Yin and Yang: Basic Concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine


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The earth is yin; heaven is yang. Image by beartales.

The concept of Yin-Yang – as well as its symbol – is well known in Western society. It dates back thousands of years, and pervades Chinese culture. It is one of the most basic concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The  Structure and Meaning of the Yin-Yang Symbol

The Yin-Yang symbol is a black and white circle, divided in half by a curved line.

One side is black, the other is white, with a black spot inside the predominantly white side, and a white spot in the predominantly black side.

This is a graphic symbol of the theory that everything is comprised of opposites, and within each opposition, there are the seeds of its opposing characteristic.

Thus there is conflict, as well as interdependence, in everything that exists. Due to this structural dynamic, according to TCM believers, the universe is constantly in a state of flux.

The Yin-Yang symbol is a metaphor for the nature of the universe. Everything that exists can be analyzed in terms of its Yin-Yang structure, and furthermore, Yin and Yang cannot exist separately. They co-exist in balance (or out of balance!) in every element of the universe – from the microscopic to the infinitely large.

The Chinese character for Yin originally meant the shady side of a hill; the Yang character meant the sunny side of the hill. As the earth turns, the sunny side becomes shadowed and vice versa. And so it is with everything that exists: Yin and Yang are constantly changing and turning into each other.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concept of “Yin-Yang” is used as a convenient label to describe how the various parts of the body are functioning in relation to each other and to the environment.

Yin and Yang: Basic Principles

A TCM practitioner sees all things as having a Yin and a Yang aspect. As applied to the human body, Yin is the front, while Yang is the back; the upper part of the body is considered more Yang than the lower part; the outer parts of the body are more Yang than the inner organs.

  • Any Yin or Yang element can be further divided into Yin and Yang ad infinitum. Thus, within a Yin illness, there may be aspects of Yang. Likewise, there may be Yin aspects within a Yang illness.
  •  Yin and Yang mutually create each other, and they are inseparable. Thus, in an illness, “overactivity has meaning only in relationship to a condition of underactivity” (Kaptchuk, p. 10)
  • Yin and Yang control each other. Therefore, if one is too strong, the other will be too weak.
  • Yin and Yang transform into each other. This explains the normal process of change. When these changes occur smoothly, there is a normal balance between Yin and Yang in the body, and the person is healthy. Conversely, illness in TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, is defined as an imbalance between Yin and Yang in the body.

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