The Book of Changes in The Running Grave: Part One

Guest post by C.M.

In mid-2021, when JK Rowling launched her new website design — an irresistibly nostalgic callback to her iconic 2000s website — one detail caught my attention: the image of three small coins tied together with a red ribbon.

Chinese coins pictured on

I immediately recognised them as the Chinese coins used to cast the I Ching, the ancient wisdom book — something I had been studying for over a decade. Even so, given how varied each Strike novel is and that we already had a book leaning heavily toward esoteric oracles in Troubled Blood, I was surprised when, early in January, Rowling changed her Twitter header — which she uses to indicate what she’s working on — to an I Ching-inspired mandala. She later confirmed the header’s connection to Strike. 

JKR’s Twitter header with the I Ching mandala

The prospect of untangling another divination system may seem daunting to Strike fans, and not without reason. In this article, therefore, I intend to give an overview of the I Ching — the book and the divination methods, its philosophy, influence and possible links to the series — to suggest what it might mean for the next Strike book, which we now know will be titled The Running Grave

I’d like to make a couple of disclaimers. First, explaining such a classic text in a relatively short article is, of course, an almost impossible task. And, though I drew from several sources in my attempt, it all is undoubtedly distilled through my own judgement, which is one amongst countless interpretations of the I Ching’s history, philosophy and truth. Secondly, in addition to extensive discussion of the Strike series, I will briefly look at Harry Potter in the analysis as well.

Let’s start with the basics: What exactly is this book that Bob Dylan called “the only thing that is amazingly true” and some scholars1, “one of the biggest misunderstandings between China and the West”?

Introducing the I Ching

The I Ching, or Book (Jing) of changes (Yi), is an ancient book of wisdom that can also be used as an oracle. As the oldest Chinese book, it heavily influenced important traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism, and can be understood as the basis upon which the entirety of Chinese thought rests [1]. Its history is intrinsically mixed with the history of China itself, as it wasn’t “written” all at once, nor by a single author; instead, the process through which it arrived at its current form took dozens of generations. While it possibly originated from a prehistoric divination technique that dates back as far as 5000 BC, the book is traditionally credited to the four biggest heroes of Chinese history. It all started with the figures (guas) — trigrams and hexagrams — which are almost synonymous with the book itself.

Bagua with the eight trigrams and Hexagram 49 (Revolution) at the centre

The trigrams are credited to Fu Hsi (around 3000 BC), the mythical first emperor of China. One legend says he noticed their patterns in the shells of a turtle emerging from the Yellow River, and saw in them a representation of the movement of energy on Earth and the order of the universe. With time, wise men developed interpretations to bring to the fore the meanings those images held. King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty (1150 BC), is credited with assigning each hexagram a name and writing the “Judgements,” which translate into words each hexagram’s overall meaning and the prospects their casting entailed. His son, the Duke of Zhou, added interpretations for each of the six individual lines (yao) of each hexagram, in a total of 384 lines. Finally, Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) (who famously said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would devote them to the I Ching) and/or his followers wrote further extensive commentaries, divided into Ten Chapters (the Ten Wings).

It was finally brought to the West in a translation by academic James Legge (1882), though the most well-known and highly regarded one by far (and undoubtedly the one we can expect to be referred to in Strike 7) is the German translation by sinologist and missionary Richard Willhelm (1924, later translated into English by Cary Banes in 1950).

But what is the I Ching? What is its purpose?

The “Great Commentary,” attributed to Confucionists, describes the I Ching as a microcosm of the universe and a symbolic description of the processes of change, and thus defines the book’s purpose as follows:

“What is it that the Yi does? The Yi opens up things, accomplishes the undertakings, and embraces under it all things under the sky. This and nothing more is what the Yi does” (The Great Commentary).

What this passage means, according to anthropologist François Jullien2, is that the book unveils the order of the universe by introducing the cyclic alternation of principles yin and yang, which originates all situations and beings (“opens up things”). It also has practical application for man, providing them with guidance on taking things from their beginnings to their conclusion (“accomplishes the undertakings”). Finally, the phrase “this and nothing more” draws a limit: All of reality is perfectly contained in the images; nothing more and nothing less. 

To fully grasp the book’s purpose and philosophical relevance, it is important to make a distinction between the I Ching and other oracles or divination methods (like those already touched upon in Troubled Blood). Besides the cultural importance for Chinese culture, the uses of each of them are also different.

First, the I Ching has not a single use, but two, as The Great Commentary teaches. In times of “rest,” we contemplate the images and judgements; when carrying out an undertaking, we contemplate the changes and consult the oracle. Since King Wen introduced his Judgements, and Confucious his Commentaries, its use as an oracle became different as well; it changed the nature of the book. The book of divination turned into a book of wisdom from the moment someone in ancient China, upon receiving a prediction from fortune-telling, went further by asking themselves, “What should I do?” The question gives people agency over their own destiny; they now have the freedom to make the right choices3.

But what makes a choice right? 

Chinese Cosmology and the Hexagrams’ Origins

Central to the book is the idea that the world is not chaotic, but that it presents an inherent and cyclical order. That order, however, is not cyclical in the way of Nietzche’s eternal return: It is self-renewing through continuous changes, which the book aims to describe. According to this philosophy, when one situation is stretched to its limit, it will inevitably turn into its opposite: The seeds of the night are already within the day.

This idea may bring to mind the famous image of Tai Chi (the black-and-white half-circles that swirl into each other, with a dot of the opposite colour on either side), which represents the two primary principles that, according to Chinese cosmology, generate everything. They came to be called  “yang,” the luminous principle, the firm, and “yin,” the dark, the yielding.

The particular element that distinguishes the I Ching is the simple yet elegant way in which these principles are visually represented. The yang is represented by a single, solid line; the yin, by a broken one. Just as reality can be seen to be made of combinations of these principles, the hexagrams — which represent reality — are made from combinations of increasing complexity, of these two types of line.

The eight primary gua and the 64 hexagrams from Tai Chi

First, there are four possible two-line figures. They are called “old yin,” “young yin,” “old yang” and “young yang,” and are as shown above. This distinction is important because it is the old lines which have already been stretched to their limit and will then turn to their opposite (to a broken line, if it was solid, and vice-versa). 

From there, trigrams, composed of three lines, can be constructed. They represent the eight forces found in nature: Heaven, Earth, Fire, Water, Wind, Lake, Mountain and Thunder. While the trigrams represent reality in its most elementary form, to explain reality in its full complexity the eight trigrams interplay and pair with one another, forming a total of sixty-four hexagrams, comprising six lines each.

The sixty-four hexagrams, then, represent all the different phenomena or types of situation found in nature, in the public or personal lives of man. The way these situations continuously change from one to the other is then represented by changes in the nature (solid or broken) of the six lines from which hexagrams are constructed.

The hexagrams are most commonly arranged in what is known as the “King Wen” order, starting with the Creative and Receptive (all solid and all broken lines, respectively), which represent the two primary principles, and arranging the others in pairs of opposites. For instance, just as Creative is the initiating principle, which the Receptive accepts to create all things, Peace (11 on the diagram above) and Standstill (12) represent respectively the situation of perfect communication between Heaven and Earth, which creates peace, and that of an obstruction in communication that leads to stagnation. 

The two final hexagrams are After Completion (63) and Before Completion (64), which represent situations where the primary energies have been completely mixed. In the first, everything is as it should be; in the second, we see the moment before this transition happens. They are a great example of the complexity of the book and Chinese thought. Counterintuitively, receiving After Completion is generally considered an ill omen because everything is as it should be, the only possible development is for things to get worse.

However, it is not with this prospect that the book ends, but with the suspended situation of “Before Completion,” which Richard Willhelm calls a hopeful” note. As with every cycle, an ending is only a new beginning. In this hexagram, because the transition is not yet completed, its worse consequences can still be avoided as long as we are paying attention and are attuned to what the moment requires. 

That is the point of The Book of Changes: to unveil the ever-evolving patterns of the universe, so we can change with them, recognizing that after every day, night will come, and that, likewise, no night lasts forever. With the I Ching, these crucial moments of change can be recognized at the earliest opportunity, when they can still be acted upon, before the situation evolves and consequences gain such power that we, ourselves, are powerless3.

A good and wise choice for the I Ching is one which, simply put, adjusts one’s actions to the order of the universe. 

“Casting” the I Ching

Two traditional methods exist for obtaining a hexagram (which I’ll call “cast” here, though it is not the best term). Nowadays, it is mostly done with the three coins that were pictured on JK Rowling’s website. The process is simple: three identical coins — one side of which equals two (the broken lines made of two pieces) or three (the solid line made of two pieces plus one in the centre) — are cast, all together, six times. Each time, the sum of their values will result in either six, seven, eight or nine. Odd numbers represent a single line; even numbers, a broken line. A nine is an old yang: It will turn into yin, so the line changes. A six is an old yin: It will turn into yang, and it also changes. The seven and eight represent lines that are not changing.

Process of obtaining an hexagram from the coin method 

From casting six times, from bottom to top, a hexagram is formed. The book is consulted for its meaning, as well as for its changing lines, which are judged based both in their nature (broken or single) as well as their suitability for their position in the hexagram.

As JK Rowling mentioned on Twitter, there is another casting method that is more traditional and more complicated; the use of yarrow stalks.

JKR’s tweets about the yarrow stalks method

The process is too long to describe in detail, but it basically consists of taking forty-nine yarrow stalks and dividing them repeatedly and arbitrarily. From the remaining number of stalks, the numbers six to nine will be repeatedly derived to form a hexagram.

Two sets of coins and one set of yarrow stalks used for I Ching divination

Either method is valid, but they have their caveats. Casting the coins is much quicker, but they aren’t accurate in representing the probabilities of a line changing. As JK Rowling seems to agree, the meditative yarrow stalks, which require more time and attention, certainly help put the consultant in the right frame of mind for the process, which is essential (and usually achieved with some kind of ritual before asking the question). But as each casting takes about fifteen minutes for the experienced practitioner, it may not be so well-suited to modern times. 

The Inner Workings and Results

One question still remains: How can the manipulation of coins or stalks explain anything about the universe?

More than one explanation can be found. In his foreword to Willhelm’s translation to the I Ching, psychologist Carl Jung explains his understanding:

“The science of the I-Ching does, however, not rest on the principle of causality, but on a principle still unnamed — because it is not prevalent here [in the West] — that I have tentatively designated as the synchronistic principle.”

Jung explains that, if you threw matches, the pattern they formed would capture the essence of the moment in which you cast them. The same would be true for coins or stalks. The difference is that, to understand it, you would have to know what the patterns mean. That is what makes the Book of Changes so exceptional: It accomplishes the impossible task of facilitating this translation. 

Of course, that logic is not found in Chinese sources. Jung says that “according to the old tradition, it is ‘spiritual agencies,’ acting in a mysterious way, that make the yarrow stalks give a meaningful answer. These powers form, as it were, the living soul of the book”3.

Even Jung’s explanation does not mean, however, that a hexagram is understood to be the result of chance — or not, at least, in the way we understand the word. While in the West chance is that which is not related to any causality, to the Chinese it is instead the materialisation of the particular quality of the moment. One who poses a question to the Yi, then, is not making decisions based on “heads or tails”; they are calculating their position like “a sailor with a sextant.” They then locate this position in an atlas of sixty-four cards containing all the information they need to make a better decision about their direction, which is why a better term than “casting” would be “calculating the hexagram corresponding to their situation”1.

None of these ideas, however, explain why the book elicits such a strong pull for those who come into contact with it.

Instead, I believe it is because, firstly, the principles behind it seem to hint at something recognised as universal — some logic behind the workings of all things which simply rings true. The notion of creating reality from a dual principle, for example, will be familiar for anyone using modern computers with their binary code — for which mathematician Goedrich Leibniz famously took inspiration from the I Ching.

The second reason is quite simple: It is very difficult not to be impressed with the I Ching after you have used it. As Carl Jung relates in his memoirs, the results often present a level of precision that astounds the unprepared person, a level of understanding and articulation that makes casting coins similar to having a conversation. It is likely every person who has used it will have their own remarkable stories about it. 

In one example, Jung uses the case of a young man who wanted to marry and had met a seemingly suitable girl. However, he felt uncertain because he already had issues with a strong mother, and he feared he might once more find himself under the power of an overwhelming woman. Jung cast the I Ching for him as an experiment. The text of his hexagram read: 

“The maiden is powerful. One should not marry such a maiden.”

Interpretation and Purpose

I am not saying that the interpretation of the oracle’s answer is always as easy as in the example above. Interpreting the answer is said to require both technique and art (i.e. inspiration)4. The texts often include poetic imagery based on nature or specific situations from ancient Chinese life, which require reflection to be understood in the context of the question, even if the text’s microcosm/macrocosm nature is inherently adaptable. In the main, the ability to correctly interpret the answers will be developed by each person according to their own experience, but some guiding principles can be found. 

The interpretation of the oracle favours impersonality; one might say the universe doesn’t care so much for individual aims as it does the common good and universal order. That is why one is advised not to ask a question for egotistical purposes, but only if they are willing to “align their will to the way” — a principle that might ring familiar for anyone who has read the first Potter novel and knows how the protagonist finally gets hold of the titular philosopher’s stone!

That, of course, also requires inner reflection and the willingness to judge oneself, as well as one’s place in the situation, quite fairly. In a similar story to the one told by Jung, Master Alfred Huang5 tells of a noblewoman who consulted the oracle about a marriage prospect. The result was the Hexagram 17, Following (Sui). It speaks of a woman who marries an older man, and was thus judged by the fortune-teller:

“Congratulations. Sui (Following) possesses the four great virtues [yuan, heng, li, zhen — the first four words of the first hexagram]. It is extremely auspicious that you follow your suitor and get married.”

However, the woman said:

“I don’t possess any of those virtues. My situation is not compatible with this hexagram.” She decided to wait for another opportunity.

Prompting that kind of self-reflection is, perhaps, the cornerstone of the value the I Ching brings to those who use it. 

The Cauldron

When people of the West come into contact with the I Ching, there is a tendency to either be lost in the pull of its exoticism or to discard it as fanciful superstition. I like the advice that anthropologist François Jullien2 gives: to go beyond either of those opposing attitudes and deeply consider its utility, instead.

In fact, when trying to explain the book to western minds, Carl Jung thought to exemplify its use by asking the oracle to present an assessment of the translation for which he was writing the foreword. He got Hexagram 50, The Cauldron: “[The I Ching] understands itself as a ritual utensil destined to provide spiritual nourishment.”

Regardless of one’s view of the I Ching and its mechanism, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t benefit from its wisdom, as long as they are interested in true self-reflection and not in easy answers. As Jung says in his foreword:

“Even to the most biased eye it is obvious that this book represents one long admonition to careful scrutiny of one’s own character, attitude and motives.”

And if you’re thinking that sounds just like the type of fun a certain author might have in store for her pair of detective characters, I’m pleased to say that I agree.

Join me in the second part of this article, in which I will discuss what the Book of Changes might mean in relation to The Running Grave (Strike book 7).  


1 Javary, Cyrille. Understanding the I Ching. Shambala, 1997.

2 Jullien, François. Figuras da Imanência. 34 Ltda, 1997.

3 Willhelm, Richard; Baynes, Cary. The I Ching or; the Book of Changes. 1950.

4 Huang, Alfred. The Numerology of the I Ching: A Sourcebook of Symbols, Structures, and Traditional Wisdom. Inner Traditions International, 2000.

5 Huang, Alfred. The Complete I Ching. Inner Traditions International, 2010.