So what is a “Trigram” anyway?

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The Chinese word, “gua” (as in “Ba Gua Zhang”) is translated into English as, “trigram,” or “diagram.” The following is a brief explanation of its origination and meaning:

Yi Jing (I Ching)

“Book of Changes”


The Yi Jing, (pronounced “ee ching”) or “Book of Changes” was written during the last generation of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1121 B.C.). It is based upon explanations of the origin, continuation, and future of all things: that all came from nothing (wu wei; the “void”), and everything is in a constant state of change. Within these explanations is the Ba Gua, or “Eight Trigrams”, a philosophical concept that is a part of the “trinity” of natural principles. The philosophical trinity includes: 1) Yin & Yang (the two complimentary forces); 2) the Wu Xing, or “Five Elements” (the “balance” and “interaction” of these forces); and 3) the Ba Gua (the constant “changing” of these forces).

Since one can spend a lifetime studying the Yi Jing, and I am by no means an expert on the subject, here is a very simplified explanation of the meaning of each of the Eight Trigrams:

(*Note:   I will use the “Pinyin” modern day romanization first, with the “Wade-Giles” older style romanization in parenthesis. These are two forms of using the “Western alphabet” to pronounce Chinese characters.  Neither is perfect; each has its flaws.  For example, “Q” is pronounced like “Ch”.)

Heaven & Earth

Yang is the active force and primary initiator. The Qian (Ch’ien) trigram is made up of three solid lines and is the most pure yang; positive, creative, progressive and persevering.

These are considered the energies of Heaven; the active, initiating force of the universe.

The Kun (K’un) trigram, made up of three broken lines, is the most pure yin; cooperative, obedient, submissive and receptive. The “receptiveness” of this trigram encourages one to follow a great person, a great goal, or a great principle – essential qualities to self-cultivation. Kun represents the energies of Earth; giving support to everyone and everything without discrimination.

Qian and Kun compliment each other. The receptive and submissive Kun needs the creative and productive Qian to be its leader. The initiative of Qian needs the patience of Kun to see things through.

Water & Fire

Kan (K’an) is the symbol for the energies of Water. It is made up of a yang, or solid line, with two yin, or broken lines, on top and bottom. The solid line is like water traveling through a ravine. Water always flows downward, never shapes itself, and its surroundings never change its true nature. It is soft and yielding, yet it can wear away stone.

“Water accommodates whatever is in its path and continues to flow forward.

It never loses its direction.

Water is always ocean-bound, seeking to reunite with the whole.

To follow the way of water is to return to one’s spiritual essence.”

Lao Tze*

The trigram Li has yang lines on each side of one yin line, representing outward radiating energy with emptiness inside like Fire. It symbolizes brightness, beauty and illumination, but it can also symbolize a mind that is overly active and emotional, filled with desire and lost in search of external beauty.

Kan and Li compliment each other. While Li wants to shine brightly and reach the top, Kan knows to keep the low position, unaffected by superficial obstacles, and keeps Li in check – so that we do not lose our “true self.” Without this balance, a peaceful life is not possible. Fire and Water; mind and body.

*Lao Tze is believed to have been a great sage living around 571 B.C. The Tao Te Ching, or “Classic (Book) of the Virtuous Way,” is considered to be his writing.  However, most historians of this classic believe it was not written by one individual.

Thunder & Wind

Zhen (Chen) is the symbol for Thunder. It is represented by a yang energy (active; solid line) beneath yin energy (inactive; two broken lines). This expresses a force which has been obstructed, then suddenly bursts forth like an explosion.

Although everything in nature depends on the balance and harmony of all natural forces, it is sometimes necessary for a “shock” to disrupt inactivity. The purpose of Thunder in our lives is to get us moving when we are getting lazy or complacent. This energy is necessary in all of our stages of development. It gets us to take action when it is time. This “arousing force” can come from one’s teacher, parents, an experience such as a serious illness or accident, or a personal goal that “sparks” your efforts.

“When a good horse sees the shadow of the whip,

it begins running at full speed.”

Old Chinese Proverb

Xun (Sun) is the trigram symbol for Wind. The yin line represents the true nature of Wind, gentleness, under the two forceful yang lines. Wind is an energy that acts in invisible ways with visible results. Wind can represent the subtle influential energy of one’s “inner-self.”

The energy of Wind in our lives helps us to realize the importance of “rhythm” and “change.”

We must also wait for the right time in our growth to pursue our goals. If Thunder is the “spark” to get us started, then Wind is the subtle energy that keeps us going and allows for the necessary adjustments to continue on our path. We cannot expect great achievements in the beginning of our efforts.

Mountain & Lake


 Gen (Ken) is arranged to represent the Mountain. The one yang line rising to the top is impeded by the two yin lines underneath. This symbolizes “keeping still.” This activity is considered immature and without root. In essence, its meaning keeps us from moving forward with any plan prematurely, or without proper preparation, so that we can avoid needless struggle.

 Knowing stillness helps us to conserve energy by knowing when to stop unnecessary activity. With calm and inward focus, one can clear the mind of selfish thoughts and desires and maintain the tranquility of a Mountain.

Keeping still, however, does not mean being inactive. It teaches us to act correctly without strain in any situation.

The balancing force of activity is stillness. Since we are all prone to activity (especially in our minds!), the proper application of stillness can make our lives more productive and enjoyable.

The trigram Dui (Tui) is the symbol for Lake. The yin line above acts as an obstruction to the activity of the two yang lines below. In one way, it represents our “wisdom mind” that keeps our “emotional mind” in check. The meaning here guides us to develop an inner peace that is not upset by outside occurrences. People who seek happiness from others, or who strive only to please others, will never find their fountain of joy within. We can be gentle and open-minded, yet hold firmly to our inner principles.

 When we view things emotionally, what we perceive as reality will change according to our mood. However, when we are emotionally centered, we are not affected by external circumstances and we can then see things more clearly.

Originally Published Under the Title: “Yi Jing, The Book of Changes” (First half of 1998)














Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.





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