Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Origin of Yin and Yang


According to Chinese tradition Fu Xi (Fu Hsi) was China’s first historical ruler (c. 2952-2836 BCE). A man of great diversity, he is often depicted as a serpent with a human’s head. Fu Xi was born in the Tianshui region of the Weishui River Valley in Gansu province.

Ancient Chinese legend holds Fu Xi as the first person to discover farming, hunting, fishing with nets, cooking meals in pots over fire, the domestication of animals, the breeding of silk worms, the regulation of marriage, use of the mortar and pestle, and teaching of the eight trigrams (bagua) via divination with yarrow stalks. It is in this last area where the “physical” system of yin/yang dialectics originated in the form of stacked, solid and broken line symbols that were arranged in equal but opposite positions in a circular format.

If we refer to recent archaeological data, we come to find that Fu Xi was most likely a member of the later phase, neolithic culture called the Yang -Shao. This small-scale culture began in north central China around 6,000 BCE, then later “migrated” into western China where it ended circa 2000 BCE. The Yang-Shao raised wheat and millet, fished with hooks and nets and hunted wild game with bows and
arrows with bone tips. The Yang-Shao produced red-coiled pottery that were painted with black geometric designs. They also domesticated pigs, practiced silkworm cultivation, made basketry and fiber cloth from hemp and silk.

A typical example of a Yang-Shao settlement was Banpo, which stood on seven acres of land near a small tributary of the Weishui River. Excavated more than 40 years ago, it has been estimated that nearly 400 inhabitants lived here, in round houses constructed of mud and grass, supported by wooden pillars, and in rectangular houses with pitched roofs made of thatch. Meeting houses and cemeteries were also central in these villages as well. Found in many of the grave sites were simple ornaments but there are no traces of images or talismans to accommodate the dead, although some remains indicate shamanistic beliefs.

Additional archaeological evidence taken at a grave site by the Gansu Archaeology Research Foundation* from the Maiji Mountain area of Tianshui also reveals paintings on pottery symbolizing the eight trigrams, fishing nets, crafts and stoneware, a rectangular house foundation, and human remains. Because the contents from this one ancient grave site differed dramatically from other grave sites excavated in the area, it appears that the particular person buried here was unique from the rest of community. Some scholars believe it is the grave of Fu Xi.

*(See Li Shi Min’s “Discussion of Fu Hsi Culture and the Maiji Mountains” in The Culture of Fu Xi, Chen Ju-Yuan, ed., 1995, Beijing) This thinking stands to reason, since no other artifacts in this nor any other archeological site in China, have produced trigram paintings. Fishing nets, too, although rare, have been found in other areas. This fact, however does not mean that Fu Hsi didn’t invent the fishing net, but rather suggests that he could have and other members of his culture used them as well. Fishing nets do not appear prior to the culture of the Yang-Shao.

A later prehistoric Chinese culture called the Lung-Shan began around the time that the Yang-Shao culture ended and was situated more toward the eastern coast of China. Although the Lung-Shan appear to have been more highly evolved than the Yang-Shao, there are many shared similarities between the two cultures. Many scholars believe that the Lung-Shan may be derived from the Yang-Shao or a synthesis of Yang-Shao and Dawenkou (5000 – 3000 BCE) cultures. During the Dawenkou period, however, we find the first indications of Chinese writing in connection with the use of heated animal bones for fortune-telling. This practice was later elevated to a more ritualized procedure during the Shang dynasty (1850 – 1100 BCE) that followed later. Nowhere in China’s prehistoric record, except during Fu Xi’s legendary reign in the Tianshui region, have divination practices that utilize trigrams (or yarrow stalks) been found to exist.

It is the original eight stacked trigrams (and later hexagrams) that Fu Xi developed which is of particular concern to macrobiotic practitioners. It is from the eight trigrams that the “Unifying Principles” were founded and from this came the Twelve Theorems and Seven Principles of the Order of the Universe, which was an elaboration of Fu Xi’s ideas developed by George Ohsawa as guidelines
for macrobiotic philosophy.

The original system devised by Fu Xi was in oral form, based on easily memorized poem-messages that he developed from personal observations from the natural world around him, using his own body to make comparisons. The earliest written reference to Fu Xi’s observations was recorded in the second chapter of the Xi Ci
Xia, (Categorization of Terms) from the Confucian classic The Ten Wings:

“In ancient times, Master Fu Xi ruled over all. He raised his head and observed the heavens, lowered his head and observed the earth, observed the natural patterning of birds and animals, compared them to the disposition of the earth.

At close range, he gained insight from his own body, at a distance he gained insight from natural objects. Then from these he originated the eight graphs. With them, he could through the spiritual make accurate evaluations of virtue, and he could categorize the tendencies in all matter.” **

** translation by Stephen Selby.

Hence from this reference alone we learn that as Fu Xi stood overlooking the plains and surrounding mountains, he first looked up at the heavens (space) then look ed down at the earth (solid). Fu Xi symbolized the heavens by taking three stalks of yarrow herb and breaking them in half. This he called The Yielding and placed them in the north (yin). To symbolize the earth he took three unbroken (solid) stalks of yarrow and placed them in the opposite position in the south. This he called The Firm (yang.) Between the two opposing trigrams there formed a vertical axis, later called the ridge pole, or central roof beam of a house. This vertical axis between two opposite tendencies represents yin and yang. (fig. 1)


By marrying Heaven and Earth (Yielding and Firm/yin and yang) and using all six stalks (broken and unbroken lines) in differing combinations, Fu Xi eventually developed a total of eight graphs that represented naturally occurring phenomena (heaven, earth, mountains, water, wind, fire, thunder and metal.) He correlated this grouping to a family unit and designated the Yielding as the mother and the Firm as the father. To the right of the ridge pole (east) where the sun arose, he placed the three “sons” (all with solid bottom lines, yang) and to the left of the ridge pole (west) where the sun set, he placed the three daughters (all with broken bottom lines — yin.) Once complete, all eight graphs balanced each other in opposing, yet complimentary positions in a circular pattern. (fig. 2)

figure 2

By looking at this graph we can see the emergence of the three most important philosophical tenets that underlie the foundation of macrobiotic theory:

1. Yin and yang energy regulate all physical phenomena.
2. Everything gradually changes.
3. At the extremes, yin changes to yang and yang changes to yin.

Fu Xi later added a greater dimension to physical reality by stacking these primary trigrams on top of each other and reconfiguring each graph so that a total of sixty-four , six-line symbols were formed. All hexagrams with a solid (yang) base line was placed to the right and all hexagrams with a broken (yin) base line we replaced on the left. By looking at this graph one can see, on the right side of the ridge pole, a gradual building of yang (bottom) lines until the halfway point (hexagram # 32) where yang reaches its greatest capacity. Then at hexagram # 33 there is polar reversal and a movement toward extreme yin (#64). (fig. 3)

figure 3

Note that there are eight phases to each hexagram’s existence before the bottom trigram changes into a different trigram. Each fully changed trigram correlates with one of the “children” originally formed in the first sequence of trigrams. Each of the primary trigrams (or “children”) also have physiological attributes based on their level of maturity. Together they represent the full spectrum of the growth and decay cycles of life.

To find what particular level of thinking an individual is at, and hence to seek guidance for particular problems associated with that level of thought, Fu Xi devised a method that could trip time by using a divination method that employed 50 yarrow stalks. This, in a nutshell, is what the original Book of Change (I Ching or Yijing ) is all about. How far these ideas extended into the various regions of China during this time is not known, nor is it known by whom this practice was relegated to. We do know, however, that by the time of the Shang Dynasty we begin to see references to yin and yang in the form of pictographs. These primitive characters have been found engraved into ox bones, tortoise shells, and later, sea shells. These substrates all were used for divination rituals which allowed an official soothsayer to read cracks cause by heating the engraved materials over fire. Divination, during this time was reserved for kings, or the acquisition material control and self protection.

The pictographs that represent the yang force were of suns with strongly cast shadows. The symbol for yin were of moons with faint shadows (or coiled clouds.) Here, in this primitive form of writing we again come into contact with the ancient ridge pole idea, whose two sides represented the opposing influences of shadow and light — the complimentary duality of nature. (fig. 4)

figure 4

It is also during the time of the Shang dynasty when we begin to see a change from the earth worshiping Neolithic cultures to the worship of a heavenly deity, named Shang Ti (“upper ruler”. ) The paternal figure did not have a clearly defined character but his influence over human affairs was so great that no important matter could be attended to unless the advice of Shang Ti was first sought. The psychological advantage of having the advice of Shang Ti communicating only to Shang kings via divination was also a decisive political move. Whatever advice Shang Ti gave the rulers, that advice could not be challenged. As Shang Ti grew in power, the spirit of the individual was reduced — oppression and human sacrifices soon became widespread.

It is important to also note that this change of orientation from earth-centered thinking to sky-centered thinking was a pivotal point in the evolution of Chinese philosophy and religion.

In the following dynasty, the Chou (or Zhou: 1111 – 249 BCE) which eventually overthrew the Shang, we see that the term Shang Ti being replaced by the word Heaven (T’ien.) The idea of an individual, personal deity is de-emphasized and allowed individuals to achieve a greater level of independent thinking in practical matters, without having to worry about being judged by a higher being. Thus, in the ancient Chinese Book of Rites (Li Ji) we read:

“… The people of Zhou respected ritual and admired charity. While they sacrificed to supernatural beings and were respectful to spirits, they sided with the human rather than the supernatural world, and set their standards of loyalty as applying to mankind. Their system of rewards and punishments was based on honors and rules — affection rather than respect.”

*** translated by Stephen Selby

Prior to the rebellion between the Zhou and the Shang, an attempt was made by the Zhou ruler, King Wen, to resurrect the near-extinct philosophical principles revealed by the hexagrams of Fu Xi. This, according to historical references, began after the jealous and derelict Shang king ( Jou the Terrible) imprisoned King Wen for a seven year period. While in prison, King Wen somehow got his hands on Fu Xi’s graphs which he altered into whimsical new arrangements. After making these changes, the new graphs no longer contained the vertical axis of yin and yang in their extreme positions, nor did the sequences of trigrams and hexagrams follow a pattern of gradual change or polar reversal. In fact, the new arrangements were based upon extreme configurations and were illogical from the standpoint of balance. (figs. 5 & 6)

figure 5
figure 6

Notice in the King Wen arrangement that the trigrams which were greatest in opposition, the Yielding and the Firm, have been replaced by the Abysmal and the Clear — each containing both solid and broken lines. The bottom, foundation lines of each trigram in this new order also show no conformity in regards to yin/yang placement: there are both “male” and “female” trigrams on both left and right sides of the newly formed central axis — their progression does not change from yin to yang in gradual succession, nor is polar reversal indicated. Hence, the idea of balance within a cycle of growth and decay is completely missing.

In the new hexagram arrangement, we continue to find additional inconsistencies. Remember in King Wen’s trigram arrangement the Abysmal was placed in the extreme north. In King Wen’s hexagram arrangement the most extreme, “male” hexagram (the Firm) is at the north (yin) instead. This time around, however, the Firm (six solid lines) has its name changed to Heaven. To the right (not opposite) of Heaven is the Yielding (six broken lines,) only this time around her name has been changed to Earth. It is at this point in China’s history when we begin to see developing the idea of “heaven” having full male attributes and the “earth” with female attributes, in a position that is secondary to the male.

To differentiate between the Fu Xi and King Wen concepts of yin and yang, George Ohsawa, decided to call the Fu Xi concept physical and King Wen’s concept metaphysical. For example; in the macrobiotic description of the physical body’s internal organs, all solid organs are listed as yang (heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, spleen/pancreas) and all hollow organs as yin (small intestine, stomach, large intestine, bladder, gall bladder.) In the paradigm of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the yin/yang description of these same organs are in reverse — solid organs are designated as yin and hollow organs as yang.

Along with the new graphs, King Wen attempted to write a text that would explain their main attributes — later to be known as the “judgments.” The language of these so-called “judgments” is sparsely phrased — more in line with the cryptic messages used in earlier divination queries. Yet, it is this confusing body of text, called Guazi, which forms the central framework of the I Ching.

After King Wen’s death, his son Duke Zhou, appended the Guazi by attempting to explain the meaning of the hexagrams from a line-by-line breakdown using local, historical references. Additional commentaries by other authors — mainly Confucian scholars, were added to the I Ching over the following centuries.

Despite its obvious transformation and break from the Fu Xi order, the revised face of the I Ching managed to maintain its revered position as the official court oracle, using the hexagram system instead of oracle bones, which eventually became obsolete.

Toward the end of the Zhou era political disruption and social instability had become paramount in many regions throughout China. The class barrier system began to disintegrate and the yin/yang paradigm began to spread among the peasantry. Eventually the practice of divination fell from its coveted position in the royalty directly into the hands of commoners. These “commoners”, however, were far from common when it came resurrecting ancient hilosophical principles. The revised face of the trigram and hexagrams made little sense from the yin/yang standpoint, yet the idea of the ancient ridge pole that divided equally all phenomena that directly opposed and complimented one another began to grow in popularity.

Soon the ridge pole was transformed by the Philosophical Taoists into a more organic, circular form, called the Tai Chi (Ultimate Extremity.) This circle was divided into two tadpole-like shapes; one dark ascending (yin) to the left, and the other light/descending (yang) to the right. Each shape had a newly added feature of an “eye” or dot which was opposite in color to the main shape. This “eye” represented a portion taken from the opposing shape to signify the bipolar nature of each shape, as well as it having the inherent ability to change into its opposite after gradually reaching its extremity — ideas originally put forth by Fu Xi, illustrated previously in this text. (fig. 7)

figure 7

With the Tai Chi, and especially the inspirational ideas of Taoist thinker, Lao Tzu (604 – 531 BCE,) we again start to view yin and yang in a more physical sense — as regulator of material phenomena whose application was universal and within reach of all people. In Chapter Forty-two of the Te Tao Ching, Lao Tzu tells us:

“The Way gave birth to the One;
the One gave birth to the Two;
The Two gave birth to the three;
And the Three gave birth to the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry Yin on their backs
and wrap their arms around Yang.
Through the blending of chi they arrive at a state of harmony…”

Lao Tzu stayed clear of the I Ching, believing that it was a degenerate practice which only confused the underlying message that it originally conveyed.

For Confucius (551-479 BCE,) the next Chinese sage to become enamored with the yin/yang dialectic, this concept proved a bit more baffling. Confucius reasoned that yin and yang should be understood in connection with the hexagrams of King Wen’s (metaphysical) version of the I Ching. Like King Wen, Confucius’ idea of the yang force was fully represented by the trigram known as Heaven , composed of three solid lines:

“Heaven suggests the idea of nature; of a circle; of a ruler; of a father; of jade; of metal; of cold; of ice; of deep red; of a good horse; of an old horse; of a thin horse; of a piebald horse; and of fruit trees.”

A bit inconsistent, but you get the picture. His description of the yin force, however, is a little closer to reality:

“Earth suggests the idea of earth; of a mother; of cloth; of a cauldron; of parsimony; of a turning lathe; of a young heifer; of a large wagon; of what is variegated; of a multitude; of a handle and support. Among soils it denotes what is black.”

…In modern times, when macrobiotics argue over definitions of yin and yang, at least they are playing in the same ballpark! Confucius and Lao Tzu are just an example of how differently yin and yang was understood and applied, and not just in ancient China. One can, in fact, make a good argument based on literary evidence, that nearly all of China’s great philosophers and cosmologists sided either
with the Fu Xi/Lao Tzu physical concept of yin and yang or with the King Wen/Confucian metaphysical concept. The list is long but is clearly highlighted along the long span of time that ends with today.

May Ling
Macrobiotics & natural health practitioner of Chinese decent. May Ling provides a Yin-Yang perspective to holistic health and natural healing. Contact:

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