The I Ching, The Most Modern Ancient Wisdom Classic

Untitled-12aBy REG LITTLE

In a changing and unpredictable world, no classical text is more rewarding, or more challenging, than the ancient Chinese I Ching or Book of Changes. This classic presents itself as a book of divination and invites dismissal on such grounds amongst educated Western circles, including even the great British sinologist and advocate of Chinese science and technology Joseph Needham. It is, however, the most modern of practical handbooks, being a remarkably wise and profound guide to that nagging imperative of contemporary personal and political life – self-organisation.

This truth only grows as political authority shifts from West to East, as economic productivity travels from America to China, as industrial technology grows robustly throughout Asia and shrivels in the developed economies and as health and well-being wisdom is found more surely in Asian therapeutic traditions than in contemporary share market driven medical innovations.

Indeed, the I Ching is not only the source of a profound personal, social and political wisdom but also of a scientific genius that is holistic and organic and that led the world for several millennia until the rise of Anglo-American power over the past two hundred years. Moreover, this scientific culture promises much for the future of a troubled global community. It contrasts with the culture that has turned contemporary life into one large uncontrolled and poorly understood scientific experiment, where the casino of the marketplace has ceased to respect the ecologies of life.

Central elements of the text of the I Ching are attributed to men (King Wen and his sons King Wu and the Duke of Zhou) who were responsible for overthrowing the powerful tyrant who ruled a declining and corrupt Shang Dynasty, as the prelude to founding the Zhou Dynasty around 1045 BCE. As such, much of its wisdom can be read as a political text, informed by profound and holistic wisdom. This wisdom is shaped by a keen sense of the social morality needed to win widespread popular support, the human understanding needed to avoid the perils of carelessness and hubris and the acute insight into the dynamics of life and nature essential to prosper in this world.

There is no more seminal influence in Chinese culture than the I Ching, with its history of over three thousand years and its roots in the wisdom that guided the founding of China’s longest and most culturally productive dynasty. Contrary to modern fashion, the authority of the I Ching tends to increase with the age and experience of the reader or interpreter. Japanese who lived during the Tokugawa Shogunate counseled against serious study before the age of fifty. At the same time, one of the most renown Chinese commentaries on the I Ching was completed by a scholar who died at the age of twenty three in 249.

Despite the fact that the 17th and 18th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz had been shocked to discover that his binary arithmetic was matched by an arrangement of the I Ching’s hexagrams, the West’s greatest authority on Chinese science and technology – the 20th century Joseph Needham – dismissed it as of little worth. Now, it has been shown by later scholars to have a mathematical structure similar to that of DNA, discovered in the West more than three thousand years later. In this, it is the world’s first, and possibly still only, serious guide to self-organisation at personal, social and political levels.

Moreover, another scholar suggests that it may reveal an understanding of still poorly understood fundamentals that inform a wide variety of physical change, in both living and non-living structures. This all reflects the almost unbelievable Chinese genius for observing the minutiae of nature, a quality that long informed the world’s most innovative and productive scientific and technological civilisation.

In many ways, the I Ching is an enigma. Apart from qualities noted above, it offers a unified understanding of what are often seen as China’s two main contending spiritual traditions – Confucianism and Daoism – and some even see in it the source of both these traditions of thought. Moreover, while the I Ching has always served as a book of divination, this article will treat it essentially as a book of moral, political and scientific wisdom.

(It should be noted that I Ching is more accurately written as Yi Jing, as laid down in the transliteration system prescribed by the Chinese Government, but is presented here as I Ching in order to avoid confusion in referring to several book titles, which use a dated system of transliteration that is often preferred in the United States.)

Contrasting Wisdom – East and West

The use of the I Ching as a book of divination has worked since ancient times to give the I Ching an authority that has shaped all levels of Chinese society. Anything with related aspirations in the West has been marginalised either by the Christian Church or by the tradition of Greek rational thought. Consequently, despite its growing popularity in alternative Western circles, it is difficult for mainstream Western thought to accommodate or relate to the disciplines of the I Ching. Yet, the I Ching has made the mature management of inevitable and irresistible change one of the great art forms of the East Asian ruler, administrator and head of family. At the same time, it contains a gentle acumen that finds a fulfilling role for all who make up society and does not exclude the exceptional and idiosyncratic.

Perhaps, the clearest and simplest explanation of the differences that derive from these two contrasting traditions has been given by Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin in The Way and The Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. They conclude, with politically tactful deference to Western sensitivities, that neither China nor Greece uniquely monopolised the development of science. Each possessed the conceptual frameworks and institutional structures necessary to inquire systematically into organic physiologies, material nature and cosmic processes. Yet each displayed unique qualities.

The Greek way sought predominantly foundations, demonstration, and incontrovertibility. Its central authority was found in the principles of clarity and deductive rigour. The Chinese approach was most strongly characterised by the search for correspondences, resonances and interconnections, which encouraged the exploration of holistic and organic relationships that integrate highly divergent areas of activity and order.

The I Ching not only does not respond to a need for ‘clarity and deductive rigour’ but it will frustrate and irritate those with minds that insist on such convenience. Rather the I Ching inspires a seemingly infinite range of possible ‘correspondences, resonances and interconnections’ and warns against the impatient or thoughtless need for action.

A little reflection may prompt recollection of the opening two lines of the Dao De Jing, the seminal Daoist classic. These assert effectively that words, concepts, rational structures and scientific theories may all be useful conveniences of the human mind but should not be mistaken for an accurate statement of the natural world.

Once one has come to terms with what seems to the Western mind to be its counter-intuitive character, one can start to explore and discover in the I Ching a profound wisdom that has guided, shaped, preserved and advanced Chinese civilisation for more than three millennia.

The Living I Ching

Although deeply rooted in ancient Chinese history, the I Ching lives like perhaps no other classic form of wisdom. This is indicated by the commentary written by Wang Bi who lived almost thirteen hundred years after the founding of the Zhou Dynasty and who died at twenty-three. It can also be found in works translated respectively by the American Thomas Cleary as The Tao of Organisation, The Buddhist I Ching and The Taoist I Ching, which derive from texts attributed to the 11th century Neo-Confucian Cheng Yi, the 17th century Buddhist Chih-hsu Ou-I and the late 18th century Daoist Liu I-ming.

The movement by some Westernising Chinese to marginalise and banish the I Ching from respectable intellectual company has, paradoxically, been parallelled by a contrasting movement in Western publishing, where it appears in diverse, numerous and multiplying forms of publication. At the same time, it assumes an identity that now ranks it for many at least on the same level of cultural authority as the Bible, even as some choose it in preference as a work that has nourished a more stable, prosperous and continuous sense of civilisation.

The relevance of this may be most readily found in the manner in which one version, The Complete I Ching: The Definitive Translation by the Taoist Master Alfred Huang, introduces the work in a way that details the circumstances in which the founders of the Zhou Dynasty worked to replace the corrupt Shang Dynasty. This is given an acute sense of relevance because Alfred Huang makes it clear that the I Ching was a major form of spiritual and practical sustenance during difficult times for him and others personally after 1949.

More pertinent, however, is the fact that contemporary leaders in Japan, Korea and China have emulated the qualities of patience and humility displayed by the Zhou founders as they have built their strength in a world that had earlier humiliated them. It might be going too far to liken the contemporary West with the self-indulgent and indiscriminately assertive Shang Dynasty. Even so, it is difficult to dismiss the thought that this parallel may present itself to many in East Asian communities.

Any sensitive Westerner who has had the good fortune to live, work and reflect in contemporary East Asia is likely to have concluded that the certainties derived from a Western education are a poor guide for action in that part of the world. Many pleasant things will come one’s way but in a manner that defies explanation by familiar principles and in a manner that can invite an uneasy sense of losing control. In seeking to comprehend the reasons for such sentiments no better guide can be found than the classic texts that have shaped, informed and inspired its people. None of these is more seminal than the I Ching, even when today’s East Asian youth may feign disdain or ignorance of its wisdom.

Yin and Yang

The essence of the I Ching is to be found in the dynamic of yin and yang, complementary opposites that:

•           lie at the heart of the I Ching and all Chinese thought

•           require one always to adopt a holistic view of issues

•           highlight the need for internal and external balance

•           emphasise a constant state of flux

•           are at the heart of all development

•           are forever interdependent

•           are essentially dynamic and creative in their interaction

Five basic principles can be identified as inherent in yin and yang.

•           all things have two facets: a yin aspect and a yang aspect

•           yin and yang aspects can be divided into further yin and yang polarities

•           yin and yang mutually create each other

•           yin and yang control each other

•           yin and yang transform into each other.

It is customary to identify yin with qualities such as femininity, softness, darkness and receptivity and yang with the qualities of masculinity, hardness, brightness and assertiveness. At the same time, there is scope for endless discussion about yin and yang qualities in various specific situations.

The important point rests, however, in the infinite range of dynamic reactions set up by the interplay of yin and yang. Most important, and infinitely complex, is the interplay of yin and yang within the sixty-four six line hexagrams that make up the I Ching. According to established procedures either yin or yang can transform into the other and the significance of yin and yang depends on which of the six positions is occupied by a yin or yang line and a variety of other complex relationships.

In other words the use of the I Ching for divination creates an almost infinite range of possibilities for interpretation. This reinforces perceptions of the fundamental dynamism of the I Ching, of nature, of political fortune, of human relationships and, if one so chooses, of the sexes. The subtle interplay of eight basic three line sets of yin and yang that can be labeled heaven, earth, fire, water, valley, wind, mountain and thunder (two of which make up a six line hexagram) further strengthens the sense of forces of nature exercising an authority before which humanity must be humble and attentive.

A most important consequence of the fluid sensitivity that flows from the use of the I Ching is the manner in which this reveals the rigid abstractions that have come to command Western thought as both limited and marginal. The cerebral universe that derives from the I Ching is incomparably more complex and dynamic. In just one example, it is difficult, not to say impossible, to apply Western notions of equality to a world where all nature and life is the product of the rich and intense interaction of yin and yang.


The I Ching provides an endless flow of moving commentaries that remind continually of the need to recognise:

•           the contingencies of chance

•           the full environment of any action

•           the possibilities of side-effects in any action

•           the multiple layers of contingencies in organic beings

•           the limitations of causality and rationality in managing life

•           the need for mature reflection on all important actions

The I Ching profoundly challenges Western intellectual and scientific certainties because:

•           it is a unique mix of probabilistic science and timeless literary comment

•           it portends to guide future behaviour, attracting Western derision as fortune telling

•           it is integral to an organic and holistic sense of science

•           it was part of a superior scientific culture until the beginning of the 19th century

•           its formula for self-organisation has an unrivalled record of success in maintaining the continuity of Chinese civilisation.

While Western commentators continue in a state of denial it is difficult to dispute that I Ching science:

•           outperformed the West and rest of the world until the 19th century

•           again today outperforms Western science and technology

•           disdains the West’s mechanistic and reductionist scientific assumptions

•           highlights an aggressive and shallow character in the European Enlightenment

•           is genuinely holistic, organic and humanistic in ways denied Western science.

The I Ching cultivates disciplines of the mind by encouraging continual questioning of and reflection on the dynamic and volatile forces that command natural and human processes. This commences with the acceptance of human humility before forces that will never be fully mastered but that must always be fully respected. Its seemingly infinite variety of possible readings nurtures an acute sensitivity to the contingencies that accompany action.

Competing Medical and Scientific Cultures

The contemporary West has gone in a very different direction: It has built a type of structured religious faith around a rational mythology that promises belief in endless progress. The associated human conquest and subjugation of nature is conducted through the use of experimentation to identify a variety of notionally universal truths. These are marketed as the fruits of medicine, science and technology even as they produce an exponentially mounting volume of environmental, ecological and health troubles.

Problems inherent in this faith and mythology were compounded as the 20th century progressed by the annual allocation of many of the best brains and most vigorous spirits in each generation to intense training and lifetime service before the Gods of medicine, science and technology.

Subsequently put in various ways at the service of large corporations, this talented and dedicated priesthood is then paid to sacrifice all for the corporation. It should surprise no one that this has produced scientific and medical cultures that are prone to systemic corruption. Highly educated, newly graduated and ambitious young souls quickly learn that this is the only way to gain a reasonable return on the investment of money, time, effort and hope spent in an exhausting and extended education. Some of the more obvious dubious aspects of the priesthood’s work is conducted:

•           in relentless experimentation in artificial laboratories

•           in high brow but often duplicitous marketing

•           in peer reviewed, but misleading professional articles

•           in misrepresentation or non-disclosure of research

•           in the exercise of official responsibilities to serve corporate interests after being placed in government administration positions

•           in some other use of prestigious, high sounding and daunting academic qualifications to fatten corporate bottom lines.

Many of the certainties cultivated by Western beliefs and rational structures, ostensively verified by scientific processes of proof, are revealing themselves to be cruel hoaxes. These are often designed to persuade large communities to subject themselves to experiments that are neither understood nor controlled by their initiators. Increasingly, the profitable areas of a struggling American economy seem to fall into such categories, whether they be chemical agriculture, processed food, fast food, synthetic pharmaceuticals, bio-technology or nano-technology.

The corporation, which is designed by its commercial nature and legal structure to maximise profit, has grown in reach and influence more or less in parallel with the advance of post-Enlightenment science and with the consolidation of Anglo-American political authority. With the exhaustion of new lands and new resources to discover and colonise, profit maximisation has increasingly focused on seizing a competitive advantage through innovation and the monopolisation of intellectual property. This frequently necessitates the authoritative denial and dismissal of the possibility of any harmful side-effects or consequences.

In contrast, the I Ching scientific spirit advanced largely in harmony with environment, ecology and human health and achieved a record of diverse innovation predating many of the most critical European inventions. These included:

•           developing a cybernetic machine 1,600 (possibly 3,000) years before Europe

•           developing the compass 1,000 years before Europe

•           inventing paper 1,500 years before Europe

•           inventing printing 600 years before Europe

•           developing a calendar 1,000 years before the ancient Greeks

In fact, China preceded the West, in most cases by at least a millennium, in almost one hundred inventions and discoveries from a wide variety of fields of activity, including:

•           agriculture

•           astronomy and cartography

•           engineering

•           domestic and industrial technology

•           medicine and health

•           mathematics

•           magnetism

•           the physical sciences

•           transport and exploration

•           sound and music

•           warfare

Western communities have had neither the strength nor integrity to address the fact that this achievement did not involve the perils to the environment, living ecologies and human health generated by contemporary corporate science. This is not surprising because an adventurous, conquering corporate spirit has been fundamental to Western advance over the past two centuries. The cost has been high. Perversely, as it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the consequences so it also becomes more and more difficult to recognise their source.

The West’s insistence on clarity and deductive rigour has conveniently enabled it to distract attention from many of the side effects of its scientific advances. It has made it easy to marginalise holistic concerns about identifying possible resonances, correspondences or inter-relationships that might compromise the desirability of some new energy source, innovative weapon or pharmaceutical breakthrough.

The anomaly in all this is that in the early 21st century it is the economies of East Asia, long under the influence of the I Ching’s concern to cultivate sensitive attention to nature, its processes and its contingencies, which are proving most successful in the marketplace of catering to human needs. Unfortunately, communities programmed to compete blindly for economic growth, a legacy of the Anglo-American genius that has constructed the contemporary global order, are unlikely to find their way out of this Faustian dilemma.

Caution, Humility and Patience

No reading of the I Ching can leave an attentive auditor unimpressed by its concern to stress the importance of caution, humility and patience. In an important sense, this was probably the world’s first handbook on how to conduct a revolution in the face of overwhelming but intolerable power. It was imperative to emphasise the dangers inherent in the undertaking. In the process, however, it laid down standards that have informed Chinese politics and culture ever since, producing the world’s most resilient and robust civilisation. It also nurtured perhaps the world’s most deceptively cautious, humble and patient people.

It is possible to see the Six Secret Teachings, a strategic classic that is attributed to a strategist and general credited with a major role in the founding of the Zhou Dynasty, Jiang Taigong, as being inspired by a similar ethos. These Teachings include the Twelve Civil Offensives, which lay out a strategy of essentially peaceful conquest, through the exploitation of an adversary’s moral weaknesses. These vulnerabilities are simply serviced and indulged by a more disciplined, purposeful and patient rival. Ultimately, dependence and excess ensures a favourable outcome for the more virtuous party. Such basic wisdom, which equates caution and humility with virtue, and ultimately strength, permeates the I Ching and the civilisations of East Asia.

The two central lines (second and fifth) in the most auspicious hexagram with six yang lines (identified as Heaven) in the I Ching capture the judicious quality of the I Ching in all situations. In the popular Richard Wilhelm translation, the commentary on each of these lines is auspicious but concludes with the same caution ‘It furthers one to see the great man’. This reminds of the need to always seek guidance from those better qualified and hints that nothing can be taken for granted even in the most favourable circumstances.

Equally, the hexagram composed of six yin lines (Earth) is characterised by ’receptive devotion’ and identifies the superior man as marked by breadth, purity and sustaining power, like the Earth capable of carrying and preserving all things that live upon it. In this way it quickly becomes apparent that the yin and yang distinction is one that enriches human perceptions and is far from the prejudicial attitudes that have come to characterise the contemporary West’s struggle with distinctions between male and female behaviour.

The I Ching also reminds repeatedly that great success is often the prelude to difficulty and that great hardship is often the necessary preparation for subsequent achievement. In this manner this seminal Chinese classic works to inspire both caution and aspiration, with the emphasis being placed on life’s recurring rhythms and humanity’s endless challenges.


Like the Dao De Jing, the I Ching is a book that grows in significance and influence with familiarity and time. It continually surprises by revealing new dimensions and insights. These may be in the mathematical structure of its sixty-four hexagrams and their complex variations or in the philosophical and historical commentaries that it has accumulated over three millennia.

Its role as a book of divination cannot be separated from its role as a book of wisdom, as one function complements and deepens the other. Ultimately, however, it is best evaluated as the product of the highly developed Chinese capacity to observe and order the minutiae of nature, whether personal, political or cosmic. In this it makes the clearest statement possible about the limitations inherent in the West’s preference for rational structures, which override the diversity and contingency of our world, simply to provide the often misleading convenience of clarity and deductive rigour.

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REG LITTLE was an Australian diplomat for over 25 years in Japan, Laos, Bangladesh, the United Nations, Ireland, Hong Kong, China, Switzerland, and the Caribbean, obtaining advanced language qualifications in Japanese and Chinese. Deputy or Head of Mission in five overseas posts, he served in Canberra as Director of North Asia, International Economic Organisations, Policy Planning and the Australia-China Council. He has participated in Conferences in Asia since 1987, has been a Founding Director of the Beijing based International Confucian Association since 1994 and has co-authored two books, The Confucian Renaissance (1989) in English, Japanese and Chinese, and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997). His latest book is A Confucian-Daoist Millennium? Reg Little’s website is and he can be contacted via email at

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 100 (Jan-Feb 2007).

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