Inspiration of the I-Ching

One of the most ancient surviving divination systems, the I-Ching (易经) with its wise and genial guidance has been a source of inspiration for thousands.  Modern interpretation has embraced the view that what the I-Ching offers is merely a collection of folk-wisdom, but over the last 50 years several artists have demonstrated that it remains a potent force for inspiration.

Song Dynasty printing of the I-Ching - Book of Changes

Song Dynasty printing of the I-Ching – Book of Changes

Dating back to the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the I-Ching, or Book of Changes, offers advice that transcend the immediate, teaching the balance of opposites and the inevitability of change. The most common divination method today is the 3-coin method. In this method 3 coins are tossed, and the head/tail result is read. the results correspond to different lines and when six lines have been obtained a hexagram is formed. It is the hexagram which form the reading.

I Ching coins

I Ching coins

Part of what attracts people to this way of divining the future is that the I-Ching offers more of a philosophy of living than a simple prediction. The 20th century saw a number of (western) artists and authors embracing this philosophy as inspiration for particular works of art. Below some of the more notable works are highlighted.

John Cage, Music of Changes

John Cage was a leader of post-war avant-garde art, and is often considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Most famous (notorious?) for his composition 4’33” where the musician emerges out onto the stage and proceeds to play nothing for a set amount of time, Cage was one of the first modern composers to embrace indeterminacy in his compositions. It is said that Cage started using the I-Ching for composition immediately after receiving a copy of the book. He would consult the book, divining a hexagram, in order to answer questions about how to proceed with the composition. Specifically the hexagrams here applied to large charts of sounds, durations, dynamics, tempi, and densities. In essence the piece is the sound of divination.

John Cage (right) with David Tudor at Shiraz Arts Festival 1971

John Cage (right) with David Tudor at Shiraz Arts Festival 1971

The result, like most of Cage’s work, is challenging to listen to, but if there is one thing we can learn from John Cage it is to let go of our assumptions about what music is, or should be. See the video below.

Merce Cunningham, Chance Operations

Another pioneer of 20th century avant-garde music, and frequent collaborator of John Cage’s, Merce Cunningham, as a choreographer  teacher, and leader of a dance company, is considered one of the greatest creative forces in American dance. Merce would use the I-Ching in his choreography to decide the order in which dancers should make certain steps.


Unlike Cage, Cunningham was more divided on the use of chance in the creative process, calling it at times an abrogation of artistic responsibility. What thrilled him though was when the hexagrams led to the discovery of dances that could not have been arrived at through traditional collaboration.

“Things come up that one could say were physically impossible,” Cunningham says, “but I always try them and in the act of doing, I find out something I didn’t know.” from

His dancers would be forced to break away from what steps should normally follow one another, discovering new forms in the process.

See the video below for a look at Merce and Cage in action (sorry for the quality).

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

A masterpiece of science fiction, The Man in the High Castle, is consistently ranked at the top of every ‘best-of’ list of sci-fi works. Philip K Dick (PKD) was hardly a conventional figure, and it is not surprising to hear of him embracing alternate methods of finding creative inspiration. What he did though was go beyond the use of the I-Ching as a plot device, in the sense of something that exists in a plot line, and actually use it to determine the actions of characters in this story. Sort of divination role-playing.

Without any notes, I had no pre-conception of how the book would develop, and I used the I CHING to plot the book.

The story is a gripping alternate history where the axis powers won the second world war, and part of the United States is occupied by Imperial Japan. In that sense the appearance of the I-Ching in the lives of the characters is not unusual, given the high regard the Book of Changes still holds in Confucian influenced societies, but it is the mirror of characters divining hexagram and the actual author following them that gives this work its authenticity. PKD, however, goes on to claim that the I-Ching failed him at the end of the book. With no plot, and no structure in mind, his final divination gave him a nonsensical response leaving him stranded. This is difficult to explain, it could be that his method was mistaken, but it could lie in the nature of the I-Ching itself.

The I-Ching is a book of guidance and not a book of answers. Proponents hold that following the I-Ching leads to a balanced life, to the middle-way of the Tao (道). Even if one accepts that guidance as correct it does not eliminate the personal responsibility of following through on what can sometimes be the harder path to follow. In other words, the I-Ching can show you the way, but you have to take the steps yourselves, and this is what makes John Cage and Merce Cunningham stand out. The messages they were given by the I-Ching required a large amount of work to actually carry out, and the rewards of this work is probably why they continue to use the Book of Changes throughout their lives where Philip K. Dick moved away from it. Cage said of David Tudor, the pianist who the pieces were composed for:

[he had to learn] a form of mathematics which he didn’t know before, [and that this was] a very difficult process and very confusing for him

But to anyone familiar with Tudor as a musician it is hard to doubt the role of his collaborations with Cage in shaping him as one of the foremost pianists of the 20th century.

It is a demanding book, and one with no easy answers, but the value in using the I-Ching as a source of inspiration is the value of discovery. Sometimes of new methods, and approaches to life, and sometimes the discovery of abilities we never we were capable of.

Oracle Shell

Oracle Shell

For more art inspired by the I-Ching check out I Ching Arts, and interesting website I came accross while writing this article.


2 responses to “Inspiration of the I-Ching

  1. I don’t understand why the i Ching is necessary for Cage et al, if they are replacing the text with their own music or actions then why not just use dice?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s