The I Ching and the Zhou Yi


The I Ching or Yi Jing (易經), also known as The Book of Changes, is an ancient classic and divinatory system which is composed of 64 hexagrams, related texts, and commentaries.


It is said that the hexagram was created by Fu Xi (伏羲), a legendary Chinese ruler credited with the introduction of farming, fishing and animal husbandry. For thousands of years divinatory hexagrams were depicted in symbols, and by virtue of the changing phenomena emerging from the images, people were enlightened while consulting them. Later, after written characters were developed, that phenomena and insights derived were written down in the form of text.  


The text of the I Ching known to us should really be called the Zhou Yi (周易), i.e. the Yi of Dynasty Zhou (1120 B.C. - 770 B.C.), since allegedly there were two other versions of Yi: the Lian Shan Yi (連山易) and the Gui Cang Yi ( 歸藏易)*.

The original meaning of Yi () is lizard (chameleon), which changes its colour according to the circumstance. Its character is a combination of sun () and moon () and is used to signify the change between Yang (the masculine) and Yin (the feminine), i.e. the solid and broken lines that constitute hexagrams.

It is believed that the hexagram texts of the Zhou Yi were the work of Duke Ji Chang (姬昌), who was posthumously honoured as King Wen of Zhou** (周文王) and the founder of the Zhou Dynasty, when he was imprisoned by King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty (紂王) at You Li (羑里). The line texts were provided by his forth son, Zhou Gong Dan** (周公旦), after the Shang was overthrown and Dynasty Zhou established under the leadership of his eldest son, King Wu of Zhou ().

Due to the fact that the Zhou Yi was composed in a time of great turmoil, it cautions mankind against impending disaster and offers advice on how to pursue good fortune and avoid misfortune.


Confucius** (孔子) (551 B.C. - 479 B.C.) began studying the Zhou Yi after the age of 50. He delved deeply in the exposition of the Zhou Yi until he passed away at the age of 73. His commentary is commonly recognised and attached to the Zhou Yi text, creating the integrated text now known to us as the I Ching. Since that time, the I Ching has influenced much of Chinese thought and society – whether in regards to self-cultivation, household management, or administering the government.


The Ten Wings


The following commentaries are believed to be the work of Confucius. In total there are seven commentaries expressed in ten parts which provide guidance for Chinese intellectuals studying the Zhou Yi. They are commonly referred to as the Ten Wings.


Xu Gua Zhuan (序卦傳), the commentary on the sequence of the 64 hexagrams: It describes the reasons that 64 hexagrams unfold, one after another, according to the King Wen's sequence.


Tuan Zhuan (彖傳), the commentary on the hexagram text: Tuan originally signifies pig walking; its slow and swaying but straight movement here refers to repeated thinking in making a judgment on the hexagram. This commentary explains the name, the phenomenon and the text of each hexagram. It also includes remarks made by Confucius. Reflecting the two volumes of the Zhou Yi, it is divided into two chapters and constructs two wings.


Xiang Zhuan (象傳), the commentary on the image: It is determined individually for every hexagram and its lines. Commentary on the hexagram is provided to give advice on how a person should behave according to the images presented by the hexagram. Commentary on the line is mainly to explain the cause or effect of the given text according to its characters.


Xi Ci Zhuan (繫詞傳), the commentary on the text tagging, in two chapters: “Xi Ci” means "to tag the text onto the hexagram", i.e. commentary on how the text is provided for each hexagram and its lines. It also explains the principles of Yi and the doctrine of the Zhou Yi, including the basis of its profundity.


Wen Yan Zhuan (文言傳), the commentary on hexagrams Qian and Kun: Qian and Kun are the threshold of the I Ching, from which the other 62 hexagrams evolve, one after the other. Therefore additional commentary is given to these two fundamental hexagrams and their lines.


Shuo Gua Zhuan (說卦傳), the commentary on trigrams: It elaborates on the formation of the eight unique trigrams and describes the image inherent in each of them.


Za Gua Zhuan (雜卦傳), the commentary on the paired hexagrams: It explores the features of each hexagram by comparing it with its reversed or changed hexagram.


Traditionally, the study of the I Ching in China has been divided into two major groups. One is the study of the meaning and code of conduct of its text. The other focuses on the changes created by the Yin and Yang of the lines, the images presented by the trigrams, the phenomena emerged from the hexagrams, and various theories derived from the Yi. These two can be studied independently but are most often used for counter-proofs.


Development and use


The I Ching is one of Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經) which were regarded as the most authoritative books in ancient China. It together with some others of those books and classics paraphrased by Neo-Confucian scholars*** were used as the main source for the imperial examination from the Yuan Dynasty (1271 A.C. - 1368 A.C.) to the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.C. - 1644 A.C.) and until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1905 A.C.).

The I Ching served in this capacity more or less due to its code of ethics and loyalty to the king. It also reflects the traditional relationship between masculine and feminine in old China, especially the perceived male superiority and female inferiority. Although these aspects may be out of date, they can still be seen today in such relationship as employer / employee, and law-abiding citizen / criminal.


It is believed that in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.C.) the concept of five elements - metal, wood, water, fire, and earth - was invented and then introduced into the theory of the hexagram. Thereby Wen Wang Gua (文王卦, King Wen's hexagram) was developed. It correlates the lines to the Celestial Stems and Earthly Branches, and then uses the mutual relation between the elements converted by two concerned lines to interpret oracle.


The use of the I Ching has been common practice in Chinese daily life. For example, in Beijing's famous Forbidden City, all the buildings have yellow roofs, except for the book repository which has a black roof. The thinking behind this is that black is the colour of water which will protect the repository in the event of fire.

With regard to medicine, the method of treating each organ is based on its inherent quality. For instance, the heart refers to fire. For that reason ginseng with its warming properties is never prescribed to those with hypertension or heart disease.


Introduced to the West


Thanks to the convenience of marine transportation to the East, many missionaries of the Society of Jesus came with traders to China after the middle of the sixteenth century. The first translation of I Ching was made by a French missionary, Nicolas Trigault, in Latin in the beginning of the seventeenth century.

After another century,  I Ching was officially introduced to Europe by Joachim Bouvet, also a French missionary, who was instructed by Emperor Kangxi to study I Ching. He combined I Ching with Figurism**** and presented it in Latin. It attracted many Sinologist’s interest to this ancient oriental classic; after that, many papers relating to it were issued, crossing centuries.

The most famous two versions are the English edition by James Legge and the German one by Richard Wilhelm (which was later translated into English by his son, Hellmut Wilhelm, and Cary F. Baynes), respectively in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  The two books are regarded as the major referential material for I Ching study in the West.

Since World War II Chinese study has been prevailing in US, which then affected Europe, and in following this trend the I Ching has become one of the popular subjects in the West.


This e-book


As someone born and raised in Chinese culture, I am pleased to offer this e-book showing how the Zhou Yi is interpreted in an orthodox way, which is based on the Ten Wings and through analyses of the images and lines. In addition, this e-book provides insight of its enduring mystery through travelling with a time machine back to those unique eras. I hope you enjoy exploring its wisdom and riches as I had.




* The inscription of Gui Cang Yi on the bamboo slips was unearthed from a pre-Qin tomb (before 221 B.C.) at WangJiaTai (王家台) in 1993. Lian Shan Yi is still unaccounted for.

** In Chinese history, Duke Ji Chang was regarded as the embodiment of rationality, integrity and benevolence. Though he made great efforts to strengthen his dukedom in view of Tyrant Zhou’s threat, he always complied with the norm of a duke, even after he possessed two thirds of states of ancient China.

Zhou Gong Dan was a typical Chinese gentleman who always restrains his desires and conforms his behaviour to proprieties. He assisted his brother, King Wu, in consolidating the kingdom and acted as a royal regent for his young nephew, King Cheng. Through enacting the rites of Zhou (so that people know their posts) and composing music (according to the tempo of which they perform their roles), he established a social estate system and its operation mode which is honoured as the most civilised political system by Confucius.

Confucius (551 - 479 B.C) was a teacher, politician and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. His thoughts emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity, which were further developed through many generations into a system known as Confucianism and received official sanction of all past dynasties. Confucianism has extensively affected Chinese society over two thousand years. Confucius is also honoured as the greatest sage and teacher even today.

More precisely, the Zhou Yi and the Ten Wings are collective works. Ji Chang (King Wen), Zhou Gong Dan and Confucius may be regarded as the representative figures of those creations.

*** Neo-Confucianism was developed in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 A.C.), a time when Taoism was prevailing in China after Buddhism, in search of more rational and secular thoughts based on Confucianism. It integrates Confucianism’s philosophy of life with Taoism’s rules of Nature and Buddhism’s spiritual cultivation, creating a series of theories from the origin and core of all life, human instincts and virtues, social values and norms, to the utmost ideal everlasting with cosmos. Cheng-Zhu school represented by Cheng Yi (程穎), Cheng Hao (程顥), and Zhu Xi (朱熹) is the most prominent one at that time.

**** Figurism is the doctrine of those who consider the events related in the Old Testament as figures or representations of those in the New. It was adopted by Jesuit missionaries to search for the relevance between the Bible and Chinese classics, particularly the I Ching.