22: I Ching & Yin-Yang theory

China Page

The “Sage Kings of Old” set the stage for Chinese political development. They also created the foundation for the I Ching, which has had a more global impact.

Context: the First Chinese Classic

First Classic, the I Ching

The later Chinese dynasties identified certain important works. They were called ‘Classics’, i.e. Ching. The primary works had an order and were called the Chinese Classics. As an indication of the importance of the I Ching, the Chinese have always considered this book to be the first Chinese Classic. Because Westerners tend to associate the I Ching with divination, it is peculiar to think of it as the first Chinese classic. The ancient Chinese probably considered it the first classic because, in addition to being employed for divination, it is also a work of philosophy concerning the omnipresent yin-yang theory.

“[Cheng Man-ch’ing] said with his usual grin, “The I Ching is the most profound classic of the Chinese sages. Confucius himself did not believe he was ready to begin the study of the I Ching until he was 70.”1

Primacy of the yin-yang theory

To understand the primacy of the yin-yang theory in Chinese thought, let it be remembered that the formalized I Ching of Wen Wang, preceded Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Buddha by about 500 years. Further the yin-yang theory behind the I Ching provided the foundation for the Chinese philosophies.

“Professor [Cheng Man-ch’ing] said that the principles of the I Ching form the foundation for the teaching of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the entirety of Chinese culture.”2

Master Ni said that the main principle behind Tai Chi was yin-yang theory – before Taoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism.

Classics of Writing and Songs

There were also other Chinese classics written during the Western Chou. The Classic of Writing, the Shu-ching, contains documentary pieces from the legendary rulers Yao and Shun down to the first three centuries of the Chou dynasty, the Western Chou Period. The bulk of the material, including many speeches by the Duke of Chou is from the Western Chou Period, and is considered somewhat historical. It is considered the second Chinese classic. The Classic of Songs, the Shih-ching, is considered to be the third Chinese classic. It contains many edited folk songs and poetry also from the Western Chou period. This is also considered historical.

Classic of Rituals

According to legendary history, the fourth Chinese classic, the Classic of Rituals, the Li-ching, also comes from the Western Chou. It consists of three books. The first, Chou Rituals, Chou-li, links proper government with proper ritual. The second, Etiquette and Ritual, I-li, details proper conduct for the aristocracy of the Western Chou, and the third Ritual Records, Li-chi, deals with the proper rituals for performing certain ceremonies including marriage, funerals, births and the like.

Han fabrication, attributed to the Duke of Chou

This classic was supposedly written by the Duke of Chou but is considered by scholars to have been fabricated during the Han dynasty, or a little earlier, to bolster the ways of the ruling class. Because of the Chinese reverence for age and ancestry, they have a tendency to attribute important works to ‘esteemed’ ancestors to add prestige. We will come upon this tendency frequently as we proceed through Chinese history.

Copied over and over and over again

We have no existing books from the Chou dynasty. Everything that exists has been copied and copied again thousands of times. Just like the Bible, scholarship can detect layers of editing through stylistic differences and content. While the first three Chinese classics were seemingly written and maybe even compiled during the Western Chou, the fourth Chinese classic, the Classic of Rituals, is considered to be of Han origination.3

Reverence for history and the Word

While the lack of originals throws doubt upon the historicity of any of the Classics, the stylistic consistencies tend to suggest authenticity for most of the Chinese Classics. On a deeper level, the transmission over centuries of these ancient texts serves to emphasize the Chinese reverence for their own history as well as their respect for the written word.

“These [Chou] documents bear witness to that sense of history which is one of the most striking features of Chinese civilization, and, as a corollary, to the almost sacred place held in Chinese life by the written word.”4

Let us remember the magical divine origination of the ideogram during the Shang. This reverence for history reverberates continually throughout Chinese culture.

History of the I Ching

To better understand the focus of the I Ching, let’s examine its history in a little more depth.

Fu Hsi introduces the bagua

As we saw earlier, according to legend, Fu Hsi, the mythical emperor, introduced the gua, the diagrams based upon the broken and firm lines of yin yang theory. As pointed out, this establishes the true antiquity of this theory. Fu Hsi was especially connected with the trigrams. Indeed the Chinese names of the trigrams are unconnected with other Chinese words, i.e. they are not derivative in any way. Some say they are connected with ancient Chinese, while others say that it indicates the influence of a foreign culture.5

Prior Books of Changes & King Wên ’s I Ching

Both the Xia dynasty and the Shang dynasty had their own Book of Changes, the Lien Shan and the Kuei Ts’ang. While in jail, King Wên, composed his own order to the hexagrams and added a brief judgment to each. These ‘judgments’ are in the form of song/poems, with about 4 lines each. It is not known whether his names for each hexagram were unique to the Chou dynasty or whether they were founded on other Books of Changes from prior dynasties. Whichever is true, Wên Wang’s Book of Changes set the standard for both the order and the names of the hexagrams.

Wên Wang’s I Ching crystallizes yin-yang theory

For centuries, both the yin-yang theory could have been around in some form and the hexagrams could have been used in divination. However, King Wên’s judgments crystallized and formalized the philosophical foundation behind the yin-yang theory that culminated in the hexagrams. The I Ching, with King Wên’s purported commentary upon each of the hexagrams, was foundational for future generations.

The Changing lines from the Duke of Chou

While there are only 64 combinations of 6 yin and yang lines, each of these hexagrams can change into any of the other hexagrams. There are over 4000 of these changes. The mode of change is based upon the individual lines of the individual hexagrams changing from yin to yang or vice versa. His son, the aforementioned Duke of Chou, wrote judgments, i.e. song-poems, upon each of the changing lines of the hexagrams.

Confucius commentaries

The judgment of King Wên on each hexagram coupled with the Duke of Chou’s judgment of each changing line was the foundation upon which a multitude of interpretations and commentaries were written. The most famous of these commentaries was attributed to Confucius. Thus mixed into the I Ching are the ‘Judgments’ by the ‘Sage King’ Wên Wang; the ‘Images’ and commentary on the individual lines by another ‘Sage King’, Chou Kung, the Duke of Chou; and finally a commentary by Confucius on each of these song/poems. Thus the ideas of 3 major Chinese personalities are mixed into one book.

An extension not an origination

Just as the Duke of Chou was merely formalizing and extending primitive concepts in his Mandate of Heaven philosophy, so was his father King Wên, just formalizing and extending the concepts of yin yang theory in his Book of Changes. We will see that in a similar way Confucius, in many cases, does not originate ideas but merely extends them. This continuance, rather than origination, of the tradition of the Book of Changes is indicated by an alternate name of the I Ching indicated by Wilhelm, Chou I, or Chou Changes.6

I Ching, or Chou Changes, just one possible interpretation of hexagrams

The overall point here is that while the hexagrams represent abstract concepts, that the meaning is given a cultural context by the specific interpretation. Hence Wên Wang, the Duke of Chou, and Confucius gave these abstract symbols a Chinese context. This, however, does not invalidate someone interpreting the hexagrams in an American 20th century context or a feminist context. The Book of Changes that we most commonly use is the Chou Changes, but it is not the only possible interpretation of the hexagrams.

Spirit transcends the Yin-Yang Polarity

I Ching, all-inclusive?

According to I Ching theory, these 4000 changes encompass all the changes of human existence. As Ta Chuan, The Great Treatise on the I Ching states:

“‘8. When we continue and go further and add to the situations all their transitions, all possible situations on earth are encompassed.’

[Commentary] ‘Each of the 64 hexagrams can change into another through the appropriate movement of one or more lines. Thus we arrive at a total of 4096 transitional stages, and these represent every possible situation.’”

The hexagrams symbolize a basic pattern that can be interpreted in many ways. The 4000 changes expand he possibilities for interpretation. Hence these changing hexagrams are just an exhaustive categorization of the types of possible changes. Of course the whole yin yang theory is based around the polarity of yin and yang. These theories are incomplete, if there is more involved than the polarity of yin and yang.

Monkey-mind not contained within yin yang boxes

For instance in Journey to the West, Monkey challenged the authority of the Jade Emperor and stole the wine of the gods and their peaches of immortality. Because he was so powerful and was wreaking havoc in Heaven, the gods first attempted to kill him or cut him into pieces. Because this strategy was unsuccessful, Lao Tzu volunteered to cook him up in his brazier of the 8 trigrams to melt or incinerate him. After the appropriate amount of time the brazier was opened and Monkey slipped out, a little leaner and more refined, but essentially unharmed. This episode indicates that unpredictable monkey mind cannot be contained in the polarities of the trigrams.

Yin-yang and cause-effect powerful theories

The yin yang theory has many similarities with the cause-effect polarity of physical science. Both the yin-yang and cause-effect theories provide plausible explanations for many features of reality. Because they are such powerful explanatory tools, the scientists or theorists associated with these polarities become intoxicated with success. They assume that the whole universe falls under the sway of their theories. The theory behind the I Ching is that the changes described therein encompass all the changes of the known universe. Similarly, prominent cause-effect scientists have postulated that they or others are on the verge of discovering fundamental equations, which will explain all the phenomena of the universe, as we know it.

Yin-yang and cause-effect powerful but incomplete

Yin yang theorists can put a lot into their yin yang boxes, but the Monkey-mind will always escape. Spontaneous existence will always transcend the polarities of both cause/effect and yin/yang relationships. This is not to take away from the incredible power of these theories; it is only to express a little Awe at the wondrous mystery of Existence unfettered by Mind Boxes. Rational numbers and thought are only a small subset of the real number line and Reality. As Gödel proved: a system that is logically consistent can never be complete and a system that is complete cannot be logically consistent. The cause-effect and yin-yang realities are logically consistent within themselves, but are incomplete.

I Ching’s Ta Chuan: spirit transcends yin & yang

The incompleteness of the I Ching’s yin-yang theory of is also expressed in the Ta Chuan, one of the 10 Wings of the classic. In the 5th Chapter entitled ‘Tao in its Relation to the Yin and the Yang’, the 9th statement is:

“9. The aspect of the tao which cannot be fathomed in terms of the yin and the yang is called spirit. [In explication] “This ultimate meaning of tao is the spirit, the divine, the unfathomable in it, that which must be revered in silence.” (Wilhelm p. 301)

Thus spirit transcends yin-yang polarities. It is the essence of the Tao. Unpredictable, untamable Life.

Universal background of the I Ching

Military background of the hexagrams

Many hexagrams have a military background. Indeed it is easy to imagine the gua, the yin yang diagrams, used in planning military strategy. The war leaders might have sat around planning strategy using the firm and yielding lines. The firm line would represent the invincible chariot, while the yielding line would represent the soldiers breaking formation to let the chariot through. The most ancient texts don’t refer at all to ‘yin and yang’ lines. They only refer to ‘firm and yielding’ lines. Commentaries on the I Ching frequently suggest the military foundation behind the hexagrams. The hexagrams are regularly interpreted as in motion from bottom to top. If the top is not strong or stable enough to balance the bottom or contain it, then the hexagram represents an out of balance situation.

Modern I Ching foundations in military aristocracy

The military overtones of the hexagrams of the yin-yang theory suggest a military origination. In fact King Wên, the military ruler of the Chou, wrote the Judgments on the hexagrams during a very war-like time. Furthermore the commentaries written by Confucius, or somebody from the aristocracy, would have furthered the military and patriarchal nature of these interpretations. Thus we can say that the judgments of King Wên and the Duke of Chou with the commentaries by Confucius certainly have a militaristic and patriarchal foundation. Hence our modern foundations of the I Ching lie in the military aristocracy, not in the peasantry.

Origination of yin/yang in the Hunter-Gatherer

This analysis suggests that the origination of the yin yang theory lies in the ruling class. Yet we must remind ourselves of the essentially egalitarian nature of yin yang theory and look back further to the Hunter Gatherer societies. One hint of this archaic origination is the interpretation of the trigram, Tui, the youngest daughter, as the sorceress. Sorceresses were not a common social class during the militaristic imperial dynasties of historical China. Also, the 8 trigrams are broken up into mother, father, 3 sons and 3 daughters. This is not Confucian. The classic Confucian texts speak about the proper relationships between father/son and mother/son, but do not even mention daughters.

Hunter-gatherer equality

Let it remembered that Fu Hsi first introduced the gua, the yin yang diagrams, in the hunting gathering era. Further let it be remembered that the hunter-gatherer tribes were potentially very egalitarian, as they were based upon the fertility of wild nature rather than the fertility of domesticated soil. This egalitarian perspective in reflected in the equality of the firm and yielding lines.

The Hunt and Nomadic lifestyle lead to divination

Furthermore, the hunt is quite unpredictable. Many inscriptions on the Shang oracle bones ask about the success of the hunt. Additionally, the nomadic nature of the Hunter-Gatherer society would lend itself to divination. Shall we stay here or should we move on? Shall we hunt this or that direction? Should we cross the river or stay on this side? Some of the judgments of the hexagrams reflect this hunter-gatherer background.

Crossing the Great River

A one way crossing

In five of the Judgments on the 64 hexagrams by King Wên, one of the lines reads, “It furthers one to cross the Great Water.” We can imagine the importance of the decision of crossing the Great River for these early hunter-gatherer societies. First, the river crossing would not be easy. Most likely the ancient tribes would only cross one way because of the difficulty and danger in crossing the river at all. Frequently, this decision would be one-way.

The timing is also crucial. If the river is frozen, through then the crossing is safe and easy. If it is not quite frozen through, then one might easily lose property and even life. If the river is rising because of snow melt or heavy rainfall, should the tribe attempt the crossing before the river rises any further or should they wait with great delay until the water level of the river falls? The motivations to move could have been inspired by many factors including climatic changes, population pressures or the over-harvesting of the resources of the area.

The Great River is the Hwang Po, the Yellow River

In a general sense, the Great River could have referred to any of the great rivers of eastern Asia. On a more particular level, it probably refers to the unpredictable rivers of Northern China. The Book of Changes with its hexagrams seems to be most connected with the hunting and military cultures of Northern China. On the most specific level the Great River is the Hwang Po, the Yellow River, of Northern China. It’s nickname is ‘China’s Sorrow’ – indicating its treachery.

Metaphysical Great River

In a metaphysical sense crossing the Great River indicates moving forward on a great endeavor from which there is no turning back, i.e. making a key decision that will have long term ramifications, an either/or point. In terms of questions of ‘to move or to remain’; ‘crossing the river’ refers to big courageous change. How courageous this change is determined on an individual level. Crossing the River for a teenager could be asking someone out on a date. For a couple, it could be getting married or having children. In a career, it could be changing jobs.

Rivers in Journey to the West

The ambiguity and danger of river crossing is referred to frequently in Journey to the WestLarge rivers are regularly dangerous obstacles for the Group. Two members of the Group, the Dragon/Horse and Sha Monk, join the Quest at dangerous river crossings. Indeed, the Dragon and Sha Monk were both part of the problem and part of the solution to the crossing of their respective rivers. In order to get to our heaven-ordained goal, we must cross some dangerous rivers. Let us look at the meaning of the first of these rivers.

Eagle Grief Stream

The first river was called Eagle Grief Stream. It was so named because the flowing water so clearly reflected the sky that eagles would mistake the river for the sky and fly into it and drown. The danger of the River concerns self-absorption. The Seeker can’t tell the reflection from the reality and drowns in the reflected reality. A Dragon lives in the river. When Tripitaka gets to the river, the Dragon eats his horse. Monkey battles the Dragon, until Kuan Yin reveals that the Dragon is to join their Quest. Because he is so flexible, the Dragon becomes the White Horse that will carry Tripitaka to the Buddha.

The White Horse of the Will

The White Horse, who was a Dragon, is constantly referred to as the Horse of Will. Symbolically the Will/Dragon is engaged to get past the problem of self-absorption. The Will represented by the Dragon is complex. Evidently, the Dragon committed an unfilial act towards his father for personal gain and was scheduled for execution. However, Kuan Yin offered to save the Dragon, if he came to her Way, Heaven’s Way. After being saved, the Dragon goes to the river to wait for instructions. Ultimately, as a horse, he is instructed to carry Tripitaka to the Western Heaven to see the Buddha, to acquire Truth. Thus when Will is aligned with Heaven’s Will it is powerful, while when it is focused upon self it leads to disaster. Personal Will aligned with Heaven’s Will allows us to cross this early river.

Horse represents the Breath

Master Ni says that the Horse represents the Breath. In this reading, Tripitaka represents the stillness of Meditation. When Tripitaka as Meditation is joined with the horse of Breath, then the journey can proceed forward effectively. The Taoist text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, mentions that thoughts are as endless as breathing. If one can be chained to the other, then they can tame each other.

“IV. 5. So should one have no thoughts? It is impossible to have no thoughts. Should one not breathe? It is impossible not to breathe. Nothing compares to making the affliction itself into medicine, which means to have mind and breath rest on each other. Therefore tuning the breath should be included in turning the light around.”7

This is one of the messages of joining Tripitaka and the White Horse. When Mind is chained to Breath, then Will emerges naturally without effort. Indeed whenever Tripitaka leaves the Horse, i.e. when Mind forgets the Breath, he gets into troubles which threaten the Journey. Whenever he is startled or frightened he falls off his horse, perhaps forgetting to be mindful of breathing. Being mindful of breath acts as the antidote, a vaccination, against stupid fears and anxieties.

Will too hard or too fast

The first out of balance scenario is when Tripitaka leaves the horse, i.e. forgets to be mindful of breathing. The other out of balance scenario is when the Horse moves too fast. We mentioned this process when speaking about the chi as the horses of the chariot. Basically whenever Tripitaka is in a hurry to reach the Western Heaven or Piggy is anxious to find a place to sleep, then Monkey will scare the Horse, and Tripitaka will get carried away into trouble.

Cheng Man-ch’ing says, “If one’s will is too strong, it will not only harm one’s primal energy, but will also harm the root and trunk of one’s life span.”8

Crossing the Great River prematurely

The problem with excessive eagerness to reach enlightenment is illustrated in an episode of The Journey when Tripitaka wants to cross a frozen river before the right time. Because he is over-anxious to reach the Buddha, he crashes through the ice. This is an example of the danger of crossing the Great River prematurely.

A spontaneous emergence of Will through mindful breathing

Thus Will can be too self-centered and result in self-destruction as in the dragon son being disrespectful of his father. If Mind forgets the Breath, then there is no Will to carry it forward. If the Mind is too anxious, too attached to destination, then Will and breathing become too strong threatening the Journey because of moving too fast. Hence the fine solution to this quagmire is the spontaneous emergence of a Balanced Will as the result of Mindful Breath. As Cheng Man-ch’ing says, “Gradually, gradually.”

Flowing Sand River

The next river that was a problem/solution was the “Flowing Sand River”. The Flowing Sand River is so wide that they need some help in crossing it. In addition to being wide, nothing will float on the Flowing Sand River. Further there is a monster guarding the river. The Band realizes that this monster is swimming in the river without sinking. They reason that he must understand the river and will be able to help them find a way across. Monkey and Piggy do battle with the monster, but scare him and he hides. Kuan Yin is called and reveals that this monster is the Curtain Raising Captain of the Jade Emperor, who has been exiled from Heaven for being careless. He is to accompany the Band and protect Tripitaka to redeem his carelessness by earning merit. He is called Sha Monk.

The Problem of Leakage

Sha Monk is the last member to join the Pilgrimage. His job is to protect Tripitaka. He has been exiled for being too careless and must redeem himself by preventing the Elixir, Tripitaka, from being damaged or leaking out. While the Horse will carry Tripitaka forward, while Monkey and Piggy combine forces to fight the monsters threatening Tripitaka, Sha Monk is needed to just guard Tripitaka and the White Horse. Indeed just before Sha Monk joined the Group, Monkey and Piggy join forces to defeat a demon. But the demon evaded them and captured Tripitaka. Monkey and Piggy are a great fighting team, but need Sha Monk to focus upon just Tripitaka. Whenever Sha Monk is drawn away to fight monsters, to help or find Piggy, Tripitaka gets into trouble.

Sha Monk, Body Structure

While Tripitaka is the Mind and the Horse is the Breath, Sha Monk is the Body itself. More specifically, Sha Monk represents proper body structure. Indeed, he was able to swim in the Flowing Sand River because he was so light and yet still maintained form and structure. If he had been too insubstantial, he would have been washed away; if he had been too heavy, he would have sunk. Proper body structure concerns minimizing forces through proper body alignment.

The Spine, Pillar of Heaven

Indeed, many times the spine is referred to as the Pillar of Heaven. If the spine is aligned as a Pillar to Heaven, then everything that is aligned to it naturally falls into place. The spine must be light, i.e. pulled up from the top, but simultaneously substantial enough to support and order the rest of the body. When somebody is too heavy, i.e. out of alignment, they are inevitably compromised by the gravity of the earth. They sink beneath the waves of the Flowing Sand River.

Taiji Quan symbolism

In Taiji Push hands, one must be light enough to sense your opponent, while substantial enough to be able to ward off his blows. Further no matter how good your fundamentals are, if your body structure is not attended to, the elixir will leak out and be destroyed. All the practice in the world is useless without the proper body structure to contain it. Thus Sha Monk is the container for the Elixir – Tripitaka and the Horse. He must contain the energy, not letting it leak out, in order to intensify the heat. To redeem his carelessness, Sha Monk must prevent leakage. He himself must be light enough not to sink and yet substantial enough not to get washed away.


Symbolically Tripitaka is able to cross the two rivers. First, he becomes mindful of breathing in order to generate spontaneous Will.  Second, he tends to body structure in order to become both light enough not to sink and to be substantial enough not to get washed away. One way of interpreting river crossings is that the first concerned the incorporation of breath to generate will, while the second river crossing had to do with becoming mindful of body structure to prevent vital leakage.

Foundational culture of the I Ching.

These are Pilgrims seeking a goal. They have left the family. Thus the River crossing becomes a powerful metaphor. The Hunter Gatherer imagery in the River crossing is apparent. Because ‘river crossings’ are such a regular feature of the I Ching interpretations, this suggests that its origin was during Hunter Gatherer times rather than later.

Regularity of the Seasonal cycle

While there are many residuals of the uncertainty of the Hunter-Gatherer culture, inherent to the I Ching is the regularity of the seasonal cycle.

Four seasons -> Four bigrams

In yin-yang theory, first there is wuji, nothing; then there is taiji, something, which breaks the world into the polarity of yin and yang. The primal yin and yang elements combine into the 4 images, i.e. the four combinations of two yin-yang lines. These images represent the unchanging 4 seasons of the year, oriented in every culture by the solstices and equinoxes. The order of these ‘images’ is fixed, immutable and unchangeable. See below. (The yang lines are firm, while the yin lines are broken.)

As Ta Chuan, the Great Treatise on the I Ching, states: “There is nothing that has more movement or greater cohesion than the four seasons.”9

Seasons fixed, no room for variation

The images, the bigrams, start with double yin culminating at or around the winter solstice. Yang enters from the bottom, culminating with equal yin and yang around the spring equinox. The yang continues to grow into two firm yang lines by the summer solstice. As the days get shorter, the yin begins to grow from the bottom, reaching equality at the fall equinox. The days begin to get shorter. The yin is simultaneously increasing, until it is all the lines are yin around the winter solstice. Then the cycle begins all over again, with the Return of the Yang. This cycle is an incredibly important symbol in Taoist thought.

The trigrams create ‘great field of action’

When the next line is added, variation is introduced. While the fixed seasonal cycle of the images is contained in the trigrams, there are two wild card trigrams, Water and Fire, which don’t fit into the cycle. The combination of these errant trigrams creates many different potential positive, negative and neutral cycles. Indeed the proper placing of the trigrams of Water and Fire has filled volumes10. Improper alignment causes misfortune and dissipation, while proper alignment creates good fortune and vitality. The Great Treatise on the I Ching comments:

“6. The eight trigrams determine good fortune and misfortune. Good fortune and misfortune create the great field of action.” 11

Good and bad fortune

The ‘field of action’ for the bigrams is fixed, resulting in no possibility of good or bad fortune. However, there is not a logical sequence to the 8 trigrams that is fixed in every situation. Hence there exists choice and thereby the possibility of good and bad fortune. See seasonal trigram cycle below with missing trigrams that begin to expand the ‘field of action’.

Seasonal Cycle extended but incomplete

Note that the seasonal cycle of yin yang diagrams could easily be extended to four, five, or six yin/yang lines, or even indefinitely, depending upon the complexity. Indeed this natural seasonal cycle is especially used when referring to the hexagrams. Indeed the hexagram Fu, Return, refers to the Return of the Yang and is represented by one yang line at the bottom of five yin lines. This system is all-inclusive when referring to the combinations of only two lines. With the addition of a third line, the trigrams of Fire and Water aren’t included in this logical cycle of six. In the Hexagrams, only 12 of 64 possible combinations are included in the agricultural cycle. See below.

While the seasonal cycle is determined by a fixed number and order of a limited number of gua, i.e. yin-yang diagrams, there are many more gua which enable free choice with its potentials for good and bad fortune.

Return of the Yang

Contained in this seasonal cycle is the concept of ‘The Return of the Yang’, an incredibly important concept for Taoism. Because of the fixed nature of the seasonal cycle, after the cycle reaches the point of all yin, annually at the winter solstice, inevitably there emerges a solitary yang at the bottom of the gua, the yin/yang diagram. This is ‘The Return of the Yang’, which begins growing at this point until it peaks out with an all yang diagram at the summer solstice. Because seasons follow inexorably, cultural, family and genetic conditioning inevitably pollute this pure Yang. To avoid these polluting influences, Taoists attempt, through meditation and body practices, to regularly return to the state of all yin in order to take advantage of the unpolluted nature of the initial return of the Yang.  They attempt to cultivate this pure yang through regular purifications by the pure yin of quietude.

A Differentiation of Buddhism and Taoism

The concept of ‘Return of the Yang’ differentiates Buddhism from Taoism. Although the Buddhists and Taoists both seek quietude and emptiness, Buddhists find the void empty, while Taoists find something there. Buddhists call it all illusion, while Taoists seek to cultivate the illusion of the pure yang. According to Taoists, from the emptiness of the Void, the Yang must inevitably emerge as part of the cycle of the Tao, just as seasons follow one upon the other.

Divination and the I Ching

While the I Ching is a catalog of all the possible changes based upon the yin-yang polarity, the individual inevitably wants to know which change they are going through. This is when the I Ching becomes a tool for divination rather than an elaboration of yin-yang philosophy. Although many Taoists and Confucians have stressed the philosophical side of the I Ching and attempted to de-emphasize its function as a fortune-telling device, it is as a fortune telling device that it is most well known.

Theory of correspondences

The rationale behind the efficacy of the I Ching’s predictive properties is very similar to Plato’s theory of correspondences. The idea is that Heaven reflects the Divine Order in every manifestation. Every event has meaning in this interpretation, no matter how random. Indeed sometimes the seemingly random occurrences of nature are most effective at revealing heaven’s will. Plotinus, one of Plato’s followers, used this theory to explain the effectiveness of astrology. The Chinese use this theory to explain how the I Ching can reveal a human’s destiny.

The individual asking the question, throws yarrow stalks, or in later days, coins. The random configuration of these stalks or coins reveals the hexagram that applies to the individual. These random correspondences reveal the Way of Heaven, i.e. Heaven’s Will. If we understand our place in the scheme of things, we might more easily choose the proper course of action.

More ancient precedents

The theory of correspondences is at the heart of most divination. Indeed the Longshan and Shang oracle bone divination was based upon the same concept. The random cracks of a bone after a hot point is applied revealed the will of their ancestors or gods. In a similar way, one might randomly open a book, for instance the Bible, and expect to find some passages with relevance to one’s life. Random events such as bird flights have been used since time immemorial to determine divine will. Any omen would fall under this category. The omen is a random event that has a predetermined meaning.

Reactive Fortune telling

There have been many types of divination based upon universal correspondences. However there is both a reactive and proactive form of question and response. The reactive style passively asks what is going to happen. These individuals are victims, believing that their fate is already written in the stars at birth. This type of divination is called fortune telling and requires no effort on the individual’s part. The reactive style is based upon predestination.

Proactive Divination

The proactive style, based upon free choice, asks which course is best. Which course of action is most in line with Heaven’s Will? The idea is that our free choice allows us to do the wrong thing, leading to misfortune, or the right thing, leading to good fortune. While those with a reactive attitude are victims of fate, those with a proactive attitude attempt to transcend their fate. For the latter, the I Ching is a technique for avoiding the pitfalls of fate, which enables us to wend our way to our ultimate destiny.

As Cheng Man-ch’ing says, “The most important words in using the I Ching are Good/not Good. Whatever the question - should I take a trip? Should I see this person? Good, not good? Not: What’s going to happen, or what kind of a year am I going to have? You must at least take the effort to form the question; ‘Is it good or not good that I take this action?’”12

The easy way, Passive victims of fate

Many, if not most, humans tend to be passive victims of their fate and just hope that fortune telling will reveal a long life, fame and prosperity. This is the effortless way. Unfortunately, the proactive way takes effort. Many ask: “Will I achieve fame?” The better question would be: “How do I achieve fame?” or on a higher level: “How do I align myself with the Will of Heaven?”

The hard way, effort to fulfill destiny

Every type of divination, including the I Ching, can be used on reactive or proactive levels. On the proactive level, the I Ching acts as a vehicle whereby humans might avoid their fate and achieve their destiny. Unfortunately, one’s destiny is not necessarily the easy way. Jesus presumably fulfilled his destiny and was crucified. Hence it takes a lot of courage to align oneself with Heaven’s Will. Witness Tripitaka in Journey to the West. He fulfills his destiny by going through 81 ordeals. Demons want to eat him. He is also beaten and threatened with death. Fulfilling one’s destiny requires courage, as well as effort.


1 Cheng Man-ch’ing, p. 78

2 Cheng Man-ch’ing, p. 79

3 This is similar to the Four Gospels of the Bible. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to have been written about the historical man, Jesus, and to be somewhat authentic, the Book of John seems to have been written many centuries later for political purposes.

4 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p. 42

5 I Ching, Wilhelm p lviii

6 I Ching, Note on the Chinese Title Page, first page, unnumbered

7 The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Thomas Cleary, Harper San Francisco, 1991, p. 24

8 Chen Man Ching, p. 133

9 The I Ching, Wilhelm/Baynes, 1950, Princeton University Press, p. 319

10 Briefly, if Water is below and Fire is above, then the Water of life leaks out and the Fire of consciousness burns senselessly, while if Water is above and Fire is below then the water of life, chi,  is contained in a cauldron, which can be cooked by the fire of consciousness below to refine out the elixir of immortality. One alignment leads to dissipation, while the other leads to vitality.

11 I Ching, Wilhelm, p. 319

12 There are no Secrets: Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing and his Tai Chi Ch’uan by Wolfe Lowenthal, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California, 1991, p. 78


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments