The theory of Yin-Yang is by far the most important in Chinese Medicine. Everything from diagnosis, function and treatment will have their foundations in Yin-Yang theory. At its core the theory is simple, however, the application is continually evolving and being presented in new ways.
Before being integrated within Chinese medicine theory, Yin-Yang was originally a foundational concept in the school of Yin-Yang or as is also known, the naturalist school. The school was founded by Zou Yan between 200-300 BCE which occurred during the warring states period. This period was a time of great upheaval in China which resulted in significant competition and therefore innovation. The author Needham considers Yin-Yang to be so significant that it provides the basis of scientific thought in China. Under Zou Yan, we experienced the first amalgamation of Yin-Yang with the five elements/phases which are; wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
So we know the history but this isn’t most of the population’s personal experience with Yin-Yang. That history is with the faded Yin-Yang tattoo on someone’s leg or flashbacks to good ol’ martial arts movies. This seemingly immortal symbol has survived throughout the millennia, penetrating popular culture and becoming synonymous with martial arts, Chinese medicine, Daoist philosophy and Chinese culture in general. But what does this character truly mean? The characters for Yin-Yang simply mean the sunny and shady sides of a hill. But this doesn’t help us understand their actions and relationship, for that, we need to look deeper into the symbology of Yin-Yang, the symbol called Taijitu. You have to forgive my pronunciation if you speak mandarin I’m sure I butchered that (laugh). Regardless, most people will definitely be able to bring this symbol to mind but for those who can’t, it is a circle organically divided into black and white halves, with each half having a tiny little circle of black or white in each of the opposing colours. This is perfect to show that even within the duality of life the opposite is always present.
The whole symbol in its completeness is tao, the unity of all things, but as we look closer at this oneness, that is all things, we can begin to see the separate parts. We see the polar opposites of interrelated phenomena, they are at the same time competing with each other but also completely dependant on each other for harmony.
We cannot simply reduce Yin or yang to any one material object, force or metaphysical concept, rather they are labels to describe how things work in relation to each other. This is the way the universe works, Yin-Yang depicts the universe in a constant state of change, flux and flow as opposed to the static oneness of the whole.
When we hear the statement that the universe is created through the interaction of Yin-Yang, we can begin to see this as simply the label we place upon the interaction between the interrelated phenomena. For example, the weather is produced between the interaction of hot and cold. In this example try and replace the words hot or heat with Yang and cold or cooling with Yin. The sun increases heat to the cold earth and water, then the air expands and rises, with this increasing Yang we get evaporation and wind, this creates the phenomena of weather. When there is too much warmth already in the ocean then this is considered an excess of Yang and so we experience extreme yang events like cyclones and hurricanes. That is, we will experience an imbalance in Yin-Yang. If the ocean wasn’t too hot and so cold enough to counteract the warmth of the sun then we wouldn’t get extreme Yang weather events as Yin-Yang would be harmonious. So we begin to see the shifting parts within the whole that gives birth to all phenomena, as the heat turns to cold and the cold turns to heat, the two parts are always shifting dynamically in relation to each other, but at the same time compete and also harmonise with the other. So we can see Yin-Yang is not a thing rather labels to help describe the interaction of interrelated phenomena.
This is described in a more poetic way in Ilza Veith’s translation of the Huang Di Neijing, a foundational text in Chinese medicine.
“Heaven was created by an accumulation of Yang; the Earth was created by an accumulation of Yin. Water and fire are the symbols of Yin-Yang; Yin-Yang are the source of power and the beginning of creation. Yang ascends to Heaven; Yin descends to Earth. Hence, the universe represents motion and rest, controlled by the wisdom of nature. Nature grants the power to beget and to grow, to harvest and to store, to finish and to begin anew.”
Although poetic this is a very physiological representation of Yin-Yang. It discusses Heaven/Yang as a representation of spirit and Earth/Yin represents material, substance or flesh. The coming together of Yin-Yang is the beginning of creation, as we see the spirit animate and bring life to the dull flesh. This also describes the more generalised definition which is widely understood, we would say Yang is the functional aspects and Yin is the quality of structure or substance.
The last few sentences of the previous quote describes the process of nature as a cycle, showing that even in their opposites that Yin-Yang still represents the totality of existence, the completion of the cycle.
Yin-Yang offers us more than a physical way to look at the world but also a philosophical way to look inwards as well. As we see the macrocosm reflected in the microcosm, we can see the cycles of nature play out emotionally and psychologically as well. We can experience times when we are more excited and hot and times when we are more cool and sombre. Reflecting on the Yin-Yang relationship we can begin to see that change is part of the natural law, what goes up must come down. In the flux and flow of Yin-Yang nature, we are bound to feel down at some point. But as is the law of Yin-Yang, the point of change from Yin to Yang and vice versa is only through the interaction with the opposite. Only when hot interacts with cold when happy mixes with sadness can Yang move to Yin. Yin-Yang is always contradictory but at the same time harmonious and totally dependent on the other to transform it from its current state.
The Yin-Yang philosophy also provides an appreciation of how light cannot exist without darkness or darkness without light. If we only knew light and no darkness then we couldn’t have the celebration of a sunrise each morning, as the beautiful illuminating golden orb emerges from the darkness. So the moment we experience sadness is simply the opposite and balancing experience to happiness. They are the moments that make happiness so much more the sweeter, they are the darkness which makes the beautiful moments of sunrise so different from the constant light of the day. We begin to be reminded that opposing emotional experiences can and should live in harmony with each other. Instead of rejecting one experience and favouring another rather appreciating them as apart of the whole. Our opposing emotions compete for space in our lives but ultimately they cooperate by contradicting the other, to make each emotional experience more defined and so our lives richer for it.
This concept is described in Verse 2 of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching translated by McDonald:
When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.
Therefore the Master
can act without doing anything
and teach without saying a word.
Things come her way and she does not stop them;
things leave and she lets them go.
She has without possessing,
and acts without any expectations.
When her work is done, she takes no credit.
That is why it will last forever.
This verse discusses in detail the pairs of opposites as they exist, but is not defining the pairs of opposites as specific things, rather a point of view of how we see the world. In verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching translated by English and Feng, it says, “Is there a difference between yes and no? Is there a difference between good and evil?” This is a very interesting question. What defines good? We all think we are good people, right? But how do you know that you’re not doing evil things? Our way of interacting with each other is defined by our government or by our religion. But our current government system is very different from another countries government system or even another time in history. Let’s take the death penalty as an example. Is taking a life an evil thing to do? This really depends on your perspective. The killer did something so “evil” that they deserved it. Therefore, the death penalty is just and good. But then others would believe that no one deserves to lose their life and so the death penalty is evil. Ok, that’s an easier example to answer but what about stealing a loaf of bread? It may be evil from the point of view of the person who had their bread stolen, perhaps it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back to put them into financial hardship, perhaps they now experience the feeling of hurt of being stolen from. But that bread may go to feeding hungry children and the parent had no other choice, and so experience the act as good and kind. So really, what evil or wrong is defined as is a viewpoint that opposes our own viewpoint. Again Yin-Yang is not a thing, it’s merely our perspective.
Now comes the horrible truth, if evil is simply a perspective … are we all evil? Now bear with me and do a little mental meditation. Think of an evil action. Something you would never do, and then imagine yourself doing it……. Are you doing it?…..go on try it. Make it clear in your mind and experience the feeling of doing it…….. I’ll give you a moment…… How do feel now? What was the thought that came straight after that, besides guilt of course? Was it another evil thought…or did you generate a good thought?
Now here comes another horrible truth, we are only good BECAUSE we are evil. Remember Yin only turns to Yang when it interacts with its opposite. We are only good people because that evil part of us exists. Remember there’s always a dot of yang in the sea of yin and vice versa. In this way, evil is an integral part of us and society. Evil will at the same time create harmony, compete for space in our lives but ultimately make the opposing emotional experience richer.
Chuang Tzu discusses this when he writes, “Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this’, ‘that’ comes from ‘this’ and ‘this’ comes from ‘that’ – which means ‘that’ and ‘this’ give birth to one another. When there is no more separation between ‘that’ and ‘this’, it is called being one with Tao.” This experience of living with the pairs of opposites creates our whole existence, good/bad, happy/sad, wealthy/poor, here/there, now/then and the most important one you and me. Tao has been separated into its separate parts, which is a blessing because if we were all one, squished up into a tiny little dot without the experience of separation and so opposing parts then we wouldn’t get to experience feeling wealthy, a sunrise or even falling in love. But for all of this to exist as an experience, then the opposite must also exist AND be experienced. As we shift our perspective to slowly blur the lines that separate the Yin-Yang parts of the oneness or universe, at that moment we can begin to transcend the feeling of being separate and arrive back into the experience of oneness that is Tao.
Yin-yang then is a way of seeing the world not as separate but to begin to see the harmonious and opposing aspects of all of existence. We begin to see how all things are mutually arising with each other, and instead of getting fixated on a point of view or a feeling that may be rooted in lack or fear. We can begin to notice that the opposing and harmonising aspect will always arise for us at some point. Something can only be filled if it is first empty, and the destiny of an empty vessel is to be filled. So what we are experiencing now is simply a perspective that makes the other so much sweeter when we do finally get to experience it.
This is an idea that can be applied in the experience of interpersonal relationships. When we see others in their darker times which may pain us to experience from a first-hand interaction or when we simply observe them in their darkness, we know that their will be by definition a mutually arising light that will come from their experience at some point. The sunrise can only exist because of the night that existed before it. Moment by moment and slowly slowly, we begin to move beyond seeing the separateness but instead rest in the unity and oneness of all things, and through our experience of opposing interrelated phenomena that is Yin-Yang we arrive back into the oneness, into Tao.
Tune in next week as I unpack the concept of the five elements in Chinese Medicine. We’ll see how poetry and reality collide to create a metaphorical understanding of the world. We’ll see how it describes not only the environmental and life cycles but also our physiological and emotional experience.
Needham, Joseph. 1978. The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China. Colin A. Ronan, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.142-143 ISBN 0-521-21821-7
Welch, Holmes. 1957. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Boston: Beacon Press. pp.96-97 ISBN 0-8070-5973-0
NEI, H., WÊN, C., VEITH, I., & Barnes, L. (1975). The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Beinfield, H., Efrem Korngold, E. (1992). Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine Paperback. Ballantine Books.