On Chinese Divination Methods

Years ago, in college, I used to do what I called “binge reads.” One semester, I’d pick an author, and I’d read as much of that author’s work as I possibly could. One semester, it might be Orson Scott Card. Another semester, Larry Niven. I was young, just twenty or so, and I had the energy and the interest to just immerse myself in an author like that.

One semester, my binge author was Philip K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick when you’re twenty is a revelation. You’re twenty, you’re learning about the world and everything in it, and here comes this crazy prophet who just sees things differently than you do. And to read a lot of PKD, all at once… well, it can blow the mind.

I don’t know which semester of college it was. Probably my third or fourth. And I know it was before I read K.W. Jeter’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel Warped, because I remember that I understood that Warped was a phildickian mindfuck in the Roddenberry universe. Oh, it’s not completely a PKD Trek novel, else Quark would have saved the day and there would have been more sex. But otherwise, Warped was very much the kind of Star Trek story Philip K. Dick would have told, which I think is why so many people dislike the novel. Because they just didn’t get it.

I’m wandering off topic.

One of the first Philip K. Dick books I read was The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s Hugo Award-winning alternate history novel. (Let me just note that the novel is rubbish as alternate history, but that’s not the reason to read The Man in the High Castle.)

I ChingA defining aspect of TMitHC is the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination. Wikipedia can explain it better (and at more length) than I; basically, the I Ching is an ancient Chinese system of divination that doesn’t so much tell the future as it explains the present and the forces that exist in the present that will shape the future.

Virtually all of the novel’s major characters use the I Ching at some point. Indeed, their major decisions are driven by it. Business deals are made because of it. Sexual encounters and cross country road trips happen on its advice. An entire novel about another alternate history is written according to it.

I, just being twenty, had no idea what the I Ching was. Indeed, I’d never even heard of it before reading The Man in the High Castle. But, as with all things, I was curious, and I eventually bought a copy. (For the record, it was on Election Day, November 1995, at the Barnes & Noble in Charlottesville, Virginia. I also bought a copy of White Wolf’s first volume of their omnibus reprinting of Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories there that day. The truly random things one remembers.)

I can’t say that I used the I Ching with any great regularity, or even with any purpose as Dick’s characters had. It was just something to experiment with. I learned the three-coin casting method, and at times I’d consult it, more often than not as a joke. I did attempt to plot a story with it, as Dick had done, but I found I ended up with nonsense. It was an interesting experiment, though, and as I was investigating alternate philosophies in my developing atheism, I kept my copy of the I Ching around. Indeed, I even bought a second copy for the office.

A few years later, I picked up another book of Chinese divination, the Ling Ch’i Ching (or Ling Qi Jing), the Spiritual Chess Classic. It’s similar but different; where the I Ching uses coins or yarrow stalks for its casting, the Ling Ch’i Ching uses twelve wooden Chinese chess pieces, inscribed with special markings. I went to a hardware store one day, bought twelve flat and round pieces of wood, inscribed them properly, and, again, experimented with the Ling Ch’i Ching.

Interestingly, I probably use the I Ching now more than I ever did in my experimental days. I have an I Ching app for my phone, and I sometimes use it for fun. (At Farpoint, for instance, it suggested a dinner of ribs or buffalo wings. Not what I had. 😉 ) If I get blocked at the office, where I often have to write like there’s no tomorrow, I’ll pull out my copy of I Ching there, open it up at random, and pull a visual image from the book to use as a springboard. And, if I want to do a full casting, rather than throw coins, I’ve gone high-tech.

I wrote an Excel spreadsheet.

The three-coin casting method for the I Ching is, honestly, the worst you can use. The percentages come up wrong. Again, Wikipedia can explain better than I, but basically, with the three-coin method, some results become far more likely than they should be with the traditional yarrow stalk method. My spreadsheet simulates a four-coin method, which produces results mathematically identical to the yarrow stalk method.

Is it cheating? There’s nothing physical to it, after all. I don’t think it’s cheating. I wrote the formulas myself to make it work. I wrote the underlying macro code. The working methods are mine, it’s as personal as coins carried in a pocket or a cherished bag of yarrow stalks. (For what it’s worth, I don’t even know what a yarrow stalk is.)

Recently, I decided to do a similar spreadsheet for the Ling Qi Jing, and I finished the coding today.

In concept, it’s actually much simpler. There’s only the one casting method — you have twelve wooden coins, and you flip them.

The Ling Qi Jing had three “rows” — Heaven, Man, and Earth. Each row will have anywhere from zero to five “heads” showing. This produces 125 (5 cubed) different trigraphs.

My first thought was to figure each row separately, something along the lines of:
Row = Int(Rnd * 2) + Int(Rnd * 2) + Int(Rnd * 2) + Int(Rnd * 2)

This would produce, for each row, an integer from 0 and 4.

But I decided this wasn’t right. Oh, it was accurate, but it didn’t accurately model the way the Ling Qi Jing would actually be cast, with all twelve coins flipped at random.

So I came up with a more complicated, but more accurate, procedure…

' Define some variables.
Dim iLoop As Integer
Dim iLen As Integer
Dim iPos As Integer
Dim sOne As String
' Each coin will be flipped randomly. First, we choose which coin it is --
' Heaven [A], Man [B], or Earth [C]. Then we flip it, and add its total
' (1 is up, 0 is down) to its row. Then, we remove that coin from the
' possible coins to be flipped. It's a little complicated, but it better
' models the way the coins are flipped in the Ling Qi Jing.
For iLoop = 1 To 12
iLen = Len(sOne)
iPos = Int(Rnd(iLen) + 1)
If Mid(sOne, iPos, 1) = "A" Then Cells(3, 1) = Cells(3, 1) + Int(2 * Rnd)
If Mid(sOne, iPos, 1) = "B" Then Cells(4, 1) = Cells(4, 1) + Int(2 * Rnd)
If Mid(sOne, iPos, 1) = "C" Then Cells(5, 1) = Cells(5, 1) + Int(2 * Rnd)
If iPos = 1 Then sOne = Right(sOne, (iLen - 1))
If iPos = iLen Then sOne = Left(sOne, (iLen - 1))
If iPos < iLen And iPos > 1 Then sOne = Left(sOne, (iLen - 1)) + Right(sOne, (iLen - 1))
Next iLoop

The commenting in the procedure explains it. A random coin out of the twelve is flipped, set aside, and then a coin from what remains is flipped. Thus there’s no order to the way the coins are flipped. We aren’t artifically generating the Heaven line, then moving on to the next.

All things considered, writing the Ling Qi Jing spreadsheet was far simpler than I expected. Even that routine, which looks more than a little complicated, worked correctly the second time. 😉

Just because I wrote a spreadsheet for the Ling Qi Jing doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to start experimenting with it again. But if I do, the tool is there, like with the I Ching spreadsheet I wrote two years ago.

Neither the I Ching spreadsheet nor the Ling Qi Jing spreadsheets work on their own. All they do is generate the hexagrams or trigraphs. A companion book is necessary to explain what the results mean.

If anyone wants to try this for the I Ching or the less-well-know Ling Qi Jing, perhaps as an aid to their own investigations of Chinese divination, I’ve uploaded a ZIP file to my website with both Excel spreadsheets.

Type your question or query into cell A1, press Alt-F8 to bring up the macros window, and run the appropriate macro. The spreadsheet does its work, and it will show you your results. Consult your book, and find your answers.

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

4 thoughts on “On Chinese Divination Methods

  1. I wrote an Excel spreadsheet.

    That’s what I’d do. As you may know (I would lay even odds you’re my only flister who fully reads my posts about it), I have a spreadsheet for tracking the air history of Doctor Who against any given length of time (I need to write the promised post about the formulae for crossover chronologies). I have Excel spreadsheets tracking cartoon gags for AKOTAS, The Hero of Three Faces, my first fanfiction website, and the pencil fanfiction dailies I carried in a binder in the days before the internet. I have an Excel spreadsheet tracking the nutrition information for the food I eat for the diet program I’m on.

    That isn’t VisualBasic your code is written in? Or is it only paraphrasure of your code anyway?

  2. I do remember you mentioning the fandom tracking spreadsheet, and I recall that at times you’ve posted some of the formulas that make it work.

    The code above…

    The first one is pseudocode.

    The second one is actual VBA code from the macro underlying the spreadsheet. It’s just part of the routine.

    The macro injects some numbers into specific cells. And then there are formulas in cells that refer back to those cells that the macro manipulates. Based on the final number that winds up in the cell, the formulas will “look” like the correct result for the I Ching or the Ling Qi Jing.

    The I Ching spreadsheet is a little more complex than the Ling Qi Jing spreadsheet (where the roughest part was getting the right Unicode Chinese characters in place), because it has to account for the changing lines, and the four coin method produces different numbers than the three coin method for determining the changing lines.

  3. Yarrow is a plant, probably a woody-stalked plant like a reed. I think you can make I Ching sticks out of bits of dowel rod similar to how one can make ogham sticks (a sort of similar Celtic divination system).

    Me, I prefer tarot cards. Much more flexibility in interpretation. Chinese philosophy is just too dissimilar to Western thought for me to ever seriously work with I Ching.

  4. I have a couple of Tarot decks (a Lord of the Rings deck, a Ryder-Waite deck, a Celtic deck), but I’ve never really understood what I’m supposed to do with the Tarot or how to interpret it.

    Chinese philosophy is a bit out there. It’s a very different way of looking at the world. Sometimes, the I Ching will give me an answer like the hawk circles the tower and pigs roll in the mud, and I have no idea what it means or how it’s relevant to me.

    Maybe that’s the idea — take out of it what you can get from it. 🙂

    I’ve never investigated Celtic divination.

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