myth and poetry

Mythopoetry Scholar

Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
Mythopoetry Scholar vol. 3 2012
Revolution and the I Ching
Hexagram 49 Reflections
-Laura Annawyn Shamas

A legendary, imprisoned king who leads a revolt. Fire in the middle of a lake. The hide of a yellow ox. A “proper day.” Talk of revolution that circles three times. A tiger. A panther. These are the key images of Hexagram Forty-Nine of The I Ching or Book of Changes.1 This hexagram is connected to the concept of animal moltings; as a symbol, it embodies socio-political revolution, personal transformation, and ever-shifting life cycles.

The I Ching is a timeless text that resonates through the ages; it is a unique, interactive repository of Chinese history, philosophy, religion, psychology, mythology and ethics.  When used as a divination system, the I Ching offers one million possible answers.2 It is probably the oldest of the Five Classics of Chinese literature, and, as J.J. Clarke writes in Jung and Eastern Thought, “could justifiably be described as one of the most important books in the world’s literature.”3

Edward L. Shaughnessy notes in his 1998 I Ching: The Classic of Changes: “For the last two thousand and more years, the Yijing (I Ching) or Classic of Changes has been, with hexagram 49the Bible, the most read and commented on work in all of world literature.”4

The forty-ninth hexagram, illustrated here in green and black, is named “Ko /Revolution (Molting)” in the 1950 Richard Wilhelm-Cary F. Barnes translation.5 It is named “Ge – Abolishing the Old” in the 1998 Alfred Huang Taoist translation.6

In order to unpack the significance of this hexagram as related to revolution, I’ll begin with a brief look at the I Ching’s origin. Then, I’ll reflect on the hexagram’s key images and its changing lines. My intention here is not to reduce the sacred I Ching text to symbolic value only, but rather, to try to understand the concept of “revolution” through this hexagram’s prominent archetypal insights. 7


Experts cannot pinpoint the exact date of the I Ching’s creation, and traditionally, its authorship is credited to early Chinese culture heroes. However, in recent scholarship, it is viewed as “an accretion of Western Zhou divinatory concepts.”8

In Understanding the I Ching: The History and Use of the World’s Most Ancient System of Divination, Tom Riseman details its traditional heritage: “The legendary sage Fu Hsi is credited with the discovery of the eight basic trigrams—although their names are probably not even Chinese, which puts their origin somewhat vaguely between 25,000 and 5,000 years ago.”9

According to legend, King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty, unfairly imprisoned around 1150 B.C.E., is said to have expanded the initial eight trigrams to sixty four six-line hexagrams and to have created commentaries about each symbol. The ruler accomplished this while serving a long jail sentence-–adding a sense of spiritual irony to the I Ching’s legacy.10

Some sources attribute the I Ching meditations The Ten Wings [Shi Yi] to King Wen’s hand; others assign authorship to Confucius.

It was Confucius who brought the book into, as Shaughnessey writes, “prominent philosophical significance.”11 But some scholars doubt that Confucius actually wrote any of it at all; textual evidence indicates he did not.12 Riseman connects Confucius and Taoism to the development of the Book of Changes: “It was he [Confucius] who first named the I Ching ‘The Changes’ and he produced study after study of it. Taoism is inseparable from the philosophy of the I Ching. It is based on the complimentary yet antagonistic principles of yin and yang, both creating and destroying each other by the ceaseless rearrangements of their relationship.”13

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, four leading figures of the Sung culterati chose the I Ching as a vehicle to help transform Chinese intellectual life.14 In Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, authors Kidder Smith, Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler, and Don J. Wyatt write about perceptions of the I Ching’s multivalence during the Sung dynasty. It functioned “as a work of culture that links men to many things: to the mind of sages, to nature and universal process, and thus to the ground of value and the roots of morality.”15

Archaeological discoveries in the twentieth century contributed to further historical understanding of the I Ching. New revelations about the tools used in the divination process include turtle shells or bones bearing I Ching questions found at Anyang, Henan, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, circa 1600 – 1045 B.C.E.16

The I Ching was used as a model for China’s—and the world’s--first civil service. Riseman notes that Chian Kai-Shek “extolled the I Ching as an oracle and a basis of the ‘Ultimate Virtues’ of the Chinese.”17 It was considered a strategic battle primer until World War II, when it fell into disuse. Mao Tse-Tung consulted the I Ching as a tactical guide to prepare for the battles of the Long March.18

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the use of the Book of Changes expanded globally, employed by such diverse groups as fortune-tellers and stock market analysts as its vatic function was explored (and some would say exploited) in the West.19 New, accessible English translations of the I Ching were published in the twentieth century. Translation is important to the worldwide impact of the I Ching; scholars debate the value and bias of many of the most famous translations in English, including the Richard Wilhelm-Cary F. Barnes version—from Chinese to German to English—favored by C. G. Jung.20

Jung’s interest in the I Ching—and it was not a casual one—began in 1920. He writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections: “One summer in Bollingen I resolved to make an all-out attack on the riddle of this book…I would sit for hours on the ground beneath the hundred year-old pear tree, the I Ching beside me, practicing the technique by referring the resultant oracles to one another in an interplay of questions and answers. All sorts of undeniably remarkable results emerged—meaningful connections with my own thought processes which I could not explain to myself.”21 Frank McFlynn writes in Carl Gustav Jung that by 1931 Jung had “concluded that the I Ching was simply his own theory of dreams expressed in different language.”22 The I-Ching was foundational to Jung’s theories of synchronicity and the unconscious.23

It is especially relevant to an exploration of revolution that a key figure mentioned in I Ching tradition and text, King Wen, was revered for leading a revolt against the ruling Shang Dynasty; after Wen’s death, his victorious son founded the Zhou Dynasty.24

And what does the specific hexagram itself reveal about revolution? There is an ordered, cosmic sequence to the I Ching. In the Wilhelm-Barnes translation, Hexagram 48 is named “Ching – The Well.”25 Hexagram 48 is named “Jing – Replenishing” in the Huang translation.26After filling the well or replenishment, it is time to clear out the old ways and make room for the new; thus, Hexagram 49 is “Ge – Abolishing the Old.”27

Huang writes that “Ge” once meant “the hide of the animal.”28 The hide or skin goes through a process in tanning, thus transforming it. Later, the meaning of “Ge” broadened to include “change,” improvement, and innovation. The two trigrams that make up this hexagram are “Dui (Lake - Above) “and “Li (Fire - Below).” From an archetypal perspective, these trigrams are characterized as two quarreling sisters in the same home—who eventually marry into other families, starting anew.  Huang notes: “Water and fire overcome each other. This phenomenon suggests a picture of revolution—abolishing the old.”29 Huang cites “Confucius’s Commentary” on the Decision of Hexagram 49: “’Heaven and Earth abolish the old and bring about the new, then the four seasons complete their changes. Tang and Wu…brought about the new.30 They obeyed the will of Heaven in accord with the wishes of the people. The time and meaning of abolishing the old is truly great!’”31 Here, there is praise for two legendary revolutionary leaders who lead the people to “the new”; guidance of the people is seen as inspired by the celestial: “the will of Heaven.”

The first image in the hexagram’s commentary is “Fire in the Midst of a Lake.”32 This is the symbol of revolution, and a cautionary note is included here: one must be steadfast, observe the heavens and the shift of seasons. Of the hexagram’s significance, the Huang translation reads: “It is progress, an improvement. Revolution does not happen by accident. There is always a reason. One can never create a revolution.”33

An I Ching hexagram is created and read from the bottom line upwards. The six changing lines of Hexagram 49 provide further insights into the stages of revolution.  To fully comprehend a hexagram’s changing lines and the individual significance of each one, there are important correspondences to yin and yang lines and other valuable trigram correlatives that should be understood.34 Here, however, I will limit my reflection to the changing lines and their cumulative key symbols linked to the concept of revolution.

1) Changing Line One refers to being tied or bound to the hide or skin of a yellow ox.35 This image shows that the revolution is just beginning, in a nascent form. The revolution needs to coalesce; participants must bond before further action may be taken. Huang identifies the yellow ox as an Earth-related image.36 The cow is perceived as a sign of fertility; the movement has potential but cannot succeed without preparations.

2) Changing Line Two highlights: “Proper Day.” This means: Act now. Doing so will ensure good fortune and social transformation. The revolution begins; success is promised. Huang’s interpretation connects light’s “brilliance” to the timing of the right day.37

3) Changing Line Three cautions against moving forward too quickly in the revolution. This is premature and will bring misfortune. The revolution’s purpose must be explained three times38—just as King Wu did during “the revolution against the Tyrant of Shang.”39 Legge writes that the third line “has passed the centre of Sun and is on its outward verge.”40 If sincerity of purpose is expressed repeatedly, the revolution may be saved, however. All is not lost.

4) Changing Line Four is about the termination of any regrets related to the revolution. Once the revolution’s purpose is clearly communicated, remorse about ensuing transformation and the revolution process will dissolve. Sincerity and truth are key here.

5) Changing Line Five says: “Great person/Changes like a tiger.”41 In Huang’s translation, this line means that the movement’s leader must transform herself or himself first (in regards to the new principles sought), thus earning the people’s trust and respect: “merit is as brilliant and distinct as a tiger’s fur.”42 There is no need to seek confirmation of such a revolutionary leader’s character with an oracle or a divine sign, because it is obvious to everyone—as visible as a tiger’s unique fur pattern. King Wen was thought to be such a leader.

6) Changing Line Six relates to changing like a panther.43 The revolution has run its course; the social sphere must return to its regular state. The panther’s fur was thought to change with the seasons44; all good leaders and followers should do the same. Although there will always be some who only change at a superficial level, it is important not to continue to push for further transformation at this juncture. It will not succeed.


The sacred text of the I Ching’s Hexagram 49 contains vibrant insights about the organic nature of revolution and its sequential phases. The hexagram shows that primal forces are at great odds in a revolution’s beginning, as in the image of two quarreling, competing sisters whose interests finally diverge. The fire in the middle of a lake helps us to visualize how revolution exists: its powerful, crackling flames are reflected in the water that surrounds it; its light and smoke touch the celestial plane. No revolution starts without a reason; you cannot decide to create a social or political movement. It happens organically. Timing is part of a revolution’s success. A good leader must change herself or himself first: personal transformation is part of the political, as is shown through the figure of King Wen.

The phases (including pitfalls) of a revolution and its process are embodied in Hexagram 49. Once a revolution is birthed, it must be “bound with the hide of a yellow ox,” in order to have laid the foundations necessary for it to proceed successfully, such as commitment and allegiance. The revolution will launch on the “proper day,” a time of brilliance. A setback: The purpose of the revolution may be explained “three times,” as in a charm or spell. It is in threes that magic happens in fairy and folk tales. Do not proceed until the goals are clearly articulated, repeated, circulated. Regret will vanish when the goals are clear. A great leader changes like a tiger whose stripes are obvious even from afar; her or his sincerity is visible to all. When the revolution ends, everyone must change—this time, like the panther. Eras evolve; a new stability must come after revolution. Hexagram 49 infers that revolution has the ability to “enlighten,” since it is “brilliant” on its “proper day,” and has a fire association. 

The I Ching is called Book of Changes; Hexagram 49 describes the specific changes in Revolution, whose purpose is “to establish the new. The new should be better than the old.”45Legge’s translation says revolution “is believed in only after it has been accomplished. There will be great progress and success. Advantage will come from being firm and correct.”46


1 The standard English translation of I Ching is Book of Changes. It is the practice of scholars writing in English to use the Chinese title and its English translation interchangeably. See, for example, Harold Coward in Jung and Eastern Thought. Eds. Richard D. Mann and Jean B. Mann. Albany: State U of New York Press, 1985. Page. 90. The I Ching is also referred to as the Classic of Changes.

2 Beebe, John. “The Influences of the I Ching: A Symposium Moderated by John Beebe, Opening Remarks.” The I Ching: East and West. Jung Institute, San Francisco, California. 17 Oct. 1998.

3 Clarke, J.J. Jung and Eastern Thought: A Dialogue With The Orient. New York: Routledge, 1994. Page 89.

4 Shaughnessey, Edward L. The I Ching: The Classic of Changes. Trans. and commentary. New York: Ballantine, 1998. Page 1.

5 The I Ching or Book of Changes. The Richard Wilhelm Translation in English by Cary F. Baynes. Bollingen Series, XIX. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1950. Page 189.

6 Huang, Alfred. The Complete Translation I Ching: Tenth Anniversary Edition. Rochester, VT, 1998/2010.

7 Note: There are many significant, complex issues related to the sacred I Ching text that are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

8I Ching.” Wikipedia. 15 December 2011.

9 Riseman, Tom. Understanding the I Ching: The History and Use of the World’s Most Ancient System of Divination. North Hamptonshire, England: Aquarian, 1980. Page 8.

10 Some accounts say King Wen was imprisoned for eleven years. Huang writes that it was seven years (p. 502). King Wen is revered today as a Chinese hero. He died before the defeat of the Shang dynasty, but his son King Wu defeated them at the battle of Muye in 1045 B.C.E., thus establishing the Zhou Dynasty (Shaughnessy 4).

11 Shaughnessey, p. 2.

12 I Ching.” Wikipedia. 15 December 2011.

13 Riseman, pps. 8-9.

14 The four were: Su Shih, Shao Yung, Ch’eng I and Chu Hsi. Kidder Smith, Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler, and Don J. Wyatt. Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1990. Page 3.

15 Smith et al., page 206.

16 Shaughnessey, p. 2.

17 Riseman, p. 9.

18 Ibid, p. 9.

19 Ibid, p. 10. See, for example, the many books on the I Ching and business/commercial strategies.

20 Jung himself writes in 1949: “May not the old text be corrupt? Is Wilhelm’s translation accurate?” From “Foreword.” The I Ching or Book of Changes. The Richard Wilhelm Translation in English by Cary F. Baynes. Bollingen Series, XIX. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1950. Page xxxiii. [Note: My essay, too, is from a Western perspective/bias; I read the I Ching in English.]

21 Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe. New York: Vintage, 1961. Page 373.

22 McFlynn, Frank. Carl Gustav Jung. New York: St. Martin’s Press.1996. Page 405.

23 For more on this, see Coward, pps. 42-43. Also, Jung’s “Foreward” to The I Ching or Book of Changes [1950], pps. xxi-xxxix, and Jung’s work Synchronicity: An  Acausal Connecting Principle. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton: Princeton, UP. 1960.

24 Shaughnessy, p. 4.

25 Wilhelm-Barnes, p. 185.

26In James Legge’s 1882 I Ching English translation, which precedes the 1950 Wilhelm-Barnes translation, it is named “Ko.” To compare Legge’s 1892 translation (now in the public domain) to aspects of Huang’s “Ge” 1998 translation discussed below, please click here.

27 Huang, p. 389.

28 Ibid, p. 389.

29 Ibid, p. 389.

30 This refers to King Tan , who overthrew the Xia dynasty and founded the Shang dynasty, and King Wu,  son of Wen, who established the Zhou dynasty. Huang, p. 393.

31 Ibid, p. 389.

32 Ibid, p. 391.

33 Ibid, p. 391.

34 See, for example, Huang, pps. 394–396.

35 Ibid, p. 394. This imagery is in Legge’s and Wilhelm-Barnes’ translations.

36 Ibid, p. 394.

37 Ibid, p. 394.

38 “Three times” is in Legge’s and Wilhelm-Barnes’ translations.

39 Huang, p. 394.

40 James Legge translation,

41 Huang, p. 392. The tiger imagery is in Legge’s and Wilhelm-Barnes’ translations.

42 Ibid, p. 395.

43 Ibid, p. 392. The panther imagery is in Legge’s and Wilhelm-Barnes’ translations.

44 Ibid, p. 395.

45 Ibid, p. 392.

46 Legge,

2014 Shorty Awards in #mythopoetics

Nominated in the community generated category #mythopoetics, Revolution and the I Ching Hexagram 49 Reflections, a part of the top ten nominated pages from this issue, finishes competition on 2/18/14 with an overall standing in position ***37*** among more than 3,500 nominees. Congratulations to Laura Shamas on this fine achievement.

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Laura Shamas

Laura Annawyn Shamas, Ph.D., writes non-fiction, and for theater and film. Her Ph.D. is in Mythological Studies. Details about her 2012 book POP MYTHOLOGY: COLLECTED ESSAYS may be found on her website.



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