Yin and Yang

views updated Jun 08 2018


In Chinese cosmology, yin and yang are two opposite but complementary principles that regulate the functioning of the cosmos. Their repeated alternation provides the energy necessary for the cosmos to sustain itself, and their continuous joining and separation is at the origin of the rise and the disappearance of the entities and phenomena that exist within the world of the "ten thousand things" (wanwu ).

According to a celebrated statement, which is found in one of the appendixes to the Book of Changes (Yijing ), "one yin and one yang, this is the Dao." This sentence refers to the Dao that first determines itself as the One (or Oneness) and then through the One gives birth to the two complementary principles. As each of these stages generates the next one, yin and yang are ultimately contained within the Dao itself. At the same time, the phrase "one yin and one yang, this is the Dao" refers to the continuous alternation of yin and yang within the cosmos. When one of the two principles prevails, the other yields, but once one of them has reached the height of its development, it begins to recede; in that very moment, the other principle begins its ascent. This mode of operation is especially visible in the time cycles of the day (alternation of daytime and nighttime) and of the year (alternation of the four seasons).

The origins of these notions are impossible to ascertain. Scholars generally deem that the terms yin and yang originally denoted the shaded and sunny sides of a hill and later began to be used in an abstract sense as cosmological categories. The earliest extant text that contains a list of items arranged according to their yin and yang qualities is a manuscript found in Mawangdui entitled Designations (Cheng ), likely dating from the third century b.c.e. Examples of yang and yin items, respectively, mentioned in this text include heaven and earth; above and below; day and night; summer and winter; spring and autumn; man and woman; father and child; elder brother and younger brother; ruler and minister; soldiers and laborers; speech and silence; giving and receiving; action and nonaction.

Between the third and the second centuries b.c.e., the notion of yin and yang became one of the main pillars of correlative cosmology, a feature of which is the coordination of several preexistent patterns of emblems, including, besides yin and yang, the five agents (wuxing ) and the eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes. Each of these patterns represents a particular way of explicating the features and functioning of the cosmos. In the system of correlative cosmology, for instance, yin is related to the agents Metal (west/autumn) and Water (north/winter), while yang is related to Wood (east/spring) and Fire (south/summer), and the balance between them is represented by the central agent Soil. The association with the five agents is likely at the origin of the view that yin and yang are further subdivided into two states each: "minor yang" (Wood), "great yang" (Fire), "minor yin" (Metal), and "great yin" (Water).

The relations among the different cosmological configurations that intervene between the Dao and the "ten thousand things" are illustrated in the well-known Diagram of the Great Ultimate (Taiji tu ), which was discussed at length by both Daoist and Neo-Confucian authors. This chart depicts on top the Absolute (wuji ) as an empty circle. Below it is another circle that represents the Great Ultimate (taiji ) as harboring the Two, or yin and yang, shown as two semicircles that mirror each other. Each of them is made of black (yin) and white (yang) lines that enclose each other to depict yin containing yang and yang containing yin. The empty circle within these lines corresponds to the empty circle on top; this alludes to the notion that yin and yang are the "function" or "operation" (yong ) of Emptiness, which in turn is their "substance" or "core" (ti ). Following this are the five agents, which constitute a further stage in the progressive differentiation of Oneness into multiplicity. The lines that connect them to each other show the sequence in which they are generated, namely Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, and Water. In this cosmological configuration, the Great Ultimate is represented by the central Soil (which is said to have a "male" and a "female" aspect) and reappears as the small empty circle below, which represents the conjunction of Water and Fire ("great yin" and "great yang") and of Wood and Metal ("minor yang" and "minor yin"). The circle below the five agents represents heaven and earth or the active and passive principles that respectively give birth to and support the existence of the "ten thousand things," represented by the circle at the base of the diagram.

The notions of yin and yang have deeply affected Chinese culture as a whole. Representations of these notions are found in religion, art, and several other contexts; as part of the system of correlative cosmology, moreover, yin and yang have played a central role in traditional sciences and techniques, such as divination, medicine, and alchemy. Beyond this, the search for the balance and harmony of yin and yang has had, and continues to have, a pervasive influence on the everyday lives of Chinese people.

See also Chinese Thought ; Cosmology: Asia ; Medicine: China .

He asked: What is the Dao?

I replied: The Dao is Ancestral Pneuma prior to Heaven that generates the creatures. If you want to look at it, you do not see it, if you want to listen to it, you do not hear it, if you want to grasp it, you do not get it. It envelops and enwraps Heaven and Earth and gives life and nourishment to the ten thousand things. It is so great that there is nothing outside it, so small that there is nothing inside it. Confucians call it Great Ultimate, Daoists call it Golden Elixir, and Buddhists call it Complete Awareness. Fundamentally it has no name, but forced to give it a name it is called the Dao. If it is determined, one is in error, and if it is discussed, one loses it. It has no body and no image, it is not form and not emptiness, it is not Being and not Non-being. If it is attributed the images of form and emptiness, of Being and Non-being, it is not the Dao. [That is, if one uses the notions of form and emptiness, Being and Non-being in relation to the Dao, then one is not talking about the Dao, because the Dao is beyond these notions.]

He asked: If the Dao is without body and without image and if it is the One inchoate pneuma, why then does the Book of Changes say: "One yin and one yang, this is the Dao"?

I replied: "One yin and one yang, this is the Dao" are words used to express the function (or operation) of the Dao. "Without body and without image" are words used to express the substance (or core) of the Dao. When the Great Ultimate has not yet divided itself [into yin and yang], the Dao envelops yin and yang. After the Great One has divided itself, it is yin and yang that give life to the Dao. If yin and yang were not there, the pneuma of the Dao would not be visible. It is only in the alternation of yin and yang that the pneuma of the Dao can grow and maintain itself for innumerable eons without being damaged. In the state prior to Heaven [this pneuma], it is the Dao; in the state posterior to Heaven, it is yin and yang. The Dao is the foundation of yin and yang; yin and yang are the outgrowth of the Dao. This is what is meant when one says that the Great Ultimate divides itself and becomes yin and yang and that yin and yang joined to each other form the Great Ultimate. It is One but they are Two, they are Two but it is One.

source: Liu Yiming (17341821), Xiuzhen biannan [Discussions on the cultivation of reality], translated by Fabrizio Pregadio.


Graham, A. C. Yin-Yang and the Nature of Correlative Thinking. Singapore: Institute of East Asian Philosophies, National University of Singapore, 1986.

Granet, Marcel. La pensée chinoise. Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1934.

Fabrizio Pregadio

Yin and Yang

views updated May 17 2018

Yin and Yang

Centuries prior to the appearance of terms for the complementary concepts of yin and yang or their pairing with the wuxing (five phases), there is clear evidence for Chinese categorical thinking. The cosmos was understood to be in continual flux, but this constant change operated in generally predictable patterns: waxing and waning, cyclical renewal, or successive displacement. These patterns came to be organized in disparate but overlapping systems. In the Shang dynasty (second millennium bce), the temporal cycles of ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches informed the calendar, and the eight trigrams combined into sixty-four hexagrams to express the full range of natural phenomena, as described in the classic of divination, the Yijing (or I Ching, Book of changes). By the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 bce), the categories of yinyang and wuxing were systematized and recognized as part of the overall worldview.

Wuxing refers to five constituent elements of all physical phenomena: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements were applied to a broad range of categories, including cardinal directions (including the center), tastes, colors, viscera, and virtues. As with the other categorical systems, these elements are patterned, interrelated, and dynamic. Each element gives way to the next (in varying orders suggested over the centuries), such that "five phases" is a more accurate description of the system than the more common but static reference to "five elements."

Yin and yang originated in the distinction between the shaded (yin) and sunlit (yang) slopes of a mountain, or the shaded and sunlit banks of a river. In the agrarian context of early China, the terms naturally became associated with characteristics such as dark and bright, cool and warm, moist and dry (in reference to the soil), and decay and growth (in reference to plant health). The relationship of these characteristics to each other was neither dualistic nor absolute but complementary and relative. The same infant who is yin in its passivity and weakness grows into an active, strong, yang adult, but then shifts again into passivity and weakness as he or she ages and moves toward death. Although yang was generally understood to be more auspicious or positive—that is, growth and life are generally preferred over decay and death—there was no essential value in the terms.

During the fourth century bce, the yinyang and wuxing systems were aggregated to form a larger system of relationships: wood and fire (growth and heat) fall under the yang rubric, metal and water (coolness and passivity) are yin, and, intriguingly, earth (locus of these interactions) is a neutral force.

Associations of yinyang with female and male, women and men, and femininity and masculinity were later additions to the initial list of paired concepts. Prior to the Han dynasty (second century bce–second century ce), the association of individuals with yin and yang was determined more by relationship and position by sex or gender. A man was simultaneously yang in relation to his wife and children but yin in relation to his parents, his ruler, and his older brothers. During the Han, an exhaustive list of characteristics ranging from musical notes to colors, foods, emotions, and cognition were incorporated; a hierarchical sense was infused into these extensive conceptual pairings; and gendered, essentialist views emerged. Women, as yin, were categorized as weak, less rational, and associated with inauspiciousness. Once past childbearing age, however, women are often observed in Chinese religious contexts to wield significant power and influence; with their yin energies dissipated, their yang characteristics can come to the fore and be exercised and appreciated.

From ancient times through the twentieth-century end of the imperial era, these categorical structures such as yinyang, wuxing, and the hexagrams were seen to inform and direct all natural and social processes. The yinyang system, falsely associated with Taoism in the popular Western imagination, was fully integrated into all the various religious and cultural traditions of China. It cannot be said to be uniquely Taoist or Confucian or folk-religious; rather, it suffused all of these traditions. When Buddhism entered China, it too incorporated the dynamic yinyang understanding of the cosmos into its own vision of cosmic change. Deeply enmeshed in Chinese religion, philosophy, politics, and medicine, the yinyang system was exported to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam as each was influenced or dominated by China.

The yinyang-wuxing system continues to influence socio-religious practices. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, is predicated on the appreciation of the dynamic workings of these forces and elements in the body; cures focus on foods and other medicines to restore balance to the body's system, or on exercises and interventions that facilitate movement and appropriate change. Feng shui, the art of siting graves, buildings, and, more recently, interior elements, understands yin and yang influences to be moving constantly in the landscape; the goal of a successful feng shui practitioner is to maximize yang influences while minimizing inauspicious yin influences. In North America since the 1990s, feng shui has become something of an interior design trend, with people rushing to purchase fountains or rocks or other "elements" in hopes of improving the tranquility of their home.

In South Korea, a representation of the yin-yang mandala is incorporated into the national flag, along with the trigrams of the Yijing. In other contexts, the mandala is more commonly depicted in black and white, with each comma-shaped portion having a spot of the complementary color. Given this form, there is no way to evenly bisect the mandala such that only yin or yang is present; symbolically, this represents the constant latent presence of the complementary force.

In non-Asian cultures, the appreciation of yinyang is predominantly sexed and gendered: Male and female (in this reversed order) are the typical associated terms. This association is most likely due to a perceived connection with Taoism—the classical Chinese religious system often popularly understood to exalt women and venerate femininity. Although erroneously based on misreadings of the Daodejing (Tao te ching), these understandings of Taoism and yinyang have gained wide following in European and American cultures. For better or for worse, the yinyang mandala has become ubiquitous in popular material culture, appearing on everything from jewelry and clothing to heat-sensitive pencils that change from dark to light as one rubs them between one's fingers.

see also Confucianism.


Black, Alison. 1986. "Gender and Cosmology in Chinese Correlative Thinking." In Gender and Religion, ed. Caroline Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Graham, A.C. 1986. Yin-yang and the Nature of Correlative Thinking. Singapore: Institute of East Asian Philosophies, National University of Singapore.

Granet, Marcel. 1950. Pensée chinoise. Paris: Éditions Albin.

Min, Jiayin, ed. 1995. The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture: Gender Relations and Social Models. Compiled by the Chinese Partnership Research Group. Beijing: China Social Sciences Publishing House.

Needham, Joseph. 1962. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. II: History of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

                                            Vivian-Lee Nyitray

Yin and Yang

views updated May 11 2018

Yin and Yang

Chinese mythology and cosmology rest on the idea that the universe is shaped and maintained by two fundamental forces called Yin and Yang. Although opposites, Yin and Yang are not in conflict with one another. Rather, they interact constantly, achieving a delicate balance. Nature and society depend on this balance for harmony. When Yin and Yang fall out of balance, disaster follows.

According to tradition, the idea of two opposing but intertwined cosmic forces developed before 2000 b.c. The ancient notion underlies both Taoism and Confucianism, two of the major strands of Chinese philosophy and religion. The Japanese adopted Yin and Yang, calling them In and Yo.

Yin and Yang are represented in pairs of attributes or things that are opposites or halves of a whole. Yin is associated with the earth, darkness, femaleness, cold, moisture, softness, and inactivity. Yang is linked with the sky, light, maleness, heat, dryness, and activity. Yin is a negative force; Yang is a positive one. Yin is represented by a broken line, Yang by an unbroken one. Various combinations of broken and unbroken lines in groups of three, called trigrams, form the basis of an ancient Chinese work known as the I Ching, which is used in divination.

cosmology set of ideas about the origin, history, and structure of the universe

cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe

attribute quality, property, or power of a being or thing

divination act or practice of foretelling the future

Beyond Yin and Yang lies a single absolute or ultimate reality called the T'ai Chi, a force or power that gives existence to all things. Through the interplay of Yin and Yang, the T'ai Chi brings forth "the ten thousand things," the visible universe. The symbol of the T'ai Chi is a circle. A circle divided by a wavy linecreating two tadpole-shaped halves, one light and one darkrepresents Yin and Yang within the Tai Chi.

Legend says that the Yin and Yang are controlled by the constellation of stars known as the Big Dipper in the West or as the Bushel in China. Certain mythological events, such as the annual meetings of two divine lovers known as the Weaver Girl and the Herder, represent Yin and Yang coming together in proper unity. Yin-Yang symbols occur frequently in traditional myths. For example, the throne of the goddess Xi Wang Mu features two creatures, a dragon and a tiger, representing the cosmic balance and opposition of Yin and Yang.

See also Chinese Mythology.

Yin and Yang

views updated Jun 27 2018

Yin and Yang

According to ancient Chinese philosophy, the dual principles of nature. Yin signifies earth, passive, negative, female, yielding, weak, or dark; yang signifies heaven, active, positive, male, strong, or light. These principles are manifest throughout nature and in the human body. They relate to mental, physical, and spiritual structure and are affected by food, drink, action, and inaction. The balance of yin and yang in the individual, nature, and the cosmos is symbolized by a circle separated by an "S" shape, one half of the circle dark and the other light. This has something in common with the ancient Greek alchemical symbol of a serpent or dragon eating its tail, known as Ouroboros.

The yin-yang symbol represents unity and duality, a universal dual monism. It is also inherent in the ancient Chinese system of divination of the I Ching (Book of Changes). It is basic to the teachings of Taoism, as embodied in the classic work Tao-te-Ching (Book of the Right Way) of the philosopher Lao Tzu.

In modern times, the yin and yang principles are a vital part of the revived system of diet known as macrobiotics, where health and mental and spiritual balance are developed by the correct proportions of yin and yang foods, properly prepared.

(See also China ; Tao )


Legge, James, trans. The I Ching. New York: Dover Publications, 1963.


views updated May 23 2018

Yin-yang. The two opposite energies in Chinese thought, from whose interaction and fluctuation the universe and its diverse forms emerge. They are the polar extremes of the unbounded Tao of the supreme and ultimate source (tʾai-chi), and from their intermingling arise the five elements (wu-hsing), which give rise to the myriads of forms, and to history and time. The yin-yang symbol expresses this interaction, with the two spots (white in the dark, dark in the white) indicating that each of the two contains the seed of the other and is about to produce the replication of its opposite in interaction. All oppositions can be mapped onto yin and yang, yin representing e.g. the feminine, yielding, receptive, moon, water, clouds, even numbers, and the yang the masculine, hard, active, red, the sun, and odd numbers. Combined with wu-hsing (five phases), these represent the organizing categories of the Chinese world-view.

yin and yang

views updated May 11 2018

yin and yang Interaction of two complementary forces in the universe, as described in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Yin and yang are two cosmic energy modes comprising the Tao or the eternal, dynamic way of the universe. Earth is yin, the passive, dark, female principle; heaven is yang, the active, bright, male principle. All the things of nature and society are composed of combinations of these two principles of polarity, which maintain the balance of all things. The hexagrams of the Book of Changes embody yin and yang.

Yin and Yang

views updated May 29 2018


Some historians believe that the binary number system has its roots in the concept of yin and yang the ancient Confucian belief in two forces of nature that are separate, yet equal, which when combined represent the whole of existence. In the Chinese language, yang is represented as a solid line, whereas yin is shown as a broken line. As with the binary numbers of "1" and "0," the symbols for yin and yang can be combined to make many more characters.