What You Should Know About the I Ching

Here’s an introductory article, nothing more, on one of the most influential and oldest books ever written.

I Ching at plumpub.com

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How important is the I Ching to understanding Chinese culture?
Very much so. As homer is to the Greeks and the Testaments are to Jews and Christians, so is the I Ching to not only Chinese but much of Asian culture.

What does the character “I” mean?
Pronounced EEE, the character represents the word “Change”. It is a picture of the sun with a wing flapping in front of it giving the idea of momentary, constant change.

What does the word “Ching” mean?
The character here connotes a “classic text” like a bible. The Chinese people have legends that say there are other “chings” scattered throughout the world. The Bible and the Koran would be considered in this vein.

How was the I Ching written?
Originally this was a secret text reserved for soothsayers and fortune tellers. But it was not for individual lives so much as for national and royal events such as a war or the birth of a prince. Around 1150 BCE King Wen and his son, the Duke of Chou, reformed the book adding the moral and philosophical commentaries so important to its meaning. Since then many people, including the esteemed teacher Confucius, have added “wings” to the text.

How does the I Ching relate to Chinese culture?
The Book of Change is about Yin and Yang and their manifestation in time. The concept of Yang is represented by a single line. The concept of Yin by a broken line. Rearranging these lines created a system of variations for the Changes of life including the seasons, births, empires and everything else in the world. This idea of constant change and adaptation could be considered the root of Chinese culture.

What about using this book for divination?
It is certainly not the same as such books in the Western term. For example, the I Ching doesn’t so much talk about coming events as coming conditions. Each section of the I Ching deals with a moment in time and its miniature evolution. The reader tries to align himself or herself to the shape of the present time much as a farmer sniffs the air or a general overlooks a potential battlefield.

Is the I Ching difficult to understand?
Yes, and no. The images in the I Ching are meant to be interpreted by each individual. The classic method takes a little getting used to but one can generally trust one’s own intuition. The I Ching need not be used for divination but as a book of wisdom and an application of the Chinese concept of Change. Each section lists a particular situation associated with an image. This situation is divided into six steps or progressions with notes on how each stage works.

The Pocket I Ching at plumpub.com

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How is the I Ching constructed?
The Yin and Yang lines come in threes. These are called trigrams. You might have, say, a Yang line on the bottom topped by two Yin lines. Three lines are picked because they represent the Chinese Trinity: Heaven, Mankind and Earth. This trigram is itself considered a Yin figure. On that is stacked another three lines of whatever combination. This is the Yang figure. These six lines, known as a Hexagram, represent the situation we talked of earlier. With a little training the astute reader can learn to dissect and analyze this Hexagram.

How does this relate to Chinese martial arts?
In so many ways it is almost impossible to list them. The I Ching predates and was the inspiration for the classic texts of Taoism and Confucianism. Its situational philosophy was a strong influence on the battlefield genius of Sun Tzu probably the most influential military writer in history. The I Ching has inspired everything from folk superstition to works of high philosophy. In some ways it is the operating manual for Chinese culture.

Could you be more specific?
The Chinese saw the I Ching as foretelling famine, war, birth, prosperity: in other words the wide variety of turns in fate. They see fighting in the same way with less emphasis than the Western arts on specific skills such as wrestling and more emphasis on a wide range of possible outcomes. This tentative approach sees a fight as suddenly changing into anything, a knife fight, a gang fight, a death match. CMA never forgets this idea of sudden turns and reversals and, from the I Ching, philosophy develops the idea of instantaneous adaptation. One name for this is JIAO. In this sense the cleverness of a Jackie Chan movie is just as much representative of combat as the seriousness of a Bruce Lee film.

What about the styles of Kung Fu based on the I Ching like Bagua Zhang and some Wu Dang boxing?
There have been periods in Chinese history where—for good or ill—scholarly texts alluded to the overall Chinese philosophical concepts as they related to martial arts. While the martial arts do embody many of these concepts and can be very useful in introducing them to people unfamiliar with these ideas they are not necessary for practice nor guarantees of excellence. It’s sort of like businessmen making football analogies, illustrative but not essential. Knowledge of the I Ching can be an enhancement of practice, but never a substitute for it.

How should I start on the book itself?
Well, you don’t read it like a novel. It’s the kind of book you leave out and get acquainted with. Some are pretty large and complete. We recommend the Wilhelm because it is famous and clear and the Alfred Huang version because it is a work of love and scholarship. Most of the book which people think is the I Ching is really the “wings” or commentary. The original, core book itself is actually pretty small and Plum offers an inexpensive pocket edition of this.

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