“‘Yinyang’: The Way of Ways”

Robin Wang, Professor of Philosophy
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, United States

Thursday, Oct. 16, 7pm
KTS Lecture Hall,
2nd Floor, New Academic Building,
University of King’s College,
Halifax, NS

Blog from the Event

Dr. Wang joins us from Los Angeles. She has published extensively on Daoism and its influence on feminist philosophy and Chinese intellectual culture. In her spare time, she’s an expert consultant for movies like the recent Karate Kid. She related a humorous anecdote in which she had to ‘Google’ Will Smith before meeting him for a production meeting, but when Jackie Chan entered the room, she could not contain her excitement!

Fifty or so people came out to the lecture this evening, and Dr. Wang did not disappoint! She was delightful as she was informative, correcting a number of misconceptions about Yinyang theory that persist in the West. (Note: the ‘a’ in ‘yang’ is pronounced as ‘ah.’) She started with some examples of the way it is ingrained in Chinese culture and language. Some examples: ‘Yin’ describes dark days, ‘yang’ is used for bright. It is a Chinese custom to drink hot water since cold stiffen the body and is believed to cause arthritis. Chopsticks are always used as a pair, and so on.

Yinyang is simultaneously simple and complicated, an irreducible principle that frames and suffuses the whole. Like the physikoi of Ancient Greece, yinyang is a way to rationalize the world, to understand its source of stability and transformation. In other words, it is the origin of all phenomena. Dr. Wang suggests that it is better to think of yinyang as a string of connected words, a “horizon” in the sense used by Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. As that which gives rise to all phenomena, yinyang opens up a way to look at things. That’s why it is a common mistake to think of it as a mere balance of opposites. Dr. Wang informs us that only two kinds of harmony emerge from the ancient Chinese tradition: music and the culinary arts. Both maintain a hierarchical ordering, with each part (e.g., tone or flavour) maintaining its own integrity while combining to make a new form or existence.

Yinyang is a vital feature of Chinese histories and philosophies of science. For instance, Bian Que (6th century BCE), conceives of the human body as an organic whole that mirrors the larger operations of nature. He associates yin with substance and structure, yang with function or movement. One of the earliest texts associated with yinyang theory, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (475-221 BCE), is still read by medical students today. Disease results from an imbalance in one of four ways: an excess of yin, an excess of yang, a lack of yin, and a lack of yang). Health, as with Hippocrates, is a matter of lifestyle. The body must be tended to as garden rather than a machine.

In Discourses of the States (483 BCE), the theory is used to explain earthquakes as a restriction in the flow of these energies, “Yang was stuck and could not get out, yin was suppressed and could not evaporate.” Yinyang could even explain harsh weather conditions, to which one adapted using a series of correspondences. For example, in times of drought, you must open yin and close yang, sending that energy up to the heavens so it can be given back as rain. To do this, open up the south gates, then usher the women outside and make them happy. Conversely, during times of flood you must open yang and close yin, lock the north gates, and keep the women inside.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), yinyang gave rise to a gendered cosmology that stands in contrast to Western views. At this point in the lecture, Dr. Wang displayed an image of a woman and man joined together through their intertwining snake tails, generating the heavens and the earth (this proved impossible to find later on Google images, though the results were amusing). Unlike the active/passive duality in Aristotle, or Eve’s formation out of Adam’s rib, the female principle in this worldview is a vital necessity, not subordinate the male.

Epistemologically, yinyang is a system of classification. Unlike the Aristotelian categories, it defines an individual as a correlation of yin or yang elements rather than in relation to species, genus, and so on. This is of particular importance in cooking and medicine. Dr. Wang amusingly framed it within the context of “Tiger Moms”: of course you harangue your daughter for getting a 90 when her friend got a 95–if they are in the same class, why should the results be different?

Dr. Wang finished with a discussion drawing on her own area of research: Yinyang as a strategy. Her investigation was spurred by this puzzling quotation from an ancient source, “Heaven as his canopy; Earth as his carriage; the four seasons as his steeds, and yin and yang as his charioteers.” First she noted that, along with religious rites, music, archery, calligraphy and math, charioteering is one of the Six Arts in the Chinese tradition, and so a way to cultivate wisdom. She then showed us the five criteria to assess the skills of charioteer, which included  herding animals such that they are in the best position for a hunt. Altogether, the successful charioteer depends on his horses, their power, the terrain, the weather, and his determination. Yinyang is not these parts in isolation, it is their integration, which Dr. Wang characterizes as a non-presence factor, a subterranean source of our projection into the world. This leads her to joke that the Chinese are invading the world, not through brute force, but rather one carton of Kung-Pao chicken at a time. Likewise, yinyang is not a direct engagement, it is diffusion through the background—a giving and taking, a pushing and pulling.

Dr. Wang’s dynamic presentation made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Surely we all left the room with a better grasp on yinyang, which she so cleverly illuminated for us with excellent examples and a good deal of humour. We wish her the very best and welcome her back to Halifax any time!

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