Stick Dice for the I Ching

Ideashop, 11105-A Mount Rose Highway, Reno, NV 89511, USA (David Patton). 1998. 3 dice + information sheets. $16.00 + $2.00 shipping. Outside USA: $20.00. [Note that this is a review first published in 1999, there is no guarantee the address is still in use. We have no further information.]


As anyone one who has spent some time checking Yijing-related websites and email-lists will know, there's frequent discussion as to the relative merits (or otherwise) of using yarrow-stalks or coins to consult the book. This discussion usually revolves around two main points: the convenience of coins against the complexity of stalks, and the way the two methods offer differing probabilities of obtaining the various kinds of hexagram lines. David Patton's Stick Dice are intended to provide the convenience of the coins with the probabilities of the stalks.

The three 'dice' are actually tetrahedral, rather than cubical, and each of the four vertices is inscribed with either the number 2 or 3. Two of the dice are numbered 2/2/3/3, the third 2/3/3/3. When all three are thrown, the numbers appearing on the uppermost vertex are counted together to give 6, 7, 8 or 9, and these numbers occur with the same probabilities as in the yarrow-stalk method (i.e., respectively 1, 5, 7 and 3 times in 16; the corresponding coin probabilities are 1, 3, 3 and 1 in 8). The dice are made of maple wood and stand approximately 2.5cm high. They are smooth and pleasant to handle, and come with a small draw-strung canvas pouch.

Also included are three information sheets. 'How to use Stick Dice' gives easy-to-follow instructions. 'Suggested reading from Stick Dice' lists three books: Wing's 'Illustrated I Ching', and Karcher's Elements of the I Ching and 'How to Use the I Ching'. These, of course, are unexceptionable. Regrettably, it's possible to take rather more exception to the third (5-page) sheet, 'Introducing Stick Dice'.

I confess that I'm always faintly amused by talk of 'the original yarrow-stalk probabilities', with its heavy implication that the yarrow-stalk method in use today was the same as that used at the time of the Zhouyi's inception. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case, as has been shown by Shih-chuan Chen [1] and others. We simply don't know what the original yarrow-stalk method entailed, nor do we know its mathematics. As Chen points out, the original method was lost, replaced by various coin-consultation methods, and then reinvented by Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Indeed, if Zhang Zhenglang's hypothesis [2] concerning the 'bagua numerals' found on early Zhou oracle bones is correct (that they are numerical representations of hexagrams and trigrams), then we have an entirely different set of numbers to deal with: not 6, 7, 8, 9, but 1, 5, 6, 7, 8. If this is the case, then we may be dealing with a radically different method (and radically different mathematics) of consulting the yarrow in antiquity.

Perhaps it should be re-emphasized that the current yarrow-stalk method of consultation only dates from the 12th century and, indeed, that Chen accuses Zhu Xi of tampering with the passage of the Dazhuan (1:9) concerning the numerology of yarrow divination to make it fit better with his newly-invented method (it should also be noted, of course, that the Dazhuan is not a part of the original Yi, and itself post-dates the inception of Zhou yarrow-divination by several centuries; and furthermore, that section 1:9 does not appear in the Mawangdui silk manuscript version). More to the point, however, is that the method of coin-divination precedes Zhu Xi's yarrow-stalk method. The coin-method we use today is usually attributed to Ma Yi, a shadowy figure sometimes said to be the teacher of Chen Tuan (9th–10th centuries), although Shih-chuan Chen, again, dates the method to the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420–581). Be that as it may, we are left with a situation where neither the current yarrow nor the current coin methods can claim to be original, and the coin method actually appears to be the older of the two by some centuries. This leaves us with a situation where we have two late consultation methods with different probabilities, neither of which is the original; there is no convincing reason to think that either method actually matches the probabilities of the original.

If Patton had stopped there, this could simply have been dismissed as being of little consequence; unfortunately, he uses the probabilities of the yarrow-method as a springboard for what can best be described as a speculative reconstruction of the world-view held by the Yijing's original authors. Based on the facts that the yarrow probabilities he's dealing with show that for every one yin line changing to yang, there are likely to be three times as many yang lines changing to yin, and that static yin lines are more likely to be produced than static yang lines, he goes on to assert that 'the creators of the I Ching built asymmetry into the Oracle, as a way of codifying the relationships they found in the universe'. This apparent tendency for the active yang to become the passive yin is said to be reflected in the Yi by 'an inherent, strong bias towards the feminine, the receptive, the accepting, contemplative, passive and earthly'. And, furthermore, that 'looked at in broad historical terms, this statistical bias brings into play an antidote to the overly-male, overly aggressive period of patriarchy we have been living in for several hundred years. The yang element has been overemphasized. Stick Dice, by reclaiming the system's roots, redirect us to an appreciation of the feminine aspects of existence.'

With the best will in the world, I can only say that I find this absurd, for a number of reasons. For a start, it runs counter to the entire spirit of Chinese yin-yang theory, which sees yin and yang as equal and complementary opposites, as reflected by the even division of yin and yang lines in the Yi. Furthermore, it's a back-projection of popular, modern, speculative historical analysis, in terms of matriarchy and patriarchy, onto the early Zhou culture; a culture hardly noted for emphasizing the feminine, and to which such analysis would have been quite alien. Similarly, it back-projects an understanding of Taoist ideas, the extant texts of which are later than the Zhouyi by some centuries, onto a core divinatory text which shows no evidence of any such thinking. Even worse, it assumes that the Chinese of the early Zhou had some understanding of the mathematics of probabilities, for which I know of no evidence, and sufficient sophistication to use it in a moral application. But most crucially, it confuses two entirely separate things: the ancient divinatory Zhouyi text, and Zhu Xi's consultation method, invented some 2,000 years after the book was written. If there is a yin-yang bias in the current yarrow-stalk method, it is simply an artefact of the mathematics of Zhu Xi's invention, which Zhu himself may well not have been aware of; it has nothing to do with the Zhouyi, its text or its philosophical interpretation. In short, the thinking here is entirely anachronistic. To my mind, this speculative reconstruction tells us a great deal about how modern westerners imagine the way the world is or, more particularly, how it ought to be; of the ancient Chinese conception, I fear, it tells us nothing whatever.


1. Shih-chuan Chen: 'How to Form a Hexagram and Consult the I Ching.' Journal of the American Oriental Society, 92:2 (April–June 1972), pp 237–249. [Back to text] [Download paper in PDF]

2. [Zhang Zhenglang] Chang Cheng-lang: 'An Interpretation of the Divinatory Inscriptions on Early Chou Bronzes.' Early China 6 (1980–81), pp 80–96. [Back to text] [Download paper in PDF]

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of Yijing Studies' Vol. 2, No. 9 (August 1999), pp 43–45.]


See what looks very much like David Patton's original patent for stick dice.