What Does Yin and Yang Represent?

Meaning, Origins, and Uses of Yin Yang in Chinese Culture

Black and white rice, Yin Yang pattern
Grove Pashley Getty

Yin and yang is a complex, relational concept in Chinese culture that has developed over thousands of years. Briefly put, yin and yang represent the two opposite principles observed in nature.

Generally speaking, yin is characterized as feminine, still, dark, negative, and an inward energy. On the other hand, yang is characterized as masculine, energetic, hot, bright, positive, and an outward energy.

Balance and Relativity

Yin and yang elements come in pairs, such as the moon and the sun, female and male, dark and bright, cold and hot, passive and active, and so on.

But it is important to note that yin and yang are not static or mutually exclusive terms. The nature of yin yang lies in the interchange and interplay of the two components. The alternation of day and night is such an example. While the world is composed of many different, sometimes opposing, forces, these forces still coexist and even complement each other. Sometimes, forces opposite in nature even rely on each other to exist. For example, there cannot be a shadow without light. 

The balance of yin and yang is important. If yin is stronger, yang will be weaker, and vice versa. Yin and yang can interchange under certain conditions so they are usually not yin and yang alone. In other words, yin elements can contain certain parts of yang, and yang can have some components of yin. It is believed that this balance of yin and yang exists in everything.

History of Yin and Yang

The concept of yin yang has a long history. There are many written records about yin and yang, which can be dated back to the Yin Dynasty (about 1400 - 1100 BCE) and the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 771 BCE).

Yin yang is the basis of "Zhouyi," or "Book of Changes," which was written during the Western Zhou Dynasty. The Jing portion of "Zhouyi" particularly talks about the flow of yin and yang in nature. The concept became increasingly popular during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history.

Medical Use

The principles of yin and yang are an important part of "Huangdi Neijing," or "Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine." Written about 2,000 years ago, it is the earliest Chinese medical book. It is believed that to be healthy, one needs to balance the yin and yang forces within one's own body.

Yin and yang are still important in traditional Chinese medicine and fengshui today.