Stephen FIELD

The yin and yang symbol from Daoism, which represents a complementary, rather than a hostile, duality.

Representing the Chinese philosophy of duality, yin and yang have a deeply rooted history in China. Developing into the School of Yin and Yang, thinkers of this concept seek to define the relationship between human and natural phenomena.

Probably no aspect of Chinese philosophy is more widely recognized in the West than the concept of yin and yang. People rightly see the two terms yin and yang as symbolic of the dualistic nature of the phenomenal world, but some incorrectly see this duality as hostile, like the moral opposition between good and evil. In the Chinese conception duality is complementary, not conflicting. Furthermore, the categories are not static but rather dynamic. Although yang may eventually overcome yin, at the point of triumph its power will immediately begin to wane. The alternation of yin and yang is thus the most indicative quality of this philosophical concept.

One of the earliest textual references to the two terms in the Chinese tradition occurs in a poem from the Book of Songs that recounts the founding of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). This excerpt shows the venerable ancestor surveying the realm:

Blessed was Chief Liu.

He measured the breadth and length of the land;

He measured the shadow and noted the hills,

Observing the sunshine (yang) and shade (yin).
(Mao Shi no. 250; Legge 1861, 487)

Chief Liu was measuring the shadow of the gnomon, or sundial, to determine the cardinal directions. Yang hillsides (the south slopes) and river banks (the north sides) were appropriate for human habitation because houses built there would receive the most sunshine during the winter.

Yin and Yang in Ancient Cosmology

By the time the two terms reappeared in the textual tradition, they had acquired cosmological connotations (associations relating to a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe). In the Zuo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals (written c. fifth century BCE) a passage that mentions yin and yang concerns astrological prognostication. The failure of ice to appear at the beginning of the year was blamed on Jupiter (the Year Star), whose “licentious” (retrograde) movement caused “the yin not to cover the yang” (Legge 1861, 540). Normally, the annual dominance of yin would have allowed ice to form. But Jupiter’s licentious behavior (lodging in the inappropriate constellation) increased the influence of yang in the corresponding earthly realm.

During the mid-Warring States period (475–221 BCE) the function of yin and yang in literary contexts continued to have cosmological import, but now the terms were elevated to cosmogonic status (relating to a theory of the origin of the universe). The opening to the poem “Heaven Questions” from the Songs of Chu describes how the world came about:

In the beginning of old,

All is yet formless, no up or down.

Dark and light are a blur,

The only image is a whir.

Bright gets brighter, dark gets darker,

The yin couples with the yang

Then is the round pattern manifold.
(Trans. S. Field, in Major 1993, 63)

The process being narrated here is birth and generation. The whirling image is inchoate matter, what might be called “chaos” in Western mythology. In cosmogonies appearing later in the Chinese tradition, such matter would be given the term qi. In this poem form and light spawn from the motion of embryonic qi as yin and yang materialize. At that point they couple and generate roundness, the shape of the phenomenal world.

In the mid-second century BCE, when the philosophical treatise Huainanzi was compiled, the sexual connotations surrounding the cosmological terms became even more overt: “When yin and yang gather together their interaction produces thunder. Aroused, they produce lightning” (Major 1993, 65). In the mythical version of this passage, instead of abstract yin and yang interacting in a vacuum the coupling of two dragons is visualized, one male and one female, who leave their winter refuge, mount up to heaven, and cause the spring rains to fall. The Huainanzi version may simply be the philosophical refinement of vestiges of folk tradition that had always recognized in nature the same sexual groupings that govern society. Scholars therefore speculate that the original impulse for positing a yin/yang duality in the cosmos may have been the spring mating ritual in ancient China. In that ceremony sexual communion among the young people of neighboring villages was the central rite, but that union subsequently guaranteed the fecundity of all of nature: The rains arrived, the rainbow appeared, seeds sprouted, and winter gave way to spring (Granet 1975, 46–50).

School of Yin and Yang

By the end of the Warring States period, at the time of the great flowering of Chinese philosophy, the School of Yin and Yang arose, led by the thinker Zou Yan (350–270 BCE?). The Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)Records of the Grand Historian had this to say about Zou:

He examined deeply into the phenomena of the increase and decrease of yin and yang, and wrote essays totaling more than a hundred thousand words about their strange permutations. (Needham 1956, 232)

None of his works survives, but he is credited with proposing five categories of qi as a further elaboration of the original two forces of yin and yang. This is the concept of wuxing, or the “five elements” of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The “strange permutations” mentioned earlier are the so-called enumeration orders whereby the elements successively conquer (or produce) each other. Thus, earth dams water, water quenches fire, fire melts metal, metal cuts wood, and wood saps earth, and so forth. Such thinking, based as it was on the empirical observation of nature, was an early attempt at a scientific view of the world. Zou Yan and his followers subsequently built a correlative universe based on these categories and their orders. For example, when the five internal organs (spleen, lungs, heart, kidney, liver) are correlated withthe five elements, wood governs the liver. When the five grains (rice, millet, barley, wheat, legumes) are correlated with the five elements, legumes belong to the element water. In the production order of the elements water nourishes wood, so a diet rich in soybeans can be beneficial to the liver.

Heaven Questions

… Bright gets brighter, dark gets darker,

The yin couples with the yang—

Then is the round pattern manifold.

Source: Field, S.. (1992). Cosmos, cosmograph, and the inquiring poet: New answers to the “heaven questions.” Early China 17, 83–110.

In seeking proto-scientific correspondences between human and natural phenomena the thinkers of the School of Yin and Yang sought to control human civilization by aligning it with natural cycles and patterns. Their theories inspired great thinkers in the Han dynasty and continued to influence Chinese philosophy until the Song dynasty (960–1279). At that time the cosmology of Zou Yan was integrated with Confucian metaphysics by Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073), who composed the treatise, “Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate.” That diagram, the taiji, is considered to be the precursor of the familiar circular symbol of yin and yang.

Further Reading

Field, S. (1992). Cosmos, cosmograph, and the inquiring poet: New answers to the “heaven questions.” Early China 17, 83–110.

Granet, M. (1975). The religion of the Chinese people (M. Freedman, Trans. & Ed.). New York: Harper and Row.

Legge, J. (Trans.). (1861-1872). The Chinese Classics, 5 vols. (Vol. 4, The She King [Classic of odes], Vol. 5, The Ch’un Ts’ew, with the Tso Chuen [Spring and autumn annals with the Zuo commentary]). Hong Kong and London: Oxford University Press.

Major, J. S. (Trans.). (1993). Heaven and Earth in early Han thought: Chapters three, four, and five of the Huainanzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Needham, J. (1956). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 2. History of scientific thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Waley, A. (Trans.). (1937). The book of songs. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Source: Field, Stephen (2009). Yin and Yang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2574–2576. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yin and Yang (Yīn-Yáng 阴阳)|Yīn-Yáng 阴阳 (Yin and Yang)

Download the PDF of this article