Lingqijing: The Magical Chess Classic


The 3000-year-old Yijing or Book of Changes is a widely known, much-translated, and well-respected Chinese oracle, but hardly known at all in the west, though a popular street diviner's oracle in the east, is the Lingqijing, a picturesque Daoist oracle written down circa 300 CE, give or take 100 years. Daoism is the philosophy associated with the Daodejing, that of allowing things to happen, not pushing the flow, and wuwei, the graceful ease that comes from not striving to reach an end result. This philosophical Daoism also gave rise to a magical folk Daoism, where the Lingqijing is more at home.

The title consists of three characters – ling means 'magic' or 'spirit' or 'supernatural', while jing is simply 'book' or 'classic'. The character qi refers to 'Chinese chess' or xiangqi – the Lingqijing is consulted using flat disks like those used for draughts but with Chinese characters inscribed on one side, resembling the pieces used in Chinese chess. The recreational game of Chinese chess may even have developed from a divination method such as the Lingqijing.

There are only two English translations of the work (see below), one of which translates the 'magical chess-pieces' as 'spirit tokens'. 'Empowered draughts' is another possible translation. The oracle is consulted by dropping 12 of these 'chess-pieces' to the ground, which forms a 'trigraph' and points you to one of 125 possible oracular pronouncements. (To avoid confusion, it is well at the outset to distinguish the two uses of the word 'oracle' – the Lingqijing itself is an oracle, but in use what it tells you in specific circumstances is the oracle it gives you.) Here's an example of what a Lingqijing trigraph looks like:

This is Shi Sui, 'Affairs Proceeding' (#10). Its oracle and verse read, in the Sawyer translation:


In the past, matters did not proceed as desired; now you will be able to follow your ambitions. The myriad affairs attain their patterns; intelligently and clearly take action.


Like the dust ever accumulating, he has long awaited the hour;
In the darkened window, amid loneliness, who knows of him?
When the moment evolves, those bearing swords look to each other;
Gaining profits and attaining fame always have their time.


You might receive this trigraph after a period when things haven't been going too well, just before things start to change for the better. You might have been doing a lot of work on a project, but it doesn't seem to be getting anywhere and you're starting to feel disillusioned, or you may have felt lonely for a long time and be wondering when things are going to change. This trigraph can give you a much more optimistic outlook. The bit about 'those bearing swords look to each other' I interpret as powerful others having underestimated you, but now circumstances make them take you seriously. Or possibly the time has come to take yourself seriously. This is a fine oracle for a real and desired change coming about in someone's life, as if from nowhere, after a difficult but preparatory period. The myriad affairs attaining their patterns is simply things falling into place, which depends on time and can't be rushed.

The Lingqijing is a beautiful and poetic work, giving you a concrete image that you can picture almost like a scene from a film, imparting meaning directly without need of lengthy explanation. It is easy to use and not hard to understand.

Typical images used in the Lingqijing range from legendary physicians administering magical pills, being attacked by bandits, riding dragons, or using talismans to ward off ghosts. Long journeys, sacred mountains, fragrant orchids, snow and impenetrable roads all serve to create a sense of landscape and setting. One beautiful image pictures a phoenix carrying pearls in its beak. But side-by-side with such mythical images are pictures of ordinary everyday life – gathering in the crops, tossing and turning in bed unable to sleep, hens being frightened by a fox.

Some images are quite striking, such as the depiction contained in trigraph #106. You're trapped in a treehut in a flood, there's torrential rain, you can't light a fire, and have only soaked cold rice to eat. Not a good oracle, it's simply called 'Disaster from Rain', the best advice it can offer is that there's not much you can do right now. Though 'good' and 'bad' are merely fixed judgments at a moment in time of non-fixed states of change, neither lasting, it is only natural to see the oracles you receive in such simplistic terms, it is human nature to see things as either good news or bad news, rather than just news, and the Lingqijing doesn't mince its words in this respect.


Good and bad

The 'good' oracles are wonderful and have you floating on air, for example: 'The divine, exalted Jade Woman bestows a spiritual talisman on me. It forever grants that it will be difficult for age to affect me and thus preserves my body.' (#34) Whereas the 'bad' oracles are absolutely dire, sometimes making you wish you hadn't asked: 'Thieves watch my hut.' (#14) or 'Thinking back to times of happiness, I turn again to drudgery.' (#6) Some oracles contain curious riddles that you might have got out of a fortune cookie in the Twilight Zone, such as: 'Only after you bump into a wooden man will you have luck.' (#108)

Whereas the hexagrams you can receive from the Yijing tend only on rare occasions to be very ominous, and in any case usually enable you to mitigate and sometimes completely avert a seemingly bad situation by wise action, the trigraphs of the Lingqijing by contrast are evenly split into auspicious and baleful oracles, painting your situation in wonderful and glowing terms or starkly evoking scenes of disaster and hopelessness. It goes without saying that this oracle is not really for the faint of heart.

That said, when I first began using the Lingqijing, after I had read through it to establish the general tenor of its contents (always wise to have an idea of what you're getting yourself into), I was most surprised to receive good oracle after good oracle for several months. I thought this was most unusual, since I could see that the work contained numerous bad oracles, and surely I couldn't be that lucky. So on one occasion when I felt rather depressed and down-in-the-dumps I wondered whether the Lingqijing would reflect this, and sure enough I received my first baleful oracle, and even that I found helpful, since it stressed that this feeling would be short-lived. Since that time, I have found that the Lingqijing has an uncanny knack of reflecting my situation and mood.


Yin and yang

The Lingqijing is deeply embedded in the philosophy of yin and yang, even more so than the Yijing. I have written a brief introduction to the nature of yin and yang on the home page of this site, where I give concrete examples of the idea of old and young yin and yang.

The distinction between old and young in regard to yin and yang is important in both the Yijing and the Lingqijing. A youthful yang, for instance, is vibrant and enthusiastic but not yet with a commanding power and respect like a mature yang, whereas a young yin has submissive qualities (eg, shyness, coyness) that are eclipsed by the undermining nature of old yin (eg, cynicism, feeling jaded). A mature yin will tend towards a decline until it once again takes on the qualities of a youthful yang, fresh and eager again. A mature yang will find its triumph in the world but then regain its modesty as a youthful yin, perhaps as a result of going too far and getting knocked back, being humbled by the scale of events (the fate of the 'arrogant dragon' of the top line of hexagram 1 in the Yijing). In the Lingqijing, unlike in the Yijing, it is possible to have a line consisting of none of these possibilities, the quiescent state before form. Position in the trigraph, top, middle, or bottom, also affects the meaning, although in practice the printed oracle and verse describe the situation, and structural interpretation is not needed to form an understanding.


How to consult the Lingqijing

To consult the Lingqijing you need 12 flat wooden disks. Four are inscribed with the Chinese character shang, meaning nothing more complicated than 'above', four with zhong, 'middle', and four with xia, 'below', as shown in the trigraph diagrams illustrating this article. The backs are left plain. You throw the 12 disks to the ground all at once and arrange the fallen disks into a trigraph of three rows, according to their inscribed positions, of which there are 125 possible combinations. (The term 'trigraph' was brought into usage by Ralph D Sawyer, to avoid confusion with the three-line figures associated with the Yijing, the 'trigrams'.)

Take trigraph #29, Shuai Wei, 'Decline to Minuteness' (below). This oracle is about something that has grown small that is now starting to expand and extend itself, as a seed germinates and begins to grow. The image used in the Lingqijing is of melon vines starting to spread. If, for instance, you obtained this oracle at a time when you were about to begin a new project it would indicate that you had laid the groundwork, done your research, and in beginning to go ahead with your plans it would gather a natural pace. The verse contains a dream image of ascending a mountain in bright moonlight and coming across glorious spring flowers.

You can see from the illustration that the top row contains two shang disks, the middle row four zhong disks, and the bottom row one xia disk. Even numbers are yin, odd numbers yang. The disks that fell with the character facing down are put to one side (the blank positions in the diagrams here are just place-holders to show how the inscribed disks are arranged in the matrix, building up each row from the right).

Two of any type of disk forms a 'young yin' row, whereas four forms an 'old yin', sometimes also called a 'cluster of yin'. One disk is a 'young yang' row and three disks is 'old yang'. The top row is that of heaven, middle is humanity, bottom is earth, such that, for instance, a yang row in the heaven place and a yin row in the earth place would be considered well-suited and be likely to result in an auspicious oracle, but this is not an infallible rule. The original appended oracle and verse always determines the meaning, even if the structure seems to suggest a contrary meaning. Some rows of course may be neither yin nor yang, you may get none of the disks character-side up for particular rows. It is possible to get all 12 disks character-side down, which results in a special trigraph, #125, called 'The Mysterious Obverse', Yin Man.

I have never had this trigraph and Ralph Sawyer, who wrote with his wife Mei-chün Lee Sawyer the best translation of the Lingqijing, says of it: 'If the querent should obtain this trigraph once in a lifetime of constantly consulting the Oracle, it would be considered remarkable, despite any claims of modern statistics.'

'The Mysterious Obverse' represents the time before yin and yang are separated out, a formless void. It is a slightly inauspicious trigraph in the sense that any move is the wrong move and remaining in a quiescent state is to be preferred, which is naturally hard to accomplish in a world of form. In a sense, though, it also represents infinite possibility. It seems to be a womb-like state before birth.


Lightning-struck wood

Traditionally, the disks are made from wood taken from a tree that has been struck by lightning, and prepared over a 60-day cycle in a rather involved ritualistic process, with the characters being inscribed with a cutting tool and then filled with red pigment. But it is perfectly possible to make the disks from flat draughts pieces and devise your own ritual. At the beginning, you can even use coins of three different types. For instance, have four 5p pieces, four 1p pieces, and four 2p pieces. When you throw these to the ground to consult the oracle form the trigraph from the heads showing and discard the tails, assembling the trigraph with 5p at the top, 1p in the middle, and 2p in the bottom row.

Should you get interested in this oracle, it is worthwhile making your own set of disks, given that they are regarded as magical in themselves and imbued with power, as opposed to simply being the medium through which a spirit (or synchronicity if you subscribe to Jung's outlook) might provide an answer. Lightning-struck wood would indeed be ideal, since lightning is powerfully yang and wood is powerfully yin, and in Chinese mysticism lightning-struck wood is regarded as good for expelling ghosts and malevolent spirits. Ivan Kashiwa, who wrote 'Spirit Tokens of the Ling Qi Jing', made his own set from flat stones of three different shades that he found with his wife and children on the beach.

Meditation, lighting of incense, and other ritualistic elements may form part of a consultation. I have a Daoist shrine in my living room, and sometimes I light incense there before consulting the oracle, other times I simply reach for the disks and throw them to the ground rather spontaneously. I don't believe there is any need to be dogmatic about this.

The Lingqijing is a truly beautiful work, which you only come to understand by engaging it in the kind of dialogue that is divination.


Further reading

Ling Ch'i Ching: A Classic Chinese Oracle. Translated by Ralph D Sawyer and Mei-chün Lee Sawyer. Boston & London: Shambhala Dragon Editions, 1995. [See review]

Spirit Tokens of the Ling Qi Jing. Ivan Kashiwa. New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1997.

(The trigraphs in Kashiwa are numbered by a different system to the traditional Lingqijing, for ease of finding. One counts the number of tokens in each line downwards. For example: 3 at the top, 2 in the middle, 4 at the bottom, is trigraph 324 in Kashiwa. Sawyer uses the traditional numbering, 1 to 125, and provides a finding chart at the back. Kashiwa's method may be useful, but it disrupts the original sequence of the trigraphs.)

[A version of this article first published in 'Prediction' Vol. 70, No. 2 (February 2004), pp 28–32.]