We all know that ‘it takes two to tango’. A man and a woman dancing in unison is a simple way to conceive the idea of Yin (阴) and Yang (阳). At the same time when the male partner moves his right foot forward, the female partner moves backwards with her left foot, and so the dancers glide over the floor in a motion of ‘harmony’ (和谐) with the accompanying music. The Chinese have intuitively understood this within all the activities in their lives. Yin and Yang is very much part of Chinese culture. My first experience of listening to The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi was a sensation of tranquillity that can be described as inner harmony. Indeed, every piece of symphonic music is an attempt to harmonise the sounds of different instruments into a vibrating motion.
Yin and Yang also expresses itself under infinite inward focus and in outward motions, and also emerges during our investigations into micro world of details and the macro world of patterns (for instance, when scientists look into quantum particles in relation to cosmos). Our body is the little universe that interacts with the great universe, according to Chinese concept of Yin And Yang.
“Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.”
Throughout history, it has been the passion of all thinkers to summarise complexities into simple principles that can guide our understanding of the world. Scientists erect theorems and construct mathematical models to represent their branch of knowledge. Physicists are now attempting to find a scientific theory of everything – one that is universal to physical knowledge. Philosophers also summarise their knowledge in philosophical concepts which reflect the truth as they see it. The universal theory of Tao, which influenced the Chinese civilisations for the past five thousand years, is a grand summary of existence and of the multitude of changes and creation that emerged from the beginning of the universe. The dynamic of change which resulted from Tao is expressed in the interactions of the Yin and Yang of all things. To understand the concept of Yin And Yang we must also comprehend the concept of ‘Harmony’ and ‘Balance’. Chaos will result from disharmony, and stability will result from a rebalancing of factors to establish harmony.
Using this grand summary of the dynamics of changes, we can begin to understand our own body, mind and spirit as well as changes in nature, society and economics. Indeed, Yin and Yang is a fluid concept which enables us to comprehend change and how to cope with the consequences of change. But the most important application of the concept of Yin And Yang should be upon ourselves and the way we live. In contrast to Western medicine which focuses on the micro details of diseases, Chinese medicine uses the concept of Yin And Yang to look at the patient holistically and according to different patterns of health and disease which the Chinese physicians call ‘Syndromes’. The way we live, the food we eat, our emotions, our relationships with other people and with nature can all be summarised by the concept of Yin And Yang.
My current investigations into this philosophical concept confirm many of my ideas which I would like to share with you. These ideas have been guiding my life thus far. This concept has also guided the Chinese civilisation and the people of China over the past few thousand years.
The rise of the Chinese economy will mean a renaissance of Chinese culture, which may influence our world as China interacts with other civilisations. I am convinced that the concept of ‘harmony’ will override the current dynamics of ‘competition’ to foster a better world for us all. But the most important consideration for me is that we can all understand Yin and Yang in order to improve our life and our immediate surroundings. In order to do that, we have to compare the perspectives of Eastern intellectual tradition in relation to that of the West.
Over the sky of Beijing, on my way back to London, the mountainous terrain suddenly gave way to a landscape of deserts and barren land. My mind began to wonder into the realm of imagination; into the world of ideas, but still conscious of the barriers between the intellectual traditions of East and West. Take the concept of ‘freedom’, for instance. The idea of freedom typifies the difference between the East and West. Freedom, in a true sense, means ‘free from constraints’ and yet in the West we have so many rules and regulations that individuals are not able to truly exercise their freedom. Structures of laws and management are being constructed to contain freedom. Intellectually, though logics and mathematics are developed as methodologies for furthering our knowledge structurally, at the same time this can have an opposite yin and yang effect of restricting knowledge into rigid boundaries. Free thinkers are those who can break out of the boundaries of logic to explore new frontiers that may seem absurd at the time.
In the Eastern traditions, the individuals are encouraged to cultivate their mind and their moral nobility with the pursuit of ‘eureka’ or by conceiving the true reality of being. The Buddhists call this ‘reaching Nirvana’; an evolution from lower being to higher being. The Chinese philosophers described this process as attaining the wisdom of a sage. While the West develops knowledge of the physical world and uses technology to improve our material life and increase our wealth, the Eastern tradition has been orientated towards consciousness and the attainment of the true reality in the inner world of being. To understand this contrast, we have to take a journey into the fundamentals of Chinese thinking.
The Chinese philosophical concept of Qi (Chi) (气) describes both the material and functional energies within the human body and the universe. How does the materiality of Qi interacts with functionality of Qi? The Chinese conceived the notion of Yin And Yang to explain this phenomenon through an early philosophical proclamation in the I Ching (易经) that ‘Tai Ji (The Utmost) gave rise to the two phrases (phenomena, Yin and Yang) two phrases gave rise to four forms which in turn gave rise to Ba Kua (the octagonal set of trigrams that expresses changes) and Ba Gua gave rise to all things’ (太极生两仪，两仪生四象，四象生八卦，八卦生万物). Lao Tse reaffirmed and developed this philosophical concept further. In his work Dao De Jing (道德经) he said ‘in the beginning there was Dao (the way), Dao gave rise to one and one divided into two and gave rise to three which became everything else’ (道生一，一生二，二生三，三生万物). ‘Two’ symbolises the existence of Yin and Yang, and the interactions between the two gave birth to everything else in this universe. Just like men and women in their procreation, Yin and Yang, darkness and light, penetrate the creative dynamics within this universe.
If the Big Bang was the beginning of the Universe, then the cause would have been a disturbance of the harmony in the grand order of existence. Mankind’s journey in this universe is a journey towards harmony. Scientists are now tracing back the fractions of the second to pinpoint the exact time when the universe was created during the moment of imbalance in an empty void that sparked off the gigantic explosion, while the universe is still expanding at this very minute. Scientific understanding of the origins of our universe and its dynamics has reached such complexity, that for it to advance significantly further, it must integrate with the traditional thoughts of the past. Synergy of the cutting edge scientific thinking with the ancient wisdom of the East and West, is a necessary step in the development of the next stage of the human civilisation.
Let us look back into the beginning of the human civilisations and compare the early mythologies of the East and West. Intellectual dialogues between East and West are important for enhancing mutual understandings. The Greek mythology tells us a story of creation with many gods. Gaea was the first goddess of the earth who was worshipped before the Indo-European invasion that led to the Greek Hellinistic civilisation. Her son Kronos created three sons: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. After defeating the Titans, the three sons drew lots for the shares of the world: Zeus got the sky and became the supreme ruler of the gods. His brother Poseidon became the lord of the sea, and Hades got the worst draw when he was made the lord of the underworld. Hades became a greedy god whose main concern was to increase the number of his subjects in the realm of the dead.
The creation story in Chinese mythology began with the god Pan Gu (盘古), the son of Yin and Yang, who came into being during the darkness of chaos. It was him who separated heaven and earth. The heaven represents the light parts of the chaos and the heavy parts became the earth. After he died, Pan Gu’s body became the universe while the fleas on his body became the humans. When the ten suns of the world started to disrupt the Earth’s climate by wandering together in a single group, the humans were saved by the God of Archery Hou Yi (后羿) who shot down nine suns and left one to maintain a proper temperature and environment for human survival. The goddess Nüwa (女娲) repaired the broken sky and prevented it from falling down, to maintain stability of life. The Five Sacred Mountains of China represent the main points on the compass as well as the axis of energy needed to sustain life. The balance of heavenly bodies, such as the sun and the moon, also represent the balance of yin and yang. You can clearly see that the Chinese are concerned with man and heaven, while the Western traditions concentrated on the relationship amongst gods and their struggle for power that preceded various religions. However, both the Western and Chinese traditions conceived gods and the supernatural to understand their own origins and the physical and natural phenomena around them.
The concept of Yin And Yang was very much evident in the early Chinese mythology and was later perfected by the monumental philosophical work I Ching which influenced the formation of the early Chinese civilisation and later became the intellectual source for the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (黄帝内经), and The Hundred Schools of Thought (诸子百家) (200BC to the beginning of AD). This was an era of unprecedented creativity in Chinese thinking. Yin and Yang elements also diverge into various aspects of Chinese culture that influenced the everyday life of the people. The Yin And Yang interpretations of the hexagrams in the I Ching were originally intended as an observation of the pattern of changes in nature, but have also been used by fortune tellers to read a person’s past and to predict their future.
The 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, symbolised by different animals, began with the observation of the relations between the yin and yang elements of nature. This 12-year cycle also relates to the 12-month seasons and the 24-hour clock in defining the yin and yang time and periods in our life cycle. Like all living beings, we have to adapt our lifestyle to these changes in yin and yang energies in order to survive and thrive. For example, during the night we have to replenish our yin energy with a good sleep so that we can express our yang energy in our activities during the day. Animals and plants prepare for the yin winter as autumn leaves are falling, and burst out with yang energy in spring, and blossom into the summer.
Every 12 years after you are born you will come into your Root Year (本命年). For instance, 2010 was the year of the Tiger and every 12 years it will be the root year for the tiger baby. In China there is a tradition that those who are in their root year take care not to travel afar or involve themselves in dangerous or risky situations. During the root year they wear red (e.g. red socks or belts, etc.) in order to ward off misfortune. To the Chinese the root year is the year of fundamental change in the yin and yang balance of one’s destiny. This may sound superstitious to you but it is a tradition many people follow, even in these modern times. There is something logical behind this type of behaviour. To the Chinese, if you get to know the yin and yang cycles of your environment then you are more prepared to adapt to the exuberance of yin or yang energies.
The cycles of crises that were experienced by our open market economy in the past decades also reflect approximately the cycle of 12 years. For instance, 1997 and 2009 can be observed as an economic cycle. We will take a look at the yin and yang cycles of economics at a later stage in the future E-Letters. However, I have been reading increasing references being made to the concept of Yin and Yang to illustrate economic and financial phenomena in mainstream publications on economics and business affairs since the beginning of the current economic crisis, originated by the burst of the U.S sub-prime loan bubble in 2007. The Times called it ‘the deepest recession’. Such depth can only be measured by the speculative height that the banking world created during the hectic days of excessive consumerism. The seesaw graph of the stock and property markets vividly illustrates this imbalance in the yin and yang of economics. Deficiency in economic values or unsustainable empty values makes it necessary for a sudden readjustment by concrete economic values or justified real values. In accountancy this is called ‘balance of account’. A healthy balance sheet will show income at least equal expenditure. Expenditure must be matched by income otherwise you will have imbalance and deficiency that will bankrupt you or your company, or your country. The creation of ‘credit’ means that unjustified values can be created by speculation or demands. We can consume madly by borrowing from the enticing banks, transferring our debts from one credit card to another when we are unable to repay the loan, living in the ‘never-never land’. But the days of reckoning will come as we face the reality of deficit and bankruptcy.
Beyond economics, the global picture of cultural, political and military interactions can also be interpreted by the theory of Yin and Yang. Somehow we have to focus here on us as individuals, as the basis of the larger community. Our values, activities and our state of health are directly affecting our society. We should interpret our health in a different way. It is important to apply the concept of yin and yang to analyse your own body. To do that, you must find out if you belong to the Yin or the Yang type of constitution. The Yin type of constitution is characterised by a feeling of coldness – especially in the limbs, whereas the Yang type of person tends to feel hot and hectic. Food can also be classified as Yin or Yang in nature. If you know your own type of syndrome according to Chinese Medicine then you are better able to choose the appropriate type of food in order to balance your hot or cold syndrome. This way, you can use the concept of yin and yang to enhance your own well-being.
Chinese Medicine developed this simple conception of Yin and Yang into a sophisticated system of clinical medicine, perfected and developed over the past few thousand years, to take care of the health of the Chinese people. The theoretical principle of this holistic system of medicine is now facing modern scientific evaluation. However, the scientific mind of the Newtonian empiricist worldview may find it difficult to fully understand the dialectical nature of Chinese medical thought. Science as it is may not be enough to comprehend the metaphysical considerations beyond the physical manifestations. The direction of new physics after Einstein and Max Planck is about to confront the dimensions beyond hard physical evidence which is necessary to further our understanding of existence. As our pioneering physicists are realising when the methodology of science is not capable of comprehending, philosophy takes over. Modern quantum physics and the supersymmetry theory in the Standard Model of physics are now finding themselves involved in philosophical analysis of their theories which cannot be experimentally proved or mathematically expressed. Professor Claus Schnorrenberger, a lifelong friend whom I met at a Oxford University conference in 1979, recently visited me. During our three-hour conversation we reviewed the progress of East-West discourse in medicine, and he pointed out to me that there is a fundamental mistake inherent in the logic of Evidence Based Medicine. Being a qualified Western medical doctor and surgeon, he spent the past three decades on the practice, research and teaching of Chinese medicine. Another old friend, Ted Kaptchuk of the Harvard Medical School, has recently published the findings of his study into the placebo effect. The findings show how patients felt better after taking a placebo pill even when they knew that it was a placebo. This is indicative of the fact that as physicists are entering the realm of exploring a theory of everything, the Chinese metaphysicists of the past may have something to offer in enlightening our current thinking.
Chinese medicine in its pursuit of modernisation needs to integrate with other medical systems in order to evolve into a new medicine through the process of synergy. As patients, we can only evaluate Chinese medicine with our own bodies. If you feel better or benefit from treatment, the question of placebo or anecdotal evidence or double-blind RCT evidence is irrelevant to you as a sufferer. Like all medicine, it is safe only in the hands of an experienced physician. Chinese medicine is known to produce far less adverse effects than the conventional medicine or surgery.
During the presentations from our latest group of SSM Medical students from King’s College, I was warmed by the quality of the work on the issues relating to integration of Chinese Medicine with Western Medicine. An interesting observation was made by the 5th Year Medical student Marcus Tan that ‘patients need to be well informed from both sides (Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine) to help to decide what treatment would be most appropriate to them…society must work to propagate a spirit of harmony without bias’. Integration between Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine in the future is hoped for amongst young doctors, and indeed this is the necessary direction for progress in healthcare.
On the other hand, the general public and the suffering patients alike need to keep themselves better informed about other systems of medicine and, more importantly, get to know their own body and take charge of it. Obviously, if you are suffering from serious illnesses beyond what the Chinese call the ‘sub-health state’, you should seek the help of specialist conventional doctors for urgent acute conditions and specialist physicians for chronic illnesses. In understanding Chinese Medicine, the important concept of Yin and Yang should be grasped first in order to improve your health and your lifestyle.
How do we use this concept of yin and yang to guide our psycho-emotional balancing and our social behaviour in relation to the people around us? We have to look after the harmony within our bodies physically, emotionally and psychologically. This harmony is very much part of the larger harmony within our society of people whom we deal with everyday and the people whose well-being is affected by our own actions, even if we don’t know them. Our bodies’ organs and their materials such as blood and fluids all belong to the Yin, while the functional energetics which are called ‘Qi’ in Chinese Medicine affect our psycho-emotional balance. A balanced person is always the most happy and can find harmony within society and with other people.
The organs’ relationship with different types of emotion is a concept unique to Chinese Medicine. For instance, we have to soothe the liver’s Qi in order to calm down anger, we treat the lung for sorrow and the kidney for fear. Over-joy and over-worry harm you physically and psychologically. Therefore we treat the heart and the spleen organs and meridians respectively with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. In other words, the Chinese physicians are trying to balance the yin and yang elements within their patients’ bodies.
There is also a social element to the individual’s well-being. Economic competitions, excessive material consumption and conflicts within your family or your circles are the elements that cause imbalances within your body. Therefore, an individual’s balance also depends on harmony within their social environment. An individual’s harmony and the grand harmony are mutually dependent. When the business world waves the slogan ‘Win-Win Situation’, which means ‘mutually beneficial’, it is an example of an attempt at achieving harmony. According to Chinese philosophers, to achieve harmony as an individual you need to cultivate yourself and your family, and work towards harmony within society and nature.
To cultivate yourself, Chinese philosophers insisted on understanding the interaction of yin and yang in all things. But first, you need to conceive yin and yang. To conceive something is an inspirational process, it may mean achieving a moment of eureka, which is both emotional as well as imaginative. You can conceive something which does not exist physically but exists only in abstract conceptions, or it might exist physically but is not in your presence as a material being that can be seen, touched or smelled. You can also put your conception into physical manifestations by painting it or sculpting it like the artists do, or even creating it in a form of technological products. Architects create, out of their imagination, buildings of different shapes and sizes that affect our environment. The mind is such a potent creator. Scientists use it to discover the frontiers of our physical existence. Philosophers use it to conceive and build abstract thinking. Both processes forward the knowledge and wisdom of our human civilisation upon which our social-economic systems and cultural values are moulded.
Philosophical concepts such as Yin And Yang can manifest themselves in concrete physical creations or social interactions, in the same way as scientists use theoretical thinking and experiment findings to transform the abstract into physical reality. My current inquiry is to analyse the concepts of Chinese philosophy and try to relate them to the physical and social reality of to-day. From an intellectual perspective, I am trying to reconcile scientific rationale with philosophical logic, and from the social-economic perspective I am trying to interpret social values and economic systems in relation to the philosophical concepts of the Chinese civilisation, such as Yin And Yang. This philosophy is very much part of our everyday life and individual existence. I wish to make Chinese thinking relevant to the everyday living in modern life in order to help us gain a sense of guidance for achieving our well-being, harmony and happiness.
What are the fundamental elements for our well-being and happiness? First of all, one must have a healthy body and a balanced mind. Then, besides economic security, we need love, family and procreation. These are the prerequisites for attaining higher knowledge and wisdom, and for higher artistic and spiritual attainment. We can begin by interpreting love in the concept of Yin And Yang.
Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing is the title of Han Suyin’s (韩素音) first novel which depicted her romance with an American journalist before he was killed during the Korean War. The romantic setting of Hong Kong’s Peak – with the skyline along the harbour – brings us to the truest of human emotions and the most wonderful feeling in life: the love between a woman and a man. As am humming the signature tune of the film based on this story (starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones) I remember Han Suyin well when she was actively promoting dialogues and understanding between China and the West during the 1970s and 1980s. She was the female counterpart of Joseph Needham (李约瑟) – both of whom I had the privilege to know personally and be co-inspired with. They embodied the true yin and yang dynamics by contrasting the issues of East-West understandings at the time, and deeply impressed my young mind. While Joseph Needham spent most of his life understanding China and compiling his monumental work Science and Civilisation in China, in which one of the volumes was on the history of medicine called The Celestial Lancet (I treasure the copy of this book in my library signed personally by him to me), Han Suyin was producing many general observations on the culture and politics of China in order to promote mutual understanding between China and the West during a difficult time in East-West relations.
When we are talking about the concept of yin and yang we can easily conceive it in dynamics of love between a man and a woman as described in Han Suyin’s novel. I don’t need to explain the feeling of love to you, as I am sure all of you would have experienced it in your lifetime. However, I would like to emphasise the interactive dynamics between a woman and a man as a prime example of yin and yang interactions. There is attraction, rejection, falling in and falling out, and many other facets in between wanting and yet refusing. Some scientists attribute the enormous emotions of attraction in love to the abundance of ‘love molecules’ discovered to be physically present inside the body, but we can also explain this as the unity of yin and yang forces between a woman and a man which are opposite and yet mutually dependent on each other. When there is disharmony in the balance of these forces we will have sadness, jealousy or divorce. And when balance is achieved again there will be a reunion, joy and pleasure. Such are the dynamics of yin and yang, affecting our everyday life.
The act of naming your children is also a yin and yang moment. Chinese characters are full of poetic and philosophical notions. The infinite combination of the tens of thousands of Chinese characters make this process rather intellectual. The Kang Xi Dictionary (康熙字典) contains over 50,000 different characters. I had to go through a journey when conceiving my daughter’s name Li-Ming (丽明). In choosing the character Li, which means ‘beautiful, magnificent’, and synergising it with the character Ming, which means ‘civilisation, understanding’, I conceived a word which philosophically and poetically befits the character of my daughter. Further, when you break down the character Ming (明) into radicals it contains a sun (日) and a moon (月) which together represent a union of yin and yang achieving balance, which itself refers to how harmony is the root of civilisation. This character also means ‘understanding’ and ‘clarity’. You can see from this how Chinese culture is steeped in the concept of Yin And Yang which is embodied in the famous Chinese philosophical idiom ‘Yi Yin Yi Yang Zhi Wei Dao (一阴一阳之为道 )’ which means ‘Tao is a Combination of Yin and Yang’. I went through the same inspiring journey in choosing the names for my sons, and now I just had a creative task of conceiving a Chinese name for my newly born granddaughter. The creative journey begun with many trips to Oxford and Cambridge seeking inspirations from great poets and philosophers with my daughter during her pregnancy. Again, I feel the happiness which lies in the synergy of love and which results from the interactions of yin and yang. This happiness is inherent in all our lives.
Mindful of the social background of increasing infertility, I realised during a recent CPD course on the treatment of infertility led by myself and Dr Lily Hua Yu who is a leading specialist in Chinese gynaecology, that the problems faced by couples are immense. According to Chinese Medicine, the disharmony within female physiology, and increasingly in male physiology, as caused by the modern style of living, is at the root of the problem. This is also complicated by the increasing social disharmony that affects the relations between the male and female populations. As statistics show, 1 in 6 couples are affected in these modern times. In a much heated discussion with the medical participants in the CPD course, I came to believe that an understanding of Yin and Yang harmony may benefit, both in lifestyle terms as well as medical terms, those who suffer from infertility.
Thinking of our beautiful yet troubled world, I began to summon my mental energy into conceiving yin and yang and conceiving it in terms of our everyday life, our society, our economy and our understanding of the universe as well as our own well-being. In all the complexities there is only one simple thing; harmony is the ultimate journey for all beings. The cycles of life is the process of achieving yin and yang balance, hence the synergy of harmony in the four seasons that all creatures experience every year. The Chinese express it in the symbolism of flowers and the West express it in a similar way with the colours of green, yellow and white as the trees grow and wither.
All great ideas are timeless. The concept of Yin And Yang can be adopted to modern times and be useful as a solution to the issues relevant in the 21st Century. At this time of intensifying East-West encounters, different civilisations and cultures should respect and understand each other’s values and work towards harmony. Conscious of the potency of the theory of Yin And Yang, we must reconcile this concept with the current intellectual rationale of science and new physics. This theory can also be adopted to understand the economic dynamics currently influencing not only the material welfare, but the security, of our world. These issues will be discussed in details as I develop my thoughts in my forthcoming E-Letters.
At no time before in the history of the human civilisation have we come so close to each other and yet still see so much misunderstanding and so many contradictions remain unresolved and lead to conflicts. The current economic crisis opens up a potential pandora box of prejudices and self-interests that might lead us into troubled times. By conceiving issues through the concept of Yin and Yang, we can begin the search for solutions. Whatever your persuasion, the notion of harmony between civilisations may be the answer to our troubled world. Let us smile and bring happiness and beauty back into our lives. As I am listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, I dream of humankind in unison singing the Ode to Joy. The yin and yang of life is now balanced in my mind, in harmony……
THE MFM E-LETTER expresses the personal view of Professor Man Fong Mei on health, medicine and other East-West intellectual issues. He is currently the Chairman of the Chinese Medical Institute and Register (CMIR)，Chairman of The Chinese Medical Council, UK（CMC）, and Executive Chairman, Consultative Working Committee of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS). Professor Mei has published and delivered numerous papers in the past two decades. He is also a professor and visiting professor at three Chinese medical universities and an active member of several medical specialty research committees. If you are interested in receiving future issues of the MFM E-Letter, please visit http://www.acumedic.com/email-updates/mfm_e-letter/ to subscribe for free.
You can also follow Professor Mei on Twitter: @Prof.Mei
The content of this e-letter does not constitute a statement of guarantee of any kind. It is subject to change without notice and without prejudice.