The Book of Changes (易
经), also known as I
Ching or Yijing, is one of the oldest of the classical
Chinese texts with its basic principles traditionally
dating back to the legendary Chinese leader Fu Xi (伏羲)
circa 2800 BC - 2737 BC. Modern scholars now think
the book was not actually written by a single person but
came into being in its present form around the 9th century
The I Ching expresses the core of ancient cosmic
principles believed by the Chinese and also serves as a
divination text. The basic principles underlying the
I Ching are:
Simplicity -- that fundamentally everything in the
universe is, at its root, simple.
Variability -- that everything in the universe is
continually changing and one must therefore have an
adaptable attitude toward life.
Persistency -- that despite the universe being in constant
change there is a persistent principle that is immune to
time and space.
The first four characters in the I Ching are Yuan Heng Li Zhen (元亨利贞)
but their interpretation has challenged scholars throughout
the millennia. Some interpret the meaning, in regard to
divination, as "Sign of the great sacrifice. Auspicious
omen." Some of the Confucians
interpreted the meaning as the "four virtues".
Whatever the true meaning, these first four characters of the
I Ching were known by all educated Chinese.
The charm on the left has this famous inscription Yuan Heng Li Zhen (元
亨利贞) on its obverse and is read top to bottom and right to
This charm also has a special characteristic. It is
unusual for a smaller coin-sized charm to have a round hole.
Round holes are usually found on larger charms such as open
work charms (please see Ancient
Chinese Open-Work Charms).
What is particularly intriguing about the round hole in this
case is that it has a square border, with the four corners
radiating outward, on both the obverse and reverse sides.
Since ancient times the Chinese have represented the earth as
square and the heavens as a circle. Pictured to the left
is an example of a cong
(琮) which is a neolithic jade object. The piece is
square with a circular central hole and is very similar to the
square with round hole of the charm. The cong is
believed to be a ritualistic object representing
the ancient Chinese belief that the sky is circular and the
earth is square.
The Book of Changes (I Ching) is the ancient Chinese document
describing the most basic cosmic principles and the cong is a powerful
object, which even predates that document, and connects
heaven, earth and man.
The reverse side of the charm has no inscription or pattern
other than having the circular central hole with the radiating
four corners of the square.
The charm is 29.4 mm in diameter and weighs 8.4
This is another old charm with the same obscure and
mysterious, yet auspicious, four character inscription Yuan Heng Li Zhen (元
亨利贞) from the Book of Changes.
This is a larger charm. The diameter is 43.5 mm and the
weight is 22.4 grams.
The reverse side of the charm displays an interesting
combination of symbols.
At the top is a ruyi sceptre (ruyi 如意). The head
of the sceptre is located at the eleven o'clock position with
the handle curving down to the upper right corner of the
center hole. There is a fillet or
ribbon tied to the handle with the ends pointing to
about the one o'clock position.
The ruyi sceptre is one of the "Eight Treasures"
and is an ancient symbol of power and authority.
To the right of the square hole is a bat. The head of
the bat is pointing toward the rim of the charm at the three
o'clock position. The two wings are extended and the
tail just touches the rim of the center hole.
At the bottom of the charm are two peaches tied together
with a fillet or ribbon.
To the left of the center hole are two interlocking
circles. Each of these circles represents a round Chinese cash coin with a
square hole in the middle. The two "coins" are also tied
together with a fillet or ribbon.
Such an incongruous collection of symbols actually makes sense
as a visual pun or rebus.
The bat (fu
蝠) has the same pronunciation as the word for "good
fortune" or happiness (fu
福). The peach (tao
桃) symbolizes "long life" and is carried by the God of Longevity
A pair of coins is pronounced shuang qian (双钱). But, an ancient
word for coin is quan
(泉) so the picture of the two coins can be interpreted as
shuang quan (双泉)
complete" (shuang quan
Finally, the ruyi
sceptre (ruyi 如意) shares the same pronunciation as
the expression "according to your wishes" (ruyi 如意).
The combination of symbols, therefore, has the hidden meaning
of "good fortune (happiness) and longevity both complete
according to your wishes".
A basic concept of the I Ching is the "trigram". A
trigram is a three-lined symbol. Each of the three lines
in a trigram can either be continuous or broken. A
straight line represents the yang (阳) and
a broken line represents the yin (阴).Yin Yang (阴
阳) is the Chinese term for the
basic polarities of the universe, e.g. male/female,
light/dark, strong/weak, etc. There are eight possible
combinations of these trigram components and these
combinations are known as the eight trigrams or bagua (八卦).
The eight trigrams are used in both divination and feng shui (风水).
In olden times, people believed a bagua charm could repel "evil influences"
and drive away "evil spirits". For this reason, it was
not uncommon for a person to wear a bagua charm over their chest.
The inscription, written in a beautiful seal script, reads
fu lu shou xi (福
禄寿喜) which translates as "Good fortune, official salary
(emolument), longevity and happiness".
The reverse side is representative of this type of charm
and displays the bagua (eight trigrams).
This large charm has a diameter of 57.3 mm and a weight of
The charm on the left displays on its reverse the bagua (八卦)
which are the eight combinations of trigrams.
The trigrams are related to the Five Elements (wu xing 五行) which is
discussed in Ancient
Chinese Charm Symbols: Star, Moon, Cloud and Dragon).
The trigrams on this charm from the top and clockwise are as
follows: xun 巽
(wind), li 离 (fire),
kun 坤 (earth), dui 兑 (lake), qian 乾 (heaven), kan 坎 (water), gen 艮 (mountain), and zhen 震 (thunder).
This is the obverse side of the charm. Its inscription
and meaning is discussed in detail at Daoist (Taoist) Charms.
The diameter of this charm is 46 mm. The
weight is 25.5 grams.
This is another example of a charm with the bagua or eight trigrams
on its reverse side.
The diameter is 46 mm and the weight is 21.7 grams.
This is the obverse side of the charm showing the twelve
animals representing the twelve Earthly Branches. For a
further discussion of the twelve animals please see Ancient Chinese Zodiac Charms.
This is another specimen of a charm displaying the eight
trigrams or bagua.
The canopy with the three loops indicates that it was
meant to be worn. Usually these charms were worn
around the neck as a necklace or attached to the
waist. Sometimes they would be attached to rafters
of houses or other structures.
This charm measures 67 mm in length and 49 mm in width at
This is the other side of the charm. As with the
previous example, this side shows the twelve animals
representing the twelve Earthly Branches which I discuss
in more detail in Ancient Chinese
This is a final example of a Daoist charm with the eight
trigrams or bagua.
This charm also has the Yin Yang (阴阳)
symbol at its center.
The charm measures 54.6 mm in length and 41.3 mm in
width. The weight is 24.2 grams.
This is the obverse side of the charm. The
inscription is read from top to bottom and right to left
as jiang fu bi xie
(降福避邪) which means
"send down good fortune and keep away evil".
There is also a Yin
Yang (阴阳) symbol
at its center.