Yin is (relatively) structure; Yang is (relatively) function

In western definitions of systems thinking, there seems is generally a clear distinction between function (contribution of the parts to the whole), structure (arrangement in space) and process (arrangement in time). In my lectures, this seems more muddied, as I ask the question, “which comes first, structure of process”? Should we be able to separate space and time?

In contextual dyadic thinking (as described by Keekok Lee), we detect the yin in the yang, and the yang in the yin.

In this context, I’m pondering through the impact of understanding yin more as structure, and yang more as function. This shows up in one of the more popular textbooks in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Application of Yin-Yang to Medicine

It could be said that the whole of Chinese medicine, its physiology, pathology, diagnosis and treatment, can all be reduced to the basic and fundamental theory of Yin and Yang. Every physiological process and every symptom or sign can be analysed in light of Yin-Yang theory.

In treatment, all strategies boil down to four:

  1. Tonify Yang
  2. Tonify Yin
  3. Eliminate excess Yang
  4. Eliminate excess Yin

Understanding the application of the theory of Yin-Yang to medicine is therefore of supreme importance in practice: one can say that there is no Chinese medicine without Yin-Yang.

Yin-Yang and the body structures

Every part of the human body is predominantly Yin or Yang in character, and this is important in clinical practice. It must be emphasized, however, that this character is only relative. For example, the chest area is Yang in relation to the abdomen (because it is higher), but Yin in relation to the head.
As a general rule, the following are the characteristics of various body structures:

Yang Yin
Superior Inferior
Exterior Interior
Posterior-lateral surface Anterior-medial surface
Back Front
Function Structure

[page 9]

Source: Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text . Elsevier Health Sciences, 2015. Preview at https://books.google.com/books?id=PM7ECQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PA9#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Looking at the table at the end, my mind immediately jumps to comparing the classification of Function and Structure to the other examples listed. I find myself debating this: “is function really an exterior and structure an interior?”. Something tells me that’s not the correct way to look at the table…?

@zaid_khan The tables are set up as dyads (not as duals, as described by Keekok Lee, 2017).

So it’s not about function as exterior, and then structure as interior. It’s about Yang as correlating with function and exterior, and Yin correlating with structure and interior.

The Yin and Yang distinctions get even trickier in interpreting. It’s a good thing that we’re not urgently trying to figure this out, because there’s a lot of presumptions that we make from a western education that may not be true, under a Chinese philosophy.

I went to see my Chinese doctor today, and mentioned that we were doing this research. His simple explanation is that yin is material, and yang is immaterial. But then (in my medical condition), yang is fire (and my preponderance of yang is stored in the liver (sub)system – not the liver organ).

As opposed to transcribing the full text, we can get enough of a glimpse into some preceding sections of the Maciocia chapter.

Yin-Yang as two phases of a cyclical movement

We therefore have the first correspondences:

Yang Yin
Light Darkness
Sun Moon
Brightness Shade
Activity Rest
Heaven Earth
Round Flat
Time Space
East West
South North
Left Right

Thus, from this point of view, Ying and Yang are essentially an expression of a duality in time, an alternation of two opposite stages in time. Every phenomenon in the universe alternates through a cyclical movement of peaks and troughs, and the alternation of Yin and Yang is the motive force of its change and development [p. 6]


Yin-Yang as two stages of density of matter

The important thing to understand is that the two opposte states of condensation or aggregation of things is not independent of each other, but rather change into each other. Yin and Yang symbolize two such opposite states of aggregation of things, the former ‘dense’ and that latter ‘dispersed’. […]
In its purest and more rarefied form, Yang is totally immaterial and corresponds to pure energy, and Yin, in its coarsest and densest form, is totally material and corresponds to matter. From this viewpoint, energy and matter are two two states of a continuum, with an infinite possible number of states of aggregation. [p. 6]


As Yang corresponds to creation and activity, it naturally also corresponds to expansion and it rises. As Yin corresponds to condensation and materialization, it naturally also corresponds to contraction and it descends. Thus we can add a few more qualities to the list of Yin-Yang correspondences:

Yang Yin
Immaterial Material
Produces energy Produces form
Generates Grows
Non-substantial Substantial
Energy Matter
Expansion Contraction
Rising Descending
Above Below
Fire Water

The main points of this interdependence are:

  • Although they are opposite cyclical stages or opposite states of density of matter, Yin and Yang form a unity and are complementary
  • Yang contains the seed of Yin, and vice versa. This is represented by the small black and white spots
  • Nothing is totally Yin or totally Yang
  • Yang changes into Yin and vice versa [p. 7]


The best way to tackle this whole domain is to use the Google books previews to read maybe 4 or 5 pages in the Maciocia book around these sections. The descriptions are complete, and you’ll see similar dyads in other writings of Chinese science and philosophy.

In rethinking the title of this post, a more correct expression would be:

  • Yin correlates with structure; Yang correlates with function

This would be more in line with the title of Yin-Yang and the Nature of Correlative Thinking | A. C. Graham | 1986, search at https://scholar.google.ca/scholar?cluster=7572012086580853106 .

There a Wikipedia entry on A. C. Graham. He renowned in British universities, e.g. the University of London has memorial lectures in his name.

appreciating these perspectives, thx David

worth chiming in as my intro activity in this space, to call attention to some great work by Spring Cheng and Resonance Path Institute, with whom I worked on this book project and course: https://resonancepath.com/resonance-code/
Some articles from the archives may also be of interest, e.g. https://resonancepath.com/weaving-tao/

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