I Ching Hexagrams: Interpretation and Meaning

In recent decades, the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, has become popular in Western culture, both as a method of divination and as a self-help manual. One of the important texts of Confucianism, the I Ching is an ancient divinatory text that has gone through many editions and translations.

In English, the Wilhelm-Baynes translation contains all the information that is relevant to interpretation. Other translations summarize the information, change it into “layman’s terms”, and even change it significantly to suit various purposes. Anyone who is serious about studying the I Ching in English, would do well to get a copy of this.

Can It Tell the Future?

Although the I Ching can be used for a wide range of purposes, it is traditionally used as a source of advice and divination. Those who are new to using it are often advised to begin by consulting the text with only broad questions in mind, seeking advice for the present, rather than information about the future.

It is probably best used this way in general, since divination is, to quote J. K. Rowling, “a very imprecise branch of magic”. Thus, the I Ching is a good source of advice for how to proceed in life, and how to interpret present events.


In order to consult this book according to traditional or revised procedures, refer instructions that are given in it. Almost all versions and translations include instructions for arriving at a hexagram, using either sticks, coins, or another method.

A hexagram is a set of six lines, each of which is either broken or solid, and either moving or non-moving. It is important to pay attention to the instructions regarding moving lines, as they are an important part of the overall reading. In the case of the I Ching, a reading isn’t complete without their information.


When you have arrived at a hexagram, it is time to consult the book to learn the meaning of your reading. The basic step is to consult a chart of hexagrams (usually located inside the book) to discover their numbers.

When you have learned the number, turn to the description of that hexagram in the book. (Hexagram descriptions can also be found online, but be careful to use a reliable source.) In order to get the most out of your reading, interpret the hexagram according to the following steps.

Step One: The Overall Reading

Firstly, you should read the overall meaning of the hexagram. In the Wilhelm-Baynes translation, this includes a basic description, a text on “The Judgment”, and a text on “The Image”.

Reading these is crucial to understanding your consultation. As they were written long ago, and are thought by many to be sacred divinatory images, many of the descriptions and meanings can be difficult to understand.

Once you get used to them, you will find that this is a part of the beauty of the interpretation process. The images should be read and interpreted with a view to the question or situation, which you had in mind when you created your hexagram. The descriptions can help to clarify a confusing situation, or can be taken as advice for the next proceedings.

Step Two: The Moving Lines

After you have read and understood the basic meaning of the hexagrams, it is time to focus on the moving lines. They are moving from the current state (either broken or solid) to the opposite state.

The lines are important for the reading, as they give it a specific focus in addition to the general interpretation. In any good I Ching translation, there will be a description of the meaning of each individual line.

It is important not to read each description. Only understand the meanings of the moving lines. This will focus your reading, and give it specificity that is beyond the general interpretation. The meanings of the moving lines can alter or enhance the overall process, add new advice, and lead to considering different things.

Step Three: The Second Hexagram

In this stage, you have to find the hexagram that compliments your reading. This also involves moving lines. After you have read their descriptions, create a second hexagram by changing the moving lines to their opposites.

For example, imagine that you have three broken lines on the bottom, and three solid lines on the top; and the bottommost and topmost lines are moving lines.

As the bottom line is moving, it changes to a solid line, and as the top line is moving, it changes to a broken line. The resulting complimentary hexagram has a solid line on the bottom, then two broken lines, then two solid lines, and then a broken line on the top.

What Does it Mean?

When you have found the second hexagram, it is important only to read its overall meaning. The meanings of the individual lines do not apply to this hexagram. As it introduces a different set of recommendations and descriptions, it can be the most difficult part of the reading process to interpret.

As the original hexagram is moving toward the second hexagram, the latter is often thought to represent what will come next. However, it can also change the original meaning or provide a warning, depending on the question.

Deciding how the second one relates to the first one, or whether it relates at all, is up to you. Whenever you read the I Ching, you must bring your own creative powers to bear on the divination, by making the reading unique to you, and using it to your benefit in the best way possible.

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