Binary Oppositions and Calligraphy

As part of my research into the possibilities of East – West cultural exchange in written language I have been investigating the different ways binary oppositions are conceived in Eastern and Western thought (see my previous post on the Tai Chi diagram).

This idea of interconnected opposites is particularly important to Daoism, which has formed a central part of Chinese culture since the time of Lao Tzu (老子) in the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050 BCE – 256). In Daoist thought the idea of any independent entity implies its opposite; in Lao Tzu’s words “the recognition of beauty as such implies the idea of ugliness, and the recognition of good implies the idea of evil. There is the same mutual relation between existence and non-existence in the matter of creation; between difficulty and ease in the matter of accomplishing; between long and short in the matter of form; between high and low in the matter of elevation; between treble and bass in the matter of musical pitch; between before and after in the matter of priority.” (1905: 43)

In fact in Daoism, not only are binary oppositions always already involved in each other but at their extremes they can transform into each other; indeed 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”, 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”. (Lao Tzu, 1905: 45- 46)

Of course, the notion of binary opposition has a long history in Western thought too, dating back at least to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BCE). It is an important notion in the thought of Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE), Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464) and arguably in G.W.F. Hegel’s (1770 – 1831) dialectic logic and the Marxist thought that followed it. It is also important in Structuralist analysis, particularly Claude Levi Strauss in anthropology and Jakobson in linguistics.

However, and without wishing to essentialise cultures too much, there are significant differences between Eastern and Western conceptions of binary opposition.

The first difference concerns arguably the most important binary opposition for the Western consciousness, the split between mind and body, most famously expressed by Rene Descartes in his “real distinction” arguments in the First Meditations on Philosophy (See 1984-1991, II). According to Chandler (2007), this fundamental mind – body split created the poles of objectivity and subjectivity which underpin much of western thought and culture.

In contrast, Eastern thought generally does not consider the mind and body in such a radically spilt way. In practices, such as calligraphy, Qi Gong (氣功) and the martial arts, physical and mental exercises are linked, as both mind and body are involved in the regulation and flow of Qi (氣 / breath or vital energy). According to Yasuo Yuasa, “in the East, physical training that is not accompanied by the training of the mind as well is regarded as an aberration, for the mind and body cannot be essentially separated. Consequently, the eastern martial arts have been regarded since ancient times as an outward form of meditation.” (1987: 24)

The secondly major difference between Eastern and Western binary oppositions is that in the West oppositions are generally not rated equally, but are instead arranged into hierarchies. Descartes’ cogito privileges the mind over the body as it is the mind that is essential to, indeed commensurate with, existence. Whereas the polar opposites of the Tai Chi diagram, Yin and Yang, are equal, interconnected and (ideally) harmoniously balanced. As Charles Graham says, “China tends to treat opposites as complimentary, the west as conflicting. It is the explicitness of the Yin / Yang which shows up this difference […]. That Western thought not only has a chain of oppositions at the back of it but has a preoccupation about their relation to be exposed has been appreciated only since Derrida.” (1989: 331)

This can be seen in the arrangement of 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.” (115, 113, 116, 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)* [i]

Interestingly Jacques Derrida’s project to “deconstruct” the hierarchies implicit in Western binary oppositions, has led to a situation in which identity is conceived of as always already involving ‘the other’. Starting from a structuralist model of language in which the meaning of a sign (its identity) is generated from the difference it has from other signs, especially the other half of its binary pair, he claims the sign itself necessarily contains a ‘trace’ of what it does not mean. According to Derrida, [t]race is the “mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present”. It is present within the sign but “[t]he trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself.” (1973: 156). Although somewhat reminiscent of the ideas behind the Tai Chi diagram this notion resists being illustrated; rather it is one of the strategic terms which Derrida uses to “indicate a way out of the closure imposed by the system…”. (1973: 141) His goal being to undermine stable linguistic identity and allow the open and free play of signifiers with regard to each other. Ultimately his deconstructive “method” aimed to overturn the hierarchies implicit in Western binary oppositions (for example, speech / writing, literal / figurative, author / reader), thereby causing the formerly privileged terms to exchange properties (such as centrality or positivity) with the formerly devalued ones. Nevertheless, it may be argued that in allowing signifiers to play freely with reference only to each other rather than to the thing signified, Derrida closed language as a system off from the world outside of representation and (linguistically) replicated the kind of mind-body binary opposition his work purportedly criticised.


My artworks often play with the idea of presence and absence in relation to calligraphy. In a recent video (see above link) I wrote contrasting characters from Chinese phrases first in water then in ink on a sheet of paper and filmed the dispersal of one into the other. The characters used are from paired opposites combined into single phrases or sayings in Chinese. The characters are “dong xi” (East – West) meaning “thing”; “jen (de) jia (de)” (real – fake) indicating astonishment or disbelief; “sheng si” (life – death) indicating existence; “hei bai” (black – white) indicating ethical judgement. Other examples of opposing characters paired into single phrases include “mei chou” (beauty –ugly) indicating the triviality of physical appearance; and “sheng xia (up – down) indicating muddled and erroneous thinking.


Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena: and other essays on Husserl′s theory of signs. Trans David Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Chandler, Daniel.  2007 Semiotics: the basics. (2nd ed.), Routledge: London.

Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena: and other essays on Husserl’s theory of signs. Trans David Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Descartes, Rene, (1984-1991) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch and Anthony Kenny, Cambridge: Cambridge University 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

Nakashima, Tomoko, 2007, ‘The Synergy of Positive and Negative Space in Japanese Calligraphy’, Journal of Kinki Welfare University, Vol. 8 (2) 113-119

Yuasa, Yasuo, 1987. The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory, New York: State University of New York Press.

* Early Chinese writers on calligraphy also emphasized the importance of “the spacing” in the design of characters. (see Yee 1938: 145)


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