In India the theory of the three elements in the Chândogya Upanishad led to the theory of the three forces, the gunas, and to the later theory of five elements. In China, the theory of five elements coexisted early with the theory of two forces: yin1 and yáng. In the Spring and Autumn Period there was actually a Yin and Yang School. Later its theories were accepted by nearly everyone, but especially by Taoism. The implications of the theory are displayed in the great book of divination, the I Ching, the "Book of Changes."
Yin originally meant "shady, secret, dark, mysterious, cold." It thus could mean the shaded, north side of a mountain or the shaded, south bank of a river. Yang in turn meant "clear, bright, the sun, heat," the opposite of yin and so the lit, south side of a mountain or the lit, north bank of a river. From these basic opposites, a complete system of opposites was elaborated. Yin represents everything about the world that is dark, hidden, passive, receptive, yielding, cool, soft, and feminine. Yang represents everything about the world that is illuminated, evident, active, aggressive, controlling, hot, hard, and masculine. Everything in the world can be identified with either yin or yang. Earth is the ultimate yin object. Heaven is the ultimate yang object. Of the two basic Chinese "Ways," Confucianism is identified with the yang aspect, Taoism with the yin aspect.
Although it is correct to see yin as feminine and yang as masculine, everything in the world is really a mixture of the two, which means that female beings may actually be mostly yang and male beings may actually be mostly yin. Because of that, things that we might expect to be female or male because they clearly represent yin or yang, may turn out to be the opposite instead.
Taoism takes the doctrine of yin and yang, and includes it in its own theory of change. Like Anaximander and Heraclitus, Taoism sees all change as one opposite replacing the other. The familiar diagram of Yin and Yang flowing into each other, the earliest attested example of which, strangely enough, occurs on a Roman shield illustrated in the fifth century Notitia Dignitatum, also illustrates, with interior dots, the idea that each force contains the seed of the other, so that they do not merely replace each other but actually become each other.
Unlike Heraclitus, Taoism sees change as violent only if the Tao [Dào] is opposed: If Not Doing [Wú Wéi] and No Mind [Wú Xin1] are practiced, then the Tao guides change in a natural, easy way, making for beauty and life. Since trying to be in control is a yang (or Confucian) attribute, Taoism sees Not Doing (and Taoism itself) on the yin side of things; but since Not Doing does not literally mean doing nothing, Taoism can use the language of passivity and receptivity to mean something that is actually quite active.
That is especially obvious in the use of the term róu [Wade-Giles jou2], "soft, pliant, yielding, gentle." Róudào, the "yielding way," is read in Japanese as judô and is the name of a popular Martial Art. Judo doesn't look at all yielding or gentle, but it does employ Taoist doctrine in so far as it is not supposed to originate force or an attack but takes the attack of an opponent and uses its own force against it.
Thus the great economist F.A. Hayek invoked Taoism in the defense of capitalism, a system that does not seem particularly yielding or gentle, but is based on the principle that government should "leave alone" (laissez faire) private property and voluntary exchanges and contracts. The free market would thus be the Not Doing of government.
When it comes to the five elements, earth, water, and wood are clearly to be associated with yin. Water, the softest and most yielding element, becomes the supreme symbol of yin and the Tao in the Tao Te Ching. Fire (the hottest element) and metal (the hardest) both are associated with yang. Nevertheless, the Blue Dragon that symbolizes wood is a principal symbol of yang, while the White Tiger that symbolizes metal is a principal symbol of yin. This kind of reversal turns up frequently in the I Ching.
The I Ching is based on the principle of a broken line, , representing yin, and an unbroken line, , representing yang. During the Shang Dynasty (1523-1028 BC), questions that could be answered with a "yes" or a "no" were written on tortoise shells. The shells were heated, then doused in water, which caused them to crack. A broken crack, , was interpreted as a "no" answer, an unbroken crack, , as a "yes." The I Ching elaborates on this, by grouping the lines into sets of threes (the trigrams) and into sets of sixes (the hexagrams).
There are eight trigrams:
Among the trigrams it is noteworthy that in all the children, the sex is determined by the odd line, so that the trigrams are predominately the opposite quality from the sex of the child. Also, we expect water to be associated with yin and fire with yang, but water is the second son and fire the second daughter. The other children are associated with such things as we might expect, e.g. water turns up again in the third daughter as the Lake.
The arrangement of the trigrams around the compass reflects Chinese geomancy (feng shui), i.e. the determination of the auspicious or inauspicious situation and orientation of places (cities, temples, houses, or graves). Chinese cities are properly laid out as squares, with gates in the middle of the sides facing due north, east, south, and west. The diagonal directions are then regarded as special "spirit" gates: northwest is the Heaven Gate; southwest the Earth Gate; southeast the Man Gate; and northeast the Demon Gate. The northeast was thus the direction from which malevolent supernatural influences might particularly be expected. The situation of the old Japanese capital city of Kyôto is particularly fortunate. To the northeast is a conspicuous mountain, Mt. Hiei (corresponding to the Mountain trigram), which is crowned with a vast establishment of Buddhist temples to guard the Demon Gate. Later, Tôkyô (originally called Edo) was laid out with temples to the northeast on rising ground in the Ueno district; but both the ground and the temples are now entirely surrounded and obscured by the sprawl of Tôkyô.
The I Ching [Yì Jing1] uses the trigrams by combining pairs of them into 64 hexagrams. The hexagrams reuses the trigrams by combining pairs of them into 64 hexagrams. The hexagrams represent states of affairs, and the I Ching is consulted through the construction of a hexagram to answer one's question. The construction is carried out either through a complicated process of throwing and counting yarrow stalks, or by throwing three coins. The obverse (head) of each coin is worth 3 points (odd numbers are yang), while the reverse (tail) is worth 2 (even numbers are yin). Three coins will therefore add up to either 6, 7, 8, or 9. The numbers 7 and 8 represent "young" yang and yin, respectively. Starting from the bottom up, these add a plain yang, , or a plain yÿian, , line. The numbers 6 and 9, in turn, represent "old" yin and yang, respectively, and are called "changing lines." This illustrates an important aspect of the theory of yin and yang: Because the "Way of the Tao is Return," yin and yang, when they reach their extremes, actually become their opposites. The "old" lines therefore change into their opposites, giving us two hexagrams if any changing lines are involved: the first hexagram, representing the current state of affairs; and the second hexagram, after the changes have been made, representing the future state of affairs. Changing lines are usually denoted by writing for a 9 and for a 6. The text of the I Ching describes the significance of each hexagram and also the special meaning to be attached to the presence of any changing lines.
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