An introduction to the major symbols of the Book of Changes

Decorating gates, fans, bookmarks, traditional clothing, uniforms, T-shirts, and corporate logotypes; visually hawking the gala opening of the Great Ultimate Discount Furniture Mart; solemnly hung in front of homes in memory of the passing of national heroes; showing the way to the sports venues — here is a traditional Asian art motif that has definitely not been relegated to the museums like so many others. At least in Korea, the swirling circle of the taegeuk (태극 太極) is ubiquitous. it is as easy to find today as it was during the royal dynasties of centuries past, and in even greater variety.

Its choice as the national emblem partially explains the taegeuk's popularity here. but probably more important are its deep philosophical implications and the visual appeal of its combined appearance of movement and stillness. The fact that it ts not regarded as belonging to one particular religious group or philosophical school, or even to one nation, has also made lt readily adaptable to widespread use.

This essay is compact introduction to the taegeuk and some of its most common variations as well as other related symbols from the Book of Changes (주역 周易, often referred to as the Iching in the West).

The taegeuk concept and its representation

The word taegeuk, commonly known in the West by its Chinese pronunciation taiji, stands for both a concept in Oriental philosophy and the graphical symbolizations of that concept. The name has been variously translated as 'the Supreme Ultimate,' 'the Great Primal Beginning,' and even, following the Chinese characters literally. 'the Great Ridgepole,' a ridgepole being the main structural element of a roof and the highest part of a house. (There is a character meaning 'house' which is used as an epithet for the universe in Chinese.)

The basic idea is this: the fundamental substance of all things is a unitary, indescribable, unnameable somethlng that has nevertheless been called, for convenience' sake, the Tao. The Tao has two elemental modes of operation or states of being: yin, the passive, static, and receptive one, called eum (음 陰) in Korean; and yang, the active, dynamic, and creative one, called yang (양 陽) also in Korean. Each of these modes can further branch off tnto subordinate yin and yang states, as can the subordinate ones in turn, and so on ad infinitum. Everything in the physical universe as well as everything in all nonphysical dimensions is just the manifestatlon of the Tao in some incomprehensibly complicated combination of yin and yang states. The taegeuk is the usual symbol of the Tao in its primal stage—and it is "primal" rather than "first" because the Tao's act of generating all things and events takes place in the Eternal Now rather than in some temporally remote genesis.

The basic taegeuk symbol

Fig. A The basic version of the taegeuk, representing the Tao and its two modes of being, yin and yang

The basic version of the taegeuk is the yin-yang taegeuk (Fig. A), with its two paisleylike lobes. The darker-colored lobe represents yin and the lighter, yang. The rounded head of each lobe is often drawn with a dot of the opposite color in its center to show that yin and yang are always mutually inclusive, each containing the seed of its complement, and to remind us that yin and yang never occur separately in nature, that they are not opposites but always work together.

Yin and yang are such extremely abstract notions that it is difficult to grasp them without looking at their specific associations. Yin is associated with flexibility and softness, flat or open spaces, enveloping, nurturing, multitudes or collections of things, darkness, particles, inertia, anything that accepts energy or requires its application. Yang is seen in hardness, unyielding qualities, sticking up and taking up space, light, waves of energy, acceleration, anything that supplies energy or is energy itself. Yin and yang are constantly changing into each other, and both are paradoxically present in the same phenomena. Modern physics tells us, for example, that the subatomic world is populated by entities that are somehow yinlike particles and yanglike energy waves at the same time; even light, the epitome of yangness, comes in little yinish quantum packets; and mass (yin) and gravity (yang) are inseparable.

You can also find examples of yin and yang working together all around you in the everyday world. An uphill path (yang) is a downhill path (yin) to those coming the other way. The hard sides and bottom of a cup are yanglike, yet as a receptacle the cup is yinlike. Fire is yang to wood's yin; but wood, which grows in the ground, is yang to the soil's yin. We experience regular fluctuations of yin and yang tn the diurnal cycle, the passage of the seasons, the phases of the moon. You could go on and on finding similar instances wherever you look.

It is interesting to note here that all taegeuk are asymmetrical, the lobes swirling either clockwise or counterclockwise. Without somehow lifting the taegeuk out of the two-dimensional surface on which it is drawn and flipping it over or reflecting it in a mirror, there is no way to turn it so that the lobes flow the other way. This symbolizes the unidirectional flow of our sense of time: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; causes precede their effects, spring follows winter, and summer comes after spring; we remember the past but not the future. The taegeuk tells us that even in randomness and chaos there is some underlying order and that the universe is e-voiving, not simply re-voiving.

The three-lobed taegeuk

Fig. B The sam-taegeuk, or three-lobed taegeuk, representing the Tao’s three realms of action: Heaven, Earth, and Man

The most common variation of the taegeuk is the sam-taegeuk (삼태극 三太極), or three-lobed taegeuk (Fig. B). Its lobes are usually colored red, yellow, and blue or green, though other combinations are found. If the yin-yang taegeuk represents the two modes of action of the Tao, the sam-taegeuk stands for the three realms within which the Tao acts: Heaven, Earth, and Man. Heaven is the spiritual or transcendental plane; Earth, the plane of the physical universe; and Man is the intermediary that embodies them both.

The sam-taegeuk is the most widely used of the taegeuk motifs for the purpose of decoration on handicrafts, fabrics, signs, and so on. A version of the sam-taegeuk drawn with its lobes in open spirals rather than the traditional closed circle was used as the official emblem of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and during the games, thousands of people around the world sported pins, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia bearing this symbol, most of them probably unaware of how immensely pregnant with meanings and associations it is.

The taegeuk has spawned many other variations, some drawn especially for books to explain some aspect of the cosmology or philosophy of the Book of Changes and some created as decorative variations on the taegeuk theme.

The four-lobed taegeuk

Fig. C The sa-taegeuk, or four-lobed taegeuk, is just one of the many variations on the taegeuk motif.

The sa-taegeuk (사태극 四太極) (Fig. C), or four-lobed taegeuk, is an example that is fairly common. Its form makes one wonder if it is not a marriage of the taegeuk with the Buddhist swastika.

Accompanying symbols, their meanings and arrangements

The taegeuk is often shown surrounded by a circle of signs made up of black lines. These are the eight trigrams from the Book of Changes, which represent the third level of yin and yang states or modes of action generated by the Tao. The diagrams are built from the bottom upwards, a solid line standing for yang (⚊) and a broken one for yin (⚋).

At the first level, the Supreme Ultimate differentiates into simple yin and yang, as shown by the configuration of the yin-yang taegeuk. At the second level, yin and yang both differentiate into secondary yin and yang states, producing four images that may be regarded as four stages in a never-ending cycle of change from yin to yang and back again: ⚌ old yang, ⚍ young yin, ⚏ old yin, ⚎ young yang. The addition of a yin and a yang to each of these in turn gives us the eight trigrams.

It is possible to keep adding in this fashion to get to any power of two, but the Book of Changes follows through only to the sixty-four diagrams composed of six lines and concentrates heavily on the interpretation of the eight trigrams, of three lines each, regarding them as basic to an understanding of the sixty-four hexagrams. Here we shall devote our attention only to the eight trlgrams and their arrangements since they are usually the only ones that appear in the taegeuk-related patterns on talismans, architecture, accessories, and so on. Four of them are also a prominent feature of the flag of the Republic of Korea.

In interpreting the diagrams, the bottom lines may be viewed as substantial. supporting, internal, physical, following, lower in status, earlier in time, or less evolved, depending upon what specific aspect of the diagram's general meaning is being considered. By the same token, the top lines are seen as superficial, mounting. external, spiritual, leading, higher in status, later in time, or more evolved. The three lines of the eight trigrams, from the bottom up, are also seen as representing the realms of Earth, Man, and Heaven. The number of yin and yang lines and their relative positions are important in determining the meanings of the diagrams.

Though narrower in scope than yin and yang, each trigram is still a very abstract notion with a myriad of associations covering a broad range of fields of activity and categories of object. The following descriptions of pairs of complementary trigrams are meant to give only a brief, general understanding of their meaning. The Korean names are given in romanization, with the Korean script and the corresponding Chinese character in parentheses, followed by respective pairs of characteristics.

Geon (건 乾) andGon (곤 坤)
Heaven and earth. Creative activity and passive receptivity. Formless energy and tangible matter. Duration in time and extension in space. Conquering, struggling and serving, surrendering. Leadership and devotion. Begetting and nurturing. Father and mother.
Jin (진 震) andSon (손 巽)
Thunder and wind. Stimulus and response. Arousing and gentle. Initial motion and progress toward maturity. Vitality, excitement and pervasiveness, penetration. Eldest son and eldest daughter.
Gam (감 坎) andI (이 離)
Water and fire. Enveloping and clinging. Dangerous and beautiful. Ignorance and enlightenment. Unconscious and conscious. Hidden and revealed. Dimness and clarity. Cold and heat. The moon and the sun. The id and the ego. Emotions and the intellect. The middle son and the middle daughter.
Gan (간 艮) andTae (태 兌)
Mountain and lake or marsh. Cessation of movement, quietude and bouyancy, gaiety. Stubborness, perversity and serenity, pleasure. Heaviness and lightness. Concentration and intuition. Immobility, resistance and changeability, adaptability. Solid and ephemeral. Lasting and transient. Durable and flimsy. Youngest son and youngest daughter.

Other juxtapositionings of the trigrams will sometimes make their significance clearer. ☳ is the irrestistible force; flip it over and it becomes ☶, the immovable object. Like a traffic light, ☳ tells us to go, ☵ to be cautious, and ☶ to stop. ☴ is the pleasures of the flesh, ☲ the pleasures of the intellect, and ☱ the pleasures of the spirit. The multitude of fascinating relationships among these symbols can be delved into in depth by studying the Book of Changes and the many commentaries on it.

The Earlire Heaven arrangement of trigrams

Fig. D The Earlier Heaven circle of trigrams emphasizes the polar aspect of the relationship between complementary trigrams. Note that in this and the following figures, the trigrams are shown with their bases facing the center of the circle. In some traditional renditions of the circles, the bases face outward. South is always at the top of the circle, east to the left, etc.

There are two standard circular arrangements of the trigrams: the Earlier Heaven, or a priori sequence (Fig. D), also called the Fúxī arrangement, after the legendary figure who is supposed to have invented the trigrams; and the Later Heaven, or a posteriori sequence (Fig. E), also called the King Wen arrangement, after the Zhou Dynasty progenitor, to whom tradition ascribes the writing of the basic text of the Book of Changes.

The Later Heaven arrangement of trigrams

Fig. E The Later Heaven circle of trigrams emphasizes the sequential aspect of the trigrams’ place in the development of events.

As in many ancient maps (and interestingly, in Western horoscopes) these circles are oriented with south at the top. The circles, and especially the Later Heaven sequence, are also thought to correspond to the progression of seasons, with spring in the east (left), summer in the south (top), fall in the west (right), and winter in the north (bottom).

In the Earlier Heaven circle of trigrams, the symbols are arranged in pairs of complements facing each other, often looking across a taegeuk drawn in the center. This arrangement emphasizes the polar aspect of relationships between the trigrams, placing all the yang-based trigrams to the east and south and all the yin-based ones to the west and north. Yang lines prevail in the southern half of the circle and yin lines, in the northern half. This is considered an abstract arrangement that belongs to the world of ideals.

The Later Heaven sequence arranges the symbols in a way that emphasizes the passage of time and the development of events, beginning with the initial impetus of spring in the east and moving around the circle of the year through growth and maturation in the summer, to harvest in the fall, to the struggle against the cold harshness of winter, to the cessation of all things in preparation for a new start. In this arrangement, the mother and daughters all occupy the southern and western half of the circle and the father and sons, the northern and eastern half.

Though the logic that governs the arrangement of the Earlier Heaven sequence is quite easy to see just from the structure of the trigrams, the Later Heaven arrangement seems arbitrary except for a few placements that make sense when the meaning of the trigrams is taken into account. Out of the possible 40,320 permutations of eight trigrams in a circle (5,040 if orientation is ignored), why should this be the only other one chosen? Actually, there is a link between the two sequences that is implied by the arrangements of the trigrams themselves, without considering their meanings.

Some scholars point to evidence that the Later Heaven circle was established first, but if we go along with tradition and derive the Later Heaven sequence from the Earlier, then we see that two sets of trigrams replace each other in a circular fashion to arrive at the second sequence.

The clockwise position shift of the trigrams

Fig. F In moving from the Earlier Heaven to the Later Heaven sequence, the trigrams Geon, Gan, Jin, and I each shift, as shown by the arrows, to the position occupied in the Earlier Heaven sequence by the next trigram around the square.

One set (Fig. F) is mainly yanglike and moves clockwise: ☰ replaces ☶, which replaces ☳, which replaces ☲, which closes the circle by taking the place originally occupied by ☰.

The counterclockwise position shift of the trigrams

Fig. G In moving from the Earlier Heaven to the Later Heaven sequence, the trigrams Gon, Son, Tae, and Gam each shift, as shown by the arrows, to the position occupied in the Earlier Heaven sequence by the next trigram around the square.

The other set (Fig. G) is mainly yinlike and moves counterclockwise except for its last leg: ☷ replaces ☴, which replaces ☱, which replaces ☵, which moves to ☷'s original spot.

The unifying sequence of trigrams

Fig. H The “unifying” sequence of trigrams, derived by placing for yins and four yangs in a circle in such a way that, taken three lines at a time, all eight trigrams are present. This sequence combines the two squares of Fig. F and Fig. G, showing how the trigrams shift to change the Earlier Heaven circle into the Later Heaven.

If we place eight lines, four yin and four yang, in a circle in such a way that all eight trigrams are formed when the lines are viewed in sets of three adjacent lines, we get a new sequence (Fig. H), which we might call the unifying sequence (because it provides a link between the two classical circular arrangements) or the minimal sequence (because it uses the fewest lines possible to produce all eight trigrams — the only other such arrangement is the mirror image of the one shown here). In this minimal circle we find our two sets of trigram replacements arranged as intermeshing squares.

When I first realized that this minimized circle of trigrams could be the missing connection between the Earlier and Later Heaven sequences, I searched in vain to find any drawing like it or mention of such an arrangement in the literature on the Book of Changes. The lack of any such evidence seems to indicate that this solution, though quite appealing, is just an incredible coincidence and not the way the Later Heaven sequence was actually arrived at. Nevertheless, the minimal sequence does provide a satisfying way out of the disturbing assertion made by some that the Later Heaven sequence was either derived by the whim of some early commentator on the Book of Changes or was based on some principle that defies human comprehension — or worst of all, was merely haphazard.

One would be hard pressed to come by another set of symbols as rich in meanings and connotations as the taegeuk and its accompanying circles of trigrams. Anything that bears this emblem reminds us of our oneness with All That Is, of the inexhaustible creative energies available in the universe, and of the nurturing receptivity of physical reality, which with perfect openness allows all things to come into being and all events to take place.

This is a modified version of the English-language introduction to a book of traditional Korean design patterns titled Korean Motifs 5: Taegeuk, published by Ahn Graphics & Book Publishers, Seoul, 1989. The book was one of a series of design-motif source books and was reissued in 1994 when the name of the series was changed to Asian Art Motifs.