Most people have heard of yin and yang – or at least seen the famous black-and-white design which represents the two words. But what’s the story behind these ideas from Chinese philosophy, and why have they become so famous?
What yin and yang means
In Chinese, yin-yang literally means “dark-bright” or “positive-negative”. It expresses the idea that even if two things seem contradictory, they can be complementary. Although they look like opposites, or fight each other, they also depend on each other. They are separate and united at the same time.
This is a foundational concept in Chinese philosophy. Yin-yang describes the balance of the universe, the changing seasons, history, and even relationships between men and women.
There are many different symbols to express yin-yang. Light and dark, black and white, fire and water are all popular ways to show yin-yang.
Even the written Chinese characters for yin-yang show balance, with two very similar characters mirroring each other. While Chinese writing has evolved from more detailed to more simple designs, you can still clearly see the balance in the shapes:
Yin and yang in design
Yin-yang is a very powerful idea which has resonated with people all over the world. Perhaps that’s why it’s become so popular everywhere.
Most people will recognize the most common yin-yang symbol from popular culture. It’s been used by artists, musicians, and even in the South Korean flag.
But yin-yang also turns up in some unexpected places. For example, it’s the philosophy behind martial arts like t’ai chi, which teaches people how to meditate and use their strength to defend themselves.
And, although yin-yang has ancient roots, it is still a living concept today. The latest film from famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou, Sombra, is an epic story that’s built on the idea of yin-yang.
Finally, you’ll find yin-yang as a theme throughout Chinese art, furniture, and paintings. Although it might not be as obvious as the black-and-white circle motif, you can see yin-yang philosophy in the balance and elegance that characterizes Chinese art.