At the heart of symbolism

The two trigram arrangements

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The Principle and its manifestation through yin and yang

The Chinese cosmological tradition attaches a great importance to two complementary principles known as yin and yang. All that is passive, negative, dark and feminine is yin; what is active, positive, light, and masculine is yang.

According to this tradition, various complementary terms derive from the first polarity between Heaven and Earth. As Heaven is usually compared to Spirit or Light, It is yang. Similarly, Earth is assimilated to the root of the manifestation of all things, to Substance and associated with darkness, which is yin.

The order of categories, yang and yin or Heaven and Earth, depends on the point of view. The metaphysical view goes down from the original Principle to its manifestation, from Heaven to Earth, and according to this perspective, yang precedes yin. In the cosmological view, Earth is the starting point on the way back to Heaven and, therefore, yin comes before yang. These two views are wonderfully synthesized in the famous yin-yang symbol. To go deeper into this symbol, consult the Chinese tradition.

In the remainder of this article, the terrestrial view and the way back to Heaven will be our main concern, so yin will generally come before yang.

The non-acting Principle (wuwei) driving all possibilities, and principally the Heaven-Earth polarity, is commonly located on a vertical axis. The manifestation of these possibilities and, in particular, of human possibilities associated with a certain stage of development, is often represented in a horizontal plane.

The Principle and the Heaven-Earth polarityTwo directions may define the horizontal plane, north-south and west-east. North and west are considered as yin (darkness) in comparison with south and east seen as yang (light). As Heaven is above Earth, yang is considered “above” yin and north is usually represented “below” south in the horizontal plane.

In the manifestation world, man is generally attached to earth and therefore mostly yin. In consequence, he stands at north, looking at his missing complement, in direction of yang or south.

The vertical axis related to the non-acting Principle builds up a bridge between Heaven at the zenith and Earth at the nadir. It intersects any horizontal plane corresponding to a manifestation stage of human possibilities at the crossing of the compass points.

Different horizontal planes, associated with various human states, always intersect the vertical axis at “centred points”, which express the perfect equilibrium between north and south, west and east, yin and yang. Equilibrium is not a question of choice, but a state of no choice (neither this nor that).

From the metaphysical or terrestrial point of view, yin and yang can be seen either as unified or distinguished, but always strongly related to each other.

Yin and yang

Union of yin and yang

When unified, yin and yang are represented by the well known yin-yang symbol:

The Principle and the Primordial AndrogyneVertical axis

The union of yin and yang without any distinction between them represents the Oneness, the Great Ultimate (Tai-Chi). The Oneness is at the origin of the fundamental polarity of Heaven and Earth and, as such, is therefore assigned to the “Centre” of the vertical axis.

Horizontal plane

When the two halves of the yin-yang symbol are differentiated, but still unified, they reflect the most common human distinction between feminine and masculine aspects and represent the “Primordial Androgyne”. Symbolizing the perfect balance between feminine and masculine features of the human being, It stands in the horizontal plane at the crossing of compass points.

Polarity of yin and yang

Considered dualistically as terms of a polarity, yin and yang are respectively symbolized by an open (Yin symbol) and a solid line (Yang symbol). These lines are part of the trigrams read bottom-up according to three levels: Terrestrial, Human and Celestial.

The pure yang (Heaven) and yin (Earth) are respectively composed of three solid and open lines:

Heaven and Earth as trigrams

Between these two poles, the other trigrams associating yin and yang lines in various proportions correspond to the development of the full manifestation of the Principle.

The two trigram arrangements, known as “anterior to Heaven” from the legendary Fuxi and “posterior to Heaven” from King Wen, are best explored when related to the yin-yang symbol and its two main meanings mentioned before. As the symbol is centred alongside the vertical axis in both cases, it is part of the celestial or Heaven influence.

The Anterior and Posterior to Heaven arrangements

Anterior to Heaven arrangement

Prior to any distinction between yin and yang, the yin-yang symbol represents the Oneness (Taiji) and the trigrams may be arranged in accordance with the logical development of yin and yang as in the following diagram:

Logical development of the Principle as trigrams

The trigrams are numbered in a sequential order, from the highest yang to the deepest yin, around the middle number 5, which corresponds to no trigram. This number is the result of the addition of the first even number 2 associated with Earth and the first odd number 3 characterizing Heaven. Indeed, the number One, prior to the first distinction between Heaven and Earth may not be considered as the first odd number. It is related to their common Principle, Tai Chi, prior to any distinction, in particular, between even and odd numbers. Therefore, 5 portray the fundamental polarity of Earth and Heaven. Here also Earth number (2) precedes Heaven one (3) in agreement with the terrestrial point of view.

Designed on a circle symbolizing the celestial influence alongside the vertical axis, the trigrams show the potential polarity of the Oneness, which characterizes the meaning of the “anterior to Heaven” arrangement:

Trigram arrangement and the Great Unity

The potential polarization of the Oneness into yin and yang trigrams of different rankings may be highlighted in two ways:

  • Between complementary trigrams (same yin and yang ranking);
  • Between similar trigrams (complementary yin and yang ranking).

Polarity between complementary and similar trigrams
Complement trigram associationSimilar trigram association

These two polarity types may be brought closer when compared to the “River diagram”(Hotu) where the trigram numbers are laid out in a cross:

Similar trigram groups association

The number 10 refers to the polarities between complementary yin and yang trigrams.

The numbers at the edges of the cross express the connections of similar yin and yang trigrams. On the vertical axis, yang trigrams (pure and great) have a higher ranking than yin ones (bright and little) and yang dominates yin. Likewise, yin rules yang on the horizontal axis.

Even if yang is usually related to verticality and yin to horizontality, the “River table” diagram shows that yang is always related to yin and yin to yang, that there is no yin without yang or yang without yin, just as in the yin-yang symbol. The separation of yin and yang has no reality and is only a consequence of our dualistic point of view.

Posterior to Heaven arrangement

Subsequent to the differentiation of yin and yang, which occurs in the human manifestation world, this arrangement is linked to the yin-yang symbol representing here the perfect balance between yin and yang or the “Primordial Androgyne” (To explore this subject, you can see the Androgyne).

As part of the manifestation, the human being is produced by Heaven (yang) and Earth (yin). “Son of Heaven and Earth”, human has yang and yin aspects, an inner and an outer, combined in many ways and different proportions. Nevertheless, only the true man, perfectly balanced between yin and yang, has realized all possibilities of the human nature. As the product of the union of Heaven and Earth, he stands at the central point just like the Primordial Being.

Within the ordinary man, all possibilities remain potential and, in fact, he is more the son of Earth than Heaven, more yin than yang, less inner and more outer. Nevertheless, all his human possibilities may be realized through initiation, which will bring him back on the way to the Primordial Being, from his outer and de-centred position to the centre and his inner authenticity.

The way towards a better balance between yin and yang starts with the most common expression of polarity: feminine and masculine features. In order to express them within the trigrams, the divination seers used to denote the yin open line by the first even number 2 and the yang solid line by the first odd number 3. The trigrams associated with even numbers were considered as feminine and consisted in three open lines (6) linked to the Mother or in one open and two solid lines (8) related to the Daughters. Similarly, masculine trigrams were connected to odd numbers and composed of three solid lines linked to the Father (9) or made of one solid and two open lines (7) characterizing the Sons. Consequently, the polarity between Mother and Father trigrams (6+9) as well as between Daughters and Sons trigrams (8+7) was ruled by the number 15, the role of which will be extended later.

Daughters and Sons are ranked according to the position of the open or solid line in the trigram: First (lowest), Second (middle) and Third (highest). Ordered in line with the celestial influence, complementary trigrams, seen from the family relationships point of view, may be laid out as in the following diagram:

“Primordial Androgyne” development as trigrams

The complement between yin and yang trigrams still reveals that the second and third Daughters are yang in their relationship with the second and third Sons, who are yin. This means that in the order of manifestation, a kind of reversal has been operating, which is indeed necessary to provide a sort of equilibrium between yin and yang complementary principles. It must be like that in order to allow the human existence to remain possible. Otherwise, if Daughters were only yin and Sons only yang, the terms representing yin and yang would soon crystallize or vanish and no evolution would be possible.

Fuxi and Nuwa interlaced through their snake tailsAs in different traditional forms, this inversion of features happened with the couple Fuxi and Nuwa, who were brother and sister. This is particularly true when they are represented together and unified by their interlaced snake tails, symbol of the unique cosmic force and its feminine-masculine dual manifestation (refer to the Caduceus representation). In this picture, Fuxi is holding the square and Nuwa the compass. Now, the square is a yin symbol related to Earth and a feminine attribute of Nuwa while the compass is a yang symbol associated with Heaven and a masculine attribute of Fuxi. This exchange of yin and yang attributes can only happen during a hierogamy or sacred marriage between feminine and masculine aspects of human beings, whose purpose is to actualize all human manifestation possibilities and to achieve their full realization. That means to re-integrate the state of nature of the “Primordial Being”.

Such a marriage between masculine and feminine aspects of human beings, symbolized by second Son and second Daughter (and identified by the middle level of the trigrams), may only arise under the joint influences of Heaven and Earth. The celestial influence is linked to the sequence composed of three trigrams: Father (Heaven) as well as third Daughter and third Son (identified by the highest level of the trigrams). Similarly, the terrestrial influence is also associated with a three trigram sequence produced by Mother (Earth) and first Son and first Daughter (identified by the lowest level of the trigrams). As the joint influences of Heaven and Earth only occur at the Centre, where the Primordial Being stands, the former diagram may be translated into the following sequence(s):

Trigram sequence and the Primordial Androgyne

The trigrams are numbered on both sides of the middle number 5, which is not related to any trigram. Number 5 represents here the union of Earth (terrestrial number 2) and Heaven (celestial number 3) and symbolizes the “Primordial Androgyne”. Indeed, in different traditional forms, 5 are described as the number governing the sacred marriage of Earth and Heaven, of yin and yang.

The alternate sequence of masculine and feminine trigrams symbolizes the spiritual journey of the initiate on his way back to the Primordial Being. As the hierogamic exchange of masculine and feminine attributes occurs, half way, at the Centre, it is only expressed in the second half of the sequence related to third and second Daughter and Son trigrams. During their exchange of attributes, a border region emerges between them, a neutral zone where complementary influences meet and stabilize themselves into the re-birth of a full masculine-feminine being 1.

When the initiated has achieved the perfect balance between yin and yang through the actualization of all human possibilities and their realization, he is established in the “Invariable Middle”. Identified to the Centre, he will act as a “mediator” between Heaven and Earth, within himself firstly and then, through his influence, over the whole cosmic world.

Designed on a circle symbolizing the celestial influence and its manifestation in the horizontal plane, the trigrams represent the human being on his possible way back to the premium state, which characterizes the meaning(s) of the “posterior to Heaven” arrangement:

Trigram arrangement and the Primordial Androgyne

The first and last trigrams, second Son (yin) and second Daughter (yang), are lying along the north-south axis and reflect the ascent from the terrestrial to the celestial pole. Apart from the “vertical axis”, the position of the other trigrams derives from the “Written work of the Luo (river)” (Luoshu), which was brought to Yu the Great (Tayu) by a turtle, symbol of the cosmic world. In this diagram, the first nine numbers are ordered according to a so-called “magic square”:

Magic square
4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6

The total of each horizontal, vertical and diagonal line of the “magic square” always equals 15.

When looking at diagonals and also at “inner” horizontal and vertical lines, the feminine and masculine trigrams consist of opposite poles. As such, they are centred related and refer to the “Primordial Androgyne”.

Polar association of masculine and feminine trigramsTherefore, 15 represent the polar association of feminine and masculine trigrams. It expresses the initiate perception of the union of feminine and masculine aspects, of yin and yang, of Earth and Heaven on the way back to the premium state in order to be a true man.

Moreover, 15 combine either 10+5 or 3×5.

The number 5 reflects the union of Earth (yin) and Heaven (yang) occurring only at the Centre.

As above, 10 express the polar relation between feminine and masculine trigrams. 10 correspond also to the number of “steps” that the true man is walking during his full journey, as a “mediator”, from its central position and back to it.

3 is the number of times the true man meets the Centre during his “walk” from Centre to Centre

When looking only at “outer” horizontal and vertical lines, the trigrams are part of a cycle split into four phases:

Circular association of masculine and feminine trigramsAccording to the traditional Chinese form, 4*15 or 60 equates to the average life span of the human being, so that the cycle represents the four ages of the “circle of individual destiny”.

Originally centred as the “Primordial Androgyne”, the human being has progressively moved away from his central position to the circumference, Becoming more and more yin and less and less yang, he shifted from the inner to the outer.

Going through feminine and masculine aspects, without realizing their union, the human being remains in the state of the ordinary man within the cosmic wheel.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The Great Triad”, South Asia Books Publisher.
  • Anne Cheng:
  • “History of the Chinese thought”. Seuil Publisher, 1997.
  • Marcel Granet:
  • “The Chinese Thought”, Albin Michel Publisher, 1988.
  • Richard Wilhelm:
  • “The I Ching or Book of Changes”, London 1951.
  • Lama Anagarika Govinda:
  • “The inner structure of the Iching”, Wheelwright Press Publisher, 1981.

1 back This hierogamy may also be seen as an inner alchemy between two complement principles, terrestrial and celestial, humid and igneous, respectively symbolized by the yin trigram Water (KAN or second Son) and the yang trigram Fire (LI or second Daughter). The result may only be neutral as it suits to the product of two opposite elements counterbalancing each other.