The Key to the I Ching

[Author’s note: I wrote this article about ten years ago, when I was very interested in the Yi Jing, or I Ching, and how it can be applied to everyday life. While my interest in the Yi Jing has waned, I have received many compliments about this article and its pertinence to understanding this cryptic book. For this reason, I have edited it slightly and posted it here on my blog, instead of in its previous location on my “old” web site.]

The main elements of the Yi Jing, or I Ching, are its hexagrams. These 64 figures, made up only of solid and broken lines, are the foundation of this book which has come to us through more than two millennia, but nowhere in the book is there an explanation of what these hexagrams really represent. It is as if the Chinese of the Han Dynasty did not need a user’s manual to use the book, that the mere words used to describe the situation presented in the hexagram were sufficient. This must be the case, because their diviners knew this system perfectly, and did not need to explain the obvious. Unfortunately, time has gone by, and we do not have this knowledge, this information that they transmitted orally and never put down in black and white. We need to examine this problem if we truly want to understand the Yi Jing.

Many people have written about interpreting the Yi Jing, often by explaining the importance of the lines, trigrams, nuclear hexagrams, and the other permutations that arise when casting a hexagram, but I do not think anyone has clearly explained exactly what a hexagram is, which is the key to understanding any interpretation of the Yi Jing. Different, seemingly unrelated fields, such as linguistics and psychology, can give us new insights into some aspects of this question. This sort of multidisciplinary approach, which has the advantage of examining things from the outside, will allow us to answer the question, with almost total certainty – what is a hexagram?
The Chinese point of view

First of all, what do the Chinese think about this? A hexagram, just like a trigram, is called a gua. This word can be defined as a “pile of divinatory information”. But this word only describes a physical or visual object, it does not explain what a hexagram is, just what it looks like. When the Chinese talk of the idea behind a hexagram they talk of a shi, which is often translated by “moment”. But what is a moment, both for the Chinese and for us westerners? For Westerners it is “a short period of time”, an indivisible, ephemeral unit of time. We tend to think of this as the smallest such unit (at least in common language – it is obvious that some sciences use extremely short units of time to measure events). The Chinese have a totally different concept for the moment. A moment is a situation. It is the son of the past and the father of the future. This word, shi, is used in different expressions to talk about seasons, times zones, chances, opportunities. A situation is far from indivisible, quite the opposite: it is a fence which holds together all of the related moments of an event, which are seen as a whole.

Let us use the word situation to talk about what happens inside a hexagram. This word can clear up a number of points. A situation can be seen in two different ways, and have two totally opposite interpretations. Seen from the outside, a situation seems frozen, not without a relationship to what came before it, but independent of this context, because you can only see the actual moment, and not its evolution. On the other hand, seen from the inside, a situation is quite different. The moment that is seen is lived through, and when you are on the inside you have to distinguish the relationship between the past and the future. It is dynamic, and you can not separate it from what came before it. It is just as difficult to envisage a moment without taking into account its possible evolution, what it may become, whether desired or not, because these evolutions are all present, in the form of possibilities. The relativity of the point of view changes the way the moment is perceived.

Looking at two sides of a coin

The Yi Jing is information, in its rawest form. The sentences in its text are short, concise, and contain no redundancy. It is often this redundancy, however, that helps us understand a text. This naked text is one of the most daunting features of the Yi Jing, since its information does not give much meaning. In fact, the path one must follow to go from information to meaning is a long one, which I will briefly sketch out here.

The question of meaning is central to any discussion of written texts. Meaning is not inherent to a text, it is based on the reader’s interpretation. Since the text is static, there is no direct negotiation of meaning between the writer and the reader. The reader can not ask questions to the writer, but must be responsible for finding all the clues the writer has left so the reader can work out the intended meaning. There is an interactive relationship between the reader and writer, but this relationship is realized through the text, not with the text. This means that the reader can never be certain whether the meaning extracted from a text corresponds to the writer’s goal. Understanding can never be complete: it can only be approximate, and relative to purpose. Not only is comprehension relative to purpose, but it is also relative to the amount of information, both textual and other, that the reader is able to process. “Computing the intended meaning of a speaker/writer depends… on knowledge of many details over and above those to be found in the textual record of the speaker/writer’s linguistic production.” (Discourse Analysis, Brown and Yule, Cambridge University Press, 1983 p. 116)

Meaning is not information; information is not meaning. In this digital society we tend to take for granted that the two are similar. As I write this article on my computer, the words I am typing are converted into the simplest possible form of code so the computer can work with it. This binary code, a code made up of 1s and 0s, is as rudimentary as possible; no code can be less complex. This is paradoxical, because the computer, a machine that can calculate, can do many operations that we, humans, cannot do so quickly, cannot even count to two. This is because the computer is working with information, not meaning.

Even the words you are reading are only information. They are made up of another code, one made of symbols, that we call an alphabet. This alphabet contains roughly 100 such symbols, letters and punctuation marks, that combine to form words, which in turn combine to form sentences, and so on. (I say about 100 symbols in our alphabet, because all the punctuation marks, numbers, and both capital and small letters are different symbols. It is tempting to talk of an alphabet containing 26 letters, but this is an oversimplification.) In order to understand this information you need, first of all, to understand the code. There are two forms of code used here: the letters, and the language.

Many languages, such as Chinese, use a different writing system than we do, and if the reader cannot interpret this system he or she will go no further. In this form of language there is no correspondence between the written symbols and their pronunciation. This makes it difficult to figure out a word one has heard, but cannot read. One must also know the language, of course, for even understanding the first level of code, the alphabet, or the symbols, does not open up the combinatory possibilities of this code.

Let us assume that the reader knows these two codes, he or she must now go up a level to extract the meanings of each word used. Word meaning is a very complex thing. Some words are relatively simple to define, and, therefore, their meaning is not relative to any other information. Words such as tomato, zebra, and chair can be explained by pictures or physical examples. Other words, however, have more complex meanings which require that they be defined in relation to other words, ideas or situations. What is the sky, how do you explain deep, how do you make someone understand the concept of fear? What is more, many words have multiple meanings, and the meaning one must choose in a given situation is relative to the context where the word is found. A word such as pound could mean to hit, an enclosure for stray dogs, a unit of weight, or a unit of British currency. The situation and context of a given sentence will help the reader to decide which meaning is appropriate.

The next level of interpretation is the relationship between word meaning and sentence meaning. As we have seen, the meaning of many words is relative to its context, and, at this level, context includes the surrounding words. The interpretation of a sentence interacts with the interpretation of words in order to create an idea. But even the meaning of a sentence is dependent on its context. A sentence like “It furthers one to cross the great water” has a very precise meaning in the context of the Yi Jing, but elsewhere it would have a slightly different, perhaps less metaphorical meaning. The reader must, therefore, take into account the overall context of the text he or she is reading.

We have so far looked at four aspects of meaning: codes, words, sentences, and context. These four features make up only a part of what is necessary for meaning to emerge from a text. At this point the reader has processed all the information given by the text. Now, the dynamic interrelation between reader and text is shifted over to the reader’s shoulders, and the reader will make out only as much meaning as he or she can, based on knowledge that goes beyond the text.

Take for example hexagram 48, The Well. The idea a Western reader makes of a well is that of, for instance, the well that may be found within the courtyard of a castle, or maybe of a fountain in a small village in Provence. Already these two types of well imply different situations, but neither matches exactly the situation of a well in ancient China. If you look at the character used to write the word well in Chinese, you will see a graphical description of the nine parcels of land that make up the area around a well. There were eight parcels belonging to eight families, and the ninth central parcel contained the well. This parcel was kept up, in turn, by each of the eight surrounding families, and the crops harvested on this land went to the Lord as taxes. One can add to this the social aspect of a well, being a meeting place where information was exchanged among the families, but this background information about the upkeep of the well and its surrounding land is, in effect, vital to the understanding of the situation. Not knowing this means that the meaning extracted from a reading of this hexagram will not correspond exactly to the intended meaning. As I said before, it is impossible to extract meaning that corresponds exactly to what was intended, but the more background information the reader has, the closer he or she will be to that intended meaning.

There is another factor that affects the interpretation of meaning, and this factor, I will argue, has a major role in the interpretation of the Yi Jing. Cognitive science proposes a theory of knowledge called schema theory, which, we will see, can explain why we have difficulty understanding the Yi Jing, and will give us a new outlook on how we may go about understanding what it tries to tell us. Schemata are the key to the Yi Jing.

Schema theory was born in the 1970s as researchers in cognitive science attempted to explain how knowledge is processed in the brain. A number of researchers have proposed alternatives to this theory, such as scripts, frames, etc. While these concepts are not entirely synonymous, they are similar enough that a discussion of one of them will bring forth ideas inherent to all of them.

Schemata are the basic units of knowledge. A schema is an abstract, internal mental representation of an idea, event, an action, or a situation. Meaning is seen as being encoded in different schemata, which also contain information about how such schemata are interrelated. Schemata also contain the default knowledge of a typical, or even a stereotypical member of its class. If you hear the word “dog”, you think of a stereotypical dog, which may be different for you than for me. If you have a better relationship with dogs than I do, you will also have a schema which includes that affective appreciation. There is a relationship between the memory of past situations and current interpretation. If the schema changes, which all schemata do over time, the memory is added to the new information to create a revised schema. So if one day I develop a positive relationship with a dog, my schema for dog will change.

In order to understand how schemata function, I will give a few simple examples. I will then explain how this theory can be used to explain the Yi Jing.

First of all, schemata can act as a visual representation of something. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you see a person walking toward you on the sidewalk. From far away you can tell it is a person, and, maybe, if it is a child or adult, a man or woman. This is the schema that represents the physical form of a person that is activated. As the person gets closer, you may be able to see about what the persons age is. This is a schema that adds information to your original information, by many possible means. It may be the way the person walks, the type of clothes they are wearing or some other information that helps you come to this conclusion. As the person gets even closer, he or she may look familiar, it may be someone you know. At some point, the number of features you have been able to see on the person converge toward the visual schema you have of a particular person. At this point you know who the person is, and you can not, for the time that you see them, forget who it is, or need more information. Knowing, in this sense, is absolute. It is a question of yes or no. You may however, realize that it is not, after all, the person you thought it was, and at this point the schema which represents the first person will be transformed into that for a different person.

In fact, a great deal of perception is based on hypotheses being confirmed like this. One may look at an object and think it is a certain object, but on a closer look realize it is something else. But let us look again at that person walking down the street. They are getting closer now, and you can see it is indeed the first person you thought of, but they have cut their hair. Now, your mind revises the schema which contains the information about this person to include short hair instead of long. You would be able to recognize the person in another situation with long hair, such as in a photograph, but now the schema for that person includes the possibility of two different hair styles. The previous schema has not been overridden, nor overwritten, just modified. This is always happening to schemata, they are constantly revised according to our interaction with any situation or object. Some things are static, and therefore cannot change their characteristics (rituals, objects), while other things are dynamic and are constantly revised in the mind.

Another analogy which will help understand schemata is that of a play. One could say that a schema is like a play, with actors, props, situations, and a script. In the same way that a play may be performed by different actors, in a different setting, at a different time, even in a different language, it is still, more or less, the same play. Hamlet in Chinese would still be Hamlet.

If, for example, I tell you about a restaurant where I recently had lunch, your mind will activate the appropriate schema, and bring forth the appropriate props and actions to help you predict what I will tell you. In a restaurant there is a table, chairs, a menu, a waiter or waitress, food, and a bill. There are actions such as reading the menu, ordering, eating, and paying. Some of these things may be different, it may be a self-service restaurant, but the overall idea is the same.

Schemata like this are an integral part of our social interaction, but the schema itself is no more than a skeleton around which the salient information is added. It can be seen as a basic model of a situation or action. If the schema we are using to interpret a situation does not correspond to the actions or actors in a situation, we are surprised, sometimes to the point of not understanding. If there are major differences, I will have to explain them to you, since I will know that they do not correspond to the default schema for restaurants. For example, if there was a musician playing in the restaurant, or if the waiters sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the person I was with, I would have to explain it, these ideas are not part of the default schema for a restaurant. If the waiter tells me I must cook the food myself, I will be not only surprised, but maybe outraged, since this does not correspond to my expectations. I may go to another restaurant, since one of the main reasons for eating out is to not cook.

Schemata and text

Reading is a complex process. It seems simple for us, because we are so used to it. It can seem to be simply a question of deciphering words on a page and making sense of them. But we have already seen how making sense depends on many things. One thing that helps, or hinders making sense of a text is the knowledge the reader has of the inherent schemata.

In order to understand a text the reader must be able to make the connection between the words read on the page and the appropriate schemata in his or her mind. In most cases, this is not a problem. This happens subconsciously so the reader is not at all aware of the work that the brain does. The reader is, however, aware when something does not fit. When the reader does not have the appropriate schema he or she simply cannot understand the information being read. This is the case when someone tries to read a text dealing with a domain that the person is totally unfamiliar with. The words may make sense one by one, but there is no sense at all to the text as a whole.

In other cases, the reader may have the appropriate schema, but may not be able to activate it. This may be because the clues given by the writer are insufficient to help the reader recognize what is being discussed. In this situation, all that is necessary is that the reader find additional clues. One can observe this sometimes when after having read a text and not understanding it, one goes back to read it again, and finds it much easier. This is because the ideas behind the text have become familiar, helping the reader to awaken the schema necessary to understand it.

Sometimes the reader may be able to interpret the text, but not find the interpretation that the writer expected. The appropriate schemata are available, but the reader does not understand the author.

In addition to schemata that describe experiences, events, and actions, there are also what could be called cultural schemata. These are schemata that are firmly rooted in a particular culture, and lead the interpretation of particular information in a culture-specific direction. Since we are talking here about the Yi Jing, I will briefly look at some of the ideas that come from Chinese culture that fit this heading.

We have already seen that the idea of a well is different in China and in the west. The object is the same, but the way it is used and perceived is very different. Hexagram 50 talks about a ritual vessel called a Ding. This is something that dates back very far in Chinese culture, and that we need an explanation for in order to understand its significance. (See the preface to the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching by C.G. Jung.) There are also other objects, such as belts and robes, that have no meaning for us without an explanation.

“Crossing the great waters” is an expression that appears many times in the YI Jing. For anyone who has visited China the strength of this phrase is evident: rivers there are often very wide, deep, and dangerous. Crossing a river, in ancient China, was a difficult task.

The idea of the Superior Man is another important idea that needs explanation. It represents the ideal of a man who is acting the correct way in a given situation. The translation used by Wilhelm, superior, does not help to understand this, and, in fact, only makes it more obscure by adding on a concept, that of noble birth, which does not have its place in the Chinese term.
These are just a few ideas that need clarification so the western reader can make sense of Chinese ideas. The YI Jing is full of such ideas, and the biggest problem is when the words used bring forth schemata that correspond to a western idea, such as noble, that is far removed from the concept in Chinese.

As I said at the beginning of this article, a hexagram is a situation. Each situation in our life corresponds to one or more schemata, and each of the hexagrams corresponds to schemata also. Using the idea of schemata for an analysis of the Yi Jing would permit a much simpler approach to the Yi Jing.

All this finally brings us to an examination of schema theory and its relevance to the Yi Jing. We have seen how schemata are necessary to understanding a written text, and how meaning is relative to a number of variables. The Yi Jing has the particularity of coming from ancient China, where both the cultural differences and the time differences are very great. In order to try and understand the Yi Jing it is necessary to find the relationship between the ideas presented in the text and similar ideas that we may be able to understand today.

But the very thing that makes the Yi Jing stand out also makes it very difficult to understand. We do not have the schemata that make up the heart of the Yi Jing. Our culture is so far removed that the best we can do is incorrectly interpret something that seems similar. Without these schemata we are lost, the text seems to make no sense sometimes, and even when it does seem to make sense we cannot be sure that our interpretation is correct.

Today’s hexagrams

If the Yi Jing were written today, it would be necessary to use situations, and schemata, that correspond to our world-view and our understanding of the interrelations of the world. Some hexagrams would talk about politics, and we can imagine one called Cohabitation. This hexagram describes a situation where the emperor is required to rule with a minister who does not think along the same lines as he does. [This refers to the political situation in France, where I live, at the time I was writing the article. As the reader can see, this reference is already obscure, especially to those outside of France.] The Landing would be a hexagram describing how a coalition of foreign armies comes to help liberate a country that is occupied. Or The Old Bridge would describe the symbol of a beautiful centuries-old bridge that is destroyed in a country splitting apart during a bloody civil war, where no other countries come to their aid.

Hexagrams like this are related to situations that we know, that are current. It takes little explanation to understand the situation, and the metaphors that are being presented. The Yi Jing is like that. If we look closely enough at what is being described in the hexagrams, we will find similar information. Once we have discovered the situations described, we can look at them as schemata for other, similar, or metaphorically related situations. When casting the hexagram The Army, it is rarely a question of army, but a metaphorical resemblance to the idea of army. This background of schemata within the hexagrams is present in all 64 of them.

What we need to understand the Yi Jing is to discover the schemata that underlie the 64 hexagrams. No translation currently available can help us do that, because most of them have been made by people who are ignorant of the very concepts that made up ancient Chinese culture. In fact, no translation can translate these concepts. It is necessary to explain them, since they go beyond the words of the text, they are the elements by which the Han Chinese could make sense of their world. Any explanation would include a similar situation related to our world-view, which would enable us to make the connection between the idea in the YI Jing and a similar idea today.

Any translation must respect the text being translated, but a translation that translates only the text and not the ideas within is worthless. Many of the ideas in the Yi Jing are what could be called archetypal ideas, that can resonate even across many centuries, but even those must be discovered. The key to the Yi Jing is simple. We must go back and look at the way the Chinese lived at the time of the Yi Jing, look at their habits and their world-view, and find equivalents in our modern, western world. Only then will we truly be able to understand how the Yi Jing functions. Only then will we be able to use this extraordinary tool that can enable us to discover in ourselves that which we could not find without the aid of this book.



People have asked me to recommend a translation of the Yi Jing. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend any current English translations, but this French translation, Le Yi Jing : Le livre des changements, by my friend and colleague Cyrille Javary, who inspired this article, with Pierre Faure, is probably the closest to what this article pleads for. His other books, Le Yi Jing : Le Grand Livre du Yin et du Yang, Les rouages du Yi Jing, and
Le Discours de la tortue give a great deal of insight into the Yi Jing. Cyrille Javary is one of the most knowledgeable westerners when it comes to the Yi Jing, and especially its historical signification. His work ignores the “new age” interpretations of the Yi Jing, and attempts to reconstruct the mind-set and conceptions of the Han Chinese.