Symbolism out the yin yang (a quick explanation of a deep concept)

by Mary Beth Huwe

In addition to asking lots of questions about acupuncture as an experience, people often want to know about yin and yang. (Tip: “yang” rhymes with “song.”)

This topic is vast, deep, and can be the study of a lifetime. It’s laughable to think such things can be adequately covered in a simple essay like this one; they can’t be. But, as the saying goes, a crazy long journey starts with a single lurch [sic.]

So let us lumber forward with good intentions!

The basics

Yin and yang are the basic foundations of Chinese medicine, and a simple Internet search will reveal all kinds of information about the concept, as well as this symbol:

Yin yang symbol: Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/

In addition to being a favored choice for tattoos, this symbol has another function, too. It is the visual representation of the basis of Chinese medicine. The white is considered to be yang; the black is yin.

One commonly used metaphor to understanding the relationship of yin and yang – and this symbol – is to think of it as the sunny side and shady side of the hill. Both are parts of the same hill, but the experience of that same hill varies depending on which side of it you’re on.

If you look back up at the symbol, you’ll see that the line dividing the two sides is curved, not straight. This is because the relationship between yin and yang is never static. It is like a wave, cresting into itself. So if you are standing on the shady side, it will at some point become the sunny side, and vice versa. That assertion could be argued; depending on the shape and location of the hill, maybe one side will never be sunny.

But still, the experience of being on the hill will change, even if you never move. Because you, the hill, the creatures living on it, and the world around it and of which it is a part, are living. And, at some point, the sides of the hill will move closer together in their commonalities; at other times they will appear to be far apart. Regardless of how similar or different they appear, they remain inseparable.

The misunderstanding

Yin and yang are often considered to just be opposites, but this is a misunderstanding. Yin and yang are actually about interdependence. It’s easy to see how the “simple opposites” misunderstanding can arise when we take examples of yin and yang. This is compounded by the fact that yin and yang are best understood through examples, but only if you keep thinking about them and observing them in yourself and in your world.

Here’s are some general examples:

Yin: dark, rest, moon, rain, ocean, soft, heavy

Yang: bright, action, sun, sun, mountains, hard, light

The parts of a single example can also be categorized into yin and yang.


A plant itself is somewhat yin, especially compared to, say, a tiger. But the flower is considered to be yang. The stalk of the flower would be yang (or would it be yin, given its density and structure?), the sticky pollen would be yin, and so on. You can do this with any example you like; it’s fun if you don’t drive yourself and others crazy with it.

The relationship

When yin and yang separate, death occurs. We quite literally can’t survive without them both. This isn’t codependency; it’s interdependency. Codependency involves a mutual pathological issue; interdependency is a healthy understanding of connectedness, and is generative in nature.

Let’s look at the symbol again:

Yin yang symbol: Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/
Yin yang symbol: Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/

Notice that each side contains a seed of the other, an indication of natural and true interconnectedness of yin and yang.

(For some easy-to-understand yin and yang info, click here or here.)

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