The Meaning of Yi in I Ching | SJ Marshall, Joel Biroco

Should we think about systems changes, in a way that we think about weather changes? SJ Marshall (also known as Joel Biroco) wrote on the meaning of Yi in the ZhouYi, which was the earlier basis for the Yi Jing (known to most westerners as the I Ching).

Wilhelm-Baynes does not discuss the etymology of the character, but does give a broad hint that the answer is to be found in a study of the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions. On the Chinese title page of Wilhelm-Baynes, and on the cover of the UK edition, the following two characters appear, which read Zhouyi in oracle-bone script:

The original calligrapher was Dong Zuobin, who was the first archaeologist to survey, in 1928, the Shang remains at the Yinxu site near present-day Anyang, in Henan. [….]

The uppermost of the two characters on the Chinese title page and cover of Wilhelm-Baynes is how the name of the Zhou state appears on both Shang oracle-bones and early Western Zhou bronzes. The lower is the original form of Yi.[9]

In the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions this character refers to ‘a yi sacrifice to the sun’, the context suggesting a ritual intended to change overcast conditions and rainy weather, and bring the sun out again. In the inscriptions the character precedes ri, ‘sun’, literally meaning ‘change to sun’ or ‘change to sunny weather’.[10]

When I realised this, immediately I noticed that the original character appears to be a drawing of the sun just emerging on the right from cloud cover on the left, with three slanting rays of sunshine breaking through.[11]

I found out later that the contemporary Chinese scholar Yang Shuda had already explained the character in this way.[12]

Hence, this is the original concrete image of ‘change’. When combined with the name of the dynasty in the original title of the Book of Changes, the Zhouyi, it is the ‘change’ of the Zhou dynasty, the change of the dynasty from Shang to Zhou reflected in the imagery of the brightness of the sun emerging from behind the dark clouds of an oppressive regime.[13]

[Marshall 2015] , Chapter II: The Title of the Oracle

In are more recent interview, Joel Biroco responded to a question on his view on change in the Yi Jing, relative to Greek philosophy.

I should mention my long-term interest in the Yijing, or ‘Book of Changes’. It was a great irony to me to be studying the changes for so long only to finally discover the unchanging right under my nose after dismissing it years before. In this, it was Buddhism, or, I should say, my understanding of Buddhism at the time, that led me astray there, in that it convinced me that there is nothing resembling permanence anywhere to be found. Of course, in ‘the world’ this is quite right, it is all impermanent, but ‘the unchanging’ is not in the world, the world is in it.

I was also led astray by Heraclitus, who implied that the unchanging was nothing more than ‘constant change’. Well, in a sense this is right too, in that the unchanging nothingness and the ever-changing everythingness are not different, but sometimes an erroneous understanding can cut off the true understanding because one thinks one has already found it. However, this is the great virtue of despair, since why would one still be prey to that illusion if one had already seen through it? It indicates a shortfall or gap that must be discovered and overturned (in the Nietzschean sense). So the illusion of the world continues until one is finally free of it, for all this apparent trudge of becoming and seeming progress disappears with it.

Joel Biroco [Gyrus, 2017]
'Fiercely possessive but ultimately dead bird'
[Joel Biroco 2017] “Fiercely possessive but ultimately dead bird”


Gyrus. 2017. “Absolutely Nothing: An Interview with Joel Biroco.” Interviews. Dreamflesh (blog). 2017.

Marshall, S. J. 2015. The Mandate of Heaven: Hidden History in the Book of Changes. Routledge.

  • 9 See entries 850b–e in Karlgren’s Grammata Serica Recensa. The American edition of Wilhelm-Baynes now has only the lower character Yi on the cover. Some UK impressions of Wilhelm-Baynes lack the Chinese title page.
  • 10 For examples of such inscriptions, see: Chang, ed., Studies of Shang Archaeology, p 106 and p 116; entry 28 for Yi in Schuessler, A Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese; Serruys, Studies in the Language of Shang Oracle Inscriptions, p 37 and p 68.
  • 11 The character also appears in oracle-bone inscriptions in reversed form (mirror-imaged).
  • 12 Serruys, op. cit, p 80.
  • 13 See Mathews’ Chinese–English Dictionary, entry 2952(c)–7, a usage listed under yi: ‘to change the dynasty’. Zhou, besides being the name of the dynasty, also means ‘to encircle’ or ‘complete, comprehensive’. Some commentators suggest on the basis of this that Zhouyi does not mean Change of the Zhou Dynasty or Zhou Change but rather Encompassing Change. There is no evidence, however, to support this interpretation of the title. Because there is no distinction between single and plural in classical Chinese, Yi can mean either Change or Changes.

#i-ching, #yi-jing, #zhouyi