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A yin yang symbol.

The Yin Yang Symbol: A Philosophy of Chaos and Harmony

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The complementary nature of Yin and Yang are perhaps best illustrated by the iconic black-and-white yin-yang symbol. Yet, the philosophy behind the concept can apply to many things. The ancient symbol has been a foundational aspect of Chinese philosophy since at least the third century BC, perhaps even longer. From ancient bone oracles to yoga studio kitsch, Yin and Yang continue to hold meaning for people around the world.

The yin yang symbol as it’s commonly referred to in the West, is also known as the Taji symbol and Tajitu. In it’s simplest form, it is represented as a circle which is divided into two tear-drop shaped elements – one of which is black and the other white. Each side has a smaller circle inside it made of the opposite color.

Legendary and Historical Beginnings of Yin and Yang

According to legend, yin and yang were born from the same chaos that would eventually create the universe. As the elements coalesced, yin and yang formed the center of Earth. By coexisting in perfect harmony and balance, yin and yang allowed for the birth of Pangu (the first human) as well as Fuxi, Nuwa, and Shennong (the first gods). The myth states that yin and yang continue to coexist in blissful harmony at the center of the earth.

A legend says yin and yang coexist at the center of the earth.

A legend says yin and yang coexist at the center of the earth. ( CC0)

Historically, the origins of yin and yang are more mundane. The earliest evidence of the yin yang symbol appears on various animal skeletal remains used in China for divination. These oracle bones have been used at least as early as the 14th century BC, but the earliest evidence we have today of yin and yang dates to the 3rd century BC.

For divination purposes, yin and yang served as simple indications of natural phenomena. Yin represented night, or lack of sunlight; yang represented day, or lack of darkness. According to the earliest dictionary of Chinese characters, dating to 100 AD, “yin refers to ‘a closed door, darkness and the south bank of a river and the north side of a mountain.’ Yang refers to ‘height, brightness and the south side of a mountain.’ (Wang, 2017)

Replica of an ancient Chinese oracle bone.

Replica of an ancient Chinese oracle bone. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

These ordinary definitions lend themselves to conceptual extrapolation. For example, in a peasant community, when the sun went down, the people rested - so yin became associated with rest and passivity. In another example, the sun is hot and so yang becomes associated with fire. These concepts were not used together.

The earliest known instance of yin-yang is in the Shijing (Book of Songs), a collection of Chinese poetry compiled between the 11th and 7th centuries BC: “Viewing the scenery at a hill, looking for yin-yang. This indicates that yang is the sunny side and yin is the shady side of the hill. This effect of the sun exists at the same time over the hill.” (Wang, 2017) While in hindsight this verse may seem filled with philosophical meaning, at the time it most likely was just a poetic turn of phrase.

The First Known Philosophical Yin-Yang

The philosophical yin-yang first appeared during the Han Dynasty ; but it really came into its own during the Zhou Dynasty when it became associated with the concept of qi (vital energy). Seizing on this new metaphysical worldview, Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius and Lao Tzu , expounded on the various attributes of yin and yang. In general, the Confucians preferred the fiery yang while the Taoists preferred the serene Yin aspects of the yin yang symbol.

Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat.

Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat. ( 三教) ( Public Domain )

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says the following about yin and yang:

“The Tao gave birth to One.
The One gave birth to Two.
The Two gave birth to Three.
The Three gave birth to all of creation.

All things carry Yin
yet embrace Yang.
They blend their life breaths
in order to produce harmony.”

What Does the Yin Yang Symbol Mean?

The cyclical form of the yin yang symbol reflects the ever-changing complimentary movement of the two sides. They are two sides to a coin, they are birth and death, night and day, friends and enemies, light and dark, fire and water, positive and negative… where both aspects are necessary and an equilibrium is sought. Shih-tou's poem demonstrates some of these ideas:

“Within light there is darkness,
but do not try to understand that darkness.
Within darkness there is light,
but do not look for that light.
Light and darkness are a pair,
like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.
Each thing has its own intrinsic value
and is related to everything else in function and position.
Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.
The absolute works together with the relative,
like two arrows meeting in mid-air.”

Essentially, yin-yang conveys the complicated dualities of life and the paramount need for balance and moderation. Yin, yang, and yin-yang are still being pondered and discussed the world over by Taoists, Buddhists, Vedantists, Yogis, and students of Traditional Chinese Medicine . With more meanings and understandings created over time, the yin yang symbol remains prevalent.

A yin-yang symbol. ( exsodus /Adobe Stock)

Top Image: A yin yang symbol. Source: Comugnero Silvana /Adobe Stock

By Kerry Sullivan

Resources:

Wang, Robin R. “Yinyang (Yin-Yang).”  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , 2017, www.iep.utm.edu/yinyang/

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