Monday, August 27, 2012

Robin R. Wang's "Yinyang"

Robin R. Wang is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture, and reported the following:
Yin and Yang are so familiar that they have practically become English words, invoked when someone wants to discuss opposites that are complementary or when one wants to appeal to harmony and balance. In fact, the Yinyang concept is at once utterly simple and wildly complicated. This book traces the historical development and diversified manifestations of yinyang, showing how yinyang for thousands of years has functioned as the warp and woof of Chinese thought and culture. The goal is to give a more nuanced, synchronic account of the rich meanings and applications of yinyang, from logical reasoning to aesthetic understanding, from divination to medicine, from the art of fengshui to the art of sex. Yinyang is not simply about balance or harmony but involves dynamic action in the world. One of the most important functions of yinyang is as a matrix to describe, guide, and structure concrete phenomena, which we see an example of on page 99. The yinyang matrix is a way of linking and classifying things, allowing for successful action. It functions in a way analogous to scientific accounts, while extending more broadly to encompass ethics, politics, health and ritual. It arranges human knowledge into a simple, integrated, and flexible pattern, which can be applied to an extremely wide range of phenomena. For example, “mother” is a predicate for a woman who has given birth or has a child. If one were to follow deductive logic, one would say: all mothers have a child; Mary is a mother, therefore, Mary has a child. According to a yinyang matrix, though, "mother" belongs to the category of yin, things with giving and nurturing functions, and thus can be grouped with earth, moon, and water. Anything perceived as yin or nurturing fits into this image of giving and nurturing. This yinyang matrix is flexible and complex, applied on different levels and with different scopes. For example, the sun and ginger belong to the group of yang because they both have properties of being hot. Snow and watermelon belong to the group of yin because they have properties of being cool. From another perspective, though, sun and snow can be grouped together as belonging to heaven (yang), and ginger and watermelon are grouped with earth (yin). On page 99, the yinyang matrix is applied to a ritual practice. We read:
Dong Zhongshu [179-104 BC] promotes ‘ritual as the manifestation of heaven and earth and the embodiment of yinyang.’ Ritual links heaven, earth, and human beings, and thus it must fit into the overall matrix of correspondences. On a broad level, worship was classified into two kinds: yang sacrifices and yin sacrifices… The performances of ritual actions were also coordinated according to yinyang. For example, at worship, the altars of grain and soil for earth should be on the right, because the right is yin; the ancestral temple should be on the left, because the left is yang.
Page 99 is a good example of the complex ways in which phenomena could be integrated and arranged through yinyang, but it also shows that the yinyang matrix was not merely descriptive -- it was used to guide and structure human life and institutions.
Learn more about Yinyang at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue