Hexagrams 1 and 2 have an extra line statement, named yong.

The Zhou yi provided a guide to cleromancy that used the stalks of the yarrow plant, but it is not known how the yarrow stalks became numbers, or how specific lines were chosen from the line readings.

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Another divination method, employing coins, became widely used in the Tang dynasty and is still used today.

In the modern period, alternative methods such as specialized dice and cartomancy have also appeared.

Eventually, a consensus formed around 2nd century AD scholar Ma Rong's attribution of the text to the joint work of Fu Xi, King Wen of Zhou, the Duke of Zhou, and Confucius, but this traditional attribution is no longer generally accepted.

The basic unit of the Zhou yi is the hexagram (卦 guà), a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines (爻 yáo). The received text of the Zhou yi contains all 64 possible hexagrams, along with the hexagram's name (卦名 guàmíng), a short hexagram statement (彖 tuàn), The statements were used to determine the results of divination, but the reasons for having two different methods of reading the hexagram are not known, and it is not known why hexagram statements would be read over line statements or vice versa.

In the hexagrams, broken lines were used as shorthand for the numbers 6 (六) and 8 (八), and solid lines were shorthand for values of 7 (七) and 9 (九).

The Great Commentary contains a late classic description of a process where various numerological operations are performed on a bundle of 50 stalks, leaving remainders of 6 to 9.

Originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period (500–200 BC) it was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the "Ten Wings." After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.

The I Ching uses a type of divination called cleromancy, which produces apparently random numbers.

The hexagrams themselves have often acquired cosmological significance and paralleled with many other traditional names for the processes of change such as yin and yang and Wu Xing.

Based on a comparison of the language of the Zhou yi with dated bronze inscriptions, the American sinologist Edward Shaughnessy dated its compilation in its current form to the early decades of the reign of King Xuan of Zhou, in the last quarter of the 9th century BC.

In the Zuo zhuan stories, individual lines of hexagrams are denoted by using the genitive particle zhi, followed by the name of another hexagram where that specific line had another form.