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What is the yinyang symbol called?

What is the yinyang symbol called?

Chinese cosmology is often quite confusing. Superstition and ignorance are employed rather than common sense. There is no religion, belief or faith required — the process is merely a reflection of the development of human consciousness.

Stages of consciousness:

  1. The undivided
  2. Self and other
  3. Change, options, choices, variables and possibilities

Consider: a baby is born and it has no sense of this and that, self and other. The child would not know its own reflection or see itself as separate from anything else.
This condition is ‘wu chi’ — wholeness, undivided. It is represented by a circle.

Later, the child becomes self conscious and has a sense of self and other, here and there, this and that, yin and yang.
The world now appears to be divided into apparent opposites (although in reality they remain whole). Within yin is a yang dot, within yang there is a yin dot.
Also, yin taken to its extreme becomes yang. Yang taken to its extreme becomes yin.

As the child matures its perception changes again; each scenario is no longer black and white, this or that. This is ‘bagua’ — change. Everything has variables, permutations, possibilities and choices.
We learn the true meaning of tai chi; that there are no absolutes and the apparent opposites actually contain aspects of each other.

Yin and yang are not separate qualities, they constitute aspects of the whole.
Day/night, hard/soft, hot/cold, light/dark, up/down, left/right, front/back, inside/outside, here/there, before/after, now/then, this/that.

The tai chi symbol

The Chinese symbol called ‘tai chi’ or the ‘supreme ultimate’ contains yin and yang. Yin is black and yang is white. Tai chi combines yin and yang to produce a process of dynamic balancing.

Hard/soft, strong/weak, day/night, male/female are all represented by this symbol. Within the apparent opposites, part of the other exists.
The symbol represents balance. Yin and yang join to form a composite whole.

What is balance?

Balance is commonly seen as being a condition of stillness and rest. Yet, people cannot reasonably find a fixed point of balance in their lives because life is not static.
The changing nature of existence means that we need to be re-adjusting constantly.

Yin and yang are not in competition or conflict with each other but are complements of each other.
Balance is not a state but a process.
The Tao is a process, a dynamic condition of balanced moving.

Yin is the black part of the yin/yang symbol. Yin properties are female, dark, passive, cool, low, rounded, horizontal, soft. Yin is quiet, shy, secretive and weak.
Students have extreme difficulty understanding yin. They do not recognise the purpose of yielding, sensitivity, listening, feeling, withdrawing.
To the new starter, yang seems much clearer and more effective.

A yin body is soft and flexible. It never tenses-up the muscles and only occasionally assumes a seeming hardness.
Solidity is achieved through other means, in particular: spiralling, connection and sinking within the frame. Reliance upon the soft tissue of the body is essential, not upon bone or muscular tension.
Stretch too far, lock a joint or tense a muscle and you are no longer performing tai chi.


A tai chi person should have good muscle tone. The body should be quite rubbery and firm. There is always ‘give’, yet beneath this there is solidity without tension.

Your immediate progress lies in the realm of darkness and quietude. You need to become far more subtle and elusive. Remove the obvious from your repertoire. Disguise your intentions.
Become mysterious and unpredictable. Embrace yin.

Water is soft and weak. A yin quality. It can be poured and will take the shape of any container. Yet in sufficient quantity it can cause monumental destruction. Water can erode rock.
If you fall onto water from a high altitude it is the same as striking concrete.

Sand is soft and weak. Whilst the grains are coarse, sand yields to the touch just as water does. Try filling a football with sand? It will eventually become as hard as rock. Yet the sand is still yin.
The density and volume make it feel yang.

The Ancients were not learned, they did not know sophisticated definitions. They did not know the ‘meaning’ of things, as when a parent tells a child, «That is a tree,» as if that term, that definition, were the summation of the tree’s reality.

Yang is the white part of the tai chi symbol. Yang properties are male, light, active, warm, straight, high, geometric, vertical, hard. Yang is bold, obvious, open and strong.
Yang qualities are fairly easy to cultivate. Yin qualities are not. Martial artists do not favour being soft and smooth. The norm is yang. This is why Japanese martial artists usually wear white.

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The external arts train what might be called a ‘yang body’; with deep stretches, forceful exercise and muscular contraction being the focus of the training.
Emphasis is placed upon stamina, high repetitions, going further: it is willpower-directed exercise. A yang body is hard, contracted and tense.

The challenge for students lies in becoming more yin. There must be a significant move from white to black, from hard to soft. You can no longer shrug off clumsiness and call it strength.
Yin skill lies in being quietly in control of your opponent, but with no more substance than a shadow. It is necessary to be slow and smooth, gentle and silent. This will not be easy.

Yang arises from yin

In Chinese cosmology, light comes from darkness. This seems to echo what we see in space and in physics. The universe is a series of pinpricks puncturing the black cloth of darkness.
Knowledge arises from ignorance, from not knowing. And no matter how much we learn, we are still awed by the magnitude of the unknown.

Using yin/yang in your practice

At its most basic, yin/yang can be seen in terms of balance and resistance. If you push a person and they resist, then they are meeting your (yang) push with their own (yang) forward movement.
This is force on force. It is fighting/resisting. To complete the yin/yang equation, simply change direction; instead of pushing (yang), you can pull (yin).
This will add follow the incoming line of force, add to their push and take their balance.

The attacking limb may be considered hard or yang. If you block its line of force, this is yang on yang, force on force and is not internal.
Instead, you must softly meet yang with yin, re-direct and neutralise. To perform this skill well, it is necessary to move as the attacker moves, to blend with their movement .
This completes the yin/yang diagram and enables you to capitalise upon the incoming force.

It is necessary to balance left/right, upper/lower, substantial/insubstantial, full/empty. If the left leg is yang, then the left hand is yin.
If the forward leg is weighted, then the opposite hand is the substantial one. One hand must always be in a yin state relative to the other hand which is yang. The same goes for the feet.
Hands and feet must coordinate. Every single movement must balance the body — up & down, left & right — substantial and insubstantial.
It is easy to mess this up and start thinking of hard/soft in terms of tense/relaxed.

T aijiquan may seem to be mainly yin because it is receptive, flowing, relaxed and calm. Yet, taijiquan is both yin and yang. Yin is balanced by the firmness and substance of yang.
The art of taijiquan is concerned with the process of balancing yin and yang, of returning the body to its natural state.
Understanding the Balance in terms of taijiquan is quite complex and is not addressed at length until later in the syllabus.

Yin/yang symbolises the process of exchange. You want a new car? You must pay. You want to learn French? You must study, set time aside, practice and persevere.
You want to eat healthily?
You will need to research, buy fresh ingredients, prepare and cook the food. People commonly believe that they can have it all without having to give anything up.
This is simply naive. To have one thing you must give up something else.

Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 04 May 2023

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You’ve seen the symbol, but what does yin yang mean? Not to mention, which is yin and which is yang? Yin and yang principles have a long and fascinating history behind them, and we’ve compiled all the most interesting and important bits in this article. Read on to learn:

  • The different meanings of yin and yang
  • What the yin yang symbol means and why it looks the way it does
  • A brief history of yin and yang (this symbol has been around much longer than you think!)
  • How yin yang principles have been used by everybody from politicians to interior decorators to martial artists

What Do Yin and Yang Mean?

Yin and yang (or 陰 and 陽 in traditional Chinese characters) represent duality, or the idea that two opposite characteristics can actually exist in harmony and complement each other. It’s the same idea behind quotes like, «there can be no light without darkness.» Yin (the black segment) and yang (the white segment) each represent various qualities.

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In the chart below are some of the characteristics each represents. You’ll see that, for each one, yin and yang represent a pair of opposites, such as black and white, light and shadow, north and south, etc.

Even numbers
Odd numbers

What Does the Yin Yang Symbol Represent?

The yin yang symbol is often referred to as «taijitu» in China. It’s a familiar symbol you’ve likely seen many times on jewelry, clothes, notebooks, etc. There are many variants of the symbol, but the most common is a circle composed of two interlocking swirls/teardrops, one black and one white. Each swirl has a dot of the opposite color in it.

The yin yang symbol represents the interconnectedness of the world, particularly the natural world. There can be no positive without a negative, no open without closed, no light without shadow. The yin yang symbol itself portrays that interrelatedness. Looking at the symbol, you can see it doesn’t have a straight line going through the center to represent the divide between yin and yang. Inside, the dividing line is a soft S-shape. It shows how yin and yang are connected and constantly flowing into and out of each other. At the top of the symbol, as yang swells, yin contracts. At the bottom, yin swells as yang contracts. The ideal situation is when there is an equal balance between the two, as that is when harmony is achieved.

Within the symbol, not only do the white and black segments fit perfectly with each other to form a circle, each has a small circle of the other color within it to further show the connection between the two. The small circles also show that nothing is absolute. In all yin, there is a little yang, and vice versa. This further demonstrates the connection between the two.

The outer circle of the yin yang symbol represents the entirety of the universe. It shows that yin and yang represent everything that we know, as well as things we don’t understand.


A Brief History of the Yin Yang Symbol

The concept of yin and yang has existed for thousands of years in China. The earliest known reference to the two terms was found on oracle bones where they referred to different parts of nature. A school named the «yinyang school» was also developed roughly two thousand years ago that taught the principles of balance and patterns.

Around 100 AD. the first dictionary of Chinese characters was created, and it defined yin as referring to «a closed door, darkness and the south bank of a river and the north side of a mountain» and yang as «height, brightness and the south side of a mountain.» Another early recorded instance of the terms yin and yang appearing together referred to yin as the shady side of a hill and yang as the sunny side of the hill.

During the Zhou Dynasty (1050–771 BC), the concepts of yin and yang spread more widely and began to be associated with philosophical ideas. Philosophers such as Confucius and Lao Tzu began to incorporate yin and yang principles into their teachings. It was around this time yin and yang became an important part of Taoism (sometimes called «Daoism»). Over time, the yin yang symbol has become one of the most common Taoist symbols and is often seen on Taoist temples, robes, and incense burners.

Over the centuries, yin and yang principles became part of many different aspects of Chinese and East Asian culture (we discuss some of these more in the next section).

There’s no exact date of origin for the yin yang symbol, and it’s unknown who first created it. However, it was definitely in use around 1000 AD when it was popularized by Song dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi. For several decades, particularly in the 1970s-1990s, it was a common symbol to include in jewelry, on t-shirts, etc. Many people who wear it aren’t aware of all the history or meaning behind the symbol but appreciate how it looks and its promotion of balance and change.

Major Principles of Yin Yang

So what’s the real meaning of yin and yang? The yin yang symbol represents a variety of different principles, each of which is important in Taoism and behind. Below we explain five of the most important.

#1: Together, Yin and Yang Form a Whole

Yin and yang represent opposite forces that, when they are joined, represent everything in the natural world. Together they represent the different facets of the world and the way they need to be carefully balanced to be complete.

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#2: Neither Yin nor Yang Can Be Fully Dominant

One cannot exist without the other, the same way movement can’t exist without rest or shade cannot exist without sun. Both yin and yang always need to be present, and one is not superior to the other.

#3: An Equal Balance Creates Harmony

The ideal scenario is for yin and yang to be perfectly balanced and each have an equal share of the whole. When this happens, there is harmony and equality in the world.

#4: Yin and Yang Are Never Static

The balance between yin and yang is always changing; that’s part of the reason why the two segments look as though they are flowing into and out of each other in the yin yang symbol. There’s never a point where yin and yang stop moving, the same way the amount of light and dark is always changing as the sun rises and sets each day.

#5: External Factors Can Disrupt the Balance

Sometimes, once a balance of yin and yang has been achieved, something from outside the system can disrupt it. This principle is often used in traditional Chinese medicine (explained more below), where external factors can disrupt the balance within a body and cause health problems.


How Are Yin Yang Principles Used?

The concept of yin and yang spread to many facets of Chinese culture, as well as spreading throughout East Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world. Here are five ways that yin yang principles are used in everything from philosophy to architecture to combat.

Martial Arts

Many types of martial arts that have their origins in China, such as tai chi, make use of yin and yang. The balance promoted by it is important during exercise movements and sparring. For example, to be successful at tai chi, one must understand both movement and stillness, attack and defense, opposites yin and yang often represent.

Feng Shui

Feng shui is a practice dating back to ancient China that used the idea of energy forces to make many decisions, including how to orient buildings (which is where its modern-day use as interior design guidelines comes from). According to feng shui, there are invisible forces (known as «qi») that bind together people, earth, and the universe. Yin and yang are part of these forces and, to have proper feng shui, buildings should be built and aligned according to yin yang force fields so that they achieve proper equilibrium.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is thought to be healthy when yin and yang are in balance. Different factors, such as diet, stress, and pollution can enter the body and cause either yin or yang to dominate. When this happens, the person becomes ill because their body is no longer in harmony. The medical practitioner must determine whether yin or yang has become dominant and work to restore the balance.


Confucianism writings frequently mentioned yin and yang principles. They were spread most widely by Dong Zhongshu, a Han Dynasty politician and philosopher. He is credited with incorporating yin and yang ideas into Confucianism. Before, yin and yang were seen primarily as symbols of nature and the balance it requires, but Zhongshu created an ethical framework for yin and yang, stating that it was a person’s moral duty to promote harmony and balance both within themselves and the world in general. Some Confucianists also altered yin yang principles to suit their own purposes. For example, even though it’s a fundamental principle of yin and yang that neither is dominant or more powerful than the other, certain Confucianists considered yang to be superior and used that to justify men having dominance over women (who were associated with yin).

I Ching

The I Ching is a divination text from ancient China and one of the earliest written sources of yin and yang being used. I Ching can be used for divination, where different hexagrams and hexagram sequences each have different meanings. In I Ching, yin and yang are each represented by three horizontal lines: yin’s lines are broken, and yang’s are solid. Different combinations of yin and yang lines led to the creation of 64 hexagrams. Both Taoism and Confucianism later adopted many I Ching ideas.

Summary: What Does Yin and Yang Mean?

So, what is yin and yang? They’re two concepts that, together, represent the need for balance, opposite forces, and change. And which is yin and which is yang? Yin (the black section of the symbol) represents shadows, feminine energy, and generally the more mysterious side of things. Yang (the white section of the symbol) represents the sun, masculine energy, and things that are more out in the open. Neither is more powerful than the other, and both are needed in equal amounts for harmony to exist.

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master’s from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

The Taiji Principe of Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are the source of power and the beginning of everything in creation..

When reading about Tai Chi, you will find all kinds of spellings, including “Tai Chi,” “T’ai Chi,” and “Taiji.” In this section we’ll go all academic for a moment to clear the confusion, and then go deeper into the mystery of what the phrase Tai Chi actually means or symbolizes.

Written Chinese does not use English (or Roman) letters based on an alphabet of sounds, but rather is written using Chinese characters or Hànzì which symbolize ideas. This can sometimes make it very difficult to translate into English or other Western languages.

One of the first attempts at translation was the Wade-Giles system developed by Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. The system was codified in the Chinese–English Dictionary published in 1892. In the Wade-Giles system, this martial art was written T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

More recently, the Chinese government published their own system of romanization called Pinyin. It was first published in 1958 and has since been revised several times. Pinyin is the most common way of writing Chinese using the English alphabet in the world today. Our same art in Pinyin would be written Tàijíquán.

For non-Chinese speakers, the accent marks mean very little so they are often dropped. Most commonly you’ll simply see “Tai Chi Chuan” or “Tai Chi” and “Taijiquan” or “Taiji.” While Taijiquan would be the official rendering in China, the rest of the world continues to use the older and far more common Tai Chi Chuan.

We’re going to continue to use “Tai Chi” throughout the Tai Chi Transformation guide, but we’re going to switch to Taiji when speaking about the underlying principle or philosophy. First, let’s break it down to understand an exact translation:

Understanding the meaning of Tai Chi Chuan.

Tai means “Grand” in the sense of awe-inspiring big. Grand as in feeling tiny as you stare up at the vast Milky Way spread of stars on a dark, clear night. Ji is a modifier which means “Ultimate” or supreme or the very top. Quan is easier to translate, as it simply means “Fist,” but also has the meaning of martial art or boxing.

Put together, Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan is the most often translated as “Grand Ultimate Fist” or some variation. This has led many Western readers to assume that the name implies that this martial art is the absolute best, the greatest of all other forms of fighting. While some people may make that claim, that’s actually not the intended meaning at all.

With the characters written together, Taiji refers to an ancient Taoist philosophical idea that is at the heart of all existence. It is born out of the concept of Wuji or the ultimate singularity, a cosmic state of non-duality and non-polarity. You could think of it as the state of the universe before the Big Bang, when all things were one, and everything was contained in the single Source.

Taiji is the dynamic force which both breaks apart Wuji and brings all things together again into balance or re-integration. The force of Taiji then is what results in duality or polarity, and this is represented in Taoist philosophy as Yin and Yang, the two opposing but complementary forces in the universe.

The ancient and modern Taiji symbol, the Taijitu.

The Taiji concept was illustrated many different ways through thousands of years of Chinese philosophical development using a symbol or diagram called the Taijitu. In the Ming era, Lai Zhide (1525–1604) simplified the taijitu to a design of two interlocking spirals. Over the next few generations the taijitu was revised to become the modern Taiji diagram, often called simply the “Yin-Yang” symbol.

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The Big Picture

Taiji is the primordial force of both creation and reintegration. When a cell divides and becomes two cells, the force that compelled that division and creation of a new cell is Taiji. The force that compels a spark to become a flame, and a flame to become a blaze is Taiji. On the other side, when a fallen tree softens into a rotten log, then disolves into rich mulch for new plants, that whole dissolution is being pulled along by entropy: the force of Taiji. When a drop of water is absorbed back into the ocean, that reintegration is Taiji.

Taiji is the force, instruction set or magnetic pull behind both creation and reintegration.

The “Quan” or “Chuan” part of the name literally means “fist” but mmore commonly denotes “martial art.” Whenever you see Chuan, Ch’uan or -quan attached to a name, it means “the fighting system of ______.”

“The Fighting System of Taiji” is really nothing more than a label that implies that we’re going to be colliding with other human beings, but with the awareness of this primordial force that’s driving things behind the scenes. That awareness provides a basis for some very interesting martial arts techniques, but to apply them we need to really understand the concepts of Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are illustrated as the dark and light halves of the taijitu symbol, but the underlying concept is deeper than just “polar opposites” and is fundamental to understanding Taiji. The ideas behind Yin and Yang developed from observing the physical world.

In nature, all things can be grouped into pairs of mutually dependent opposites, each giving meaning to the other. For example, “light” has no meaning without “dark,” “night” has no meaning without “day,” and “up” is meaningless without “down.” All of our ways of labeling and classifying things is dependent upon comparison and contrast.

The literal meaning of Yin and Yang.

The Chinese characters for Yin and Yang describe this in a clear, observable way. The character for Yin translates literally as “the dark side of the hill” and represents qualities such as darkness, stillness, cold, passiveness, inside and potential. The character for Yang translates literally as “the bright side of the hill” and represents such qualities as light, activity, heat, aggression, outside and expression.

Unlike Western Aristotelian logic that measures everything in absolute terms, classic Chinese thought puts the emphasis on process instead of structure. Yin and Yang are not absolutes, but simply ways of thinking about the current state. As illustrated in the taijitu, Yin and Yang are constantly in motion, blending one into other like day becoming night. In addition, each quality contains within it the potential of the other (the dots within the symbol), like the wide Yin night sky containing the Yang light of the full moon.

The changing of Yin and Yang phases and the idea of seed potential also lets us subdivide Yin and Yang as our observation “zooms in.” The large stone in a mountain stream would be Yin compared to the Yang flowing water. But water becomes Yin if it freezes into ice, or again Yang if in the form of steam. The water molecule itself contains both Yin particles of protons and neutrons and Yang particles of electrons. Yin and Yang can be found everywhere and in everything.

What is Taiji? It is generated from Wuji, and is a pivotal function of movement and stillness. It is the mother of Yin and Yang. When it moves it divides. At rest it reunites. – Wang, Zong-Yue

In our next lesson, Yin and Yang become important as we describe Taiji principles and Tai Chi movements. We will observe the Yang or active leg and the Yin or resting leg. We will show the Yin energy of absorbing an attacker’s force, as well as the Yang energy of pushing them away. As in nature, Yin and Yang are everywhere in Tai Chi.

Putting It All Together

Now that we understand the concepts of Wuji, Taiji, Yin and Yang, we can apply them to our practice of the Tai Chi form. In the next section, we’re going to walk through the Primal 13 form again, but now begin to apply these concepts along with the Primal 13 forces of the Five Steps and the Eight Energies.

In This Section

  • Primal 13 Form
  • Learning the Primal13 Form
  • Taiji Principle: Yin and Yang
  • 5 Steps, 8 Energies
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