The Eight Tri-Grams

mag-fs eight tri-gramsFeng Shui Journal

Fall 1998, Vol.4, No. 3,
Pages 16, 18, and 20


The art and science of feng shui is intimately connected with the eight tri-grams. The creations of the eight tri-grams is attributed to the legendary king Fu Hsi as early as 2860 B.C. Fu Hsi was a ruler during the ancient Neolithic period of the third millennium B.C. known as the Hsia period. This pre-Shang dynasty ancient culture was surprisingly very developed, as proven by the archeological excavations at Anyang in northern China.

Ruler Fu Hsi devised the eight tri-grams through Taoist observation of the natural world as seen on the patterns on the back of a tortoise’s shell as the animal emerged from the Yellow River. Fu Hsi saw the microcosmos of the elemental world symbolized in the eight orderly markings of the tortoise’s shell.

The eight tortoise shell markings symbolized the natural world as heaven, earth, fire, water, mountain, lake, wind, and thunder. Fu Hsi laid out these eight symbols in an eight-sided map, similar to a tortoise shell shape, to create the first ba-gua map. (Ba means eight and gua means tri-gram.) This arrangement is referred to as the early heaven sequence.

When two tri-grams are placed one above the other, a hexagram is formed that conveys symbolic meaning. Eight tri-grams multiplied can create sixty-four possible combinations. These sixty-four combinations are the basis of the great ancient Taoist book the I-CHING, translated as THE BOOK OF CHANGES or THE CLASSIC OF CHANGE.

The eight tri-grams and sixty four hexagrams were restudied and brought to prominence in the Chinese imperial court during the early Chou dynasty (1150-249 B.C.) by King Wen, the founder of the Chou dynasty, and his son the royal scholar the Duke of Chou. In the year c.1200 B.C., King Wen wrote extensively about the eight tri-grams in what is today referred to as the later heaven sequence. King Wen transformed Fu Hsi’s eight-sided diagram, the ba-gua, which is still in use today as a primary feng shui tool.

Almost 600 years after King Wen, towards the end of the Chou dynasty, Confucius himself said in his old age, “If some years could be added to my life, I would give fifty of them to study THE BOOK OF CHANGES, for then I would have avoided great errors.”

The eight tri-grams: water, earth, thunder, wind, heaven, lake, mountain, and fire represent the primal energies of the universe. Each tri-gram is composed of three lines. Two solid lines represent t’ai yang, the great male principle, a symbol of the sun and heat. One broken line over a solid yin line represents shao yin, the lesser male principle, a symbol of the moon and cold. A solid line over a broken line represents shao yang, the lesser female principle, a symbol of the stars and daylight. Two broken lines represent t’ai yin, the great female principle, symbol the planets and night. These four combinations also demonstrate how heaven yang and earth yin combine to create the four seasons.

Another line is added to the eight elemental tri-grams — a line added to represent humanity between heaven above our heads and earth below our feet. The traditional qualities of the tri-grams are that heaven to the south is the great male principle. Earth to the north is the great female principle. Fire to the east is for drying up ten thousand things and nothing is more drying than fire. Water to the west is for moistening ten thousand things and nothing is more humid than water. Wind to the southwest is for twirling ten thousand things and nothing is more effective than wind. Thunder to the northeast is for agitating ten thousand things and nothing is swifter than thunder. Lake to the east is for satisfying ten thousand things and nothing is more gratifying than a lake. Mountains to the northwest are for bringing ten thousand things to conclusion and gain, and nothing is more perfect than mountains.

As Lao Tzu states in the I-CHING:
The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to ten thousand things.
All things carry yin on their backs
and hold yang in their embrace.
In the balance of these two vital breaths
all things achieve harmony.

HEAVEN – Ch’ien; also translated as Chi’en in Wade Gile system, as Chyan in Yale system, and Quian in Pinyin system. Pronounced “Chee-en.” Heaven’s tri-gram is composed of all solid yang lines; therefore it is strong and undivided. Heaven represents the celestial forces from which 10,000 things occur. It is the creative source, perfection, strength, vitality, originality, and power. All things are properly ordered: sun shines, rain falls, and people prosper. Through strength of character and fortitude obstacles are overcome.

EARTH – K’un: also translated as K’an in Wade Gile system and as Kan in both the Yale and Pinyin systems. Pronounced “Kwen.” Earth’s tri-gram is three broken yin lines because the earth is open and receptive to rain, sun, and other natural forces. It is the complement to heaven. Earth represents the femininity of Mother Earth, the receptive yielding principle, and therefore is most yin. Performing good deeds with gracious acceptance results in the enjoyment of abundant good fortune. To be virtuous and loving will fulfill one’s destiny.

THUNDER – Chen; also translated as Chen in the wade-Gile system, Jen in the Yale system, and as Zhen in the Pinyin system. Pronounced “Jen.” Thunder’s tri-gram is composed of two broken lines above a solid line; Therefore thunder hits solidly yet rises to disperse. Thunder represents dynamic movement, activity, vitality, development, and growth. Thunder’s loud boom may frighten or intimidate; yet it can inspire people to change and improve their character. Do not act when frightened. Instead cultivate patience. Difficulties can be opportunities for future development.

WATER – K’an: also translated as K’an in the Wade-Gile system, and as Kan in both the Yale and Pinyin systems. Pronounced “Cuhn.” Water’s tri-gram is composed of broken yin lines on top and bottom with a solid line in the center. Water may seem clear and uniform yet it does have a solid mass in the center. For example, a wave will crash when the top surface water moves at a faster rate than the solid center mass. Water represents mystery, profound meaning, and possible challenges. One will not drown if they believe in their ability to succeed.

MOUNTAIN – Ken; also translated as Ken in the Wade-Gile system, and as Gen in both the Yale and Pinyin systems. Pronounced, “Gen.” Mountain’s tri-gram is composed of a solid line above and two broken lines below. Below the solid top is space, indicating a cave inside the mountain. This huge immovable mountain represents meditation, movement halted, and resting of body, mind and spirit. There is great value in remaining still and contemplating actions. Exercising restraint brings success.

WIND – Sun; also translated as Hsun in Wade-Gile system, as Syun in Yale system, and as Xun in Pinyin system. Pronounced “Soon.” Wind’s tri-gram is composed of two solid lines above a broken line. The two solid lines in heaven and the middle kingdom show the gentle strength of wind over the broken lines of the earth below. Success can be achieved through yielding and receptive behavior to superior forces and new opportunities. Wind represents pliability, penetration, influence from others and flexibility. Maintain integrity and awareness to avoid being swayed or blown in the wrong direction.

FIRE – Li: translated as Li in all systems. Pronounced “Lee.” Fire’s tri-gram is composed of a solid yang line on top and bottom with a broken yin line in the middle. Like a flame, fire appears to take form yet its core is empty. Allow your knowledge and wisdom to shine as a bright flame to ensure and maintain good fortune. Take care of those less able and cultivate a demeanor of respect. Fire represents expansion, ideas, illumination, clarity, brilliance and beauty.

LAKE – Tui; also translated as Tui in Wade-Gile system, as Dwei in Yale system, and as Dui in Pinyin system. Pronounced “Dway.” Lake’s tri-gram is composed of a broken yin line above two solid lines. A lake is open and receptive on the surface yet contains mass below. (Unlike water which is open on the bottom to create running water.) Happiness is spread by praising the virtues of others and encouraging their development. Avoid pursuing superficial pleasures. Lake represents joy, happiness, pleasure contentment, and possible excess.

Fu Hsi paired the eight tri-grams according to their opposites. Heaven is paired with earth, fire with water, mountain with lake, and wind with thunder. Fu Hsi observed that how these pairs act upon each other. He arranged the tri grams in this early heavenly sequence with the opposites across from each other. Moving clockwise from the top, heaven opposes earth, wind opposes thunder, water opposes fire, and mountain opposes lake.

Fu Hsi’s sequence is depicted in Asian art. Even today, the ba-gua mirrors that used in feng shui depict this ancient sequence of Fu Hsi. King Wen rearranged the sequence to represent interactive cycles of growth and decay. King Wen’s ba-gua arrangement has a practical feng shui application as an eight-sided map or template to place over lots, buildings, and rooms. The ba-gua map does not require the use of a compass or knowledge of time of birth. Instead, the octagon ba-gua map is superimposed at the mouth of chi: the main entry of a property, building, or room.