Yin and Yang: A Short History of Universal Balance

Chinese mythology and cosmology rest on the concept that the universe is shaped and maintained by two fundamental forces called yin and yang. They are opposites yet complementary forces that interact to form a dynamic system where the whole is greater than the assembled parts. Yin represents the feminine, black, dark, north, passive, the moon goddess Changxi, earth, cold and softness – providing spirit to all things. Yin may also be represented by water, which symbolizes transformation, the tiger, the color orange and a broken line in the trigrams of the I Ching (“Book of Changes”). Yang is masculine, white, light, south, active, the sun god Xihe, heaven, warmth and hardness – providing form to all things. Yang may also be represented by fire, which symbolizes creativity, the dragon, the color blue and a solid line trigram of the I Ching.

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The principle of yin and yang is represented in Taoism by the Taijitu (“Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate”) which was first introduced by Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Duni (1017–1073 CE). However, designs similar to the Taijitu has also been a standard ornamental motif in Iron-Age Celtic culture by the 3rd century BCE as well as in Etruscan art. This same principle also became the basis of many others representing these principles, such as the swastika – which is common to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

The birth of Yin and Yang

Yin and yang symbols occur frequently in traditional Chinese myths. The ever-changing relationship between the two poles is responsible for the constant flux of the universe. Representations of yin and yang appear in many stories and depictions. For example, the throne of the goddess Xi Wang Mu (the Queen Mother of the West) features a dragon (yang) and a tiger (ying) which represent the cosmic balance of the universe. Certain mythological events, such as the annual meetings of two divine lovers known as the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl also represent the unity of yin and yang.

Yoshitoshi - 100 Aspects of the Moon - 40-2.jpg
The Moon of the Milky Way (Ginga no tsuki) by Yoshitoshi, c. 1892

In Chinese cosmology, yin and yang were born from a formless chaos. This chaos then formed a cosmic egg in which the perfectly opposed principles of yin and yang became balanced. This allowed  the birth of Pangu, the first human. Pangu set about creating the world by separating yin from yang with a swing of his giant axe, creating the earth and the sky. To keep them separated, Pangu stood between them and pushed up the sky. With each day, the sky grew higher, the Earth grew thicker, and Pangu grew taller. In some versions of the story, Pangu was aided in this task by the Shijin, the guardians of the four directions – the turtle, the qilin, the phoenix, and the dragon.

When Pangu died, his body turned into rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and everything else in the world, among which is a powerful being known as Hua Hsu. Hua Hsu gave birth to a twin brother and sister, Fuxi and Nuwa who are then credited with creating humanity, the invention of hunting, fishing and cooking. The Huainanzi, an ancient Chinese text that consists of a collection of essays that resulted from a series of scholarly debates held at the court of Liu An, King of Huainan, sometime before 139 BCE, offers a more detailed explanation of the cosmological process of yin and yang, “when heaven and earth were formed, they divided into yin and yang. Yang is generated from yin and yin is generated from yang. Sometimes there is life, sometimes there is death, that brings a number of things to completion.”  

Bronze mirror with cosmological decoration from the Belitung shipwreck, including Bagua and the Four Auspicious Beasts
Bronze mirror with cosmological decoration from the Belitung shipwreck, including Bagua and the Four Auspicious Beasts, Photographed by Jacklee CC BY-SA 3.0

The ancient idea of balance leading up to Yin and Yang

Traditionally, the basic idea of two opposing but intertwined cosmicforces is said to have developed before 2000 BCE. This ancient notion underlies both Taoism and Confucianism, two of the major strands of Chinese philosophy and religion with one important difference. In Taoist metaphysics, the  distinction between good and bad, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, are considered perceptual as the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole. On the other hand, Confucianism attached a moral dimension to the idea of yin and yang.

Either way, it is impossible to talk about yin or yang without some reference to the opposite. A good way to illustrate this idea through the impossible notion of a human race with only men or only women. Another illustration is through nature – whenever one quality reaches its peak, it will naturally begin to transform into the opposite quality. Grain that reaches its full height in summer will produce seeds and die in winter in a continuous cycle. The relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of sunlight over a mountain. Yin (“dark”) is the dark area covered by the mountain’s bulk, while yang (“bright”) is the brightly lit portion. As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.

Free stock photo of aerial view, bay, beach

Yin and yang became popular with the work of the Yinyangjia (“School of Yin and Yang”) which studied philosophy and cosmology in the 3rd century BCE. Cosmologist Zou Yan (305 – 240 BCE), who believed that life went through five phases (fire, water, metal, wood and earth) which continuously interchanged according to the principle of yin and yang, became the principal proponent of the theory. However, the most enduring interpretation of yin and yang in Chinese thought is related to the concept of qi (“vital energy”) which provides an explanation of the beginning of the universe and serves as a building block of the Chinese intellectual tradition. In Zuozhuan (“The Book of History”), yin and yang are first defined as two of the six heavenly qi. “There are six heavenly qi … Those six influences are denominated the yin, the yang, wind, rain, obscurity, and brightness. In their separation, they form the four seasons; in their order, they form the five elementary terms. When any of them is in excess, they ensure calamity.” Evidently, the philosopher Laozi (604 – 531 BCE) agrees with this as he says, “everything is embedded in yin and embraces yang; through chong qi (“vital energy”) it reaches he (“harmony”).”

What does all this mean for men and women?

The concept of yin and yang also supplies a vision of heaven, earth and human beings as a unit. The Guoyu (“Discourses of the States”) describes how earthquakes took place at the confluence of the Jing, Wei, and Lou rivers in the western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE). Boyang Fu (c. 8th century BCE) claimed that the Zhou empire is doomed to collapse, explaining that “The qi of heaven and earth cannot lose its order. If its order vanishes people will be disoriented. As yang could not get out and yin was suppressed, an earthquake was inevitable.” Later, a Han dynasty scholar, Dong Zhongshu (195-115 BCE), proposed to control floods and prevent droughts by proper human interaction. In his Chunqiu fanlu (“Luxuriant Dews of the Spring and Autumn Annals”), Dong asserts that a spring drought indicates too much yang and not enough yin. To modify this, he suggests that the government should have the south gate closed as it is in the direction of yang. Men, embodying yang, should remain in seclusion while women, embodying yin, should appear in public. He also requests that all married couples copulate frequently to secure more balanced intercourse, adding that it is also important during this activity to make women happy. In the next chapter Dong claims that the flood means that there is too much yin. Therefore, the north gate should be wide open to let the yin escape. Women should go into concealment and men should be visible.

Aerial View of An Estuary And Its Surrounding Lush Landscape

Yin and yang also plays a critical role in traditional Chinese thought about health and the human body. An early medical text, Huangdi neijing (“The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine”) provides an account of physiological functions and pathological changes in the body as well as guidance for diagnosis and treatment according to yin and yang. The five zang (the kidneys, liver, heart, spleen and lungs) are classified as yin as they control the storage of vital substance and qi. The six fu (the gallbladder, stomach, small and large intestines, urinary bladder and the three parts of the body cavity) are yang as they control the transport and digestion of food. However, the zang and fu organs can be further subdivided into yin (substance) and yang (function). The activity or function of each organ is its yang aspect, while its substance is its yin aspect. They regulate themselves to maintain equilibrium and when they become imbalanced the body will contract illness.  

The earliest Chinese characters for yin and yang are found in inscriptions made on skeletal remains of various animals used in ancient Chinese divination practices at least as early as the 14th century BCE. According to the earliest comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters, Shuowen jiezi (“Explaining Single-component Graphs and Analyzing Compound Characters”) written c. 100 CE, yin refers to “a closed door, darkness and the south bank of a river and the north side of a mountain”, while yang refers to “height, brightness and the south side of a mountain.” These meanings may have originated in the daily life experience of the early people as peasants depended on sunlight for lighting and their daily life routines. They would go to the field to work when the sun rose and return home to rest when the sun went down. This daily pattern led to a conceptual claim that yang is movement and yin is rest.

There is a rich textual and visual history leading to the creation of the yin-yang image that is familiar to us today. According to Sima Tan (165 – 110 BCE), an early Chinese historian in the western Han dynasty, the school of yin and yang focused on omens of luck and explored the patterns of the four seasons, concerning itself with methods of divination or astronomy and the calendar arts which include study of the four seasons, eight locations, twelve measures and and twenty-four time periods. Just as the Confucians arose from the ranks of rushi (“scholar-gentlemen”) who excelled at ritual and music, those of the school of yin and yang came from the fangshi (“recipe gentlemen”) who specialized in various numerological disciplines known as shushu (“number arts”).

The intellectual constructions of I Ching

Inspired by a primeval vision of cosmic harmony, the fangshi have sought to codify this order in various intellectual constructions which led to the development of I Ching. I Ching contains sixty-four hexagrams, each of which is made of six parallel broken (yin) or unbroken line (yang) segments. Each of the sixty-four hexagrams has a unique designation and its image conveys the meaning of human events and activities. The I Ching generated a unique way to decipher the universe as it incorporates elements of images, number and meanings which act as the mediators between heavenly cosmic phenomena and earthly everyday life.

Lake Surrounded by Trees and Mountains

The interpretation of I Ching led to a consistent tension between two schools of thought from the Han dynasty through the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1912 CE) – the school of xiangshu (“Images and numbers”) and the school of yili (“meanings and reasoning”). The most common effort of the Xiangshu school was to draw tu (“diagrams”). During the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), the Taoist monk Chen Tuan (906 – 989 CE) made an important contribution to this tradition by drawing a few diagrams to explain I Ching. Though none of his diagrams were directly passed down, he is considered the forerunner of the school of tushu (“diagrams and writings”). After Chen Tuan’s death, three trends in making tu emerged. They are the Hetu (“Diagram of River”) and Luoshu (“Chart of Luo”) by Liu Mu (1011 – 1064 CE), the Xiantian tu (“Diagram of Preceding Heaven) by Shao Yong (1011 – 1077 CE), and the Taijitu (“Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate”) by Zhou Duni (1017 – 1073 CE).

Ming period author Lai Hide (1525–1604 CE) then simplified the taijitu to a design of two interlocking spirals. This version went on to be popularized in Western popular culture as the “yin-yang symbol” since the 1960s.

Waterfalls Between Trees

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