Tao Living

Misconceptions about
Yin & Yang

by Derek Lin

I imagine you, dear reader, groaning out loud as our topic sinks in. "What? Yin and yang? Again? Hasn't this topic been done to death already? What new things can you possibly say about it?"

I hope to respond to the above vigorously by presenting information you have not encountered before. For instance, did you know that the definitions of these two words (yin and yang) in a well-known English dictionary contain outright errors, and that these errors have been there for the last ten years and nobody’s ever caught on?

This story started a while back, as I was browsing through a dictionary web site. The author of this on-line dictionary was Robert T. Carroll, Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento City College. In his entry for "yin-yang", the Professor wrote that in Mandarin, yin meant moon and yang meant sun.

I almost fell out of my chair. The real Mandarin meaning of yang, in this context, was no more and no less than the active, masculine principle of Taoism. But since yang could be used with "tai" to say sun in Chinese (tai yang), I suppose you could kind of stretch its meaning a bit. It would still not be totally correct, but the error was not glaring.

Yin was a different case. If you point at the moon and say to your Chinese friends, "Isn't the yin lovely tonight?" They will either have no idea what you're saying and look at you like you're crazy, or erupt into a round of knee-slapping laughter at your expense. The primary meaning of yin has never been the moon. No contemporary speaker of Mandarin would ever use yin to refer to the moon.

So how could the Professor make such an error? Well, it's a no-brainer that he didn't know much Chinese, if any at all. Certainly this wouldn't be the first or last time that an academic paraded false knowledge about the Orient without actual expertise in the relevant language. One could almost picture how he got the idea: yin and yang were dualities, okay, so if yang meant the sun, then yin would obviously mean the moon...

This was not what happened though. Professor Carroll did not make up or assume the definitions of yin and yang. In the interest of accuracy, he looked up the words in a dictionary. He had no way of knowing that the dictionary was wrong.

The dictionary he used was the popular American Heritage Dictionary, with millions of copies in print used by millions of people everyday. The mistake appears not only in all of their printed editions, but also in their CD-ROM editions. God only knows who made the initial error, but it's been there since 1989, and possibly much earlier. Amazing!

Professor Carroll is not my only example of yin-yang faux pas. Other members of the campus intelligentsia join in the fun as well. Here I am referring to a number of feminist authors who assert that Taoism is sexist, based on their understanding of the yin and yang symbol.

How does this logic work? Well, the symbol represents dualities such as male and female, light and darkness, or good and evil, right? So there you have it! Notice that the male principle corresponds to the concepts of "light" and "good" while females are depicted as darkness and evil. That is the ironclad proof that sexism is deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture. The Joy Luck Club was right! Chinese men are pond scum!

With all due respect to the feminists, the above represents a shallow and distorted interpretation of the dualistic philosophy of Taoism. The real deal is more subtle and elegant, and totally different from the expectations of the feminist writers.

The central mistake in their logic lies in the assumption that there is a direct one-to-one mapping between any two sets of duality pairs. There is absolutely no such teaching in Taoism, so why make this unwarranted assumption? It is, at best, one-dimensional thinking.

The correct way to relate any two sets of duality pairs is to form a two-by-two matrix. This is easier to show than to describe:

  Good Evil

This table makes it rather obvious that both men and women can be good or evil - probably a better portrayal of reality!

Let's substitute one of the pairs with something different to gain an even better idea how this works. Let's try obvious/hidden instead of male/female. The yang principle can represent an in-your-face overt attribute, while the yin principle, being its counterpart, would represent the complementary clandestine, covert aspect:

  Good Evil

This gives us a pretty decent description of the various flavors of actions one might choose to undertake. For instance, when giving to charity (good), a philanthropist may wish to conceal his identity (hidden) or call a press conference (obvious). Bank robbers holding up tellers and terrorizing customers would be an "overt evil", whereas a bank official secretly siphoning funds into his Swiss account would be no less criminal, but in a covert manner.

Now let's reexamine the assertion of the feminist writers in light of this understanding. You'll notice that our paradigm utterly destroys their simple-minded men-positive, women-negative conception.

It is my hope that this understanding will also compel the reader to reevaluate the prevalent perception of sexism in the Chinese culture. While social barriers do still exist, modern Chinese women live an existence that compares quite well against that of their American sisters from the same social stratum. Most Chinese husbands will attest, somewhat ruefully, that their wives are the furthest thing imaginable from the submissive geisha stereotype so popular in Hollywood depictions.

As a final observation, let us take note of the fact that in Mandarin and all Chinese dialects, the term we're discussing today is always yin-yang and never yang-yin. Perhaps the ancient Chinese were somehow in tune with the modern expression "ladies first"...?

I take some comfort in the fact that Professor Carroll at least got the order right - even if he thinks the yin orbits the Earth!