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.

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

Seems they resemble the 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 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, thus breaking more easily.
  • Excluding the middle line, between adjacent trigrams in the circle exactly one line is inverted (yin↔yang).


  • 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.
  • The trigrams seem to express essentially the same elements and changes in a circle as the Greek elements.

    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.

    The elements represent also elementary needs: air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, sunlight and fire as energy.

    Conversely, the very nature of oracles is that things are connected, maybe also globally to some degree?
  • The new arrangement of the trigrams had been inspired by the following 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."
  • 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 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.
  • 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, white tiger, vermillion bird 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 x 6 Stratagems
    7 transformation of fire 49 = 7 x 7 Ch'i ?
    8 transformation of earth 64 = 8 x 8 I Ching
    9 transformation of water 81 = 9 x 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. Except for the 50/49 yarrow stalks, I have not been able to find anything that comes in 49 items in Chinese culture; ch'i (qì) stands for life energy and also breath (which reminds of pneuma), and is pronounced almost like the word for 7 in Chinese.

    In ancient China, fields in agriculture used to be divided into squares of 9 = 3 x 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, which were typically T-shaped. Although many oracle bones and plastrons have been found and the ancient writing can now be read to quite some degree, little seems to be known about how cracks were interpreted. There seems to be no direct evidence for an influence on the I Ching, so far.

    A plastron consists essentially of 6 pairs of scutes (shields), anal, femoral, abdominal, pectoral, humeral and gular, with a flexible hinge between the first and the last 3 pairs of scutes, which reminds of the structure of hexagrams.

    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 be considered strong in the sense of resisting heat?

    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. Is the turtle with its shell, maybe a model of the world, with the plastron standing for what is down on earth and the upper part of the shell for the sky? And similarly lower and upper trigrams of the I Ching?

    The hexagons on the upper part of the shell could be seen to form 6 unbroken/yang lines (heaven) and the pairs of plastron scutes 6 broken/yin lines (earth).

  • In Greek mythology, as early as in Hesiod's Theogony, Cronos and Rhea had 3 sons and 3 daughters. Their parents were Ouranos and Gaia, which mean heaven (or mountain) and earth. Zeus, the third son, was close to his mother Rhea who tricked Cronos and hid Zeus from him, so that Zeus grew up on mount Ida and after his revolution reigned on mount Olympos. Just like the mountain trigram (3rd son) is close to the earth trigram (mother) in the circle ?

    The mother might have been considered naturally closer to her youngest children because they emerged last from her.
© 2002-now Alain Stalder