Cosmological Thought in China and Europe: Introduction, Yin and Yang
By Frank Fiedeler
Translated by Gabriel Weiss
Joseph Needham, to whom we may be thankful for a multiple volume work on the culture of China from a scientific and historical perspective, once characterized the uniqueness of Chinese thought in the following way:
The key words in Chinese thought are system and above all pattern (and if I may whisper it for the first time, structure). Collectively the symbolic correlations or correspondences constitute parts of a single colossal pattern. Individual phenomena transpired as they did, not because of previous events or the influence of other phenomena in some specific way, but rather because they were gifted with an intrinsic character as a result of their inherent position in the constantly moving, cyclical universe and this made their behavior unavoidable.
In fact we can understand the formal structure of the history of Chinese thought as the development of a “colossal pattern” from symbolic correlations. The Chinese concept for this is wen, which means “pattern,” “design,” and “order” as well as “writing,” “text,” and, “culture” in general. Chinese thought is preeminently graphic, which is readily seen in the picturesque nature of the Chinese written language. In fact, its peculiar character can be understood with regard to the cultural and historical context of ancient times. What can be taken as the basis of this is the understanding of the cosmos as a concrete pattern of phenomena, the symbolic forms of which were developed in correspondence with a context of cultural and historical significance. Next, I will describe the nature of this cultural and historical egress in greater detail and highlight it by placing it in relation to the European history of ideas.
Appearance and Being
The world of the “constantly moving and cyclic universe” that formulated the “colossal pattern” is the well known shibboleth commonly heard in the West, “Dao” (in earlier transcriptions written as Tao). The concept is current not only within the frame of the esoteric tradition that is referred to specifically as Taoism, but also valid for the state religion of Confucianism, and even for the sinicized form of Buddhism which originally was brought over from India. Dao is the central concept of the unique Chinese way of thinking, that the Dutch sinologist De Groot once defined as “Universism” and as “the foundation of religion and ethics, state and science in China.” Therefore, the entire traditional Chinese culture is literally “Daoist.”
The word Dao basically means “the way” and signifies in the wider philosophical context the movement of the world. The classical definition can be found in the “Great Commentary” (Dazhuan) of the Book of Changes and reads: “Once yin, once yang – this is referred to as the Dao.” The basic order of the way for the world is therefore characterized by two elements, that are named Yin and Yang. As universal philosophical categories or essences, these concepts arose in about the 4th century B.C.E. However, the designation of this pair of antitheses, especially in the form of the two types of oracle line in the Yijing (Book of Changes), was manifest much earlier. Their original meaning developed out of the Chinese characters: the concepts of yin and yang are both written with the radical for “hill” and have the tangible meaning of “shadow-side” and “light-side.”
Correspondingly, as a result of the sun’s zenith being southward, the north face of a mountain and the south slope of a valley are yin while the south face of a mountain and the north slope of a valley are yang. Likewise, a valley, being overall concave, i.e., appearing relatively dark as a geographical feature, is yin, while the convex and thereby overall brighter form of the mountain is yang.
One can see from these elementary examples, how out of the simple duality of the light side and the dark side a complex and multifaceted model is created that allows itself to be further differentiated. We will therefore come back to the representation of the Yijing system in the second chapter. Here we are immediately concerned with what proceeding from an antithetical pair as the principal categories of thought means for an understanding of the world relative to the currently accustomed understanding through the outward appearance of things.
Everything in the world naturally has a light side and a dark side. Therein the universality of the yin-yang polarity is grounded. What does it mean though when we say that a thing “has” these two sides to it? It is a manner of thinking that is not actually related to the thing as a corporeal object, but rather merely relates to its appearance. The thing itself does not possess these two sides. As soon as I let an object disappear from sight, by placing it in my pocket for instance, its light side and its dark side are lost without the fact of its corporality being broken.
We are accustomed to thinking of the world in objective terms, i.e., as a world of objects and material things, that exist and relate to one another in a time-space continuum. The starting point of the yin-yang polarity is not the world of objective things but rather the world of appearances. The formulation of the great model upon which Chinese thought rests is fundamentally a pattern of appearances that represents the natural environment of human beings on the earth. Thus, Chinese thought provides a systematic starting point for a genuine and philosophically sound environmental consciousness which is rooted in the structure of the environment itself.
This environment-consciousness is in agreement with the acausal logic of Chinese thought hinted at in Needham’s quote cited above. This consciousness is not rooted in the logic of the world of objects, but rather in the self-governing aspect of the subjective world-view. This is manifested as the complex system of natural phenomena such as light and darkness, warmth and cold, dryness and dampness. That is to say, it is a model of the tangible information that acts upon the subject. It constitutes the comprehensive structure of life conditions to which the subject as such is essentially subject to. The subject as an organic corpus is at all times already formed, imprinted, and in-formed by the pattern of information which surrounds him/her.
This evolutionarily logical principle of adaptation to the environment directly corresponds to Chinese thought in that it gives place to the manifest appearance of corporeal phenomena. It is not the object which gives rise to the object’s appearance, but rather the object’s appearance which precedes the object. Appearance begets being. This also means that phenomena are understood in terms of their subjective aspect with relation to the life-world. They are understood not as objects, but as participants in an “animistic” reality.
The following excerpt from the collection of texts know as the Huainanzi (2nd century B.C.E.) expresses the priority of appearances over objects in the form of a simple creation myth that presents yin and yang as a pair of gods out of whose primordial union the world was brought into being.
At the dawn of time, when Heaven and Earth had not yet been brought into being, there were only appearances, no physical forms. It was an immeasurable abyss, deep and dark, distant and inconceivable, motionless and silent, dark and indistinct. Noone knows where it began. Together came from this abyss two deities in union with one another; two divinities to plan the heavens and shape the earth. An opening! No one knows to what depth it reached. A flood! No one knows where it ceased. Then they separated themselves and fashioned shadow an light (yin and yang) from that point forward. In these they divided themselves into the eight directions (extremes) begat the opposites of hard and soft and the ten thousand essences obtaining their physical forms.
The deities (shen) were first manifested from the original unity in the aspect of the two fundamental appearances of the light and the dark and then in the two fundamental forms of the hard and the soft (mountain and valley, male and female) in order to take physical form. This is the reversal of the objective causal relationship, as is generally understood wherein the appearance of a thing is a function of its physical structure. What is implicit in this reversal which will consequently be described, is the subjective route of acquiring knowledge, which must be gathered primarily from naked appearances, from optical impressions or other sensory faculties, in order to subsequently arrive at a phenomenal reality hidden behind the realm of appearances.
The history of western philosophy is also familiar with the creative power of outward appearances. In this case, the classical locus of its portrayal is the famous didactic poem of the Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea (ca. 540 – 180 B.C.E) especially the second part, the so-called Doxa. The few remnants which have come down to us demonstrate a mental attitude which immediately strikes one as closely paralleling the Chinese Yin-Yang teachings.
Subsequently, as all things are denominated as Light or Darkness, and in accordance with their particular power are allotted this or that name, so is everything comprised conjointly of light and imperceptible darkness, the two in balance with one another; because nothing is possible which does not belong to one or the other. Therefore this originates in accord with Appearances, and is still growing and will from now on into the future unto its end. And for these things human beings have designated names, a characterization for each; and insofar as each possesses the various stray parts, so steps the minds of human beings to the side. For it is the same thing, that which thinks, the intrinsic nature of the parts by each and every person, namely the surplus (of light and dark element) is the purpose and in the middle of this is the Daimon, which guides everything. And everywhere it encourages gruesome birth and copulation, in which it dispatches the male to the female in copulation and in return the female to the male. The first of the gods to be conceived by it was Eros.
We see then the specific occupation of this thought in establishing the names, i.e., in the creation of speech and script, which is likewise characteristic of the Chinese yin-yang theory. Obviously we are dealing with a way of thinking which in ancient times in no way was limited to Chinese culture. As we shall see, the mental attitudes of all the ancients, once spread throughout Eurasia, exhibit cultural traditions whose characteristics can be collected under the title of Shamanism.
This is a translated excerpt of the introduction to Frank Fiedeler’s book Yin und Yang (Yin and Yang), Köln: Dumont, 1993.
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