Most of us are familiar with perhaps the most famous symbol of the East, the Yin and Yang symbol. In Chinese cosmology, Yin and Yang describes opposites but interconnected forces and the famous symbol is a visual depiction of the intertwined duality of all things in nature, which is also a common theme in Taoism.
In the Chinese cosmology pertaining to yin and yang, the material energy, which this universe has created itself out of, is referred to as qi. It is believed that the organization of qi in this cosmology of yin and yang has formed many things. Included among these forms are humans and animals. The duality of yin and yang is often represented by opposites, like light and dark, fire and water, ugly and beautiful, to demonstrate the contrast yet inseparability of the two opposite forces which are essentially interconnected. You cannot describe beautiful without already having created ugly. The same goes for all opposites.
Duality and non-duality
This may be an oversimplification, but in many ways the Chinese look at the origin of the universe fairly similar to what we describe as the Big Bang Theory, which gave rise to the universe and its polarity and opposing features as hot and cold, up and down, day and night, etc. This state is referred to as Taiji. Taiji or ‘great pole’ is a cosmological term for the “Supreme Ultimate” state of the universe – the interaction of matter and space. Tai Chi Chuan, originally Taijiquan is directly derived from this name wherein taiji is “Supreme Ultimate” and quan or chuan refers to ‘fist’ or ‘boxing’.
Wuji on the in other hand is considered as ‘without ridgepole’ or ‘no pole’ and is the state in which there is no polarity and no opposite. Sometimes referred to as infinity, it is a limitless void and often said to mean the “primordial universe”, it preceded taiji.
The easiest way to demonstrate this relationship is with a diagram which is called the diagram of the Utmost Extremes or taijitu.
At the top, an empty circle depicts the absolute (Wuji)
A second circle represents the Taiji as harboring dualism (yin and yang), represented by filling the circle in a black-and-white pattern.
Below this second circle is a five-part diagram representing the Five Agents (wuxing). The Five Agents are connected by lines indicating their proper sequence, Wood (木) → Fire (火) → Earth (土) → Metal (金) → Water (水).
The circle below the Five Agents represents the conjunction of Heaven and Earth, which in turn gives rise to the “ten thousand things”. This stage is also represented by the Eight Trigrams (bagua).
The final circle represents the state of multiplicity, glossed “The ten thousand things are born by transformation” (萬物化生; simplified 化生万物)
The importance of these concepts
The above described concepts are at the basis of many branches of classical Chinese science and philosophy, including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), different forms of martial arts, including taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), baguazhang, and Qi Gong, and books like the I Ching (Book of Changes) and the Tao Te Ching which is the principle work of Taoist philosophy.
The concept of opposing but complementary forces is a key principle in the self-defence applications of Tai Chi Chuan. For example, “4 ounces moves a thousand pounds” (四两拨千斤) is a Tai Chi phrase found in the Tai Chi Classics which explains a very skilful deflection. It means one can use minimal force to handle a strong incoming force, depending on your understanding of balance, opposing forces and leverage. This is similar to judo which means ‘the gentle way’ and also focuses on balance and its use of “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” or concepts like “softness controls hardness” which is directly derived from Taoism. The word dō (道), in judo actually means “way” and has a common origin with the Chinese concept of Tao.
To understand these principles is to understand an important part of the foundation of Tai Chi Chuan, but it is also a key principle of Taoism and its philosophy and plays an important role in meditation.