What Does the Yin and Yang Symbol Mean?

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If asked to name ten symbols, the yin and yang symbol may most likely be one of them. Even if you don’t practice Taoism or know a lot about Chinese culture, it’s highly likely you could still recognize the yin and yang symbol.

In this article, we talk about the yin and yang symbol, its meaning and origins, and why the concept of yin and yang applies to even people who don’t practice Taoism.


What Is Daoism?

Before we can truly understand what the yin and yang symbol means, we must look at its origins in Taoism and how it came to be.


Yin and yang is a concept stemming from Taoism (also known as Daoism), both a philosophy and religion in China and the official religion of the country during the Tang Dynasty. This philosophy believes that there was a balance maintained and regulated by the Tao. Taoism is attributed to Lao Tzu, who developed and spread the idea of Taoism among the rural areas of China. While Taoism’s following declined in favor of Confucianism and Buddhism, the practice still exists to this day.

This cosmic force flows through everything and everyone, and as such everything is pre-destined in order to keep the balance between everything. With everything set in stone, Taoism promotes the idea of going with the flow.


Yin and Yang in Taoism

During the Shang Dynasty (around 1600 to 1046 BCE), Chinese people from the peasant classes believed in divination and that people could see their futures through reading oracle bones. This led to the I-Ching, or the Book of Changes, which interprets hexagrams and what they mean.

When a person wanted to know something about their future, they’d go to someone who was an expert of the I-Ching and ask them their questions. They would then throw a handful of sticks (or bones, in some reports) on a flat surface and would use the book to interpret the sticks for an answer.

I-Ching provided hexagrams of six unbroken likes, the yang, and six broken lines, the yin. The book provided the answer because it was believed that the two represented the opposing forces of life. The I-Ching stated that the universe was created with two primordial forces that were polar opposites, with yang being the “being” part of life, and yin being the “lack of being.” It was believed that yin and yang were necessary, as existing would not be possible without yang, while things could not leave without yin. Thus, both were necessary if one wanted to see the changes within life.

Originally, however, the symbol of yin and yang was not originally associated with Taoism or the I-Ching. However, the symbol represents the same idea as the original: that one cannot exist without its opposite. If there is man, there should also be woman. If there is life, there must also be death.  Otherwise, there would be an imbalance on one end. This philosophy would suggest that the negative aspects to every positive – such as aggression, darkness, evil, and death – exists, but this is exactly what Taoism claims: all things are contradictory to another, but are also an inseparable truth.


What Are Yin and Yang?

The concept of yin and yang is that all things that exist exist as contradictory to each other and are inseparable. If you look at binary things – male and female, old and young, light and dark – these two things are the yin and yang. They’re polar opposite, but they complement each other to the point that a small part of one exists inside the other.

The symbol we know as yin and yang is a circle with two parts: a white side with a black dot, and a black side with the white dot. Each side represents the two things that contradict each other. However, the dot with the color of the opposite side denotes that each side has a little bit of each other. Neither side is superior to the others – they’re all exactly equal as no side can exist without the other side.

With no side being better than the other, it seems that the point of yin and yang is that for there to be true balance, no side should try to tip the scales in their favor. Where there is youth, there will also be age, and nothing outside the natural order can stop that. Where there is light, there is also somewhere where there is no light and is completely dark. The symbol of yin and yang, therefore, denotes equality and balance between two contradicting sides.


Dualism in Yin and Yang

Yin and yang, therefore, follows the mindset of dualism and how one thing must always have an opposite and that they are always connected to this opposite no matter what they do. The universe itself, or so Taoism believes, was made out of chaos but organized in such a way that opposites were created in every aspect of life.


Meaning of Yin and Yang

When looking at it semantically, the terms of yin and yang are very complex. In some translations, yin refers to everything negative in every binary. These include everything that is black or dark, south, passive, moon, weak, even numbers, soft, and the absence of existence. On the other hand, yang refers to anything that is white, light, north, active, warm, or rich and provides existence to all.


The Dangers of Duality

I believe there’s a good reason why Taoism and yin and yang fell out of favor in Chinese culture eventually, and it has to do with the concept of duality, binary, and false dichotomy. As yin and yang states in terms of duality and binary, something is always the opposite of another. The best example is how good is always the opposite of evil: it’s undisputable that where there’s good in the world, there are also evil people trying to do harm.

While some dualities are true, trying to label everything as an opposite of another concept creates a false dichotomy. This is a fallacy where a statement claims something is an either/or when it’s actually more than just the black or white scenario others claim it is.

There’s the way binaries suggest one thing is bad and another is good, leading people to decide which of two opposites should be evil. According to some translations, yin represents all the negative traits associated with darkness – hence, evil: hidden, south, moon, negative, and passive. On the other hand, yang is all the positive traits such as active, positive, north, open, etc. However, yin is also defined as female and yang as male. It creates this assumption that women are associated with other negative things, as with other things that aren’t really negative but fall into a contradiction with another object.

In fact, this is why China justifies itself as being a patriarchal society. Because Taoism looks at men and women as opposites, and because Confucianism takes it a step further and sees yang as superior to yin, men are considered superior to women, thus the treatment of women in China as well as the extinction of female goddesses in Chinese history.


While it’s not the most accurate in terms of creating a false dichotomy, it is interesting to look at how the way works using Taoism. Those who are fond of the yin and yang symbol follow the belief that most things, if not all, must have some sort of balance for things to work harmoniously. And as the yin and yang symbol shows, there is balance when two opposites work together and complement one another.

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