ethical life, a manual for rulers, and an oracle of one’s personal future and the future of the state. It was an organizing principle or authoritative proof for literary and arts criticism, cartography, medicine, and many of the sciences, and it generated endless Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, and, later, even Christian commentaries, and competing schools of thought within those traditions. In China and in East Asia, it has been by far the most consulted of all books, in the belief that it can explain everything. In the West, it has been known for over three hundred years and, since the 1950s, is surely the most popularly recognized Chinese book. With its seeming infinitude of applications and interpretations, there has never been a book quite like it anywhere. It is the center of a vast whirlwind of writings and practices, but is itself a void, or perhaps a continually shifting cloud, for most of the crucial words of the I Ching have no fixed meaning.

The origin of the text is, as might be expected, obscure. In the mythological version, the culture hero Fu Xi, a dragon or a snake with a human face, studied the patterns of nature in the sky and on the earth: the markings on birds, rocks, and animals, the movement of clouds, the arrangement of the stars. He discovered that everything could be reduced to eight trigrams, each composed of three stacked solid or broken lines, reflecting the yin and yang, the duality that drives the universe. The trigrams themselves represented, respectively, heaven, a lake, fire, thunder, wind, water, a mountain, and earth (see illustration below).


From these building blocks of the cosmos, Fu Xi devolved all aspects of civilization—kingship, marriage, writing, navigation, agriculture—all of which he taught to his human descendants.

Here mythology turns into legend. Around the year 1050 BCE, according to the tradition, Emperor Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty, doubled the trigrams to hexagrams (six-lined figures), numbered and arranged all of the possible combinations—there are sixty-four—and gave them names. He wrote brief oracles for each that have since been known as the “Judgments.” His son, the Duke of Zhou, a poet, added gnomic interpretations for the individual lines of each hexagram, known simply as the “Lines.” It was said that, five hundred years later, Confucius himself wrote ethical commentaries explicating each hexagram, which are called the “Ten Wings” (“wing,” that is, in the architectural sense).

The archaeological and historical version of this narrative is far murkier. In the Shang dynasty…

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