Untangling the Strings of I Ching


全球 is the Cantonese character for ‘global’

I engaged in a legitimate I Ching spiritual reading two weeks ago, in the confines of my bedroom – via app. It didn’t phase me at all. I’m what Mark Prensky would describe as a “digital native“; I circumnavigate the corners of the globe via technology, as effortlessly as I breathe, without conscious consideration.

It’s when I step back, take a deep breathe and consider the implications of my virtual journey, that the epiphanies ignite. The following is an excerpt from my post- an excerpt from my post I Ching for iPhone, featuring two epiphanies which ignited from my experience;

“One voice in my head whispered oh my God it actually worked, over and over again. A second is mindful that this traditional Chinese art has been translated from Mandarin, which has a completely different dialect and alphabet to English. Does this impact on the accuracy of my results?”

Placing myself inside my field of research allowed epiphanies of that experience to ignite in my mind (Image: Tuning)

The reading was actually pretty accurate, beyond what mathematical reasoning would predict. This was my first epiphany. The theory of synchronicity (suggested by Dr Carl Jung, a philosopher) suggests that the I Ching coins, whether physical or virtual, fall in a pattern consistent with the world’s vibrations. Thus he argues that meaning can be drawn from divination practices like I Ching. This concept can easily be transferred into the digital realm.

My second epiphany rose from my ironic sense of being lost in translation – even though I was reading an English text. In the back of my mind I was uncomfortably aware that the words I read were the derivative of a cultural spiritual practice. It had been pre-translated and digitised from an alphabet script that is completely incompatible with English. The translation of content between two cultures is an intricate procedure, particularly when the product is so strongly embedded in one of those cultures.

When a traditional patriotic practice goes global via the internet, the reigns of control are stretched (image: favim)

Thus, there is a significant control shift occurring here; as a result of the translations from traditional Chinese I Ching into both the English language and the digital sphere. When I encounter a digital reading via an app, I retain some control. I can exit the app at any time and I am free to interpret the result as I wish, based on my own experiences and beliefs. This is simply because there’s nobody to interpret the meaning of the patterns except for me. More control lies in the creators of the app, Deepware Changes. They determine the user interface; the end product and overall experience for those exploring I Ching from outside a physical service. A third piece of control lies with those who pre-translated each potential ‘result’ of the readings. Unwittingly, these translations determine the overall experience of the end user. If the translations are off the mark, it’s likely that user will consider the practice of I Ching and/or the app to be bogus. This would compromise – globally – the prestige of divination in Chinese society.

Image: Katie De Sousa

We can clumsily imagine this phenomenon as a marionette puppet, with the world as its theatre. Picture a traditional doll; hand-crafted and painted, all in one sovereign state. Its strings are held by one person. That person controls how the puppet moves and becomes its voice. Thus it controls how a specific audience experiences the performance of that puppet. As globalisation and digitalisation invade cultural traditions, more and more strings are added to this puppet. New controllers begin to invade the theatre. Some are people, attaching new strings to its body. Others use technology to hack into the stage lights and background music, also eager to experiment with and control this rich slice of Chinese culture.

Now the puppet’s arms, legs, fingers, toes, neck, eyes, eyebrows; every single muscle and joint in its body, are controlled by different people. Every person has control of at least one string and the puppet, whilst still an ‘authentic’ puppet, begins to move differently. Its voice is different too; even though each person is reading the same script, they’re translating it into different languages for their own audience, so some amount of meaning is lost – or unwittingly adjusted, at the least.

The physical divination industry, one which traditionally commands respect in society and which prominently impacts the Chinese – and broader Asian – economy, in China is now faced with a second-hand impact. They’re losing the monopoly on the power of their niche industry. The free digital app market has widened the audience of users, but diminished potential profits. The industry also loses its ability to regulate the art of I Ching. This occurs through the app replicating the service itself, and also the clumsy translation of the content into English; both of which are out of the ‘traditional’ industry’s control.

Global flows have created complicated relationships between cultural and social paradigms – which are no longer exclusive to one cultural market (Image: favim.com)

Rockefeller argues that studies of ‘flows’ of globalisation are only focused on meta-social movements. The “significance” of small-scale cultural access points shifting is somewhat overlooked in research, and incidentally human thought itself. The global digital I-Ching experience is a niche, mostly unexplored hole for research. What happens when a cultural product is exported digitally? How does its meaning change? The intersection of the personal experience and the social, political and cultural constructs which influence that, is what makes autoethnography an appropriate and unique method to explore this feat.


Fedko, S 2015, “Digital Natives and Immigrants”, University of British Columbia, accessed 7 September 2017, http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/Digital_Natives_and_Immigrants

Ma, A 2002, “Cultural translation from Chinese to English: a case study of the problems in the translation and interpretation of selected contemporary texts“, PhD thesis, Victoria University of Technology, http://vuir.vu.edu.au/15428/

Prensky, M 2001, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, MCB University Press, Vol.9 No. 5, accessed 7 September 2017

Rockefeller, S 2011, “Flow”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp 557 – 578

Wall, S 2008, “Easier Said than Done: Writing an Autoethnography”, International Journal of Qualitative Methods Vol. 7, No. 1.

4 thoughts on “Untangling the Strings of I Ching

  1. I’m glad to see you’ve clarified that your digital experience was “legitimate”, as I think many auto-ethnographic researchers have a tendency to disregard the merit of their own research based on the methods they used to engage with it.

    It’s also interesting that you mention you were lost in translation due to the language barrier. The fortune telling industry in a Western sense has become a lot more commercialised in recent years, and perhaps some of your misunderstanding could have also arose from the diverging methods and processes of I Ching compared to Western fortune telling, and not just a language barrier?

    This is great groundwork for your final project Claire and without doing an east vs. west comparison, it would be really awesome to see how your experience with I Ching and “traditional” fortune telling has changed your conceptions of the practice from a Western context. Perhaps you could dig a little deeper into the history of I Ching, its social utility in China and how it relates/builds on your personal opinions of fortune telling?

    After your first post I did a little research on I Ching (had never heard of it!) and came across this website. It has a lot of relevant historical information about I Ching that could provide more avenues for research: http://www.chinafile.com/library/nyrb-china-archive/what-i-ching

    Great writing as always. It will be fascinating to see your final product!

    Liked by 1 person

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