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A-Z of thought: Yin and yang

Alex Monro


Has mountains, has water, is the expression most used by viewers of classical Chinese paintings (in word-for-word translation). Mountains and water were thought to form a balance, one endlessly depicted in Chinese art. All nature is one living organism in which different elements bring their own qualities to bear. Only by balancing them against one another can the harmony of nature be faithfully represented.

Thus the phrase 'feng shui', which simply means 'wind water'. Where wind brought movement, water brought serenity. The correct alliance of the two engendered harmony not only in a painting but in a palace or home too, as architects positioned doors, ponds, rock gardens and screens to encourage spiritual balance and harmony, the building blocks of a successful home.

Behind such harnessing of nature's opposites to forge order and unity lies the concept of yin and yang. The very physical structure of these two words points to their competing and balancing meaning. Each of the two characters has the same radical on the left , but on the right, yin (阴) has the Chinese symbol for the moon, whereas yang (阳) has the symbol for the sun.

Yin was the quality shared by everything that was female, weak, dark and passive, whereas yang spoke of what was male, bright, strong and active. On this basis a social code was born which kept women subordinate, even to their own grown sons. At times where the emperor's advisors felt that yin was outweighing yang, they would advise extreme action. Sometimes this involved the emperor sleeping with a series of young women to restore the balance.

The same thinking directed architecture and town planning too. In the seventh century  a 330-ft  pagoda was built to screen the capital from a large lake that was harming its fortunes - water, like the earth and the moon, is associated with yin.

The origins of yin-yang thought are bound up with those of Daoism, and both remain too hazy and ancient to shed much light on. But in Daoist philosophy yin and yang develop out of nothing, forge extreme and opposite paths, and then retreat towards one another to cancel each other out again.

In their human application, yin and yang clearly reflect sexual roles, but the traditional Chinese interpretation of these roles is decidedly unbalanced.
Yet at a more cosmic or political level, yin-yang theory may merely reflect the classical Chinese emphasis on the beauty of order, an emphasis very much present in the Bible, but one which it may take the 21st-century Chinese Christianity to begin to restore to its proper place.

Alex Monro