During the course of my research into performance and language I have been investigating the differences and similarities between Eastern and Western conceptions of difference, particularly in its clearest expression – binary opposition (black / white, presence / absence, etc.). In the East binary oppositions are represented most famously in the Tai Chi diagram (Tai Chi Tu, 太極圖), usually called the “Yin Yang symbol” in the West. Although “Tai Chi” has also been translated as “Supreme Ultimate”, “Great Primal Beginning”, “Great Ultimate”, “Supreme Pole”, “Grand Terminus” and “Great Extreme”. (see Louis 2003: 153) “Tai Chi” may also be phonetically written as “Tai Ji” or “Taiji”.
The Tai Chi diagram consists of a circle divided in half by an inverted S shaped line, forming two interlocking spirals, each with one rounded and one tapered end. One spiral is black and the other white; traditionally they “rotate” clockwise with the white spiral on top. At the centre of each rounded end is a small circle of the opposite colour. It is well known in the West too, of course, and I have been collecting examples in the West Midlands for some time now (see fig.1 above).
The forces of Yin (陰) and Yang (陽) that the Tai Chi diagram represents are, in Chinese thought, the fundamental dynamic energies of nature. (1) These two forces are thought to be constantly in motion throughout the universe, and their reciprocal exchange maintains a dynamic but stable harmony of energy in the world. They are polar opposites but interdependent and homeostatically balanced, indeed they exist through their mutual interaction. (2) Although abstract principles they are associated with various properties, concepts and objects depending on the context. Yin is associated with earth, water, the moon, delusion, night time and femininity, and is considered passive, cold, dark, soft and wet. Yang is associated with fire, the sky, daytime, enlightenment and masculinity and is considered aggressive, hot, bright, hard and dry.
There have been many different variations of the Tai Chi diagram over time but the general idea for the design probably originated in the School of Yin Yang (陰陽家) – although no named individual is credited with its creation. During the Waring States Period (500 – 221 B.C.E.) this school, sometimes called the School of Naturalists, developed theories of Yin and Yang in relation to astronomical phenomena, seasonal phenology and the “Wu Xing” (五行): the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water. The written characters for Yin and Yang can however be found as far back as 1400 B.C.E. when they started to appear on oracle bones used for divination (see fig.2). (3) Prior to the School of Yin Yang the forces were usually represented by a tiger and a dragon respectively. (Little 2000: 131)
The diagram (a variation of it) was first made popular, however, by the neo-Confucian philosopher and cosmologist Zhou Dun Yi (周敦頤) (1017–1073) during the Song Dynasty in his text the Tai Chi Tu Shuo (太極圖說, Explanations of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate) (fig. 3). His Tai Chi circle consisted of alternating black and white semi-circular rings and was part of a larger diagram which included a representation of the five elements. Evenly decreasing spiral forms first appeared in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), for example in Zhao Hui Qian’s (趙撝謙) (1351–1395) etymological treatise the Liu Shu Ben Yi (六書本義, The Essence of the Six Books) (fig. 4). Other variations include that of Lai Zhi De (來知德) (1525–1604), whose spirals terminate in an empty central circle (fig. 5). By the late Ming contrasting dots appeared in texts, and Zhang Huang (章潢) (1527-1608) included one such an arrangement in his Tu Shu Bien (Catalogue of Images / 圖書編), an encyclopedic collection of diagrams and texts attempting to distinguish Confucian symbols and writings from those of other origin (fig. 6).
This notion of complementary, interdependent and non-hierarchical opposites is infused throughout Eastern thought and cultural practice. According to Jie Qin “[b]inary thinking, as found in the classic opposition between Yin and Yang, is one of the fundamental worldviews of the Chinese people.” (2014: 26) It underpins, for example, traditional Chinese medicine, the martial arts, Qi Gong (氣功) and Fong Shui (風水). It is also found in the positive and negative spaces, or the presence and absences, within a calligraphically written Chinese character. For writing to be successful, both elements must be (dynamically) balanced and harmonious. Tomoko Nakashima in his essay on positive and negative space in (Japanese) calligraphy (2007), explains that in successful calligraphy “negative space is not empty”, “but rather is as important as positive space”, negative space has “depth and warmth” and “contains its own strong existence” (113 – 116). In Japan, he claims, “[t]he elegance in the proportion of negative space in a given framework is valued as highly as the brush strokes” (118). (4) Those who object that “femininity” is associated with negativity or passivity (as it is in the Yin principle), and that “masculinity” is associated with positivity or assertion (as it is in the Yang principle) miss this point and rather assume the natural superiority of presence over absence.
In fact not only are binary oppositions equally valued in Eastern thought but they can transform into each other. In Daoism, whose cosmology largely traces back to the School of Yin Yang, it is thought that anything, when taken to its extreme, becomes its opposite. This is because ultimately all opposites are manifestations of the single “Dao” (道, the way), and are therefore not independent, but variations of the same unifying force throughout all of the natural world. This belief is reflected in the fondness for contradictory aphorisms in Daoist texts: “[i]f you would contract, you must first expand. If you would weaken, you must first strengthen. If you would overthrow, you must first raise up. If you would take, you must first give”.’ (Lao Tzu, 1905: 45) And further “[t]here is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is nothing that surpasses it, nothing that can take its place”. (1905: 46) This is particularly relevant to the martial arts in which the idea of that aggression can be weakness and submission can be strength is fundamental.
In fact not only are binary oppositions equally valued in Chinese thought but they can transform into each other. In Daoism, whose cosmology largely traces back to the School of Yin Yang, it is thought that anything, when taken to its extreme, becomes its opposite. This is because ultimately all opposites are manifestations of the single “Dao” (道, the way), and are therefore not independent, but variations of the same unifying force throughout all of the natural world. This belief is reflected in the fondness for contradictory aphorisms in Daoist texts: “[i]f you would contract, you must first expand. If you would weaken, you must first strengthen. If you would overthrow, you must first raise up. If you would take, you must first give”.’ (Lao Tzu, 1905: 45) And further “[t]here is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is nothing that surpasses it, nothing that can take its place”. (1905: 46) This is particularly relevant to the martial arts in which the idea of that aggression can be weakness and submission can be strength is fundamental.
The current Tai Chi diagram effectively visualises the notion that binary oppositions are complementary and involved in each other (rather than being opposing) and to some degree suggests movement with the fluid S shape at its centre. However it does not fully represent the idea of a sliding scale between those contrasting poles, nor the notion of changes in time, both of which are essential to the philosophy behind it. This model of polarity and change underlies much Chinese thought and cultural practice, and contrasts with the underlying Western philosophical models of duality and stable identity. (5) The unity of body and mind for example is generally conceived as an achievement to be worked toward (cultivated) within various practices, rather than as a psychological or physical state. Obviously it would be wrong to essentialise such diverse entities as Western and Chinese philosophy; however if an basic ontological difference can be perceived, it is that between “being” and “becoming” (or in terms of identity, the difference between “differences of type” and “differences of degree”), which as underlying conceptual models can be traced back to the foundational texts of Chinese and Western culture respectively: viz. the Yi Jing (the Book of Changes) and Plato’s dialogues. (6)
I have been playing with ways to represent the notion of a sliding scale in relation to the poles of Yin and Yang recently. Here are some results:
(1) Although, according to Louis “[b]etween the Ninth and Fourteenth centuries, images of circle divided in two halves by an s-line or an inverted s-line were by no means abstractions of cosmological concepts, comparable to symbolic graphs used in Song diagrammatic discourse. On the contrary, they were representational depictions of the concrete physical world and formed part of larger pictorial contexts. (2003: 178) And further, “[I]t was only during the latter half of the Ming Period that our specific Taiji circle became truly iconic, that is, widely recognized as a cosmologically meaningful sign.” (2003: 185)
(2) According to Charles Graham, “China tends to treat opposites as complimentary, the west as conflicting.”
(3) Oracle bone script (甲骨文) was scratched onto tortoise shells or ox shoulder blades which were then heated until they cracked. The future would be divined according to how the cracks disrupted the characters – so called pyromancy.
(4) Early Chinese writers on calligraphy also emphasized the importance of “the spacing” in the design of characters. (see Yee 1938: 145)
(5) Ames characterises polar relationships as organismic, interconnected, interdependent, open, mutual, indeterminate, complementary, correlative and coextensive, as opposed to dualistic relationships which are essentialistic, discrete, final, extrinsic and closed.
(6) Notable exceptions to this in Western philosophy are, Heraclitus (flux and the unity of opposites), Henri Bergson (time and becoming), A. N. Whitehead (Process philosophy), Martin Heidegger.
Ames, Roger. 1993, ‘The Meaning of the Body in Classical Chinese Philosophy’, in T. Kasulis, R. Ames, and W. Dissanayake (eds) Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press
Graham, Charles (1989) Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company
Lao Tzu, 1905, The Sayings of Lao Tsu. Trans. Lionel Giles, London: John Murray
Little, Stephen and Shawn Eichman, et al. 2000, Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago
Louis, François ‘The Genesis of an Icon: The “Taiji” Diagram’s Early History’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 63.11 (June 2003), 145–196
Nakashima, Tomoko, 2007, ‘The Synergy of Positive and Negative Space in Japanese Calligraphy’, Journal of Kinki Welfare University, Vol. 8 (2) 113-119
Qin, Jie (2014) Food and Binary Oppositions in the Chinese Meal System. Society 51, 35-39
Yee, Chiang. Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to its Aesthetic and Technique. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1938
Dear Roland, Thank you very much for your great research. Your wonderful work is so inspiring!
It is so delightful to see that South Korea uses the Tai Chi symbol as their national flag. They treasure the Chinese culture. With all best wishes, Patrick
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