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Everyone recognizes the symbol: the little black and white half circles that swirl into each other, with a dot of the opposite color on either side. Just by looking at it, its most basic meaning is clear: maintain balance. But the meaning of Yin and Yang goes much deeper than that.
Few ancient philosophies have been as influential as Taoism. Developed in the 4th century B.C., the philosophy is centered around the achievement of ‘the Way’ and finding harmony and balance within. At the heart of this philosophy is the symbol that has come to represent it as its most identifiable aspect: the Yin and Yang.
Much more than just the tattoo on the guy from your martial arts class, the Yin Yang carries with it a deep meaning that is as simple as it is profound. To understand it, let’s break down the symbol into its two constituent parts. The Yin, or the dark side, is associated with everything hard, negative, cold, wet, and feminine. The Yang, or the light side, is associated with things soft, positive, warm, dry, and masculine.
But contrary to the harsh juxtaposition of their appearances, Yin and Yang are not complete opposites. In fact, it is important that each side has a little bit of the other in it. That’s how you end up with a wave’s crest being Yang and its trough being Yin.
In fact, Yin and Yang are in everything, and most things are a little bit of both. An eggshell is Yang, but the egg inside is Yin. Wheat in the field is Yang, but once it is harvested, it becomes Yin. One can turn into the other, and the best things in life lie at the confluence of the two.
The concept of Yin and Yang is at the heart of Chinese medicine. Have you ever wondered, for example, why Chinese people drink so much hot water? It is about balancing out the body’s Yin and Yang. See, the balance of the two is the most important aspect. The two forces are opposing but complementary.
Chinese food, also, is incomplete without an understanding of Yin and Yang. Yang foods are those which are spicy or sweet. Like the warmth that Yang imbues, Yang foods are often those in warm colors like red and orange. Yin foods are those which are salty or bitter. They are cool in color, and are typically grown in water. Examples include tofu and soy sauce.
Everyone knows plain tofu is not the most appetizing dish. But pair it with some chili peppers, a la the Mapo style, and it’s a favorite in Chinese restaurants worldwide. Though on the whole, some dishes are more one than the other, elements of both Yin and Yang should be present within.
Regardless of gender, Yin and Yang are both present in the human body as well, and their strength waxes and wanes with the time of the day. Naturally, Yang is stronger during the day when the sun is out and it is warm. And Yin takes over at night, when its representative, the moon, comes out to play.
And though Taoism is more a philosophy than a religion, it teaches that there is a higher power in the universe, ‘the Way.’ Yet instead of being all good or all bad, it’s a little of both, just like Yin and Yang.
So just like the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, Yin and Yang is about not pushing back but accepting life’s contrasts and learning to see the good, and the bad, in everything.