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Yin and Yang



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 rst 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 (/topic/earth.aspx);
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
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 ve 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 ve 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 dierent cosmological congurations 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 ve agents, which
constitute a further stage in the progressive dierentiation 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
conguration, 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 ve 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 aected 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 inuence 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
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
(/topic/Singapore.aspx): Institute of East Asian Philosophies, National University of
Singapore, 1986.
Granet, Marcel. La pense chinoise. Paris (/topic/Paris.aspx): La Renaissance du
Livre, 1934.
Fabrizio Pregadio