Yin and Yang

One of the most pervasive, and most profound, of all ancient Chinese concepts is that of yin and yang.

You see its pictorial representation in the circle with two parts, one black and one white, arranged in an undulating fashion. Looking carefully, you can discern a black dot in the white section, and a white dot in the black section.

Each part of this icon possesses meaning: Black and white represent polar opposites; their “two-peas-in-a pod” configuration shows that they are not absolutely opposed to each other, but merge and interact in a constant evolution of one into the other. The presence of the opposite color in each half indicates the lack of absolute contrast: There is some of each in the other.

“Unity of Opposites”

Yin stands for what is dark, moist, receptive, weak, feminine; yang, for what is bright, dry, active, strong, masculine. As in the human world, so in nature as a whole, these two complement each other; they combine to produce a synthesis in an unending dialectic. They form a unity of opposites – which seems like a contradiction, but fits well with the Chinese view of change and motion, the constant transformation of things in this world.

Other complementary pairs include: Beauty and ugliness; difficult and easy; long and short; high and low; something and nothing; profit and loss; hard and soft; strong and weak; happiness and misfortune; wise and foolish; but and small; life and death; win and lose; offense and defense; advance and retreat; light and heavy; honor and disgrace; one and many; Heaven and earth. (See the excellent treatment of this concept in Zhang Qizhi, Editor, Traditional Chinese Culture (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2004) 50-60.)

As one increases, the other decreases, until such a state of imbalance has been reached that the growing one declines and the other assumes prominence.

Biblical pairs?

Does any of this accord with Biblical teaching? Can Christians find any truth in this fundamental Chinese construct? Of course!

Aside from the obvious accuracy of the observations we have already mentioned, we see in the Scriptures some pairs, such as male and female; day and night; soul and body; flesh and spirit; pride and humility; strength and weakness.

Clearly, the ancient Chinese were on to something when they discerned the presence of complementary, mutually-interacting pairs of contrasting qualities and forces. It would seem to me that one of the most important of these is the male-female relationship, in which each supplements the other and in which their union produces a beautiful synthesis.

Even more obvious is the Incarnation of the Word of God, producing the God-man, Jesus Christ. He is fully God, the Son of God equal in power and deity to the Father, and fully man, one of us in every respect, except sin. Here, it would seem, we have the perfect illustration of an infinitely beautiful synthesis of apparent opposites.

Fundamental Contrasts

On the other hand, many – perhaps most – of the paired ideas or realities found in the Bible represent basic opposition or at least essential difference - without the possibility of mixture.

Thus, the Scriptures present light and darkness as opposing forces of good and evil – themselves irreconcilably different and distinct. Flesh and Spirit are everywhere contrasted (as creature and Creator). Light and dark; love and hate; righteousness and sin; truth and falsehood; faith and unbelief – these also, especially in the writings of John, stand for fundamental contrasts.

Even the union in mankind of body and soul (or spirit) is not a mingling, but a mysterious joining of two distinct “somethings.”

In Christ himself, the deity and the humanity remain distinct, as the ancient creeds insist. There is no co-mingling, but an eternal union of two separate natures, without division but without confusion.

In other words, the Bible presents us with a certain essential dualism, not a fundamental unity of opposites. There is no white spot in the dark section!

Furthermore, that dualism is not an equal one, as with yin and yang. Always, God rules: light overcomes darkness; spirit conquers flesh; life triumphs over death; love defeats hatred; righteousness rules over sin.

A deeper number

Finally, in the Bible, though the number two is important, there is another even more important number: Three!

God himself is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. According to at least one passage of the Bible, man is body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The heavens contain the sun, moon, and stars. Faith, hope, and love are the cardinal virtues.

Some scientists believe that even the universe displays a certain tri-unity: space, matter, and time. Space possesses three dimensions; time can be divided into past, present, and future. “The central entity in the universe is matter, which is essentially unseen energy, manifesting itself in motion and experienced in various phenomena.” (Henry M. Morris, Science and the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986) 23)

At the very least, however, we can say that, in the Scriptures, three is more basic a concept than two.

Point of Contact

So, as with so much else in Chinese culture, we can readily admit some similarities with some aspects of the Bible, but we must maintain the absolute priority of Biblical revelation, and the fundamental difference between any insights to be found in any human culture and the truths given to us by God in Scripture.

Created in the image of God, men and women receive what the theologians call “general revelation.” That is not enough, however, to enable us to know God or worship him aright. We need the special revelation which comes to us as we read the Scriptures and pray for the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to understand its truth.

Thus, while we can happily affirm the good, true, and beautiful in any culture, including traditional Chinese culture, we must proceed from affirmation of the best in human civilization to proclamation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.