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The Numerology of the I Ching

Alfred Huang

Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2000. Hardback, pp186, illus, index. ISBN 0-89281-824-7

This review originally appeared in Volume 2, Number 12 of The Oracle: the Journal of Yijing Studies, January 2002.

This book provides a companion volume to Huang's translation The Complete I Ching [Hua98]. Its role in relation to that book should be seen in a similar light to the inclusion of the Discussion of the Trigrams and The Great Treatise in the single volume of Wilhelm's I Ching [Wil83]. That is, it provides material that underpins and illuminates the main text.

I shall begin with a brief overview of Huang's book and then look in more detail at the individual chapters.


The first thing to note, from an academic perspective, is that the book lacks any explicit sources. This makes it impossible to follow up on some of the lines of thought put forward. Although specific quotes are attributed, no publication details are given. In other places, attribution is omitted or implied. For example, there is the tantalising suggestion (p64) that the analysis of the King Wen sequence presented in this book did not originate with Huang, but with some other, unidentified author.

There are some small problems in the organisation of the book. For example, Chapters 9 and 11 are both linguistic analysis of certain key terms used in the Yi, but for some reason they are separated by the largely irrelevant Chapter 10. Further, some material has little or nothing to do with numerology of the Yi, nor even any obvious connection with the meaning and number school of thought.

Finally, because it is a first edition, the book suffers from occasional misprints and the reader is advised to keep on their toes.

I shall now turn to a more detailed discussion of the contents.

The Early Chapters

In the Preface the author identifies what he sees as the main contributions of the work. These are: the analysis of the King Wen sequence, the hidden meaning of the lines, the hosts (ruling lines), the judgements of good and mis-fortune, the 36 gua most familiar to Chinese, and the mutual (inner) gua. That is quite a substantial list of contributions. Of these topics, elements of the analysis of the King Wen sequence given in Chapter 6 strike me as genuinely innovative. It has to be said that much of the rest of the book is existing, familiar material.

Huang seeks to place this work in the broad context of Chinese philosophical thought. He identifies the Moral & Reason school of thought, which is Confucian in origin, as being the focus of his first book. In contrast, the Symbol & Number school, which is Taoist in origin, is the focus of the present volume.

Chapters 1 through 3 contain nothing that will be new to most students of the Yi. It is basically a presentation of material from the Discussion of Trigrams and the Great Treatise. I shall not dwell on it here.

Chapter 4 discusses the two well known numerological diagrams, the He Tu (the Yellow River Diagram) and Lo Shu (Writing from the River Lo). There is some interesting material in here that would repay further study on my part, but it is not easy going. There is an odd statement on page 28 where he says "the symbolic number of the gua exactly match their position number". This is in connection with a comparison between a He Tu assignment of numbers to gua and a linear ordering assignment of numbers to gua. But I can not see what this means and there is no clear explanation. Huang concludes the chapter with a brief presentation of a 3-D interpretation of these classical diagrams, suggesting that the He Tu was a meterological map and that the Lo Shu was a compass and climate chart. These are interesting possibilities that are not pursued any further.

Chapter 5 contains an interesting discussion of Shao Yung's various patterns for arranging the gua. However, in his analysis of Shao Yung's square, Huang seems to miss part of the obvious connection between the gua on the - diagonal (bottom left to top right). Huang does observe the fact that all the gua on this axis are balanced with respect to yin and yang lines, but there are other gua that also have that property which do not appear on the diagonal (for example Abundance ). The key fact about this diagonal is that these gua are composed of complementary trigrams. Maybe Huang felt this was too obvious to mention. However, the omission of such an obvious correlation raises a question in my mind about the depth of the author's analysis.

This chapter also suffers from a degree of repetition (especially pages 54 and 55) that feels like padding.

The King Wen Sequence

Chapter 6 deals with the King Wen sequence. In The Complete I Ching [Hua98] this is treated as a narrative describing the overthrow of the Shang dynasty. In this book Huang takes a different approach and it is explained in terms of two "wavelike" sequences.

The first wave has a short period, and describes the well understood relationship between the pairs of gua in the King Wen sequence. The second wave is a long wave in the shape of a "w" that encompasses the entire length of the sequence. This is based on an analysis of the relative dominance of yang and yin in the various gua. Although this is an interesting approach, I admit that I did not find myself convinced by the analysis.

However, there is, to my mind, a real gem in this chapter and it is this. The total King Wen sequence is typically divided into two canons: the first (upper) canon stretches from to , it is ruled by and pertains to the illumination of heaven whilst the second (lower) canon stretches from to the end, it is ruled by 000000 and pertains to the illumination of humanity. Huang shows that although the first canon contains 30 gua and the second contains 34, in fact, at a deeper level, the two groups of gua are balanced! He does this both in terms of the distribution of basic structures and the number of yang and yin lines. I shall not present the details here, but this is a very interesting analysis and I would recommend the book solely on the strength of this short section.

Structural Properties

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the lines in various ways. The first presents the notions of correctness, correspondence, holding together, and mounting and carrying. The second presents a description of the hosts of the gua. There is nothing new here that readers should not be familiar with from other sources.

Linguistic Analyses

Chapter 10 contains a discussion of the four key terms "yuan", "heng", "li" and "zhen", both in terms of their individual meanings and in terms of the various combinations that appear in the text.

At this point I should note that no Chinese characters used anywhere in the book. After Huang makes the point about the nature of pictographs being multilayered containers of meaning it would have been nice to have provided the kind of character analysis that he presents for each of the names of the gua in his earlier work. This lack of characters provides the typical problem when (on p128) the difference between "li" favourable and "li" adversity is relegated to a footnote with no real explanation of the distinction between the characters.

Although there is a small amount of historical discussion, this chapter is really little more than a list of which gua contain which combinations of the terms. This is a disappointing chapter that feels like someone's initial notes for a more substantial piece of work.

Chapter 11 provides an analysis of the terms denoting good and bad fortune in the hexagrams. It explains a number of terms used in the judgements and revisits the terms from Chapter 9. The author sees these judgements as the key to actualizing the philosophy of the Yi in our daily behaviour.

For each of the judgement terms Huang lists the gua in which they appear. Whilst these lists are interesting in themselves, for example comparing the number of occurrences of "fault" with the number of occurrences of "no fault" this again has the incomplete feel of raw data awaiting a proper analysis.

Chapter 10

I am not sure why this chapter appears between Chapters 9 and 11. It discusses the 32 gua "most familiar to the Chinese" plus another 4 familiar in "intellectual circles". This makes interesting reading, but apart from identifying the characters themselves as being "familiar", there is nothing really new here.

The Nuclear Gua

Chapters 12 and 13 are both devoted to what are usually called the nuclear gua. Huang prefers the term "mutual" because the lines of the gua are not independant, but rather depend on each other. He says that this is the term most commonly used for these structures; however, in the text he typically employs the term "core gua". Much of the material in these chapters will be familiar to readers of Hacker's excellent I Ching Handbook [Hac93].

Chapter 12 includes some numerological facts derived from the diagonal nature of the occurrence of the core gua within the Shao Yong square arrangement. Like the earlier analysis of the Shao Yung square in Chapter 5 this analysis misses the deeper facts, in this case regarding how these arithmetical relationships are derived from the binary pattern of the square arrangement.

Chapter 13 stays with the core gua looking at their hidden message. It looks at how the gua are grouped according to their core gua and core-of-core gua and discusses how the core gua contribute to the fundamental meaning of the situation represented by each gua.

A Tool for Divination

Chapter 14 discusses the root of the Yi as a tool for divination. For many people this is the main point of contact with the Yi and as such this is an important section. For Huang, the basic idea is that the Yi is to be used to resolve doubts; if there are no doubts, then there is no reason to divine. The chapter presents the "Plum Blossom" method for divination based on remainders after division. This is presented as Shao Yong's basic technique; apparently the sage never used coins or yarrow stalk for his divinations and he attained tremendous accuracy with this numerological method.

The final chapter is very personal. It describes how Huang learnt these numerological divination techniques from a blind fortune teller with whom he shared a cell when in prison in China. Huang has clearly lived a colourful life and it would be interesting to see a little more of this revealed.

Shao Yong

The book concludes with a very brief description of the life of Shao Yong. This chapter is too short to really impart much information and, in any case, it repeats some of the material from Chapter 14.


The main utility of this book is bringing together a wide range of material into one volume. However, this is also its shortcoming; in a number of places the work is too shallow and merely skims the surface of some complex subjects.

Overall, I think the book provides a useful introduction to a number of facets of the Yi. For students with more experience, there will be less of interest, but I think the book will have something of value for almost everyone.

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