The New I Ching: discover the secrets of the plum blossom oracle

Lillian Too, Hamlyn, London, 2004. 160 pp, £14.99/$17.95. ISBN 0-600-60917-0.


Meihua Yishu, 'plum blossom numerology', is not a new subject in the West. Several books cover the topic, some inaccurately, some close to the original Chinese work. Da Liu covered the subject the best, his 'I Ching Numerology' contains formulas and texts from the original 'Meihua Yishu' book, which is attributed to Shao Yong. There are no other books in English that cover the subject as extensively as Da Liu's, which is still the best entrance to plum blossom numerology.

Meihua Yishu – the system has the same name as the book in which it is described – is a way of getting an answer from the Yijing without the use of coins or yarrow, and without the text of the Yijing. There are two methods in Meihua Yishu: the first method involves the use of time and a random factor (such as a unique aspect that catches your eye, or the length of a word that is connected to the situation); the second method is based on subjective analysis of the situation. In both methods you obtain two trigrams which form the hexagram that contains the answer to your question or situation. For both methods there is a rule that determines the moving line. In Meihua Yishu there is always one, but not more than one, moving line.

Interpretation is done by the wuxing, the Five Phases. Each of the eight trigrams is associated with one of the Five Phases (bagua wuxing). A trigram in a hexagram produces the other trigram or is produced by the other trigram; or it destroys the other trigram or it is destroyed by the other trigram [Ed's note – the production and destruction cycles of the Five Phases are explained in the 'Glossary of Chinese Yijing terms']. This wuxing relationship is the most important element in Meihua Yishu, but it is not the only factor you have to look at. The trigram without the moving line is the tigua, the 'form trigram'; it represents the subject of the question. The trigram with the moving line is the yonggua, the 'function trigram'; it tells what will happen with the subject.

There is a strict relation between the tigua and the yonggua, and this relation is decided by the wuxing. If the yonggua, which represents fate, produces the tigua, this is good: the situation or outcome is favourable. If the yonggua destroys the tigua, then bad things are bound to happen. The other way around is not important; what the tigua does with the yonggua is of no concern – we have no influence on fate but fate influences us.

How fate influences us can be seen in the qualities of the trigrams. Every trigram represents a category which contains a huge amount of objects, situations, and qualities (such a list of attributes for every trigram is called bagua wanwu shu lei – 'the eight trigram categories for everything'). The most extensive list of trigram associations is given by Da Liu; it closely follows the original list in the book 'Meihua Yishu'. It is important to know as much as possible of these associations, because you will need them to interpret your answer in detail when using the plum blossom method. As mentioned earlier, you do not use the text of the Yi; you have only the hexagram figure to work with.

Despite the fact that Meihua Yishu belongs to the 'Image and Number' school of Yi study – and so does not use the text of the Yijing itself – what at first seems a pure non-textual approach does not work out that way in practice, since the book 'Meihua Yishu' devotes many words to how an answer can be constructed and how it should be interpreted, and unfortunately almost none of it has been translated. Even Da Liu did not translate the parts that explain what it means if, for instance, the trigram Qian produces the other trigram in the hexagram:

There is happiness and profit in entering the Imperial court.
Or happiness through scholarly honour.
Or wealth because of an official.
For someone legal disputes may be put in order,
Or there will be profit in money matters.
Perhaps elderly people will become wealthy,
Or receive special presents.
Perhaps made happy by valuables from officials.

Or if trigram Gen destroys the other trigram:

Matters follow each other endlessly in succession.
A hundred schemes are blocked halfway.
Perhaps loss in cultivated land in the mountain forest.
Or an invasion brought by people surnamed Tu.
Guard against disasters coming from the northeast.
Perhaps there are worries a grave is unsuitable for peacefulness.

These are just two examples of the kind of thing you can find in the original Chinese work. These divinatory texts can be an enormous help in getting a sense of the relationship between the trigrams. Alas, westerners who do not read Chinese have to do without it (the Chinese text is on the web). A pity, nevertheless what every book should at least do is cover is the wuxing relationship between the trigrams, give as many trigram associations as possible, and explain the appliance of the yonggua and the tigua.

In her book, 'The New I Ching: discover the secrets of the plum blossom oracle', Lillian Too fails on all three points. The format of the book is typical of Too's oeuvre: large, lots of pictures, and a lot of white space. There is nothing wrong with the introduction or with chapter 1, 'Understanding the I Ching', in which she mainly explains the qualities of the trigrams. The trouble starts with chapter 2, in which she introduces the plum blossom oracle. Again she touches on the qualities of the trigrams, this time from a wuxing perspective. After that she describes how the trigrams are related through the wuxing, and the first formula for calculating a hexagram, involving time, is given. Like most books she uses the Western calendar, stating that

Obviously, the I Ching is based on the Chinese lunar calendar. However, many masters agree that since we are now using the I Ching at a time when the Western calendar seems to be universally accepted, it is fine to use it to calculate the numerology of the trigram. (p 40)

I could not disagree more. Too, and most other authors, neglect the fact that the Chinese calendar is closely linked with the Five Phases. Every year, month, day, and hour has a Phase connected to it, and you can use this as additional information to interpret your hexagram, as well as link Meihua Yishu with other systems. The latter in particular is widely practised in China. No system is used on its own, the coin method of forming a hexagram is used in combination with Meihua Yishu, and Meihua Yishu is also used in Heluo Lishu (Yijing astrology from the Ming period), which in addition uses principles from Wen Wang Bagua. To a large extent this is possible because of the use of the wuxing of the time, giving an opportunity to extend the application of your hexagram. By using the Western calendar this simply is not possible. But even though Too says she uses the Western calendar she wants us to use a table which somewhat, but not exactly, converts a Western date to a Chinese date. Odd, to say the least.

After the explanation of the first formula (actually there are three formulas involving time, Too only gives one) she gives a table of trigram attributes, attributes you dearly need to expand the meaning of the trigrams. The original bagua wanwu shu lei gives more than twenty categories of association for every trigram: colours, objects, illnesses, plans, trade, etc. Too only gives seven. Season, direction, weather, partner indications, travel, location of lost object, animal or symbol, these are the associations Lillian Too wants us to work with. Needless to say this is far from enough. If I do a divination about a car I want to know which trigram this object belongs to, but Too's book does not help because she does not give object associations. This is very unsatisfying, but Too says

The summary is not exhaustive and for those wanting a longer list I recommend that you invest in one of the original academic translations of the I Ching. (p 48)

But how can an 'academic translation' help to give you the original list of 'Meihua Yishu', which is an amplification of the trigram associations in the Shuogua chapter of the Ten Wings? By saying that we should turn to other books Too is actually admitting that her book is not complete. And she is damn right about that.

After giving the formula for determining the hexagram based on observation, she gives us chapter 3, 'Predictions of the 64 hexagrams': short pieces of text that contain a prediction for every hexagram. Now here we have a chapter that does not at all belong in a book about Meihua Yishu. Lillian Too does not mention it, but the text from this chapter is a loose translation of (or inspired by) the 'Jinqian Ke', 'Golden Coin Divination'. The 'Jinqian Ke' is a fortunetelling text that uses hexagrams accompanied by a text that sometimes is clearly inspired by the Yijing, but more often than not has nothing to do with it at all. You use the 'Jinqian Ke' in an entirely different way, namely with six coins, and there are no moving lines. In fact, it is a separate oracle with totally different texts and implications. Combining the 'Jinqian Ke' with the Yijing is therefore not a good idea, because the 'Jinqian Ke' was never meant to replace or supplement the Yijing. It should be used on its own.

The 'Jinqian Ke' exists in two versions, a short one and a long one. The short version has been translated by Da Liu in the second edition of 'I Ching Coin Prediction'; the long version by Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec in 'Heavenly Pennies'. Besides the difference in length of the two texts, there are also variations in the way each is allocated to the hexagrams; not always is the same poem found with the same hexagram.

Lillian Too uses the short version of the 'Jinqian Ke'. At hexagram 20 in her book we read

Cranes and magpies make for unlikely pals
Within the household there is no harmony
The living situation is cold and unfriendly – move out
At the office there is no communication
It is advisable to observe without comments
Plans for new ventures find no takers
In the midst of unhappiness there is one bright spark
Expected guests and letters do not show up
(p 65)

The more literal translation by Da Liu says

In the cool evening the magpies come to rest in the forest
They don't know the crane is already there.
Living in the same place – there is no peace.

Things that are difficult in the beginning will be easy later.
Your plans are not favored.
After a while, happiness comes suddenly.
The new commitment does not go smoothly.
The return of friends will be delayed.
(p 176)

Lillian Too's version of the 'Jinqian Ke' could have been closer to the original, but she will not be bothered by that, after all, if we were supposed to know that chapter 3 was not solely by her own hand but based on another text she would surely have mentioned it. It is not really plagiarism because the 'Jinqian Ke' is in the public domain and she has made her own translation of it, but it would have been good manners had she mentioned it.

Chapter 4 deals with 'Interpreting the hexagrams'. In a good book about Meihua Yishu this chapter would tell in detail about the tigua and the yonggua and how they influence each other, how different trigrams result in a different outcome, and how to interpret the moving line and the changed hexagram it produces. But Too discards all this. In one and a half pages Too talks about interpreting the answer: look at the trigrams, look at the Five Phases (wuxing), and read the text of the hexagram (she probably means her own text that she gives at the end of the book). That's it. About analysing the wuxing relationship she says

See if you can detect a pattern. Allow your intuition to flow into the reading. Be guided by the way the elements of the upper and lower trigrams are interacting, as this is an excellent guide to how the situation is likely to unfold. (p 75)

If this interaction is such an excellent guide she should have spent more words on it. It is in fact an essential part of plum blossom numerology; most of the text in the original 'Meihua Yishu' book, and the commentaries that were written in later centuries, talk in detail about it, and spending one and a half pages on it, saying you have to let intuition flow into the reading, is not very helpful.

Lillian Too also devotes one page to 'The Language of the I Ching' (p 79), in which she wants to tell us what four phrases mean: 'it benefits to cross the great water', 'the honourable man', 'it furthers one to see the great man', 'no blame'. Is that 'the language of the I Ching'? Hmm, I wonder why most Yijing translations use so many pages. The odd thing is that she does not use these terms in her own interpretation at the end of the book, so why is she explaining what these phrases mean in other books?

The final part of the book is her own interpretation of the Yijing, the Judgment and the line texts. Lillian Too's interpretation is weak, short-sighted, and sometimes downright comical:

This line suggests misfortune that arises from the consumption of alcohol. Excessive drinking causes the mind to lose its clarity and can lead one into situations of danger. You should take this warning seriously. It is also warning you about friends who drink excessively. At work and in school there is a danger of demotion and severe reprimands.

(First line of hexagram 29, p 118)


This line indicates a second wife or a love affair, so there is sadness but also happiness for others. Initial disappointment leads to later triumphs.

(First line of hexagram 50, p 139)

The text of this chapter will easily confuse readers as it often contradicts the text of the 'Jinqian Ke' in chapter 3. When we read in Too's interpretation of hexagram 23 that

This is truly a miserable hexagram, suggesting decay, death and the disintegration of things you hold dear. (…) The hexagram indicates misfortunes in activity. It does not benefit to travel, to start anything or to give in to inferior people who would wish to harm you. (p 112)

we may wonder how we are supposed to merge this with the text of hexagram 23 of her 'Jinqian Ke' translation:

The dry land gets rainfall and flowers bloom
An important introduction brings you cause for celebration
Journeys prove interesting and exciting
Your job applications are all successful
Legal entanglements will be resolved
Sicknesses find good cures
Misunderstandings are cleared up
(p 64)

This shows only too well that the 'Jinqian Ke' should not be mixed with the Yijing, as it is an entirely different text. But Lillian Too does not explain how we should combine the 'Golden Coin' text in chapter 3 with her interpretation in chapter 5.

And that is the general feeling after reading this book. Plum blossom numerology is not properly dealt with, a lot of essential information is missing, and the small amount of material that Too gives is not properly explained. This book is far from the original 'Meihua Yishu' text and should not be used as an introduction to this divination technique. And let us not talk about her Yijing interpretation otherwise I really get nasty.


Addendum – a serious error

In a post on the forum of Hilary Barrett a reader with the handle 'john999' pointed out a serious mistake in the 'Later Heaven Trigram Method' that Too gives on p 50. The original method involves the subjective selection of two trigrams by choosing two aspects which are important, or striking, for the situation in question. For each aspect the appropriate trigram is chosen, using the bagua wanwu shu lei list of trigram attributes: if leadership is one of the aspects then the trigram Qian, 'Heaven', is chosen; if it concerns a dog then the trigram Gen, 'Mountain', is selected, etc. There is no need for numbers here because you work with the qualities of the trigrams as described in the Ten Wings and in the bagua wanwu shu lei, you do not work with the numbers that are associated with the trigrams (the numbers assigned from the xiantian [Earlier Heaven] or houtian [Later Heaven] arrangements of the trigrams in a circle).

In her description of the 'Later Heaven Method' Too makes a serious mistake by using the trigram numbers from the Later Heaven trigram circle. She wants you to choose two aspects and convert these to two numbers, each in the range from 1 to 8. These numbers then decide the proper trigrams. But, as john999 stated, you run into a problem with the trigram Li, Fire, because this trigram has number 9! A number you will never receive using Too's method, therefore it is impossible to obtain a hexagram that has the trigram Li as one of the basic trigrams – which means that a quarter of the Yijing falls out of your scope. Lillian Too's description of the houtian method is completely wrong, and I am seriously wondering whether she has studied Meihua Yishu at all.