i ching

All cultures seem to know some kinds of elements, but let me consider the 8 trigrams of the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching or Yijing, which may be quite fundamental.

heaven, strong, creative, father
earth, devoted/yielding, receptive, mother
thunder, inciting movement, arousing, 1st son
water, dangerous, abysmal, 2nd son
mountain, resting, keeping still, 3rd son
wind/wood, penetrating, gentle, 1st daughter
fire, light-giving, clinging, 2nd daughter
lake, joyful, joyous, 3rd daughter

They seem to resemble Greek elements in pairs, namely heaven-wind (air), earth-mountain, fire-thunder and water-lake. Let me rearrange them into another table:

heaven air rests male
wind/wood air moves female
mountain earth rests male
earth earth moves female
fire fire rests female
thunder fire moves male
lake water rests female
water water moves male

Interestingly, the trigrams that correspond to the Greek elements, i.e. resting air and earth, moving fire and water, are exactly the male trigrams.

Let me map each trigram to the result of a transition between two elements in Aristotle’s circle of the elements, ending with the corresponding element and starting with a male element (fire or air) for the male trigrams (father and sons) and with a female element (water or earth) for the female trigrams (mother and daughters):


The trigrams seem to fit closely: Thunder as fire that has suddenly come down as lightning from the sky (air), in contrast to fire steadily clinging to the matter (earth) it burns; wind as air that gently evaporated from water, in contrast to gases from a fire risen to heaven; a lake as water sprung from sources (earth), in contrast to water fallen down as rain from the sky (air); a mountain as earth solidified from lava (fire), in contrast to softly yielding earth from sediments deposited by water.

heaven air ← fire rests male
wind air ← water moves female
mountain earth ← fire rests male
earth earth ← water moves female
fire fire ← earth rests female
thunder fire ← air moves male
lake water ← earth rests female
water water ← air moves male

This arrangement is none of the two traditionally known ones, more similar to Earlier Heaven than Later Heaven:


More symmetries, some similar to Earlier Heaven:

  • Daughters and sons are arranged from father to first to second to third children, and finally to mother.
  • Opposite trigrams in the circle mirror each other if you mirror each trigram at the middle line (i.e. swap first and third line) and invert all lines (yin↔yang).
  • Trigrams that transform to or from outer elements have a broken (yin) line in the middle, which would fit with outer elements being harder and more brittle, breaking more easily.
  • Excluding the middle line, between adjacent trigrams in the circle exactly one line is inverted (yin↔yang).

Let me arrange the circle of elements and trigrams onto a Möbius Strip as follows (click for larger image):


Inner elements are placed on the inside of the strip, outer elements on the outside. That way, the strip reminds of the supposed permeable membrane between in and out, but with different elements touching: The symbols for the moving elements fire and water touch on opposite sides of the strip, coinciding perfectly, and the same is true for the resting elements earth and air. All lines of the trigrams on one side of the strip are mirrored by their inverted lines (yin ↔ yang) on the other side, so that yin and yang are different sides of the same on the strip.

So, even though fire and water would touch, and maybe mirror each other between in and out, they could not transform directly into each other, only indirectly by going along the single surface of the strip via air or earth.



  • The I Ching is a divination system. By tossing coins or drawing yarrow sticks, one determines hexagrams (two trigrams) that are given meanings in the text of the I Ching. More precisely, the oracle results in two hexagrams, describing the evolution of the current situation to a new situation.
  • This new arrangement of the 8 trigrams and 4 elements in a circle was inspired by a passage in the introduction of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching or Book of Changes (translated from German to English by Cary F. Baynes):

    “The eight trigrams are symbols standing for changing transitional states; they are images that are constantly undergoing change. Attention centers not on things in their state of being—as is chiefly the case in the Occident—but upon their movements in change. The eight trigrams therefore are not representations of things as such but of their tendencies in movement.”

    So the 8 Chinese trigrams would express essentially the same elements and changes in a circle as the 4+1 Greek elements, i.e. the fifth element would be contained in the trigrams.
  • Also in terms of bind/release, the trigrams seem to fit closely: Fire, heaven, lake and mountain hold their element in place; thunder, wind, water and earth let it go.
  • No common historical roots are known, nor any roots of the above arrangement of trigrams in Chinese history, so did both cultures mirror nature independently, even unknowingly ?

    Interpreting earth-water-air as the states of matter solid-fluid-gas and fire as a chemical reaction or physical phenomenon that produces light and maybe heat, the elements could be considered what is most commonly encountered in nature.

    Elements are elemental necessities of life with air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, plus energy/warmth, and they are elemental and at times traumatic forces of nature with fires and volcano eruptions, inondations, storms and landslides.

    Conversely, the very nature of oracles is that things are connected, hence maybe also globally to some degree ?
  • Each trigram is part of 15 hexagrams. In the images of the hexagrams, the wind/wood trigram appears 10 times as wind, 5 times as wood or tree(s); fire 11 times as fire, two times as lightning, one time as light, one time as sun; water 11 times as water, two times as clouds, one time as rain, one time as spring well. The other trigrams appear as themselves.
  • In the yarrow stalk method of consulting the I Ching, one starts with 50 yarrow stalks and initially puts one away. This seems to be a reference to the cycles of moon and sun, because 50+49 lunar months are only about 1.5 days short of 8 solar years, which is also why the Olympics in ancient Greece were held alternatively every 50 and 49 lunar months. Hence the moon advances about 3/8 of the circle every solar year, drawing an eight-pointed star over eight years, as well as appearing in eight different lunar phases.


    Venus never separates more than about 1/8 of the circle from the sun and appears to stand still 5×2 times in 8 years, drawing a pentagram that shifts only slightly between cycles. The Mesopotamian goddess of love Ishtar was associated with Venus, usually depicted as an eight-pointed star and sometimes shown together with sun and moon.

    The yin-yang symbol ☯ reminds of moon phases.

    “In its primary meaning yin is ‘the cloudy’, ‘the overcast’ and yang means actually ‘banners waving in the sun’, that is, something ‘shone upon’, or bright. By transference the two concepts were applied to the light and dark sides of a mountain or of a river. In the case of a mountain the southern is the bright side and the northern the dark side, while in the case of a river seen from above, it is the northern side that is bright (yang), because it reflects the light, and the southern side that is in shadow (yin).” (Wilhelm/Baynes, introduction)
  • The five Chinese Wu Xing, water, metal, fire, wood and earth, which are often called “elements” in the West, but literally mean “moving”, stand most immediately for the five planets visible to the naked eye, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, while the “Four Symbols”, black turtle (plus snake), white tiger, vermillion bird (phoenix) and azure dragon stand for the four directions and for constellations in the sky (each for a group of 7 of the 28 mansions). Together with the I Ching maybe standing for sun and moon, this would complete the sky and what it was believed to reflect down on earth.
  • In the five Wu Xing, earth often has a somewhat central role, surrounded by things that emerge from it and go back to it: water from springs, fire from volcanoes, wood growing from earth and metal mined from it; four very useful ingredients for humans to shape their worlds, like using fire to smelt ore into metal tools, which can then be used to cut wood into houses, furniture, bows, plows, water wheels, etc.
  • In the Chinese zodiac, four star signs are assigned to earth, arranged in a cross, and in the four sectors in between the two star signs there are assigned to water, metal, fire and wood, respectively. This reminds a lot of Aristotle’s circle with trigrams above, so maybe the Wu Xing earth would correspond to the static Greek elements and the other four Wu Xing to the trigrams of the I Ching for the corresponding transformation ? Can this be identified in the attributes of the star signs of the Chinese zodiac ?
  • Is the association of trigrams with elements and their changes also closely mirrored in the hexagrams and their changes ?
  • When consulting the I Ching as an oracle, the different lines are assigned the numbers 6 to 9:

    6 old (changing) yin - - to — -x-
    7 new (unchanging) yang — to —
    8 new (unchanging) yin - - to - - - -
    9 old (changing) yang — to - - -o-

    These numbers are also associated with the Wu Xing and derived from 5 (earth) plus 1 to 4 (water, fire, wood, metal), see the Yellow River Map, e.g. in Wilhelm/Baynes.

    As a different approach, let me number the elements in Aristotle’s circle as 1-2-3-4, starting a priori with any element and going in either direction of the circle. Now, map transformations of elements to the sum of the three elements involved, 1+2+3 = 6, 2+3+4 = 9, 3+4+1 = 8 and 4+1+2 = 7, where the element in the middle is the one that is transformed.

    This gives also the numbers from 6 to 9 and note that new yin and yang are obtained for the sequences that cross from 4 to 1, i.e. into a new cycle.

    Let me number the elements 1-fire, 2-air, 3-water, 4-earth (starting with the lightest element according to Aristotle):

    6 transformation of air 36 = 6 × 6 Stratagems
    7 transformation of fire 49 = 7 × 7 Qixi (Ch’i ?)
    8 transformation of earth 64 = 8 × 8 I Ching
    9 transformation of water 81 = 9 × 9 Tao Te Ching

    This fits astonishingly well with contemporary Western astrological views of the elements. The 36 Stratagems provide stratagems to use in politics and war, which fits well with air as conscious planning mind. The I Ching yields a priori images of changes in the outer, material world, the element earth, which are then interpreted in a more detached way. The Tao Te Ching, which comes in 81 sections, often has something that flows like water. Besides the 50/49 yarrow stalks, there is the Qixi Festival on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year when magpies mythologically build a bridge across the milky way to briefly reunite two lovers, and ch’i (qì) stands for life energy and breath (which reminds of pneuma), and is pronounced almost like the word for 7 (qī) in Chinese.

    In ancient China, fields in agriculture used to be divided into squares of 9 = 3 × 3 fields, with 8 fields (earth) owned by individual families around a central 9th field that belonged to all families and contained the well (water).


  • The most ancient Chinese oracles used bones (typically shoulder bones of oxen) or turtle plastrons (the belly part of the turtle shell). Holes were drilled and heated with a heat source from the back of the plastron to produce cracks on the front. There seems to be no direct evidence for influence on the I Ching, so far, while it seems generally admitted that the turtle would have represented heaven with the upper dome of its shell and earth with its plastron. On the northern hemisphere, stars appear to rotate around the north pole in the sky, the direction assigned to the turtle of the four symbols.

    What I have never seen mentioned so far, however, is something that seems quite obvious, namely that the patterns on what you can see on the shell of the turtle would mimic the hexagrams for heaven and earth quite nicely, given also that there is a hinge around the middle of the plastron:


    A turtle shell has essentially two layers, an outer (softer) keratinous layer above an inner bone layer. The bone layer of the plastron has 9 scutes (shields), which were interpreted in various ways for the bone oracles, while the outer keratinous layer (shown above on the right) has 6 pairs of scutes, anal, femoral, abdominal, pectoral, humeral and gular.
  • Applying heat to a plastron can cause it to crack, to become broken. Are yin and yang lines as broken (weak) resp. unbroken (strong) lines in the I Ching thus related to more ancient oracles involving heat ? Heat dries up, makes brittle, so would a yang line correspond to no crack emerging, because it was wet to start with, hence strong by resisting heat ?
  • See Billy Culver’s Energy Language website, which inspired me once to reconsider old attempts to arrange elements and trigrams on a Möbius Strip or an infinity symbol ∞ and whose style influenced the graphics above, but in my feeling his images carry more potential than that.
  • Is the female fire trigram a form of inner fire, emo mapped to some form of eri, that is clinging to a dream, an idea, a wish despite all outer hardness ? Is the female earth trigram a form of inner earth, ero mapped to some form of emi, something that can yield devotely to outer hardness ? Is the female lake trigram a form of outer water, emi mapped to some form of ero, which brings calm to the outside world without hardness ? Is the female wind trigram a form of outer air, eri mapped to some form of emo, free flowing mind and communication ?
  • Is the Chinese approach thus more balanced ? Conversely, is the Greek approach more likely to start new things, exactly because it is maybe initially more imbalanced ? Are both needed for ‘full’ balance ? Is there more ?
  • In Psychologische Typen (1921), C. G. Jung combines extra- and introversion with implicitly the four elements, which he terms thinking (air), feeling (water), intuition (fire) and sensation (earth), into 8 psychological types, possibly already implicitly inspired by the 8 trigrams of the I Ching:

    “I first met Richard Wilhelm […] in the early twenties. In 1923 we invited him to Zürich […]. Even before meeting him I had been interested in Oriental philosophy, and around [“etwa”] 1920 had begun experimenting with the I Ching.” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Appendix IV, recorded and edited by A. Jaffé, translated by R. and C. Winston, 1961)

    Also in Psychologische Typen, Jung additionally categorizes thinking and feeling as “rational” or “judging”, because they would judge the world based on their inside, and conversely intuition and sensation as “irrational”, but even writes:

    “But I am prepared to grant that we may equally well entertain a precisely opposite conception of such a psychology, and present it accordingly. I am also convinced that, had I myself chanced to possess a different individual psychology, I should have described the rational types in the reversed way, from the standpoint of the unconscious—as irrational, therefore.” (X B III 5, translated by H.G. Baynes)

    In that sense, what Jung calls “irrational” could also be considered “realistic”, as judging the world rather based on measurement outside than on inner conceptions, just like in science, as opposed to e.g. medieval Christian views, where looking at Jupiter’s moons through Galileo’s telescope could apparently not have convinced people that not everything revolves around earth. In astrology, rationality is typically air, reality typically earth, but both air and water (which is usually considered rather irrational and related to the unconscious) have to do with judgment, which is maybe not so astonishing, considering that eri and emi would be inner elements.

    So Jung would have been quite close in a way, with the first text I know of to bring “in/out” near “elements”, with extra-/introverted and judging from within or without.

    His definition of rational/irrational seems also to reflect the difference between medieval world views, where inner worlds had quite some weight, and newer ones, from the Renaissance on, where the outer world generally gained precedence.
  • Love and happiness are felt inside, so maybe ideally not too much focus outside ? Nor inside ? But still sometimes ? Or simply be with someone with a different perspective ?