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  • Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture by Robin R. Wang
  • Paul D’Ambrosio (bio)
Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture. By Robin R. Wang. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 1 + 250. Hardcover $89.99, isbn 978-1-107-00015-5. Paper $28.99, isbn 978-0-521-16513-6.

To date there has been little serious scholarship that focuses directly on yinyang. While its significance is not often doubted, few scholars have seriously addressed the issue on its own. In Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture Robin Wang draws from a wide range of ancient and modern Chinese resources to explain the influence of yinyang thinking in areas ranging from military strategy, medicine, human relationships, and ethics to sexual practice and city planning. The introduction starts by offering a light survey of how yinyang theory has been treated in contemporary English- and Chinese-language scholarship, including English-language dictionary definitions. Instead of criticizing earlier studies, Wang points out their differences, noting that each has something positive to contribute to the discussion. She suggests that her own work can offer a more complex and diverse reading of yinyang. She argues that “yinyang can be thought of as a kind of horizon for much of Chinese thought and culture” (p. 5). In other words, while many thinkers have noted its particular usage and concrete application, Wang finds yinyang to be a characteristic of the structure of Chinese understanding. For her it is both a lens through which all things are viewed and a strategy for effective and productive interaction in both the social and natural worlds.

Wang immediately provides a philosophical treatment. Yinyang, as a correlative model, is broken down into six distinct forms: maodun, or contradiction and opposition; xiangyi, or interdependence; huhan, or mutual inclusion; hubu, as complementarity or mutual support; and zhuanhua, or change and transformation. After this Wang discusses yinyang’s productive capabilities as related to sheng, or generation and emergence, as well as harmony and efficacy. The reader is then already introduced to a rich philosophical treatment of the complexity of this issue and, as Wang [End Page 351] draws on texts here ranging from the Zhou Yi (Book of Changes) to Mao Zedong’s writings, just how important yinyang is in the Chinese tradition. This is just the beginning, however, and the outline that Wang provides only serves to elucidate how yinyang thinking serves as a conceptual and practical tool. The work is thereby unique in the problematic it raises, and the broad footing it establishes in framing its task.

In the first chapter after the introduction Wang looks at yinyang cosmology, or, what is “above forms” (xingershang). Dao, commonly translated as “the Way,” provides the inroads for envisioning the yinyang relationship to the myriad things. As the generative force behind all things, oneness is at the core of Dao cosmology. However, once change begins to be accounted for, yin and yang are used as correlative concepts of interpretation. Similarly, yinyang thinking theorizes about how things relate, thus making it a strategy for how things harmoniously form a unity, and thereby return to a naturally well-ordered state of Dao. Here the effectiveness of Wang’s distinctive notion of identifying yinyang thinking as a strategy becomes apparent. Dao cosmology also includes qi (vital force or energy) and yi (change), Wang relates yinyang views to these particular aspects as well. Using Zhou Dunyi’s Taijitu (Illustration of the Great Ultimate), which shows how all things transform and become generated, Wang then shows that yinyang thinking is the basic framework for knowing “what is above forms.”

The third chapter complements the second as an investigation into yinyang thought and what is “below forms” (xingerxia). Wang argues that “Yinyang is an underlying rhythm animating all existence or all things ‘under heaven’” (p. 20). She looks closely at the Han Confucian Dong Zhongshu and his classification of things into different lei, or categories. Everything in the world can be grouped into these lei, which allows them to be “patterned on yinyang” (p. 96). But lei is also, like yinyang...


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pp. 351-353
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