At the heart of symbolism

The two trigram arrangements


“The only thing which does not change is change”
The Book of Changes (I Ching)

Trigram arrangements

Trigrams and hexagrams

In the Chinese tradition, the World is viewed as a Whole, the elements of which are interrelated. An image of the World is not a representation of the latter, but a stage of development within a global development process 1. In this formation process of things and beings, the states “upstream” to that stage are virtual or potential structuring principles; the states “downstream” are actualized or manifested structured productions.


The two main images of the World of the Chinese tradition consist of trigrams whose arrangements are most often referred to as “anterior to Heaven” (Xiantian you) and “posterior to Heaven” (Houtian you). A better understanding of both arrangements lies in the essential link between the famous yin-yang symbol at the center and trigrams, composed of yang and yin lines, arranged around:

  • The “anterior to Heaven” image of the World is “logic” in appearance only; its purpose is to understand how combinations of yang and yin come from the Unity;
  • The “posterior to Heaven” image of the World is “confused” in appearance only; it aims to show how combinations of yin and yang come from each other.

The deep study of both arrangements shows that they recover in fact the following meanings:

  • The first arrangement is anterior to the fundamental polarization between Heaven and Earth and, more generally, to any polarisation of the Unity (Taiji). It is connected to the primeval Unity carrying all polarities in a potential state and associated with the vertical axis linking zenith to nadir;
  • The second arrangement is posterior to the fundamental polarization and corresponds to the reflection of the Unity in the horizontal terrestrial plane. It is related to the “Primordial Androgyne” symbolizing the union of the feminine and masculine aspects within the true man.

The two trigram arrangements may be represented in a single figure, where the “Cosmic Egg” occupies the Centre. When considered as an indivisible whole, the vertical cross-section becomes the symbol of Taiji, the Oneness prior to any distinction between yin and yang. Subsequent to it, i.e. within the manifestation world, the horizontal cross-section symbolizes the “Primordial Androgyne”.

Vertical and horizontal trigram arrangements

This figure underlines the strong coherence of the Chinese tradition and trigram arrangements. It emphases the relationship between metaphysical and cosmological views, between the descent from Heaven to Earth, from yang to yin, from the unified state towards its dual manifestation and the ascent from Earth to Heaven, from yin to yang, from the dual manifestation towards the unified state. The strong interdependency between both visions is reflected within the two trigram arrangements. The vertical axis of the “posterior to Heaven” arrangement is identical to the horizontal axis of the “anterior to Heaven” arrangement for all what is higher in the terrestrial order is lower in the celestial order.


The relation between the metaphysical and cosmological visions can also be represented by superposing trigrams from both arrangements. By superposing a trigram of the “anterior to Heaven” arrangement upon a trigram of the “posterior to Heaven” one, we obtain the 64 hexagrams of the Yijing (I Ching). The first and last hexagrams, composed respectively of 6 solid and 6 open lines, correspond to the fullness of yang (identified to Heaven) and yin (identified to Earth). The other hexagrams combine yang and yin in various ways and take place between these two extremes. They represent as so many degrees on the way towards the Principle manifestation (the descent from yang to yin) and the return from the manifested to the undifferentiated Principle (the ascent from yin to yang).

Trigrams and hexagrams teach us that our ordinary human being condition, mostly yin, has to move in yang direction. Our future stands in our lost natural state of “Primeval Being”, where we all come from and which can be rediscovered at any place and any moment.

1 back We can even find such a point of view within western art, in the painting of William Turner for instance.

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