I Ching: The Incomprehensible Answers of the Textus Receptus

In the preceding article, we saw that the answers of the I Ching can be understood as messages from our Self to our Ego: Our Self-Sun speaks to us through orientating images to guide us, our world-shaping Ego.

But what if we do not understand the answer of the I Ching as it is presented in the classical Book of Changes?

First and foremost: We are in good company. Even C.G. Jung reports difficulties:

Even before I met him [R. Wilhelm], I had been engaged with Eastern philosophy and had started experimenting with the I Ching around 1920. […] The method itself is easy and simple. However, as already mentioned, the difficulty lies in the interpretation of the result. Above all, understanding the symbolism is not entirely straightforward, even with the help of Wilhelm’s excellent commentaries. The more knowledge the reader has in the psychology of the unconscious, the easier this work will be for him.

Jung, 635 resp. Clarke, 162 and 170, translation KUS.

For me, these words of C.G. Jung are personally comforting. I had a similar experience. I was always rather dissatisfied with the classical interpretation texts. That is one of the reasons why I started delving deeper into the I Ching around 2008. I wanted to access the symbols directly, without relying on interpretation texts.
The result is the present work.

Why is it so difficult for most of us to understand the original texts of the I Ching, which have been available to us as an unchanged Textus receptus for almost 3000 years? The answer I have found for myself is: They feel distant to us. They have very little to do with us, our life situations, our way of living, and our here and now.

I Ching: Cosmology, Method, and Interpretation Text

Let us take a systematic look at the I Ching once again. Basically, three aspects can be distinguished from each other:

  • The cosmology underlying the I Ching,
  • The method used to determine the oracle’s answer, and
  • The interpretation texts that have been handed down to us in the Textus receptus.

The Cosmology Underlying the I Ching

The cosmological foundation of the I Ching, with its hexagrams consisting of solid (yang) and broken (yin) lines, is rooted in Daoism, which in turn is further illustrated by the I Ching itself: From the unmoved and undivided Dao arise the opposites of Yin and Yang, from which in turn all further things emerge – in the I Ching these are the 64 hexagrams.

This basis, the idea of an all-one origin, is comprehensible to me also as a European. It makes me think of Aristotle’s unmoved mover, which later inspired Thomas Aquinas in his so-called cosmological proof of God. While the Greek philosophers described the subsequent creation of our diverse world using different categories, the fundamental idea of an undivided and motionless origin connects both conceptual worlds.

This brings me to the following conclusion: The cosmology underlying the I Ching, a worldview influenced by Daoism, poses no difficulty for me. Instead, I find it quite familiar and inspiring.

The Oracle Method of the I Ching

The answering hexagram in the I Ching can be determined in various ways using different oracle methods. The historical beginnings were likely oracle bones, and later (possibly concurrently) the yarrow stalk oracle was used; often the I Ching is also determined using a coin oracle.

My conclusion: C.G. Jung writes: “The method itself is easy and simple.” There is little to add to that. :)

The Classical Interpretation Texts of the I Ching in the Textus Receptus

Remaining as a source of possible difficulties are the interpretative texts which have been handed down to us in the Textus receptus. To quote C.G. Jung once again: Understanding the Book of Changes, this set of rules with its images and judgments, is “not entirely straightforward”.

As we saw earlier, the I Ching is fundamentally a systematized combinatorial system for divination, a system with a fixed set of rules that determine the relationship between individual elements and thereby simplifies interpretation. A comparable system in our cultural context is, for example, astrology.

The purpose of such a set of rules is to facilitate the questioner’s access to the oracle’s answer by first of all making the “raw version” of the answer rationally comprehensible in a very basic way through those rules. The subsequent task of interpretation consists merely in applying this rule-based answer to the questioner’s individual situation.

The question at hand is: To what extent do the interpretative texts of the Book of Changes, which have been passed down to us as Textus receptus, fulfill this purpose? Do they make it easier for us, or specifically for me, to comprehend the oracle’s answer? Do they provide me/us with a rational understanding of this answer?

Regrettably, my personal answer is no. I struggle to derive meaning from the rule-based interpretation texts. To be more precise: The interpretation texts of the Book of Changes offer me incomprehensible responses instead of posing thought-provoking questions that would enable a deeper exploration. Consequently, they close the doors that actually should be opening, preventing me from understanding the messages that my Self is conveying to my Ego.

Why do the Interpretation Texts of the I Ching Hinder Understanding Rather Than Facilitate it?

In essence, this question can be answered in one sentence: Opening the door to one’s inner Self, cultivating a deeper connection with oneself, and facilitating genuine and profound understanding are likely not the primary intention behind these texts.

For a more detailed response, it is necessary to expand a bit further. Let us recall that the Textus receptus has been handed down unchanged for about 3000 years. This signifies that it is not only geographically and temporally distant from us, but also culturally removed from our lived reality.

China’s Rulers Aimed to Establish a Unified Empire

Exploring the underlying motivation behind this practice of unaltered transmission inevitably leads to the history of China – a history of a multi-ethnic state where rulers sought to create a unified empire. One of the methodologies employed to achieve this objective was by harnessing the abundance of diverse discourses and traditions.

In the 2nd century B.C., for instance, this was accomplished through syncretisms – artificially created doctrines that blended religions or religious traditions:

Once the warring states were politically united and thinkers of diverse cultural backgrounds came together at the center of the empire, the once competing ‘Hundred Schools’ coalesced into new syntheses: the appropriate intellectual form for a centralized empire where regional differences were abolished.

Vogelsang, 156-157.

One of these syntheses is Confucianism, which is interesting in relation to the I Ching because parts of the I Ching (specifically the Ten Wings) are traditionally attributed to Confucius. However, what is traditionally recognized as Confucianism is, in fact, an artificially constructed system of teachings that may have little to do with the actual teachings of the historical Confucius.

The Confucianism of the Han period was no longer the doctrine of a changing aristocratic society, as Confucius had envisioned it, but the legitimization of the bureaucratic state. […] Confucianism was the ideology of bureaucratic absolutism […] The propagation of Confucianism, which is now commonly regarded as the epitome of Chinese wisdom, was in the Han period a political maneuver to force representatives of other doctrines out of office. It was one court intrigue among many…

Vogelsang, 160.

Today, it is likely impossible to determine which texts attributed to Confucius actually originated from him. Over the centuries, the body of text material discussing Confucius and his teachings, including doctrinal texts and commentaries by other philosophers, had grown steadily. During the Han period (ca. 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.), this proliferating diversity was brought to an abrupt end: Five highly heterogeneous texts, including the I Ching, were selected from the entire philosophical corpus and declared canonical texts. Subsequent dynasties had the canon repeatedly carved in stone as so-called stone classics. (Cf. Vogelsang, 162-163.)

This text canon had a normative claim from the time of its definition, representing the values of society and the ultimate truth. All other texts were marginalized or even penalized for their use. At the same time, this canonization meant that the texts themselves could no longer be altered because, by definition, the canon was deemed complete and eternally valid. The only possibility for new content or contemporary references was through scholarly commentaries. (Cf. ibid.)

The number of works included in the canon underwent several changes over the centuries, and eventually, in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was reduced to four books. For the following 600 years, these four books served as a foundation for civil service examinations. However, their purpose remained the same: to standardize discourse in a vast, centrally governed unified empire. After the examination system was abolished in 1905, the empire collapsed shortly thereafter. (Cf. ibid.)

Considering this historical context, it becomes evident that the contents preserved in the Textus receptus, such as the I Ching, hold a significant role as an identity- forming national treasure for the Chinese people. This also explains why the spectacular discoveries of Mawangdui (1972) and Shuanggudui (1977) have been met with caution by Chinese researchers. Differences in content between the historically older versions of the I Ching in the finds and the chronologically younger Textus receptus are mainly dismissed as borrowings or misspellings. The standardized text of the I Ching, as a canonical scripture, is considered a document beyond any doubt. (Cf. Hertzer, 87-99.)


Clarke, J. J. 1997. C. G. Jung Und Der Östliche Weg. Zürich: Walter.
Jung, Carl Gustav. 1963. Bd. Zur Psychologie westlicher und östlicher Religion. Rascher.
Hertzer, Dominique. 1996. Das Alte Und Das Neue Yijing. Die Wandlungen Des Buches Der Wandlungen. München: Diederichs.
Vogelsang, Kai. 2012. Geschichte Chinas. Stuttgart: Reclam.

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