The Image of the Cosmos in the I Ching: the Yi-globe (2011)

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I. Introduction

(This chapter contains some short excerpts only from the longer manuscript.)

Cosmological worldviews
Trigrams and hexagrams

Myths and archaeological findings reveal a lot about the worldviews of ancient peoples. It can be told that their basic attributes resemble each other very closely, independently of the place of their origin, while the three thousand year old I Ching (Yi Jing, Yijing, Book of Changes) shows an image of totally different form, though its essential meaning is identical with that of the others in many ways. This introduction will provide a brief survey of world-wide cosmological views compared with the world of the I Ching.


Historical texts and representations generally split the world into two parts, Earth and Heaven. This statement is true for the worldviews of the Middle and Far East (Accadian, Hindu, Iranian, Hebrew, Siberian, etc.) and those of Europe (Greek, Germanic, geocentric Christian, etc.), and even in the extreme example of the ‘world shell’ of Polynesian peoples. According to these the Earth, the dwelling-place of people, resembles a flat circular plate or a large mountain surrounded by sea (ocean). Almost all of them represent the horizon as a circle and Heaven as a semi-globe, thus imagining the cosmos as a sphere, an egg or similar forms.

When contemplating abstract ideas, people tend to represent the world not as a concrete space but its influencing and creating primal powers. The symbols representing these ideas take a far more simple form and are less varied than those of the previous worldviews. The dominant forms are: the circle (sphere), the quadrangle (square, cube), the triangles (equilateral triangles), and the cross (see figure 1).

Circle, square, triangles, cross

Fig. 1. Some of the simplest geometrical symbols

In his classic work 'China in Antiquity' Henri Maspero gives a detailed description of the cosmological worldview developed in ancient China. Maspero says, the Chinese 'pictured the world as a chariot with the rectangular Earth as its basis and the round Heaven covering it as a ceiling. ... The “Earth beneath” lying under the Heaven is divided into concentric zones. The middle is occupied by the nine regions of China surrounded by barbarians from all around. ... Farther off, there is the Four Seas communicating with one another and – similarly to the Greek "Okeanos" – surrounding the world.' [Maspero: 30–32.]

Essentially the same idea is set forth by Mircea Eliade summarizing the Chinese ideas about the structure of the universe: 'As far as the structure and the rhythms of the cosmos are concerned, unity and continuity of the different basic ideas were perfect from the age of the Shangs up to the revolution of 1911. The traditional image of the Cosmos is represented by the Centre with a vertical zenith–nadir axis passing through it, and framed by the four cardinal points. Heaven is round (egg-form) while the Earth is a square. Heaven covers the Earth as a globe. ... China is at the middle of the world, the Capital is at the middle of the Kingdom, and the Royal Palace is at the middle of the Capital.' [Eliade: II. 15.].

Apart from the descriptions above, two well-known pictures from Chinese mythology are worth mentioning: 'The Yellow River Map' (figure 2.a) manifesting itself before Fu Xi on the side of a horse coming forth from the Yellow River, as is told by the legend, and another one appearing later on the back of a tortoise coming out of the river Lo, and named as 'The Writing from the River Lo' (figure 2.b). The pictures contain the five elements (fire, water, air, metal, earth) symbolically represented by the number of circlets, also disclosing their heavenly and earthly origin (by light and dark circlets). It should be emphasized that four elements in both pictures are arranged in cross form, following the cardinal points, while the fifth element (earth) is at the middle.

The Yellow River Map and the Writing from the River Lo

Fig. 2. The diagrams of the five elements
a) The Yellow River Map    b) The Writing from the River Lo

At present the most well-known Chinese symbol is the taiji, the yin-yang diagram, representing in a very expressive manner the dual nature and simultaneously the unity of the primal powers creating and ruling the universe (figure 3).

The yin-yang diagram (taiji)

Fig. 3. The taiji (yin-yang) diagram

In summing up these pictures of the world it can be stated that the Chinese ideas for the composition and the structure of the universe – rectangular Earth with the round Heaven covering it, their own territory at the middle of the world, the circle representing the primal powers, and the quaternary arrangement of the space – are in perfect harmony with those of other peoples.


Like the symbols listed above the I Ching also reveals a complete worldview, since each of the symbols it covers – the sixty-four hexagrams – stand for the image (idea) of one worldly phenomenon, while the totality of the hexagrams is the representation of the whole world. Each hexagram consists of six short horizontal lines placed above one another. The lines can be undivided (firm) or divided (yielding). Figure 4 gives some examples indicating the name of the hexagrams too.

The image and name of some hexagrams

Fig. 4. The image and name of some hexagrams

Tradition says that the hexagrams are attributable to Fu Xi himself while the texts constituting the core of the book are from the 12th century B.C. when King Wen added appropriate explanations (so-called judgments) to each of them.

According to a sometimes questioned conception, the six-line hexagrams should be (or can be) regarded as those combined of two trigrams. The table below lists the eight trigrams with some of their manifestations. [Baynes: 357.]

The eight trigrams, their signs, names, and meanings

Table 1. The eight trigrams and their manifestations

Independently of the origin of the hexagrams, however, it is commonly stated and accepted that the sixty four signs together represent the Heaven and the Earth, the whole universe. Strange as it is, the hexagrams do not express this content in a visible manner. They do not contain any formal element that would refer to the unity and the totality of the world (circle, sphere, square, etc.). In such a way, they differ from the symbols of other peoples as well as from the well-known Chinese symbols.

The hexagrams have a traditionally received 'canonical' sequence which, as stated, originated with King Wen, but can only be historically verified from the 2nd century A.D. Since that time the hexagrams are mentioned in this sequence in each edition of the I Ching[*]. However, up to now, it could not have been established whether the hexagrams in the book follow one another according to a definite system, or at random.

This (apparently) structure-less nature of the system of hexagrams is all the more surprising since the eight trigrams were already correlated in ancient times according to their meaning and interrelation. Two kinds of such arrangements are known. One of them, the 'Sequence of Earlier Heaven' (fig. 5.a), according to tradition, goes back to Fu Xi again. The other one, the 'Sequence of Later Heaven' (fig. 5.b) represents a later conception; legend says that its author was the same King Wen, to whom the I Ching can be attributed. In these diagrams – indicating all the primal forces and their circular arrangement – the unity and completeness of the universe manifest themselves. Moreover, the trigrams can be associated with the points of the compass (in Chinese way, South is at the top, and North at the bottom), as shown in the figures. These arrangements divide and set in order space and time, defining the cardinal points and the seasons; as people still do today. The fundamental difference between the two diagrams lies in the different relation of the primal forces and the cardinal points.

The Earlier Heaven and the Later Heaven

Fig. 5. Ancient arrangements of the trigrams
a) Sequence of Earlier Heaven    b) Sequence of Later Heaven

As for the hexagrams, only the following simple structural elements can be found in their traditional (canonical) sequence:

a)    Within the sequence the hexagrams are arranged in pairs so that a hexagram is always directly followed by its reversed pair. The eight symmetric hexagrams are paired with their complements.

b)   The hexagrams are divided into two groups, from No. 1 to 30, and from No. 31 to 64 respectively.

Until quite recently, many people searched for outward characteristics associated with the content of the hexagrams but in vain. They also developed various kinds of sequences and two-dimensional arrangements, with the purpose to convey some important idea or meaning by the order of the hexagrams.

For instance, hexagrams are often arranged in an 8x8 table according to their upper and lower trigrams. Also the circular arrangements are often used in Chinese astrology and medicine.

The Confucian philosopher Shao Yong (1011 – 1077) created an other linear arrangement, named 'natural' system by him. It has to be noted that Shao Yong’s arrangement is nothing more than the binary numbers from 111111 to 000000 applied to the hexagrams.

For people of today it seems that the various linear, rectangular, and circular arrangements do not contain any general information on the interrelations among the hexagrams.

In the western countries in the second half of the 20th century a great interest arose in Far Eastern religions and philosophies, which has been ever increasing in the recent decades. It can be seen from the growing number of new translations and interpretations of the I Ching, embracing essays, and even books that deal with the hexagrams and their system. However, in the majority of cases they focus on some structural details only. No complete analysis that embrace all the details and still form a whole has been prepared for the system of the hexagrams up to now. Maybe such a system does not exist at all, or it is well hidden from view.

The following passages aim at the demonstration of a reasonable structure of the sixty-four hexagrams, and its correlation with the other ancient worldviews and universal symbols.

Synopsis TOP Reconstruct

[*] It has to be mentioned that in the year 1973 in the so-called Mawangdui manuscripts another sequence was found that differs from the canonical order.

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