You’ve likely seen the symbol —but what the meaning of yin and yang? We’ll tell you. Read on to discover the terms definition, origin, and more.
Just about everyone is familiar with the iconic symbol: little black and white half circles that swirl into each other, with a tiny dot of the opposing color on each side. Just by looking at it, you can tell that this ubiquitous symbol has something to do with balance — and while you’re not necessarily wrong, the meaning of yin and yang goes much deeper than that.
Interested in learning more? We can help. Read on to discover everything you need to know about yin and yang, such as the term’s definition, origin, and more.
What Is the Definition of Yin and Yang?
To truly understand the meaning of a word, it can be helpful to review more than one definition from a multitude of reputable sources. Below, you’ll find a few definitions from three trusted dictionaries:
- The term “yin and yang” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a noun that means opposite sides, elements, or extremes.
- In reference to Chinese philosophy and religion, the Collins Dictionary defines yin and yang as two principles — one negative, dark, and feminine (yin) and one positive, bright, and masculine (yang) — whose interaction influences the destinies of creatures and things.
- According to the Macmillian Dictionary, yin and yang refer to the two opposite principles and forces that are thought to exist in all things.
Although each definition differs slightly, we can conclude that yin and yang represent paradox and duality — or the idea that two opposites can actually exist in balanced harmony and in doing so, complement each other.
It’s essentially the same idea behind famous quotes like, “there can be no light without darkness.” Yin (the black segment) and yang (the white segment) each represent various qualities.
The Origin of Ying Yang
The principle of yin and yang dates from the 3rd century BCE (or possibly earlier) and is a fundamental concept in Chinese culture, ancient Chinese philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine, and more.
It’s not exactly clear as to when yin and yang came to be, though symbols representing yin-yang were present during the Neolithic period. Yin and yang is also represented in a Chinese divination text called The Book of Changes (or I Ching) that dates back to 1000 to 750 BC.
In addition, the ancient principle was seen during the Yin and Zhou dynasties (1047 to 256 BC), an extremely influential time period known as the start of Confucianism and Daoism (sometimes called “Taoism”). The idea has since influenced a number of Chinese philosophers, such as Lao Tzu and Confucius.
Born from chaos according to Chinese mythology, the concept of yin-yang and the idea of complementary forces became popular with the work of the Yinyang school, which studied Chinese cosmology and philosophy.
In the 3rd century BCE, famous cosmologist Zou Yan (or Tsou Yen) believed that life went through five phases (wuxing) that continuously interchanged according to the sacred principle of yin and yang.
The five phases include:
What Is Yin?
The yin aspect of yin and yang represents grounded Earth energy; it is dark, cool, receptive, and tied to the oceans, moon, and shade. Yin is associated with femininity and the winter season. In addition, Yin may also be represented by the tiger, a broken line in the trigrams, and the color orange.
What Is Yang?
On the flip side, yang represents the sun; it’s expansive and light. Yang is associated with masculinity and reaches its height of influence with the summer solstice. In addition, yang may also be represented by the dragon, a solid line trigram, and the color blue.
Where Did the Yin and Yang Symbol Come From?
Much more than just a cool tattoo design, the yin and yang symbol (also known as the Tai Chi symbol or taijitu symbol) carries with it a deep meaning that is as simple as it is profound.
Its origin is found in the ancient Chinese time-keeping system where poles were used to measure the changing lengths of shadows over the solar year; invented in China sometime around 600 BCE. Some historians have even suggested that the iconic symbol closely approximates a graphical representation of the daily change of a pole’s shadow length during the year.
Used around 1000 AD, the yin and yang symbol became well-known thanks to the Song dynasty’s philosopher Zhou Dunyi. The symbol continued to grow in popularity several decades thereafter and eventually made its way on t-shirts, jewelry, mugs, and more. Today, many people wear yin and yang but aren’t fully aware of all the history or meaning behind the symbol.
So, what does yin and yang mean?
In short, yin and yang are two concepts that represent the need for balance, unity, opposite forces, and change. The black section of the yin-yang symbol is yin, which represents femaleness or feminine energy.
In contrast, the white section of the symbol is yang which represents maleness or masculine energy. Neither yin nor yang is more powerful than its counterpart, and both are needed in equal amounts for harmony to exist.