The main elements of the Yi Jing 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 Chisese 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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
By Master Jing Hu and Jennifer Jay