We know that divination rituals by means of milfoil stalks and turtle shells took place in China since the 4th century BC. Historically, chronicles of milfoil and turtle divination relate to oracles created by the hexagrams of the Book of Changes (Zhou Yi). This was the divination manual, which was believed to be the beginning of the I Ching.
The legend goes that the mythical ruler Fu Xi (2952 BC) invented the trigrams (bagua) and thus discovered the teaching of the basic principles of life. There is no surprise that China was seen as ‘the land of divination’ by its neighbours, India and Tibet. According to the legend, Fu Xi found golden coloured turtle, on which he saw ‘the patterns of the eight trigrams’. The earliest reference to Fu Xi’s contemplations was found in the Ten Wings (the appendixes of the main divination manual):
“In ancient times, Master Fu Xi ruled over all. He raised his
head and observed the heavens, lowered his head and
observed the patterns of the earth(….) Then from these he
originated the eight graphs. With them, he could, through
the spiritual, make accurate evaluations of virtue,
and he could categorise the tendencies in all matter.”
The eight trigrams and their subsequent combinations, manifested in the sixty-four hexagrams represented all the possible situations that could happen in the universe, creating an almost infinite number of possibilities. This created a microcosm that mirrored reality in the cosmos. The now expanded Book of Changes (I Ching) developed through the millennia into a ‘comprehensive system of cosmology’.
Heaven (chi’en) and Earth (k’un) were the first of the eight trigrams. During Han times they were associated with the yin and yang. Heaven and Earth, or the male and female, became the father and mother of all other trigrams, and in consequence, of all creation.
The I Ching had transformed itself from a purely divinatory text (Zhou Yi) into one of the most important philosophical texts in Chinese tradition and the first of the Confucian classics.
Barry, Chan, Watson (ed.), Sources of Chinese Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1960)
Collins, Roy, Fire Over Heaven (Roy Collins, 2001)
Yoeli-Tlalim, “Medicine, Astrology, and Divination”
Wilhelm, R.(trans.), The I Ching (Penguin Arcana)
“Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm and the I Ching, dir. Dr Bettina Wilhelm