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As the most enduring and influential Taoist symbol, the yin and yang (or simply yin-yang) is recognized almost anywhere in the world. Still, as is true with many ancient symbols, its integration with popular culture has caused confusion over the real meaning behind the concept of yin and yang.
In this article, we will revisit what ancient Chinese philosophy really teaches about yin and yang.
History of the Yin-Yang Symbol
The philosophy behind the yin-yang symbol is no less than 3,500 years old, and was first introduced during the ninth century, in a text entitled ‘I Ching’ or ‘Book of Changes.’ The text talks about cosmic duality and the importance of achieving balance between two halves in order to create a perfect whole.
However, it wasn’t until the Song Dynasty era when the concept of yin and yang was illustrated and symbolized using a diagram called taijitu or ‘the taichi symbol.’ The striking imagery of a perfect circle divided into two halves by a curved line was first introduced by a philosopher named Zhou Dunyi, and has evolved into what is now commonly referred to as the yin-yang symbol.
Half of the circle is black, representing the yin side, and the other is white, symbolizing the yang side. Both halves are intertwined in an endless spiral, as if either side is always chasing the other. Notably, there is always a white dot on the black side, and a black dot on the white side of this diagram. This is to illustrate that there’s always a little bit of yin in every yang, and vice versa.
So, what does yin and yang represent?
Yin Yang Meaning and Symbolism
As you may notice, yin and yang represent opposing ideas and forces. Elements of yin and yang come in opposing pairs that complement each other, and the nature of yin-yang lies with the interplay of these polar opposites.
Yin (the black side) is usually associated with the following:
Yang (the white side) is related to the following:
Ancient Taoist philosophy believes peace and abundance can only take place when there is balance and harmony between yin and yang.
Here are some characteristics of yin-yang.
- Neither one is absolute – As illustrated by the single black dot on the yang side and the single white dot on the yin side, nothing is ever completely yin or completely yang. For instance, the symbol tells us to always expect some warmth in the cold, some light in the dark, and some right in every wrong.
- It’s not static – There’s a reason the yin-yang circle is not divided by a straight line. The curved spiral divide shows movement and a dynamic flow of energies, much like the way day doesn’t turn into night but gradually flows into it. The cyclical nature represents the never-ending, continuous motion of life as it eternally moves forward.
- Yin and yang cannot exist without the other – Two halves make a whole and duality is crucial to achieving equilibrium.
- Yin and yang are present in all things – Be it in terms of love, career, or life in general, opposing forces must be balanced the right way in order to achieve harmony.
“Yin and yang, male and female, strong and weak, rigid and tender, heaven and earth, light and darkness, thunder and lightning, cold and warmth, good and evil…the interplay of opposite principles constitutes the universe.” – Confucius
Modern-Day Use of Yin-Yang in Art and Jewelry
Yin-yang is a beautiful and symmetrical design for use in jewelry. While it’s typically black and white, it can be any dark color paired with a lighter color.
The design is popular in pendants. Couples and best friends sometimes wear each half to represent that they are only ever whole when they are together. These are perfect to signify a strong, complete relationship with harmonious duality. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the Yin-Yang symbol.
The design is also beautiful in studs and dangle earrings, as well as used in charms and on bracelets. It’s a unisex design and can be formed into both feminine and masculine jewelry.
Yin-yang art comes in many forms, such as the tiger and dragon yin-yang, yin-yang suns, and nature yin-yangs. All of these forms represent balancing of energies, and have been incorporated in feng shui-inspired interior design and even fashion.
Something to note is that although the yin-yang is connected to Taoism and ancient Chinese religion, it’s not viewed as a religious symbol. It’s more universal in symbolism and applicable to anyone regardless of religion, unlike specific religious symbols like the Cross or the Star of David.
The concept of yin yang is present in both Confucianism and Taoism, both of Chinese origins, but is more prominent in the latter religion. In Taoism, the main objective is for living creatures and the universe to achieve a harmonious co-existence, where everyone lives in balance with Tao.
Taoists strongly believe that matching pairs exist and then unite to form a universal whole. Some examples are the presence of light and dark or the existence of hot and cold temperatures. Yin and yang show the interconnection of everything in the universe where no one can function or survive alone.
Ancient Chinese philosophy states that yin yang stands for two elemental and opposing forces that co-exist and occur in the universe. Both elements stand on equal footing, and no element is better or superior when compared to its counterpart.
Both forces are interconnected and at the same time, serve to counterbalance each other which ensures harmony. They also support each other, and both move together smoothly in a similar direction in order to achieve and maintain balance.
One of the things that differentiates yin and yang from other popular philosophies or religions is its being unifying and non-discordant. It does not separate good or evil and does not say that one is superior or more desirable than the other. Instead, it teaches that both elements are present in everyone and denying this truth will only lead to imbalance and disharmony.
Other concepts preach that good is more desirable over evil, where goodness is something to be pursued while evil must be rejected. However, in yin yang there is no such thing as purely good or purely evil. Darkness is not something to be conquered or eliminated, because it plays a key role in maintaining balance.
The symbol is a simple circle that clearly shows two sides, made up of black and white swirls. However, neither is pure because each one contains a small dot of the opposite shade at its core.
This simple illustration showcases the interconnection of two contradicting forces. Even though they are on opposite sides, they are inseparable. They attract and support each other, which demonstrates the importance of both sides working together in order to achieve balance and harmony.
The female yin is the darker side, which is associated with certain elements like the west and north in terms of directions, or autumn and winter when speaking of seasons. Specific aspects of nature like metals, the Earth, and water, as well as natural occurrences like rainfall and night-time are all related to yin.
Yang is the brighter half which also represents the male side. As such, it is associated with the opposites of yin. The directions of east and south, the seasons spring and summer, and the elements of wood and fire are related to yang. In terms of natural occurrences, yang is linked to daytime and sunlight.
The food and drinks with yang energy are the ones that are closely related to fire or is believed to produce heat. This includes alcohol, coffee, pepper, cinnamon, onion, ginger, beef, salmon, wheat, and flour.
In contrast, yin food and drinks are associated with water, while some are believed to have a cooling effect on the body. Cabbage, broccoli, cucumber, apple, banana, watermelon, honey, mushroom, and tofu are all yin foods.
There is no cultural or religious issue that is related to using yin yang in tattoos. In fact, this is actually quite common in the tattoo community. The design started to gain popularity in the 90s, along with Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
People place great significance on meanings and origins of the designs that they use for tattoos. With its long history and deep roots in the Chinese culture, it is not surprising to see the yin yang symbol in tattoos.
Traditional beliefs used to assign people to a specific role in love and romantic relationships. The objective at that time was to maintain the balance of yin and yang because both people knew exactly what to expect from the other party.
This has changed along with the times, and relationships no longer have a clear definition of roles. However, the concept could still be applied in other ways to help couples achieve harmony in their relationship. One example is when couples accept their differences and openly express their likes and dislikes with each other.
Yin yang is present in practically anything and everywhere in the universe. The creation of life itself already requires the cooperation of yin and yang – one male and one female – to co-exist and reproduce.
It can also be observed in the growth of plants, where the roots are buried deep under the earth while the leaves are reaching up towards the sky. Just breathing in itself is already a practice of yin yang, because both inhalation and exhalation are essential to survival.
There are many examples around you, with some of them being so simple that it may escape your notice unless you really pay attention. Chinese medicine, for one, uses yin yang in diagnosis and medication as practitioners believe that a balanced yin yang is essential for good health.
Many elements in nature also show the concept in action. This includes day and night, or hot and cold temperatures. A practical demonstration is the magnet, which has combined both the north and south in one object.
The yin-yang symbol is a good reminder to always strive to find balance in order to achieve peace and harmony. The two sides may be opposite, but one cannot exist without the other, and are never supposed to be separate.