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When Yi says ‘me’

When Yi says ‘me’

By and large, we know what sort of thing we expect Yi to say (though not, heaven knows, what it will say): ‘Here’s what you’re doing’ or ‘here’s what would happen’ or ‘here’s how to cope with that’ – something along those lines, describing or advising. Only every now and then – just eleven times, in fact, in the whole book – it speaks in a different way: it says ‘I’.

The best-known example is the first in the book, the Oracle of Hexagram 4:

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

The ‘I’ and ‘me’ here are the same character, 我, wo, which translates I/me/my/we/us/our.

(I’ve linked them to the etymology and definition at Richard Sears’ invaluable site, in its shiny new incarnation. One effect of his website update has been to hide the donation button, but you can find it here.)

There are many stories of people mucking around with the Yi, asking the same question repeatedly, and pretty much jumping out of their skins when they receive this hexagram. You thought you were just playing with a book, and now suddenly an oracle is talking to you. You’re not the only person here.

So in this case, ‘me’ is surely the voice of the oracle itself. In practice, it’s very often the voice of the universe at large (maybe not such a different idea): yes, you want answers; no, there are no more to be had, so keeping on asking like this is counter-productive. I’ve also seen several readings where ‘I do not seek the young ignoramus’ seemed to be words spoken by another person: an exasperated parent, a reluctant tech support department, a man who just isn’t that into the woman who keeps messaging him.

Something similar happens at 27.1:

‘Giving up your own spirit tortoise,
Gazing at me with jaws hanging down.

Here there’s a contrast drawn between your sacred tortoise and my jaws. Normally, I would read this as a warning from the oracle about forfeiting your own inner knowing. However, the line can, as in Hexagram 4, also lend words to other people and entities – anywhere you might be looking for nourishment that you already own. It still has that strong sense of someone speaking.

Who’s speaking? Is it always Yi, or the cosmos?

I don’t think so, no. Take the oracle of Hexagram 9:

‘Small taming, creating success.
Dense clouds without rain
Come from our Western altars.’

(And the same phrase about clouds without rain used in 62.5.)

I’ve translated this one ‘our Western altars’ because this time the words seem to come from the Zhou people as a whole: our altars. Still, spirits (probably spirits of nature – earth, mountains, rivers, directions) could also claim these altars as their own, so who knows?

But things get clearer in 20.3.5:

‘Seeing my own life.
Advancing, withdrawing.’

‘Seeing my own life.
The noble one is without mistake.’

We only ever read these as being our voice, the querent, in a state of heightened self-awareness. This, says Yi, is what you need to be saying to yourself. (Changing these two ‘my own life’ lines together shows you Hexagram 52, Stilling – a picture of introspection.)

Again in 42.5:

‘True and confident, with a benevolent heart,
No question: good fortune from the source.
Truth, confidence and benevolence are my own strength.’

This is a line of tremendous power. It has a strong sense of implicit speech marks: with these qualities, these can be your words. This is what you should be able to say.

So this is quite different: not words addressing the querent, but words for the querent to speak, at a moment of heightened self-awareness.

That quality of heightened awareness seems to be quite a common feature of ‘me’ lines. I think it characterises 48.3, 50.2 and 56.4:

‘Well is dredged, no drinking.
This makes my heart ache.
It can be used to draw water,
With the king’s clear vision
People together accept its blessing.’


‘The vessel contains something real.
My companions are afflicted,
Cannot come near me.
Good fortune.’


‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

In each case, the speaker has a strong, independent awareness of the situation: clearer insight into the well than the king or the people; confidence untouched by the companions’ anxiety; not glad even when the traveller is apparently secure. It’s like an omniscient – or at least more knowledgeable – narrator, telling the story from a higher vantage-point.

Who is this narrator? You can hear it as the querent – or as the oracle itself. In practice, in readings, it quite often turns out to be our inner knowing. 56.4: ‘I’ve got everything, I ought to be happy, yet somehow I’m not.’ Here and at 48.3, Yi can help people reconnect with their heart’s intuition, and perhaps understand why it says what it says. Perhaps this ‘me’ comes from the intersection of inner knowing and oracle voice?

And finally, there’s 61.2…

‘Calling crane in the shadows,
Her young respond in harmony.
I have a good wine vessel,
I will share with you, pouring it all out.’

…which surely is just the song of the cranes.

5 responses to When Yi says ‘me’

  1. This is just a random comment – but lately the I Ching has been speaking to me like a spirit voice, or my spirit guide – the comments about my job are down right frightening – it’s telling me to leave, get out. My conservative self says to wait – but I find the readings now to be almost hair raising. I’ve been engaged with the book since the mid 1980s and some of the readings now are the clearest that I’ve ever received. Wish I had consulted the book before taking this job.

    There is something about this book of wisdom that makes me feel so centered and at peace.

  2. This really was very interesting and helpful to read Hilary! When I get a “me” from Yi in the future, I will always remember this post. And yes, when asking Yi’s advice this personal address is very powerful, Yi comes to life, in a shaman way. I think this “me” stems from the oldest layers of the text (just my personal feeling of course, not based on scientific evidence!).

  3. In my first interaction with the oracle, I borrowed the Wilhelm Baines edition from the library, and with my usual impatience, I immediately located the page that explained how to get a reading.

    I just wanted to know how to do it, so without even asking a question, I cast three quarters six times and wrote down the lines. I got Hexagram 4, and reacted exactly as you describe.

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