The term “yin-yang” literally translates to “dark-bright” or “negative-positive”. In line with this, the traditional Chinese characters for the words yin and yang (陰陽) are both classified as radical-phonetic characters that ideographically combine concepts. It’s also important to understand that this word violates the usual pattern among Chinese binomial compounds which is for positive A and negative B, where the A word is dominant or privileged over B. Thus, one would say “women and men” rather than “men and women”.
In general, yin is typically characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive. It’s associated with femininity, water, earth, and nighttime. In contrast to this, yang is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and active. It’s associated with masculinity, fire, sky, and daytime. This duality lies at the origins of many branches of classical Chinese philosophy and science, as well as being a primary guideline of traditional Chinese medicine, and a central principle of different forms of Chinese martial arts.
Symbolically, yin is the Moon, while yang is the Sun. At the same time though, in the Northern Hemisphere sunlight comes predominantly from the south, and thus the south face of a mountain or the north bank of a river will receive more direct sunlight than the opposite side. As such, many Chinese place names contain the word yang or “sunny side” but very few contain yin or “shady side”. As the Sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.
In ancient Chinese dualism, seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Symbolically, the yin is the dark swirl, and the yang is the light one, and each side has a dot of the opposite color, which gives a clue to the meaning of yin and yang. Everything contains the seed of its opposite. For instance, tragedy can become comedy and vice versa.
Thus, the yin-yang symbol shows a balance between two opposites with a portion of the opposite element in each section. So, the image should really take on the form of a fractal. Think of it like this. Yin is the receptive and yang the active principle, which can be seen in all forms of change like winter and summer, for instance. Therefore, according to their ancient Asian philosophy, everything has both yin and yang aspects within it. For instance, a shadow cannot exist without some amount of light.
In Taoism, yin and yang are explored in the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching. Within the I Ching, yin and yang are represented by broken and solid lines, such that yin is broken (⚋) and yang is solid (⚊). These are then combined into trigrams, which are more yang (such as this ☱) or more yin (such as this ☵) depending on the number of broken and solid lines (☰ is heavily yang, while ☷ is heavily yin), and then trigrams can be combined into hexagrams (such as ䷕ and ䷟). These are then used for the purpose of divination and meditation.
In the Tao Te Ching, yin and yang are always opposite and equal qualities. Furthermore, whenever one quality reaches its peak, it will naturally begin to transform into the opposite quality. For instance, the grain that reaches its full height in summer (fully yang) will produce seeds and die back in winter (fully yin) in an endless cycle. So, while wheat that’s growing is yang when it’s being reaped, it is yin. As such, the term “dualistic-monism” has been coined in an attempt to express this paradox of simultaneous unity and duality.
Simply put, in Taoism, the distinctions between good and bad, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, do not exist because the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole. Whereas in Confucianism, there is a moral dimension attached to the idea of yin and yang. This was most notable in the ethics of Dong Zhongshu in the 2nd century BCE. Granted, either of the two major aspects may manifest more strongly in something, depending on the criterion of the observation.
You see, in many ways, it is as though everything is driven by a creative urge toward a form of existence that is counter-balanced by a destructive urge toward non-existence. So, some of the characteristics associated with the “positive” side of this are creative, receptive, and contractive, while “negative” effects are destructive, projective, and expansive. This perpetual interplay is expressed in countless other pairings like that of assembly and disassembly, integration and disintegration, enabling and disabling, etcetera.
This mechanism not only serves to explain much of what is already known to be true but also helps to account for many of the outstanding problems that still exist in several of the fields of modern science and philosophy today. For instance, the large scale expansive and contractive forces that scientists have labeled dark energy and gravity are prime examples of this. At the other end of the spectrum, the nuclear forces clearly indicate that there is a wide-spread positive attraction that works against a negative repulsion, even at extremely small scales.
Along with this, life and death are a perfect example of creation and destruction in the world. This can be seen in the fact that particles are able to aggregate into increasingly complex structures with novel characteristics arising at each stage of organic progression. Then, when the roles are reversed, cells metabolize an organism and break it down into simpler forms until the particles are all dispersed back into the elusive depths from which they emerged.
This kind of give and take relationship can even be found among many of the various different mythologies of the world. Whereas the Eastern mystery tradition calls upon the notion of yin and yang, it is said in the Western mystery tradition that the “left-hand path” is detrimental and the “right-hand path” is beneficial. Similarly, scientists now realize that only left-handed particles experience the negative effects of the weak force, while particles that spin to the right do not.
Thus, to this very day, ancient Chinese wisdom is still useful in both science and spirituality. Going back to the 17th century, the philosopher Leibniz invented the modern binary numeral system with a bivalent interpretation of yin-yang that eventually led to modern digital computing technologies. Then, in the 20th century, the physicist Niels Bohr discovered the particle-wave complementarity principle with a dualism interpretation to yin-yang that eventually led to quantum computing.
Recently, an equilibrium-based formal yin-yang logic has been developed based on ancient Chinese philosophy that, for the first time, reached logically definable causality. The yin-yang logic is based on a bipolar fuzzy set theory, which was recognized by Lotfi Zadeh. Numerous scientific works have been reported on these bipolar sets, fuzzy sets, and logical unification. Thus, with this new development, the old indigenous philosophy yin-yang has formally entered the forefront of modern science. In the end, the concept is just as important today as it was yesterday and it will be tomorrow.