At the heart of symbolism

Chinese orientation and tradition

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Orientations of the yin-yang symbol

The yin-yang symbol can revolve around two axes: the axis going through its centre and perpendicular to its rotation plane and the axis going through its both poles.

When the yin-yang symbol revolves around its centre, it performs this rotation in a horizontal plane relatively to the perpendicular axis going through its centre. This rotation can be performed in two opposite directions. Indeed, the observer who looks at the symbol can see it turning towards left or right according to the rotation direction of either “fish” or “dolphins” associated to the clear (yang) and dark (yin) areas. Spatial representation of the yin-yang symbolThis rotation underlines even more the perfectly symmetrical aspect of the symbol in comparison with its centre as well as the perfect complementarity of yang and yin characters. In this representation, the horizontal plane of the symbol is often associated with the terrestrial plane oriented according to the four compass points.

When the yin-yang symbol revolves around its pole axis, it generates a volume, the meaning of which differs according to the horizontal or vertical orientation of the axis.

  • If the axis is horizontal, the clear and dark areas are alternately above each other without any consequence. In fact, both poles are situated in the same horizontal plane and none of them can constantly dominate the other;
  • If the axis is vertical, the clear area is necessarily above the dark one for both poles are situated at different hierarchical levels and yang can only dominate yin. Moreover, the generated volume symbolizes here the World Egg at the source of the fundamental polarity of the Chinese tradition dissociating Heaven and Earth. As Heaven (yang) is “above” Earth (yin), the clear area can only dominate the dark one. In this representation, the symbol is related to the axis joining zenith to nadir.

We will most often represent the yin-yang symbol under its vertical form in order to recall that yang is “above” yin. Nevertheless, such a precedence does not occur when we refer to its horizontal representation as we will see in the following figures related to the four compass points:

Yin-yang symbol orientation

Towards left

Yin-yang symbol 0°

Yin-yang symbol 90°

Yin-yang symbol 180°

Yin-yang symbol 270°

Towards right

Yin-yang symbol 0°

Yin-yang symbol 90°

Yin-yang symbol 180°

Yin-yang symbol 270°

These figures can be connected to the compass points axes. As south and east are relatively luminous (yang) in comparison with the darkness (yin) of north and west, it is easy to verify how these figures can be associated:

Solar orientation

Yin-yang symbol 0°Yin-yang symbol 0°

Yin-yang symbol 90°Yin-yang symbol 270°

Orientation solaire

Polar orientation

Yin-yang symbol 180°Yin-yang symbol 180°

Yin-yang symbol 270°Yin-yang symbol 90°

Orientation polaire

The figures are divided into two groups corresponding respectively to the orientation towards south (solar orientation) and north (polar orientation)

  • The solar orientation consists in looking in the southern direction and following the movement of the sun from east to west, from left to right and privileging the left;
  • The polar orientation comes down to looking in the northern direction and following the astral move around the polar star from east to west, from right to left and to giving preference to the right.

To visualize both orientations, see the orientation according to the sun and the stars.

According to the eras, China adopted one or the other orientation mode for a dynasty change which could imply a different perception of the cosmic order and, consequently, of the relationships with the seasons or compass points. The polar orientation prevailed in the far-off days, but the solar orientation imposed itself afterwards. Let us note that such an orientation choice is in perfect accordance with the usual representation of Chinese maps and plans: south being at the “top” and north at the “bottom” 1.

Orientation choice

Following Zhuangzi (Tchouang-tseu) who would have lived during the 7th century before our era, “Spring gives birth on the left, Autumn destroys on the right, Summer helps growing ahead and Winter puts in reserves behind”. According to the usual correspondence between seasons and compass points, south is clearly ahead and north behind. Therefore, the observer was facing south. Indeed, usually yin regarding the Cosmos, he was looking for his complement, which is yang, and giving preference to the left rather than to the right (but not always). Thus, during the era of the previous Han dynasty (from the 2nd century before our era to the year 0), right seems to have supplanted left, at least in the framework of official functions.

Note that this preference for the left corresponds to a terrestrial perspective. Adopting the celestial way means to be yang regarding the Cosmos and yin towards the Principle at the source of the manifestation of everything. Therefore, the being was facing his complement, yin or north, and giving preference to the right.

The right is associated with the "Way of Heaven" and the left with the "Way of Earth". It is because men lost the view of the "primeval Way’, the "Way of Heaven", that they came to follow the "Way of Earth". This confirms the primacy of the celestial way over the terrestrial one.

Despite the different nature of states of being associated with terrestrial and celestial ways, the pre-eminence was, in both cases, devoted to East as it was considered as the luminous side. This is in complete agreement with a general analogy where Earth is a reverse image of Heaven, just like in a mirror. So, the left for the terrestrial way corresponds to the right for the celestial one.

These orientation questions do not only seem complex, they are complex. We do not only have to pay attention to any possible confusion between various associations, but also, within any association, to the predominance of left or right according to the celestial or terrestrial way considered.

1 back This way of representing maps is not as exceptional as we could think. It was notably used by the ancient Romans and still in use during the first part of the Western and Islamic Middle Ages.