Yin and yang are the most familiar terms to the Western public, being equally, or even better known than Tao-te ching or Lao-tzu. Why are they so widespread by the media? One of the reasons, I think, is the esoteric halo surrounding them. Bored to death with the rationalism of the institutionalized Christianity, with Cartesianism and scientific rigor, the Western public blindly pursues whatever keeps a trace of dream or mystery. As a matter of fact, yin and yang are not mysterious, at least not for the Chinese. It is the multitude of meanings attributed to them that stirred confusion, attracting a sense of eccentricity.
On the other hand, this couple of opposite terms sounds quite familiar to the modern mind, which is intoxicated with dialectic. Dualism surpassed its religious, heretic stage and is now located in the realm of modern psychology and philosophy. We are only flattered to find this couple of opposites in the vocabulary of the Chinese philosophy: it proves that wherever we look, there is a single piece of truth - our truth.
So, what we have is the mysterious on one side, and the familiar, on the other. The success of this pair of terms is understandable now.
Yin and yang are not such old notions as one would think. For instance, they are not to be found in the Book of Changes, except for the commentaries (appendixes) on it. They are indirectly named in the Book of Changes by the words "tough" and "soft". Their absence is quite strange, all the more so as the 8 trigrams (Pa-kua), forming the basic framework of the book, consist of three-line combinations with a discontinuous line Yin _ _ , and a continuous one, Yang ___.
In Book 5, Chapter 2 from Lu-sih ch'un-ch'iu (Spring and Autumn Annals), we find a description of the way all things were generated from Yin and Yang:
"The Great One produces the two poles [i.e. Heaven and Earth], which in turn give rise to the energies of the dark (yin) and the light (yang). These two energies then transform themselves, one rising upwards, and the other descending downwards; they merge again and give rise to form."
According to Allan Watts, there are two poles of the cosmic energies in the Chinese tradition - yang (the positive), and yin (the negative). "The ideograms display the sunny slope and the dark slope of a hill - fu - and they are related to the masculine and the feminine, the one who resists and the one who surrenders, the strong and the weak, light and dark, ascending and descending or heaven and earth; one can even identify them in such daily facts like cooking, where they stand for the seasoned and the unseasoned."
Yin-Yang school philosophers, living in the 3rd century B.C., considered the positive and the negative as aspects of T'ai-chi - Supreme Reality - represented at the beginning by an empty circle - wu-chi. Still, it seems that 'chi' originally meant beam, which yin and yang, the two sides of the roof were leaning against.
Lao-tzu mentions yin-yang polarity only once, in chapter 42 of Tao-te ching:
"The created universe carries the yin at its back and the yang in front;
Through the union of the pervading principles it reaches harmony."
In Chuang-tzu there are more references to yin and yang, and we are quoting here a very meaningful one:
"Yang or element of expansion in them is too much developed. Are they exceedingly irritated? The Yin or opposite element is too much developed. When those elements thus predominate in men, (it is as if) the four seasons were not to come (at their proper times), and the harmony of cold and heat were not to be maintained; would there not result injury to the bodies of men?"
Translation by Corina Berbecar
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