Six Relationships between Yin and Yang

While classical western philosophy is all about a quest for “being,” and Buddhism, with which it is usually contrasted, all about “emptiness,” Daoism is asking about “life,” and it is asking about it in concrete terms as something to cultivate with one’s body, not in the abstract concepts of a “theory.” This is why Robin Wang is quick to add that yinyang is “neither dualistic in positing two absolutely independent entities, nor even simply dialectical in projecting one single pattern for change.” Whether in writing or life, she keeps an eye on what yin and yang means in terms of how we feel and how we react to our every day encounters with others and events.

For clarity, however, she breaks down the relationships between yin and yang into six forms: they are Maodun: Contradiction and opposition; Xiangyi: Interdependence; Huhan: Mutual inclusion; Jiaogan: Interaction or resonance; Hubu: Complementarity or mutual support, and Zhuanhua: Change and transformation.

Maodun: Contradiction and opposition

What first comes to mind when hearing the words yin and yang is their opposition, which indeed goes way back into its history – though Wang does point out that the word “yang” was the first to emerge in archeological artifacts. Yang was soon matched with yin as the opposition between the sunny and shady sides of a mountain. For most people, it is the opposition between male and female, forceful and yielding, because such things tend to occupy their minds! 

More significantly, Wang writes, “It is the tension and difference between the two sides that allows for the dynamic energy that comes through their interactions. It is also this difference that enables yinyang as a strategy – to act successfully, we must sometimes be more yin and sometimes more yang, depending on the context.” The dualistic western mind is used to oppositions and contradictions, but it does not normally see them as a tension as arising from an inherently dynamic cosmos. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, has no qualms about an inherently dynamic cosmos, but it rarely speak of it in terms of strategy.

Wang goes on to describe this aspect of yinyang in terms of maodun, which literally means “shield-spear” and originates from a story in the Hanfeizi (280-233 BCE). A person who sells shields and spears promotes his shields by saying they are so strong that nothing can penetrate them, whereas he promotes his spears by saying they are so sharp they can penetrate anything. Someone then asks him – what happens if one tries to use your spear to penetrate your shield?

Wang continues: “The Hanfeizi story raises opposites as logical contradictions. In this sense, something cannot be yang and yin (light and dark, masculine and feminine) in precisely the same way, at the same time, and in the same context. This approach to distinctions can be seen as the one of most fundamental in European philosophy. Such an approach, however, works only in the abstract. In reality, we not only find that opposites exist through interaction with and in dependence on each other, but also that the same thing can be considered to have opposite qualities depending on the context, as it is not a logical contradiction to say that one thing is small (in comparison to a mountain) but large (in comparison to an ant). In thinking about opposition and difference, Chinese thinkers concentrate much more on these latter aspects.”

In an internet video, Wang gives the concrete example of a mother who is angry at her child, saying “she can yell at him/her or be completely silent. Which one will have more impact?” Martial art teaches that “when somebody throws you a punch, you duck. They come with yang, you use yin to respond. Once you have ducked, you can respond. What you need is a change of position, an adjusting. If the other person is yang, you respond with yin, if she is yin, you give a bit of yang.”

Xiangyi: Interdependence. 

Just as is the case with Buddhism’s doctrine of co-dependent origination, “one side of the opposition cannot exist without the other.” But, in addition to a reference to the elaboration of the layer of concepts we superimposed on experienced reality – what Nagarjuna called a cognitive default – the interdependence is shown to exist in the natural world we experience. Wang writes: “One cannot have a concept of “good” without there existing a concept of “bad.” But she also says: “The interdependence of opposites does not simply refer to the relativity of our concepts, but also to how things themselves exist, grow, and function. One way that this interdependence appears most clearly is through the alternation of yin and yang. The sun is the best example of yang – bright, warming, stimulating growth, and giving a rhythm – but when the power of that yang is developed to the extreme it is necessary for it to be anchored, regenerated, and sustained by the force of yin. The sun must set. Although yang is the obvious, it cannot thrive without attention to yin. This interdependence appears in traditional Chinese medical texts, where the surge of yangki depends on the regeneration of the yinqi of the five internal organs. Without the yinqi of the organs, there will be no surge of yangqi or its extension outward.”

Huhan: Mutual inclusion

Again, as in the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination, each pole of a pair of opposites arising co-dependently, includes the other. When, as a child you learn what hot is, you also learn what cold is. Same for big and small, and all other pairs of opposites. But, in Daoism, this mutual inclusion is not merely an epistemological issue, it is a concrete issue encountered in our lived experience of the world. Wang writes: “If yin depends on yang, then yang is always implicated in yin; in other words, yin cannot be adequately characterized without also taking account of yang. The same is true of yang – it necessarily involves yin. Regarding things themselves, even something that is strongly yang can be considered yin in some relations …. The constant alternation between yin and yang also entails that yang always holds some yin and yin holds some yang. In the cycle of four seasons, summer is the most yang of all seasons, yet it contains a yin force, which will begin to emerge in the summer, extend through the fall, and reach its culmination in the winter. Winter is the highest stage of yin, yet it unfolds a yang force that will attain its own full swing through spring to summer. This mutual inclusion is best captured in the famous yinyang symbol which includes a small circle of yang within the fullest yin and a small circle of yin within the fullest yang.”

Of course, even though the Yijing (The Book of Changes), already used as a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000-750 BCE), is not regarded as a Daoist scripture as such,“all yin hexagrams have a dominant yang line and all yang hexagrams have a dominant yin line. This mutual inclusion has important consequences in terms of strategy because it indicates that, when one thing appears to you as present, that thing also entails opposite forces that are hidden and in motion but that have not yet appeared.” Under the influence of this mutual inclusion, the Huayan Buddhist school was able to dramatically expand the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination into the doctrine of “mutual identity and interpenetration of all phenomena” wherein the whole is in the part as well  as the part is in the whole.

Jiaogan: Interaction or resonance. 

Wang writes: “Each element influences and shapes the other. If yin and yang are interdependent and mutually inclusive, then a change in one will necessarily produce a change in the other. Thus, as yang ebbs in the autumn, yin strengthens, and as yin declines in the spring, yang grows. For example, in Chinese traditional medical diagnoses, too much yin in the body is a sickness of yang, and too much yang in the body is a sickness of yin. Changes in yin will affect yang, and vice versa.

In modern terms, such an integration of opposition, interdependence, mutual inclusion, and interaction characterises what is referred to as a “system” theory. Rather than starting from the relationship between a subject and an object, as classical philosophy has taught us, we must start from the whole, that is, the  network of interconnected relationships wherein each element arose as a position in the whole, and can be regarded as an instantiation – or specification – of the whole. Kyoto School philosopher Nishida Kitaro referred to it as the “logic of place” (basho in Japanese).  “Basho, then, is that which is neither predicated of, nor present in, a subject, nor even the grammatical subject, but that which grounds both, and out of which both arise as specifications or determinations.” (Robert Carter in The Nothingness Beyond God, as study of Nishida’s thought.)

In Daoism, Wang writes, “This mutual resonance is crucial to yinyang as a strategy because it entails that one can influence any element by addressing its opposite, which in practice most often takes the form of responding to yang through yin.”

It even leads to the perhaps unexpected need to combine yin and yang in medical treatments. “It is said, for example, that yin will not respond to the drug or acupuncture without a certain amount of yang.” So it is not always a matter of simply responding to yang through yin, or responding to yin through yang. Wang says that “The Lushi Chunqiu (c 240 BCE) takes this resonance as a general principle, approached through the relationship between action and non-action. “Not to venture out is the means by which one does venture out; not to act is the means by which one acts. This is called “using the Yang to summon the Yin and using the Yin to summon the Yang.”

Hubu: Complementarity or mutual support

Wang writes: “Given that yin and yang are different but interdependent, properly dealing with a situation often requires supplementing one with the other, which is a way of achieving the appropriate balance between the two. This relationship appears clearly in discussions of art and crafts. For example, the Zhouli (The Rites of Zhou, 221 BCE) describes the craft of making a wheel: ‘The way of making the hub of wheel must be measured according to yin-yang. Yang is densely grained and thus is strong; yin is loosely grained and thus is soft. Therefore, one uses fire to nourish its yin, making it even with its yang. Thus, even if the wheel is worn, it will not lose its round form.’ Softness and hardness complement each other.” “Complementarity” is a  word that is rarely used in Buddhism, but “complementarity and support”are ubiquitous in the Christian West. In Daoism, and elsewhere, complementarity has often derailed into oppression, when used to justify the respective roles of, for instance, men and women, the former as leaders, the latter as housewives deprived of education and freedom of movement. This is why Wang adds: “This complementarity is different from the submission of one to the other, because both sides stand on equal ground in performing different roles.”

Zhanhua: Change and transformation

The interplay of yin and yang is the very principle underlying “change” which China and with it, the whole of East Asia, is the very core of reality. While in the West, Parmenides, Plato and other ancient philosophers have focused all their efforts on the identification of a permanent “ground of being” behind the obviously impermanent nature of phenomena, the East, along with, I believe, most indigenous spiritualities, have accepted change as the very essence of “life.” Even the Buddha described impermanence as the main source of suffering for humans. Only when Buddhism came into contact with the Chinese worldview did it dare to assert “Impermanence is the Buddhahood.” (Dogen)

Wang writes: “One side becomes the other in an endless cycle. Yinyang thought is fundamentally dynamic and centers on change. In nature, there is decline, deficiency, decrease, and demise, as well as flourishing, surplus, increase, and reproduction. In the human world, life is filled with trouble, failure, exhaustion, and insufficiency, as well as fullness, fruition, mastery, and success. Considering these various states of being, one can derive that change is perpetual, never ending. Reversal (fan) is a constant theme in Chinese thought, especially in the Daodejing. It invokes the image of a circle, or more precisely, a spiral movement that forever continues in a ring formation. According to the Daodejing, reversal (fan) is the movement of Dao and the rhythm of life.”

In fact, the yinyang goes beyond asserting the dynamic nature of reality. It provides a theory explaining the basic law of change, whereby when yin when pushed to its extreme becomes yang, and yang, when pushed to its extreme becomes yin. In the He Guanzi (the Pheasant Cape Master), a text most likely from the Warring State Period (475-221 BCE), it is written: “Beautiful and ugly adorn each other: this is called returning to the full cycle. Things develop to their extremes and then reverse. This is called circular flowing. The character translated as flowing, liu, refers most literally to the flowing of water, and the character itself contains the image of water on the left. The term for circular or ring is huan. We might thus also translate the phrase as “flowing circulation.”


Robin R. Wang – Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture

Natural formation of lumber showing a yin and yang structure.