Martial arts>Concepts>Yin-Yang



The Yin-Yang symbol is well-known around the world, especially in the martial arts community. It is seen in organization logos, school logos, and in tattoos on martial artists. However, many who use the symbol are unaware of its meaning or history or of the concept of Yin-Yang.


The early Han dynasty (207 BCE - 9 CE) devoted itself to regain the same level of central government as the previous Ch'in dynasty (221-207 BCE) and the Legalists had gained. This, along with the Legalists' attempts to standardize Chinese culture and philosophy, led the Han to attempt to unify all the rival schools of Chinese thought and philosophy. The Legalists had attempted to standardize Chinese thought by burning the books of rival schools and by making it a capital crime to speak of Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Mo Tzu. Rather than reject alternate ways of thinking, the Han attempted to fuse all the rival schools of thought into a single system.


The concepts of Yin-Yang and Five Elements are thought to have developed separately in ancient times and it is not until the Han Dynasty that we find them linked together in the school they retrospectively named Yin-Yang. Tsou Yen (305-204 BCE), a principal thinker of this school, is credited with bringing the two concepts together, but the work attributed to him is lost. The ancients used the concepts for magic and divination. In the early Han period, they were used to develop a sophisticated cosmology.

The Five Elements are discussed in the Great Norm chapter of the Book of History but there is no comparable discussion on Yin-Yang. These concepts appear in the later texts as 'given' ideas that are then developed as ways of 'explaining' all phenomena. Yet they are not discussed together in any of the Confucian or Taoist classics of an early date.

The Yin-Yang ideas of Tsou Yen were developed further by Tung Chung-Shu (179-104 BCE.) and the compilers of the appendices of the I Ching. Tung built up a body of correspondence that related the complementary principles of Yin-Yang to all phases of creation. Yin was related to the ideas of female, moon, cold, water, earth, autumn, and winter. It also nourishes and sustains the 'myriad things.' Yin and Yang continue to succeed each other and as each 'force' reaches its extreme it becomes the other, thus producing a never-ending cycle. This constant progression was used to explain the process of growth and change in the natural world.

The appendices of the I Ching expanded and developed the Yin-Yang concept into a comprehensive cosmology. The first two hexagrams Ch'ien (heaven) and K'un (earth) were equated with Yang and Yin respectively. These forces then assumed a metaphysical dimension and heaven and earth, where male and female become the 'creators and sustainers' of all the other hexagrams.

The sixty-four hexagrams have come to represent all possible situations and changes in the universe. The study of the hexagrams and their interpretations enable a scholar to understand the activities of the universe, which, once expanded, reveal the endless process of universal change. All things and all changes can be described in terms of Yin-Yang activity and this is then developed further by the concept of the five elements.


Yin and ZYang represent all the opposite principles one finds in the universe. Under Yin are the principles of femaleness, the moon, completion, cold, darkness, material forms, submission, etc. Under Yang are the principles of maleness, the sun, creation, heat, light, Heaven, dominance, etc. Each of these opposites produces the other. Heaven creates the ideas of things under Yang, the earth produces their material forms under Yin, and vice versa. Creation occurs under the principle of Yang. The completion of the created thing occurs under Yin, and vice versa. And so on, and so on.

This production of Yin from Yang and Yang from Yin occurs cyclically and constantly so that no one principle continually dominates the other or determines the other.

All opposites that one experiences—health and sickness, wealth and poverty, power and submission—may be explained by the temporary dominance of one principle over the other. Since no one principle dominates eternally, that means that all conditions are subject to change into their opposites.

Two important features of the relationships between opposites:
  • There is some sort of correlation between the individual components of different pairs of opposites. During the day, it is light and warm, the sun is out, and people are active. Thus, these components all share an essential quality—daytime, light, warmth, activity and the sun. On the other hand, there is nighttime, darkness, cold, rest, and the moon, all of which share an essential quality that is opposite in nature to the former. 
  • One opposite has certain distinctive relationships with the other in any given pair. They may be viewed as two alternating states of development or two aspects of a cyclical movement through time. Day changes into night, and night into day; summer changes to winter and winter into summer; activity is followed by rest, rest supports activity, dormancy is followed by growth which is followed by decay, etc. 

The cyclical nature of Yin and Yang, the opposing forces of change in the universe, means several things:
  • First, all phenomena change into their opposites in an eternal cycle of reversal. 
  • Second, since the one principle produces the other, all phenomena have within them the seeds of their opposite state, for example, sickness has the seeds of health, health contains the seeds of sickness, wealth contains the seeds of poverty, etc. 
  • Third, even though an opposite may not be seen to be present, since one principle produces the other, no phenomenon is completely devoid of its opposite state. One is never really healthy since health contains the principle of its opposite, sickness. This is called "presence in absence." Once you have this principle down, the Chinese view as expressed in literature becomes clearer. 


Some points about the interrelationship between Yin and Yang:
  • Pairs. Any given frame of reference can be divided into Yin-Yang pairs (i.e. pairs of opposite factors). The planet earth is divided into oceans and landmasses. Life forms are mobile or immobile, warm-blooded or cold-blooded. The body can be regarded as consisting of an exterior portion of skin and skeletal muscle and an interior portion of viscera and bones. 
  • Yin and Yang are descriptive terms; they are not nominative. Yin-Yang terminology is used when describing the nature or characteristic tendency of one thing with reference to another. Linguistically, it often appears that these terms are used as nouns; however, it should always be understood that Yin and Yang are adjectives and do not refer to any concrete or existing thing. 
  • Pure or absolute Yin or Yang does not exist. There is always some degree of the opposite contained in anything that exists, no matter how extreme the degree of Yin or Yang. Taking expansion-contraction as an example, it is impossible for the mind to conceive of pure, 100% expansiveness without any trace of the contracting force. Whatever is conceived would simply expand to infinity, i.e. out of existence. Similarly, pure 100% contraction without any trace of expansive force would simply contract down to zero, i.e. out of existence. It is a condition for the existence of anything that there always must be some degree of both Yin and Yang qualities present. 
  • Yin is complementary to Yang and vice versa. There does not exist any antagonism between opposites in nature. They are always complimentary. The normal, healthy, functional, durable existence of everything in nature depends on the mutual enhancement and beneficial interaction of opposite forces. Day and night; summer and winter; work and rest; man and woman. On one level, when there is an antagonistic relationship between opposites this leads to destruction. However, from the larger perspective, the balance of nature is always maintained. 
  • Yin nourishes and sustains and controls Yang and vice versa. Each depends on upon its opposite to exist; thus, Yin creates Yang and Yang creates Yin. Opposites also hold each other in balance and exert mutual control. The soil produces crops for humankind, and humans cultivate the soil. If there are insufficient care and attention by the workers to the crops, there may be fewer crops and more weeds. Workers produce goods and services; goods and services produce wealth. 
  • Everything in the physical world has an opposite. There are no absolutes in the manifest universe. Wherever there is a 'front' there will also be a 'back'; the bigger the front, the bigger the back. Birth is followed eventually by death, economic boom by recession, and conquest of nature by pollution and degradation of resources. There are no advantages without some disadvantages; there are no disadvantages without some advantages. 
  • Yin attracts Yang and Yang attracts Yin. The greater the difference, the greater the attraction. 
  • Yin repels Yin and Yang repels Yang. The greater the similarity the greater the repulsion. 
  • Yin gradually changes the into Yang and vice versa. Spring changes into summer, summer into autumn, autumn into winter and winter into spring etc. At the extremes of Yin or Yang, there is great instability and the change from one opposite to the other is rapid and inharmonious. The 'midlife crisis' suffered by males in our culture is an example of this. 
  • Normal physiological conditions (i.e. homeostasis) require the avoidance of extremes of Yin and Yang. The body can only resist within a narrow range of temperature, atmospheric pressure, the oxygen content of the air, etc. One can develop tolerance to extremes only by gradually introducing them to the body, but there are still definite limitations to the body's tolerance to extreme factors (e.g. heat, cold, deprivation, etc.). 
  • Each Yang factor can be further subdivided into a pair of Yin-Yang factors ad infinitum. Each Yin factor may also be further subdivided in the same way. Life forms can be divided into simple and complex; complex life can be divided into warm-blooded or cold-blooded; warm-blooded into evolved and less evolved (in terms of adaptability and capacity for learned behavior as opposed to instinct); of the more highly evolved species, humanity can be separated out due to the potential for an advanced civilization or culture 
  • Nothing should be rejected. There are no 'bad' things. Everything has some usefulness, depending on the appropriate conditions (i.e. time, place, dosage, type of illness etc.). Any substance may be used as a medicine, depending on the dosage (any substance may be regarded as food, medicine, or poison, at the appropriate dosage). 

Five classics

Han philosophers concentrated specifically on the Five Classics, attempting to derive from them, particularly the I Ching, or Book of Changes, the principle of the workings of the universe, or Tao. They appended this new theory of the universe to the I Ching. This appendix explains the metaphysical workings of the entire universe and is the origin of what is called the Yin-Yang or Five Agents school of Chinese thought.

The Yin-Yang doctrine teaches that everything is the product of two principles: Yin, which is weak, female, and destructive and Yang, which is strong, male, and creative. The interaction of these two principles produces the five elements and enables change to take place within the world. These five elements represent a dynamic process, not the 'elements' that come together to produce things. The five elements are not physical substances; they represent cyclic movements. There are two orders of the five elements:
  • Production. This is where wood promotes fire, fire promotes earth, earth promotes, metal, metal promotes water, and water promotes wood. 
  • Overcoming or controlled. This is where fire is overcome/controlled by water, water by earth, earth by wood, metal by fire, and wood by metal.
This idea was developed to cover all things, and many lists of correspondence were produced. These correspondence lists are generally given with the elements arranged in the order of production. Here are just a few of the major correspondences, which relate to both the natural world—in the case of the seasons and directions and the human world of 'discrimination'—in the case of tastes and emotions. However, the important point is that things that relate to human activity and the activity of nature are woven together in these lists.


There are five elements and four seasons; thus, the earth becomes assigned to the center thereby aiding the other elements in the 'rule' of the seasons. This gives us a view of the earth as the pivot around which the seasons revolve. However, there are some who assign mid-summer as earth's season and others who say that the mid-month of each season corresponds to earth.

Tung Chung-Shu talks of the earth as controlling nothing in particular but being the central authority of the four seasons. He writes, "The earth is the controller of the five elements and without the ch'i of the soil nothing can be accomplished". The cause of the movements of the elements is the Yin ch'i and the Yang-ch'i which alternate between flourishing and declining.

Here we have the three most important concepts of Chinese thought brought together, Yin-Yang, wu-hsing, and ch'i. Ch'i has a wide variety of meanings, we can speak of Yin ch'i tang ch'i, the ch'i of each of the five elements, the ch'i of social order, the ch'i of the individual. Each 'thing' is considered to have its proper ch'i and the movement of ch'i gives us the movement of Yin and Yang through the five elements. Each element is said to flourish when its ch'i is Yang and to decline when its ch'i is Yin; thus, seasonal changes are caused by the flourishing and decline of Yin-Yang. This shows the cyclic nature of the perpetual motion of all changes.

Other concepts

This cosmological theory was developed by thinkers of all later schools. The concepts were used to correlate human actions with the actions of nature. This idea, in differing expressions, was used by both Confucian and Taoist philosophers during the Han Dynasty. The Confucians used it to develop political and ethical ideas while the Taoists concentrated on the direct relationship between individuals and nature. Both the public and the private areas of life were covered with these concepts. As it is the way of nature to process through periods of flourishing and decline so it is with human affairs. The patterns of nature are reflected in both the life of the individual and of the wider society.

There was one further area covered with these concepts, that of history. History was cyclic, as it was considered the counterpart in the human sphere of the cycles of the universe. It is this cyclic notion of the myriad things and the centrality of change that makes Chinese thinkers so different from those of other traditions. Unlike their Japanese, Jewish, or Christian counterparts, they did not assign a temporal beginning to the universe nor did they talk about the end of the universe. In the Yin-Yang/Five Elements theory, time itself is a series of cycles based on the movement of the planets.

For these thinkers, time extends indefinitely into the past and the future. As long as there is motion in the universe, there is time and thereby change. There is no idea of a creator because there is no beginning and as long as the planets are in motion, there can be no end. These ideas are direct developments of the cosmological theory.

This interdependent interaction of Yin-Yang and Wu Hsing sustains everything. The concepts of Yin-Yang and Five Elements have a great influence in Chinese life, from the Emperor to the ordinary people, all are governed by these ideas of the relations between humans and nature. Yin and Yang nurture and produce the myriad things, the Five Elements describe their natural progression through their 'life'. All things have their natural state of activity and are connected by the ch'i of each of the myriad things. Thus, humans and nature, heaven and earth, the individual and society are bound together in a harmonious relationship. The scholars concentrated on the metaphysical and cosmological aspects of these ideas while the 'ordinary people' used them to give authority to the various forms of divination that developed over the years. These ideas permeate all areas of Chinese thought and action and form the ground of Chinese culture and civilization for over two thousand years.


The essentials of the Yin-Yang school are as follows: the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles that oppose one another in their actions, Yin and Yang. All the opposites one perceives in the universe may be reduced to one of the opposite forces.

The Yin and Yang accomplish changes in the universe through the five material agents, or wu-hsing, which both produce one another and overcome one another. All change in the universe can be explained by the workings of Yin and Yang and the progress of the five material agents as they either produce one another or overcome one another. Yin-Yang and the five agents are a universal explanatory principle. All phenomena can be understood using Yin-Yang and the five agents: the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change. All things follow this order so that all things may be related to one another in some way, for example, one can use the stars to determine what kind of policy to pursue in government.

  • Tsai, A. (2004). Where does the Yin Yang Symbol come from?

No comments: