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Yin and Yang, its effect on Chinese society

The early agrarian Chinese civilization developed in a world where prosperity depended on a precarious balance of destructive powers, which were capable of causing immense damage by way of floods and droughts.

The ancient Chinese religious cults were therefore directed to maintain the harmonious balance of nature, which alone made man's life upon earth possible. This is where the doctrine of Yin and Yang developed. It created, for these people an understanding of the world and developed a rhythm for life.

Yin and Yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, are the dual forces of the universe. Neither is good or evil however the complimentary interaction of male and female, aggressive and passive brings about a harmonious life.

"Rain and Sun (Yang) fall on earth (Yin) and crops grow. The passive yields to the aggressive, but by doing so absorbs and overcomes".

The result of this is a philosophy of continuous change, which the Chinese people believe responsible for the Dynastic cycle, the rise and fall of the Dynasties, as well as the change from day to night and back to day again.The symbol for Yin and yang is a geometrical design devised by the Chinese, the circle divided into two equal parts by a curved line, each containing a small section of the other. This represents an equilibrium maintained by the "flux of two balanced forces".

There is no hard and fast line between the two.

The philosophy of Yin and yang itself has not changed. However it has been interpreted and used in different ways over the centuries. "Ti", Earth, was the flat surface of the world, the floor or foundation, and being innately Yin, gradually came to be a female deity. Heaven was the arbiter of weather, and so, in time became the supreme deity.

The ancient Chinese believed in a predetermined fate however, misfortune could be avoided by wise actions and so the Yin and Yang, reading of portents and divination became a way of deciphering the secrets of Heaven and peering into the future to maintain that harmony or equilibrium in their life. This led to the belief that natural occurrences such as eclipses or drought or flood were warnings of catastrophes expressing the wrath of Heaven.
Heaven, being the supreme deity, stood in relation to the Emperor, so he alone had the right to perform sacrifices to Heaven.

It was also believed that goodness and virtue would be rewarded; however evil actions would meet with disaster. In the case of the emperor, he was rewarded with prosperity and punished with calamities. The emperor thus bore the responsibility of securing, by virtue, the general well being of the world. His misconduct resulted in the withdrawal of the "Mandate of Heaven", by which he ruled, and therefore the fall of the dynasty. This kept an otherwise uncontrolled autocrat in check, with a sense of moral responsibility.

Of less ancient origin were elements in the Han state culture which derived from a different cosmogony. The theory of the five elements, thought to have arisen in the late Chou period, is attributed to Tsou Yen, a contemporary of King Hui of Wei.

The five elements were Earth, Wood, metal, Fire and Water encompassing mystical powers which corresponded with colours, the cyclic characters of the calendar, points of the compass and the notes of the musical scale. They were an offspring from the power and operation of the Yin and Yang, the alternating forces. The combination of these forms the "Tao, the Way, the great principle of the universe. They are the source of every activity and the mechanism of constant change and balance which maintains the harmony of the cosmos". The five elements are the manifestations of the Yin and Yang, they form a cycle which constantly renews itself.

"Earth is vanquished by Wood, which yields to metal, which succumbs to Water, which in turn is overcome by Earth, so renewing the cycle.

The five elements however are not necessarily identified with the substances from which they take their names. From this concept the Chinese derived a system of beliefs governing the rites and ceremonies of court worship. They believed each dynasty ruled by virtue of one of the Elements and had fallen when the predominance passed to the succeeding element. During the period of the Sung, Chou Tun-I, an early Sung philosopher, found in the I-Ching (Book of Changes) an obscure reference to Tai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate. In this he found the "First Cause of the universe, the co-ordinating point from which the two principles Yin and Yang proceed".

The alternation of these, believed the Sung people, produced the Five Elements or Agents, and these, by their interaction produced the world of phenomena.

The Sung school disagreed that the Five Agents were related to virtues and seasons, like the earlier Han, but rather that the Supreme Ultimate is:

"The final cause which controls the forces of Yin and Yang, and through them the operation of the Five Agents".

This then suggests that the actions of human beings did not effect the balance of Yin and Yang, but rather the Supreme Ultimate, "which is all things and is in all things", controls the harmony of the universe. The Supreme Ultimate was a moral force. The Sung school does not differentiate between the "law of nature" and the "moral law" and believes that they are in fact one and the same. It is identical with the ethical standard and stands as a model for human conduct.

The Sung school believed that the "Li", or moral law was the supreme controlling force in the universe and "Heaven is Law".

Yin and Yang and the Five agents were the mainspring of the world of phenomena. The moral law operated through these and the moral law was also the ethical law by which people lived. They expressed five chief virtues that were the moral expression of the Five Agents.

These were:

  1. Benevolence-Wood.
  2. Righteousness-Metal.
  3. Reverence-Fire.
  4. Wisdom-Water.
  5. Sincerity-Earth.

Among the early rituals was the interpretation of portents, signs from Heaven and divination. Consulting the I-Ching was a complicated affair for which a specialist was required, however over the years the process was shortened and simplified.

Eight trigrams were grouped around the symbol for Yin and Yang, and each has a name and certain images and traits. Each one corresponds to a role in the family and relates to a part of the body and an animal. One trigram placed over another forms a hexagram. If eight trigrams are combined there are sixty four possible combinations and the result is the I-Ching. (Sixty four hexagrams accompanied by cryptic comments and interpretations).

The ancient Chinese determined the order and combinations of these trigrams- made up of unbroken lines, Yang, and broken lines, Yin, by sorting yarrow stalks and allowing forty nine to fall in increasingly smaller piles. Today a student would toss three coins in order to determine the structure of the lines. Attempts to determine the best sites for graves and buildings developed a system of "geomancy" or divination based on geographical features, which the Chinese call "Feng Shui', literally translated as "Wind and Water".

This all ties in with the belief in pre-determination, and a certain fatalism which they believed is "written" in the Ying and Yang. Divination, geomancy and reading the portents helped them to disclose the future and perhaps avoid a calamity by virtuous behaviour.

The behaviour of Taoists also reflected the belief in the doctrine of Yin and Yang. This concept gradually blended into Taoism, and Buddhism to a lesser extent. The Taoists became fascinated with the "Possibility of prolonging life, both as a continuation of one's earthly life for several hundred years and as immortality following death". They believed in a lighter soul or spirit, which continued after death and so perhaps thought that in developing this lighter aspect of their lives, by breathing exercises and lighter diets, immortality could be achieved.They had the belief that this could be achieved by inhaling certain types of air, one of these being the "Yin" clouds of springtime. This was then circulated through the body by vigorous exercise.

The other ides of Yin and Yang in Taoist belief is illustrated during the Han dynasty, when the first Taoist groups were being organised. A young man named Chang Chui, who had received a revelation while he was still young, said: "the age of Universal peace would appear after ten years of political and natural catastrophes".

The idea of alternation of periods of unrest and periods of peace, the continual cycle and the flux of the two natural forces, Yin and Yang, appears in this belief. Even in art the Yin and yang beliefs were incorporated.

In the early period of Chinese history a dragon was present on many bronze vessels although its shape had not yet become fully developed. It sometimes appeared with a bird, the phoenix, which later came to resemble a pheasant. After a period of time the pair became associated with the dual forces of Yang and Yin. The dragon was positive, Yang, and the phoenix the Yin principle. It is interesting to note, "The pheasant is a bird susceptible to changes in weather".

The goal of the whole doctrine of Yin and Yang, whether it be in keeping with the Sung teachings or Han, Taoist or the early agrarian beliefs, was to maintain a harmony of Heaven and Earth, of Man and Woman, of Yin and Yang.

They believed that human activity disturbed the harmony of nature and thus produced abnormal, natural phenomena. Therefore, there must be harmony between the ruler and the subject, among members of the family and in society as a whole.

This then becomes the goal of life.