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Yin and Yang, the I-Ching, School of the Five Elements

Shihuangdi (Qin Shi Huang), emperor of the state of Qin (pronounced Chin), the power that ended the Warring States period by its conquests, was a follower of the School of the Five Elements. Here was an attempt to analyze substance – a problem that Greek philosophers had also wrestled with.

The School of Five Elements considered the elements to be earth, wood, metal, fire and water. Like the Greeks, the Chinese mixed spirit into their analysis. It was not a dualism with spirit separate from matter. Nor was their analysis science. The five elements were imagined. The elements were phases involving interactions and relationships. It was believed that the old royal Zhou dynasty had been ruled by the power of fire, represented by the color red. The new Qin dynasty of Shihuangdi was seen as ruled by the next element on the list, which is water, represented by the color black. Thus black became the color for garments, flags and pennants.

Yin, Yang, and the I-Ching

The first (Western) Han dynasty existed between the years 206 BCE year 9 of the Common Era, and the chaos that accompanied its decline and fall stimulated intellectual vitality. Confucianists tried to counter rival schools of thought by forming a more comprehensive view of humanity and the universe. Dong Zhongshu brought a variety of ideas into Confucian philosophy, including the concept of Yin and Yang – an attempt at a generalization to explain all change, physical and social. It was an attempt to explain interconnectivity and interdependency in the natural world. Yin and Yang were viewed as two basic opposing forces – complementary opposites within a greater whole. Everything was imagined to have both Yin and Yang aspects, which constantly interact.

There was still the unscientific and fanciful associations applied to theory that had been a part of the philosophy of some since Pythagoras. Yin was female, which included the moon, cold, water, earth, nourishment, sustenance, recessives, autumn, winter, and so on. Yang was male: the sun, fire, heat, heaven, creation, dominance, spring and summer. It was believed that if Yin reached an extreme it was transformed into Yang, and if Yang reached an extreme it was transformed into Yin – a view of the world that would not be found useful by scientists centuries later.

Confucianists and others who believed in Yin and Yang continued to describe both heaven and earth as flat and the sun as revolving around the earth.

And Confucianists tried to make the universe comprehensible by adopting ideas from a centuries-old work called the Book of Changes, or I-Ching, which saw the universe affected by the arrangement of numbers, seeing numbers not as mere human inventions for measurement but as having a power of their own. They believed that by studying combinations from eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams one could uncover any possible activity in nature.

To round out their view of the universe, Confucianists adopted an explanation of the origins of the universe. It was more imagination. They believed that in the beginning all was vague and amorphous, that this was followed by emptiness and that emptiness had produced the universe. They believed that what was clear and light in weight had drifted upward to become heaven, and that what had been turbid and heavy had solidified and become earth. The combined essences of heaven and earth, they believed, became Yin and Yang and a great oneness.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.