Saturday, July 19, 2008

Yin, Yang, Qi and their roots

The other day I was sorting my emails out and noticed this inquiry from a reader of the blog and my reply to the individual. I think it can be an interesting reading.

Message: I read with interest your website info and would like to know:

Question: The principles of yin, yang, qi - do they have their roots in Chinese (Taoist or Buddhist) beliefs?

I will be grateful if you can answer my query. Thank you.

For that I wrote the following as a brief introduction of how yin, yang and qi came around:


Thank you so much for your interest in TCM. I've always enjoyed sharing TCM knowledge. To answer your question:

The terms 阴(yin, facing the moon), 阳(yang, facing the sun) and 气(qi, air energy movement above grains) have many implied meanings. Different fields take those terms for different definitions. At first, yang and yin meant only if a place faces the sun or not, respectively. The place that faces the sun is yang and the one not is yin. It was the fundamental understanding of nature. It's within the theory of duality of ancient Chinese philosophy. Subsequently, people have come to realize, through living, practice and observation of daily natural phenomenon, that the concept of yin and yang exists in all things. A simple example that applies to TCM can be: A fresh flush face is yang whereas a pale exhaustive face is yin.

The theory of yin and yang in TCM includes how these two components oppose each other, how they depend on each other to reach a balance, how they wax and wane and how one transforms to the other. TCM physicians use theory as such to understand the nature of diseases.

An ancient philosophical book, 周易 (Zhou Yi; Zhou: Dynasty Zhou, BC 1066 - BC 256; Yi: A word forming from the upper日(Ri, the sun, yang energy) and the lower 月(Yue, the moon, yin fluid), meaning ‘change’), considers the transformation of yin (night time, for example) and yang (day time, for example) into each other as the 'basic law in the universe'. This book dates back to the time mentioned as in Dynasty Zhou in the north-eastern part of China (Now nearby Shandong province). Buddha came to enlightenment in northern India at a time later than that. Therefore, yin and yang cannot come from Buddhism.

"Zhou Yi" is a book on the law of the universe, which is also called "Dao" (Direct Mandarin PinYin pronunciation) or "Tao" (Cantonese pronunciation, more known to the western and English world). Indeed, the idea of yin and yang can be found in the book. As a matter of fact, many TCM scholars these days consider Zhou Yi as the ultimate root of where TCM developed from, before which the book 皇帝内经 (Huang Di Nei Jing; Yellow-Emperor-Inside-Sutra; The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine, the most ancient TCM publication ever preserved) appeared back in 2,400 years ago...

So I'd agree to the saying the concept of yin and yang originally came from Taoism (Dao, what Zhou Yi is based on). But then again there are nowadays so many denominations of Taoism, some of which may have lost the original constituents of Dao.

As for the concept of qi in TCM, the first book that described this term is "The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine". The term qi, widely translated as energy, is also the unseen energy flows inside human body meridians, where acupuncture is based on.

Therefore the concept of qi neither originated from Buddhism nor Taoism.

Also mind I if correct your question, Buddhism isn't a Chinese belief, it's an understanding and practise that explains, as many believe, the finest and complete understanding of the universe. It was the teaching of Buddha, once prince Siddharta Gautama of a small country in northern India. Taoism, derived from the book Zhou Yi, author unknown. Confucius, in his later years, came across this book and pondered upon it and wrote ten chapters to explain this mysterious book of universe and proclaimed “If only I had known this book 10 years earlier, I would then have more time to understand the universe.” or something similar to that.

I hope this helps in understanding a little about the origin of yin, yang and qi. Different people, depending of their reading levels, may have different understandings. Please feel free to let me know if my views contradict with someone else's or if I have made a mistake.

Thank you so much for your interest in TCM. I deeply believe constituents of TCM such as: Qigong (The practise of Qi and energy with exercise or meditation), proper living lifestyle in tune with nature, proper diet in line with humanity, emotional peace and herbal remedy can help to achieve a peaceful world.

Thank you,

John Lew

1) The relationship of Yin Yang fish and eight 卦 (Gua, trigrams, as it's called in the western worlds). The eight Gua consists of different combinations of yin and yang as it changes from one to another.
2) 周易, Zhou Yi, more known as "I Ching" in the west.
3) The characters of 日(Ri, sun) and 月(Yue, moon), and how they were formed from symbolic looks of the actual bodies.
4) 皇帝内经, Huang Di Nei Jing, "The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine". This book is the bible of TCM. There are a few different translations in English name.
5) The character 气(Simplified version) and 氣(Original and complicated version). Three waves of air energy on top of and generated by 米(Mi, grain-based rice). It basically means the energy of the body is derived from diet of grain-based rices or cereals.
6) First sermon of Gautama Buddha at the Deer Park.


Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Thanks for sharing the info. Quite interesting!

Best regards


ayse said...

Dear John,
I read with interest your article about Yin /Yang and their roots.
Pure coincidence (if they exist ! ) , I am presently reading a book by Thorwald Dethlefsen/Rudiger Dahlke (Illness and Destiny) where the polarity is presented as the central problem of our existence. Within this frame, the Yin and Yang are studied and integrated into our brain functions. Like left part of the brain /YANG) for the sun-masculin-day-conscious-life-activity-electric-acid-right side of the body-right hand. Whereas the left side of the brain (YIN) is moon-feminin-night-unconcious-death-passivity-magnetic-alcalin-left part of the body and left hand. We know that The Tai Chi sign you have submitted represents a circle half black-half white each representing a nucleo of the opposite site.
To cut it short, it is easy to see how "unhealthy" we can be by "owning" only one part of the brain parts that is only Yin or Yang and how we can avoid sickness by simply being "whole".

John J. C. Lew said...

Dear GC,

No Problem. My pleasure.

John Lew

John J. C. Lew said...

Dear Ayse,

Pure coincidence don't exist. All things happen for a reason or a complex of reasons. We human beings are not good enough to see things through.

I like your idea of balancing the yin and yang. When it's balanced, it's whole. And our body, mind can be healthy. Since the balance has always been dynamic, there are times it's a little off. Healthy people should be able to adjust accordingly and get back the equilibrium. When it's way off, however, the body or mind starts to fall sick and gives rise to diseases. In this case, we must find a way to prevent it from deteriorating further and to restore the balance.

John Lew