Tai Chi Symbol

The art of Tai Chi Chuan is based on the philosophy presented in the Tai Chi Symbol. In order for one to make better and more fruitful progress in Tai Chi Chuan training, one must spend time to research the meaning hidden in this simple symbol. This symbol is also known as the "Yin/Yang" symbol. It is a circle divided into two equal portions by a wave-like line with one portion shaded (Yin) and the second unshaded (Yang). The shaded portion has the white dot in the center and the unshaded portion has the black dot in the center.

There are many ways to draw this ancient symbol, based on the location of the shaded and unshaded portions, and the spiral clockwise and counter clockwise motion directions. The Tai Chi Symbol can also be divided into a pre-heaven and post-heaven symbol. The pre-heaven Tai Chi Symbol is used to predict the future. The post-heaven Tai Chi Symbol is considered a reflection of nature. Following are a few of the ways the Tai Chi symbol may be represented:

  1. Counter Clockwise Direction
    1. The shaded portion is on the top with the head on top and tail on the bottom and pointing to the left. The unshaded portion is on the bottom with the head on the bottom and the tail on the top pointing to the right.
    2. The shaded portion is on the bottom with the head on the bottom and the tail on the top iand pointing to the left. The unshaded portion is on the top with the head on the top and the tail on the bottom pointing to the left.
    3. The shaded portion on the left with the head on the left and the tail on the right, pointing down. The unshaded portion is on the right with the head on the right and the tail on the left, pointing up.
  2. Clockwise Direction
    1. The shaded portion is on the right with the head on the right and the tail on the left, pointing down. The unshaded portion is on the left with the head on the left and the tail on the right, pointing up.
    2. The shaded portion is on the top with the head on the top and the tail pointing to the right. The unshaded portion is on the bottom with the head on the bottom and the tail is pointing to the left.
    3. The shaded portion is on the top with the head on the bottom and the tail on the top and pointing to the left. The unshaded portion is on the bottom with the head on the top and the tail on the bottom and pointing to the right.
It does not matter which variation we draw, but when it is based on the Post Pa Kua Diagram, which people often used to interpret everything happened in life, it is most proper when the shaded portion (Yin) at the bottom and the white portion (Yang) at the top to correlate with the Pa Kua trigram.

To study the Tai Chi Symbol, one must begin by clarifying the four most important components of the symbol: 1)the outer circle, 2)the yin/yang fishes, 3) the fishes eyes and 4)the waveline which divides the circle into two fishes.

1. The outer Circle
When one looks at the Tai Chi Symbol, the first thing that comes to the eyes is the outer circle. The ancient Chinese often used the circle to represent heaven for its characteristic of continual transformation and the square was used to represent earth and its characteristic stability. Therefore, the circle in the Tai chi Symbol represents heaven and the universe.

From a philosophical perspective, people often use the tangible such as the drawing of a circle which everyone can witness, to represent the intangible and imaginary such as circulation, transformation and progression in life. Here are a few ways that we can look at the circle:

  1. The circle represents everything that exist in a circular shape. In life, we see the cycle of birth, maturity and death. Earth is constantly orbiting the sun and all stars in the solar system as well. Nobody can stop this phenomenon.
  2. The circle represents everything that exists primarily in a round body shape. All life forms on earth mainly exist in round bodies as do all the planets in our solar system.
  3. Circles are closely related to spiral movements. This represents activity. Activity is the basic characteristic of the universe. Since the circle represents the universe and it is active, therefore, everything that exist in this universe should be spiral and active. This is the secret meaning of the circle.

Tai Chi Chuan practitioners understood the secret meaning behind the circle. Therefore, all the Tai Chi Chuan's solo form movements are circular, square and yin/yang are distinguished in every movement so that all the movements are soft, continuous, even and connected with the others with balance. The Tai Chi Chuan Classics said "All the movements flow like ocean waves' one after another."

2. The Yin and Yang Fishes
In the pre-heaven Tai Chi Symbol the circle is divided into two equal portions that look like two fishes. The shaded portion is called Yin Fish. It represents inactivity. The unshaded portion is called Yang Fish. It represents activity. The fishes are the same size and the heads are connected to the tail of the other fish. This drawing represents an active yet stable body.

  1. Yin/Yang Oppositon In this interpretation, everything exists in two components and they are opposite from each other as with Yin and Yang. They do not exist equally with each other in one unit. Rather, they are constantly struggling to overtake each other in the same unit. It is this constant struggle that puts everything in motion.
  2. Yin/Yang Complementing Each Other In this interpretation, the two components coexist together in one unit and they depend on each other to survive. Neither Yin nor Yang can survive by itself. e.g. left and right. If there is no right, then cannot be a left. Therefore, the Yang component relies on the Yin component to survive and the Yin component relies on the Yang component to survive. Each component needs its opposite to exist. If this Yin and Yang harmony disrupted, the Yang component by itself will not survive and the Yin component by itself will not be able to survive either.
  3. Yin/Yang Balance In this interpretation, Yin and Yang are not equally divided. Each is constantly struggling to overtake the other. Sometime there is more Yang than Yin and other times, there is more Yin than Yang. In this constant state of struggle, they are able to live together. An example can be shown with the four seasons. In the Summer, there is more Yang than Yin, while in the Winter, there is more Yin than Yang. At the end of the year, the Yin component and the Yang component remain equal to each other. Although the Yin and Yang are complementary to each other, one should not neglect the importance and significent of balance. Everything must exist in a balanced state in order to grow and prosper.
  4. Yin/Yang Interaction In this interpretation, Yin and Yang are constantly in opposition and struggling to overtake each other and grow . Therefore, at certain times, Yin becomes Yang and Yang becomes Yin in a constant interchangeable state as they evolve and reproduce. This interaction begins when Yin and Yang reach their maturity.

The Tai Chi Chuan Classics say that Tai Chi came from Wu Chi. When Wu Chi takes an active form, it divides into two parts. When it is in an inactive form, it comes together into one. From the symbol's division into its Yin and Yang components, grew Tai Chi Chuan's physical movements, following the philosophy connected to the symbol and its active form. Therefore, one should expect to see that Yin and Yang components exist everywhere in the Tai Chi Chuan's solo form. In Tai Chi Chuan practice, one can interpret the Yin and Yang components as hard and soft interactions, fast and slow movements, extension and contraction of the muscles, coordination of top and bottom, the harmony of inside and outside, opening and closing motions, empty and full stances, advancing and retreating steps, left and right movements of the eyes, and active and inactive states of the mind.

3. Yang Fish is Heaven; Yin Fish is Earth
In the Tai Chi Symbol, the Yin and Yang components are commonly referred to as Yin and Yang fishes. The symbol is commonly drawn vertically with the Yang Fish at top representing heaven and the Yin Fish at the bottom representing earth. In Yin/Yang Theory, the universe is composed of Yin and Yang substances. When substances are bright, above, active, hard,etc. they are considered as Yang substances. When substances are dark, below, inactive, soft, etc. they are considered as Yin substances. Therefore, everything that exists in nature can be classified as either Yang or Yin. It is said that Yin and Yang are the principle of heaven and earth, the foundation of all things, the originator of life and death. If one does not understand basic Yin and Yang Theory, any action or inaction is already a mistake.

In Tai Chi Chuan practice, the instructor often repeats himself over and over to stress the importance of this Yin and Yang Theory. At the sametime, he emphasizes the importance of having a soft and relaxed body; with firm and solid feet. The soft and relaxed body is the reflection of the characteristic of heaven's openness and emptiness to act as a canvas for many things to happen and take place such as turning and twisting the body, fast, slow, hard or soft movements, etc. The firm and solid feet are a reflection of the characteristics of the earth's solidity and thickness to support and capable to execute mobility with ease and all the kicking movements.

When one is able to understand Yin and Yang Theory and incorporate it in Tai Chi Chuan practices, one is able to move quickly with balance. Otherwise, one's movements are clumsy as often demonstrated by beginning students.

4. The Fish Eyes
In the Tai Chi Chuan Symbol, there is a black dot inside the Yang fish, and there is a white dot inside the Yin fish. Although in our discussion of the Yin and Yang Fishes we explained that Yin and Yang can be complementary, in oppositon, balanced and interaction, and exist in everything, the nucleus of this transformation is located in the "fish eyes". There are several meanings behind these fish eyes.

  1. The fish eyes explain that everything in existence is composed of many levels. The fish eyes represent that everything is made up of many levels.
  2. The fish eyes explain that the original source of transformation come from within the same object.
  3. The fish eyes explain that everything has a logical progression. Things generally begin as infant and progress to adulthood and move from weak to strong. None can stop or disrupt this progression.
  4. The fish eyes explain that the body of everything has its own source of power. Therefore, everything has elements of oppositon and complementry components within itself.
  5. The fish eyes represent the imbalance or balance condition within a larger body. e.g. When a body is healthy, all the organs' function normally with order, coordination and stability. The Yin/Yang fishes explain the body's healthy conditon. The fish eyes explain the balance and imbalance among the individual internal organs and systems.
  6. The fish eyes explain the relationship of people with the environment. It explains how one should be in harmony with and utilize the environment.

In martial arts technique, if there is all Yang without any Yin, the technqiue is rigid and without variations. It is not a good technique. If the technique is all Yin without any Yang, the technique is too soft and does not have any fighting power. One that is totally yin will end up on the defense the whole time. If the Yang technique has Yin, the technique has visible power. If the Yin technique has Yang, the technique has hidden power. It is a good technique when one combines the two together into a powerful strike.

Today, many people that practice Tai Chi Chuan over-emphasize softness and relaxation. They demonstrate overly soft movements that look like soft spaghetti. Obviously, this interpretation of Tai Chi is not correct. It does not have any yang characteristics in a movement. A martial arts technique must have both Yin and Yang characteristics in order to be powerful enough to cause serious devastation.

5. The Spiral Motion
Earth takes one year to complete an orbit of the sun. People observe the sun orbiting from the West to the East on earth. Simultaneously, the moon takes one month to complete its orbit of the earth from West to East as well. Because people often observed the sky while facing South, people concluded that the universe was turning to the left or it turned from the right to the left.

In the Tai Chi Symbol, the Yang fish is in the upper left corner. The Yin fish is in the right lower corner. This makes the spiral motion inside the symbol move towards the left. This explains that the universe is turning to the left. We can see this representation in Tai Chi Chuan practice in three areas:

  1. It always asks the practitioner to orient oneself to face south at the beginning.
  2. The solo form always begins on the right side, moves to the left side and ends on the right side.
  3. To do it correctly, a practitioner must rotate the waist in every movement.

6. The Incomplete in Heaven and Earth
One can divided the symbol into four portions correlate to four seasons and another division into eight portions to correlate with eight directions.

In the Tai Chi Symbol, the Yang fish's tail ends in the lower right corner. It is the Northwest direction. The Yin fish's tail ends in the upper left corner. It is the Southeast direction. This means two things. On earth, it is not complete in the Southeast. In heaven, it is not complete in the Northwest.

When something is balanced, it has the same proportion of Yin and Yang substances. When one takes a closer look at the map of China, Northwestern China in the provinces of Xinjiang and Qinghai has many high mountains and dry deserts, there is not enough water for people to live there, and the temperature is very cold in the Winter. In Southeastern China in the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdon there is a lot of rain, not many high mountains, a lot of dry land and the temperature is very hot in the Summer. This demonstrated that ancient Chinese had a precised and sharp observation when they proposed this symbol.

7. Outside Inactive; Inside Active

  1. The outter circle of the Tai Chi symbol is a complete circle and represents quiet inactivity. The Yin and Yang fishes inside the circle are active by constantly struggling to overtake each other. Therefore, the Tai Chi Symbol is quiet on the outside and active on the inside.
  2. Another meaning behind this symbol is that it is composed of three items. The complete circle outside, the active Yin/Yang fishes and the waveline dividing them. Therefore, the symbol means that the universe is composed of three things: Heaven, Earth and People.

The Tai Chi Chuan Classics already pointed this out clearly when it said that one should apply the intent, not physical power in practice. This clearly demonstrated that it is not what one can see that is important. What is important and essential is the substances inside and hidden. Although one can not see any activity from the intangible intent, it fuel all the tangible body's movements. We often hear from experienced practitioners that Tai Chi Chuan training involved three levels: the physical, the mental and the qi. The physical is equivalent to earth, it is solid and thick to support all functions. The mind is similiar to heaven, it is not restricted by space and time. The qi is the most important ingredient among people. It determines life and death.

8. Orientation
In the Pa Kua diagram, there are pre-heaven and post heaven diagrams. They are differences in the arrangment of the trigrams. In the pre-heaven diagram, the trigram portrays both opposition and balance, such as heaven vs. earth, thunder vs. wind, mountain vs. swamp, fire vs water. It emphasizes what is exists in nature and the objective is to reveal what is in nature. In the post-heaven diagram, the trigram is arranged as complementry. It emphasizes application and variations, the objective is to reveal to the public the ability of all things to change. People generally use the post heaven diagram to determine things in daily life. The Yin/Yang in Tai Chi Symbol is based on this post heaven Pa Kua Diagram as well. One orients oneself to observe nature from the center of this diagram outward. Therefore, everything begins with oneself as the center or point of origin.

In Tai Chi Chuan practice, the concept of equilibrium is very important. It symbolizes the center of the universe and the origin of all of Tai Chi Chuan's movements. When the body is centered, it is supported from all direction, has mobility and balance.

9. Scientific Observation
The Tai Chi Symbol is a circle divided by the waveline into two equal proportions. When one views any phyiscal object under the microscope, it is composed of particles and waves. Therefore, this simple ancient symbol appropriately supports quantum theory which revealed the many levels of particles and waves in all physical objects in their microscopic realities.

The Tai Chi Symbol is one piece of Chinese culture heritage. It was the result of ancient Chinese philosophrs' precise observations. Although this is a simple symbol, it summarizes all natural phenomenon, transformations and coordination from Yin and Yang Theory. It reveals secret informations such as relationships, transformation and growth exit in nature. These hidden information are brilliant. It has constructive creativity, precise observations, clear insights and inspiration. Tai Chi Chuan is an art of physical movement created by ancient taoist practitioners to interpret this philosophy. Therefore, many questions related to Tai Chi Chuan practice can be answered by studying this Tai Chi Symbol.

Copyright V. Chu. All rights reserved.