Home The Yin and Yang symbolism in the Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Yin and Yang symbolism in the Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Yin and Yang symbolism in the Traditional Chinese Medicine
Dr. Diego Frigoli*
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MATERIA PRIMA Rivista di Psicosomatica Ecobiopsicologica
"Oriente e Occidente tra Materia e Spirito", Numero XIV, Giugno 2015, Anno V

The Yin and Yang are at the basis of the traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy.
What is meant by “traditional”? Not certainly past and ancient concepts not actual anymore, the reference is to atemporal and perennial values inscribed in the biopsychological history of Man, in his phylogeny. The “tradition” is not to be thought in opposition to the “revolution” defined as that immediate “renovatio” almost unrelated to its past, but as the actualization of the infinite perspectives revealed by its Latin etymon “trado”, whose aim is the regeneration of the human being. In this sense the Chinese medicine stands as ‘unique’ specifically in the history of medicine and generally speaking in the philosophical thought. The Chinese medicine qualifies as a “cosmologic” medicine, that tries to relate the inner “order” of Man to the universe Man belongs to. In other words it wishes to relate the Man-Microcosm to the Universe-Macrocosm. That is why the laws at the basis of the traditional Chinese medicine and of the acupuncture in particular, summarize general and totalizing meanings not limited to the single reality of Man, and organize all the Universe phenomena.

Such a vast program may appear paradoxical for our Western mentality accustomed to mainly use, in the gnoseologic context, an analytical-experimental criterion of survey, but for the Eastern attitude more synthetic and integrating, it constitutes a natural application of its structural premises. A proof of this is how historically the Chinese medicine, as well as its philosophy, as widely known establishes  not as an abstract interpretation of speculative and theoretical data, but as a result of a millennial observation of the natural cosmic rhythms (the alternation of day and night, the following of seasons, the changing of the constellations and so on) in accordance with the rhythms of Man (the sleep and wakefulness, the different stages of the growth of Man, from childhood to old age and so on.). The Chinese medicine is therefore defined as a complete medicine that tries to integrate in a unitary and dynamic vision the different phenomenological aspects of Man. Philosophically and concretely speaking, Man is defined as a microcosm that analogically repeats in its own totality’ the laws of the greater cosmos, the Macrocosm. But the term “cosmos” etymologically summarizes two closely related meanings: the order and the harmony. Therefore that order that is present in the Universe will be also present in Man, and the harmony that governs its immutable laws will express in Man as the synthesis of harmonized parts in the whole. 

The microcosm and the macrocosm are to be thought not as static and immutable units, but on the contrary as dynamic syntheses of forces continuously in movement and determining in their becoming the phenomenal manifestations. The Chinese consider the Yin-Yang, dynamic and opposite polar principles at the basis of any changes. In the broad sense, the Yin is the passive principle that analogically summarizes all the aspects of inertia like the cold, the darkness, the earth, the winter and so on, whereas the Yang is the active principle that in the broad sense expresses the heat, the light, the sky, the day, the summer and so on. As you cannot think about the cold without the heat, the darkness without the light, the winter without the summer and so on, the same happens from the reciprocal interacting of the opposed principles: the alternating of darkness and light determines the day, of winter and summer originates the following of the seasons, of the earth and the sky gives the sense of the space. Also in Man these opposite principles are at the basis of his expressions: from the most concrete ones linked to his “bios”, to the most subtle ones belonging to his ideo-affective world. That is why the Chinese will consider health as a perfect balance of opposite forces, while disease will become first of all the loss of the natural harmony.

These philosophical principles are well expressed in the symbol of the TAI-CHI that synthetically expresses the relation between the Yin and the Yang (see figure). Such a symbol consists of a circumference with two symmetric figures. The meaning of Yang is attributed to the light side, that of Yin to the dark one. Inside each side of these two figures there are two small circles, a light one and a dark one, as to indicate there is no absolute, but even in the highest expression of both the yang or the yin there is the seed of their opposite. This is the conceptualization of the relativity of the Chinese thought  that does not  know  the dogmatic and immobile formulations, but only the dynamic ones being life itself in movement. The whole figure from a Gestaltic point of view, reveals the movement underlined by the curved line that separates the two symmetric figures. Which is the value to be given to this symbol that in its iconography of alternating colours appears extremely simple and prospectively unable to condense natural, ethical, existential, complex and general principles? According to which psychological principle can a symbol appear that “complete, total”, as to summarize in short graphic lines, infinite human and collective meanings? The psychology has well underlined how the synthetic capacity of a symbol is proportional to the progressive detachment of its iconographic expression from the form to an anthropomorphic dimension. For example we know that to indicate the principle of the gestation of things, it is possible to go from a simple representation, like that of the mother, to more synthetic representations, but still anthropomorphized like the Vergin Mary, until the concept of the Great Mother, or Mother Earth, or more abstractly to numbers or geometric figures.

Then the Yin and the Yang, represented in the TAI-CHI symbol, belong to this last conceptual category as summarizing a series of abstract and concrete meanings. The analysis of the symbol will therefore orientate in the comprehension of the and philosophical pragmatic aspects of the Yin and the Yang that in the literary expressions they are normally referred to appear particularly obscure and therefore misunderstood. For example, in chapter 42 of the Tao-Te-Ching of Lao-Tze is claimed that «The Tao produced One; One produced Two (Yin-Yang); Two produced Three; Three produced All things …» (Lao-Tze, 1972, p. 133).

In the Chinese philosophy the concept of the Tao is extremely complex and in brief it expresses the principle at the basis of the generation of a manifest phenomenon. But as such it cannot be defined because as stated by Lao-Tze «The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. … It is “eternal”, without name, it is marble not sculptured … when the marble is …, then the names are born …» (Fung Yu-lan, 1975, p. 78).

Thus the Tai-Chi ends up summarizing, thanks to its synthetic significant, the whole complex of cosmological meanings whose reflex can be found in the human consciousness meant as that specific epiphonema of a greater Cosmic Consciousness. The integrative laws of the Macrocosm will be those of the Microcosm, and the Great Synthesis it reveals, will be the same expressing in Man. Is it possible to summarize the ontological “Totality” in a symbol? Or for the fact that the “Totality” is infinitive by definition, a symbol can limit it? Ultimately, this last observation can be true, or maybe “The Great Whole” cannot be expressed but by the Silence, but by hermeneutical necessity it is possible to provide some food for thought from the analysis of the symbol, but just with the aim to reflect and not to define. If we consider the Tao as an essence that is not yet manifest, but potentially able to summarize any phenomenal manifestations, it could be conceptually represented with the “void” that is without shape and graphically with a blank page of a sheet of paper that knows no writing. The very moment from the “void” emerges the first presence, expressed by the symbolic meaning of the one, we could graphically indicate this ontological birth with the representation of the dot ?, that geometrically has no extension but the limits of its own presence. If we wanted to add to the dot a manifest form, harmonic in any directions, we would have to represent the circumference built on the dot, meaning it as the unitary projection of a surface, of the virtual unity given by the dot. In such a way the dot will represent the “quality” of the unity, while the circumference will be its “quantity”.

But as claimed by Lao-Tze «One produced Two». How can be represented that infinitive process taking from the unity to the duality? The two, arithmetically speaking, is the only number resulting from the sum of two unities, of two numbers equal with one another. All the other numbers of the decimal sequence can only be obtained by the sum of the unity with progressively different numbers. Therefore, symbolically, to generate the two, two unities to be summed up are needed, and that can be when the unity reflects at the specular level of its own existence. The one and its reflex, this is the two. That is why in Shinto shrines the worshippers bow before a mirror.

The centre doubled in two new centres, will evoke in its expression the need to generate two surfaces (figure C). The obtained figure is still static from a Gestaltic perspective; we are dealing with a general “totality” represented by the external circumference and by its centre, and by two internal “totalities” given by the two smaller circumferences and by the respective centres. But the existence is movement, and the figure needs to dynamise to express it.

That can be graphically represented by the passage C → D where the curved line ends up defining two symmetric “areas”, not overlapping, even if complementary, to indicate the ontological principles of the change of each reality.

Carrying on in the analysis of the symbol, we could reflect on the meaning of the black and white alternance. In all the cultures the white indicates the consciousness, while the black the unconscious. In physics the white is the synthesis reflected in all the colours, while the black has got the characteristic to absorb all the luminous wavelengths. Therefore the meaning of the symbol is more explicit: each reality is the harmonic synthesis of opposite attitudes, conscious and unconscious attitudes. It may appear that such an analysis is extremely theoretical and without practical consequences, but in examining each human phenomenon, both physical and psychic, the Yin and Yang alternance is always present. In the systole-diastole of the heart, in the inhalation-exhalation of the lung, and so on. Or from a psychological perspective in the difference that exists between the imagination and the observation for example.

In the imagination there is a central Ego that evokes the images which are projected externally, on the reality. That is the artistic experience. In the observation, the Ego is as if passive, aimed to get the external reality, that progressively fill it in and amplifies it. It is the experience of the scientist. Each operational, dynamic aspect of life is based on the Yin-Yang alternance. Moreover, each visible manifestation, the Yang, needs an obscure germinative phase, the Yin, its engine; like the plant that can exist for its seed residing in the darkness of  the ground. In the end, the Yin and the Yang, are not abstract principles or concrete expressions: they are both of them and they are the admirable attempt of translating into a law the continuity that ties the unmanifest to the manifest. For this, in the actual crisis that troubles the medicine, the reference to the knowledge of the traditional symbols has not only the meaning of a scientific and cultural knowledge, but it proposes as the concrete need to integrate the actual scientific knowledge in a more general and broader vision of life.


Frigoli, D. (2004). Ecobiopsicologia. Psicosomatica della complessità. Milano: M&B
Fromm, E., Suzuki, D., De Martino, R. (1968). Psicoanalisi e Buddhismo Zen. Roma: Astrolabio
Fung Yu-lan. (1975). Storia della filosofia cinese. Milano: Oscar Mondadori
Granet, M. (19971). Il pensiero cinese. Milano: Adelphi
Lao-Tze. (1972). Tao-Te-ching. Roma: Mediterranee
Lavier, J.A. (1976). Medicina cinese medicina totale. Milano: Garzanti
Marchianò, G. (1977). La parola e la forma. Bari: Dedalo
Stiskin, M.N. (1972). Lo specchio divino. Roma: Ubaldini

Images from G.A. Rogora (edited by) “Aggiornamento di agopuntura e riflessoterapia”, Edizioni UNICOPLI, Milano 1981

*Dr. Diego Frigoli - Founder and promoter of the ecobiopsychological thought. Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist and Director of the ANEB Institute – School of Specialization in Psychotherapy. Innovator in the study of the imaginary focusing on the symbol in relation to its dynamics between the individual and the collective knowledge.

Translated by Dr.ssa Raffaella Restelli – Psychologist, member of the British Psychological Society (UK), Ecobiopsychological Counselor and expert in ANEB Psychosomatic Medicine. Linguist in ANEB Editorial area.