The Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng

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黃帝內經素問 《陰陽應象大論》

Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng Sù Wèn: Yīn Yáng Yìng Xiàng Dà Lùn

(Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, “Plain Questions” 5)[1]

By Sabine Wilms

This article was published in the Fall 2022 edition of the AIM Newspaper. Read the full paper for free.



Huáng dì yuē︰Yīn yáng zhě, tiān dì zhī dào yě, wàn wù zhī gang jì, biàn huà zhī fù mǔ, shēng shā zhī běn shǐ, shén míng zhī fǔ yě.

The Yellow Emperor said: Yīn and Yáng! They are the Dào of Heaven and Earth! They are the guide ropes and connecting threads of the Myriad Things, the father and mother of Alterations and Transformations, the foundation and beginning of giving birth and taking life, and the Palace of the shén míng.

Classical Interpretations of Yīn and Yáng

Commentary by Zhāng Jièbīn 張介賓, Lèijīng 《類經》 (“Categorized Classic”, 1624)

“The Dào! It is the guiding principle of Yīn and Yáng. Yīn and Yáng are the One divided into Two. In activity, the Supreme Ultimate (tàijí) engenders Yáng; in stillness, it engenders Yīn. Heaven is engendered through activity; Earth is engendered through stillness. Hence Yīn and Yáng are the Dào of Heaven and Earth.”

Interpreting the Profound Meanings in Classical Texts

It would be easy for me to fill an entire book with an exploration of this line alone, and still I would fail to express its meaning adequately. This opening statement of the “Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng” (Sùwèn chapter 5) is the perfect example of what I love so much about the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic: my ruminations are intended as only an entryway into Nèijīng studies that will entice all of us to continue engaging for many more years with the literary language, cosmology, philosophy, and medicine that the ancient texts express so beautifully. Words can only take us so far on this path. Eventually, each of us reaches the limit of our rational understanding and is forced to switch to non-rational ways of making sense of the world, whether through art, meditation, contemplation of nature, medical experience, or your own way that I may not be able to relate to but that will move you along this path.

The Concept of Resonance in Yīn and Yáng

When reading the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, it is essential to keep in mind the grand topic and underlying theme, as expressed in this first line: the discussion of Yīn and Yáng as the “Dào of Heaven and Earth”, to be grasped in its myriad manifestations from the macrocosm down to the tiniest microcosms through the “resonances” or “echoes” (yìng 應) that can be perceived everywhere that we care to focus our senses. These “resonances” are like the responding vibrations that the powerful beat on a large drum causes in a small drum, which is actually one of the alternate definitions of the character yìng in the chapter title that I have rendered as “resonance”, but that is more commonly translated as “correspondence.” After years of teaching Chinese medicine students the basics about Yīn and Yáng and what is usually called “correlative thinking” or “Five-Element correspondences” in English, I have learned to emphasize the key difference between mere “correlation” or “association” and actual “resonance”. In Chinese medicine, the heart is not just “associated with” or “related to” fire and summer, and the kidney to water and winter, but literally and very physically affected by it. As such, the internal organs in the human body and their associated emotions, physical constituents, sensory organs, etc., change in direct and observable response to seasonal cycles, diet, astronomical events, and other micro- or macrocosmic fluctuations or happenings. All of these ceaseless changes are summarized in the Nèijīng as the “Dào of Heaven and Earth”; the ability of the sage and visionary to interpret past changes, read the present, and thereby predict future changes is the key to a successful life as a human in between Heaven and Earth, whether as the ruler of a country, an immortal in the mountains, or a physician and master of “nurturing life” (yǎngshēng 養生).

Delving Deeper into the Language and Concepts

Returning to the first line of the “Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng,” a bit of additional explanation on a few terms and characters can help us gain a deeper level of understanding than a cursory reading of the simple literal translation would allow: the phrase gāng 綱紀 consists of two technical terms that refer to the two types of rope that make up a fishing net, one the stronger guide rope on the top to encircle and enclose the net, and the other the smaller strands that form the actual net. In its use in the present context, the expression is generally interpreted as a compound along the lines of “fundamental principles” (Unschuld and Tessenow’s translation, p. 95) or “laws and principles” (Rochat de la Vallée’s translation, p. 13). Examined in more detail as two separate terms, however, we can read the two characters more specifically as the general principles or guidelines for understanding the universe on the one hand (the “guide rope” that holds the net together at the top and allows the fisher to grasp the entirety of the catch) and the detailed standards to measure specific manifestations thereof on the other hand (the “connecting threads” that make up the bulk and structure of the actual net and in conceptual terms provide the fine details, perhaps less glamorous but just as essential as the grand principles). As so often in literary Chinese, this pair of terms provides a sort of Yīn and Yáng balance between the grand and the small, the tangible and the intangible, the moving and the constant aspects of reality. To fully grasp the changes affecting the “Myriad Things”, in other words the totality of our perceptible environment between Heaven and Earth, we need to pay attention not only to the grand principles that enclose the net, as it were, but also to the small details that allow the fishing net to hold anything.

The Philosophy of Alterations and Transformations in Yīn and Yáng

Commentary by Gāo Shìzōng 高士宗, Huáng Dì Sù Wèn Zhí Jiě 《黃帝素問直解》(Straightforward Explanations of the Huángdì sùwèn)

The multiplicity of the Myriad Things! All Alterations and Transformations emanate from it. The extreme state of things is what we call “alterations”; the creation of things is what we call “transformation.” Alteration is the gradual aspect of Transformation; Transformation is the maturation of Alteration. It is because the Dào of all Alterations and Transformations is based in Yīn and Yáng that Yīn and Yáng are the father and mother of Alterations and Transformations.”

In the next phrase, “the father and mother of Alterations and Transformations,” the phrase biàn huà變化, which simply means “change” in modern Chinese, is actually a reference to two specific types of change: Huà 化 describes sudden, irreversible, substantive, and often generative change, in the literal sense of “meta-morphosis,” such as from the pupa to the butterfly, or from non-being to being. Biàn 變, on the other hand, refers to gradual, slow alterations, such as between Yīn and Yáng, day and night, water and ice, or seasonal changes. As the commentary Nèijīng zhīyào 《內經知要》 (Synopsis of the Inner Classic) differentiates: “Gradual [change] of things is called biàn, the extreme poles of things are called huà” (物之漸,謂之變;物之極,謂之化). According to the Yùelìng 《月令》(“Monthly Commands”), a chapter of the Lǐjì 《禮記》(Record of Rituals) from the Hàn period, “when there is an old form that very gradually changes, we call it biàn. When there is sudden change, even though there is an old form [to begin with], we call it huà. …Sprouting [plants] in the spring and [leaves] dropping in the winter are called biàn, as is the change from childhood to adulthood and from adulthood to old age. From existence to non-existence or from non-existence to existence, this is huà.

Another option for rendering these two types of change into English may be as “permutations” and “transmutations”. In this context, it is ironic that biàn is often translated as “to transform” in English, when it is really huà-type change that “transcends the form,” often by bringing into being, as opposed to just altering it. The easiest way to distinguish between these two types of change is perhaps by looking at the context of their usage.

Interpretations from Classical Chinese Philosophy

The most commonly cited examples of huà-type change are found in the Zhuāngzi 莊子: the metamorphosis from the giant fish Kūn to the bird Péng, or from the dreaming Zhuāngzi himself into a butterfly.

Two Quotations from Zhuāngzi 莊子

“In the Northern Darkness, there exists a fish with the name Kūn. Kūn’s size is I don’t know how many thousands of miles. It transforms (huà!) into a bird with the name Péng. Péng’s back is I don’t know how many thousands of miles. Arousing itself and taking off in flight, its wings are like the clouds hanging from the sky. When the oceans churn, this bird migrates to the Southern Darkness. The Southern Darkness is the Pond of Heaven.”

“In the past, Zhuāng Zhōu dreamed that he was a butterfly, a happily fluttering butterfly who considered itself to be utterly satisfied, not knowing anything about Zhōu. Suddenly, it woke up and was pleasantly surprised to be Zhōu. Who knows whether it was Zhōu dreaming of being a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming of being Zhōu! Zhōu and the butterfly, now there must be a distinction between them! This is what is called the “transformation of things”.

In contrast, biàn is a slow gradual change, as in weather cycles, seasonal changes, or the gradual aging of the human body. In Chinese dictionaries, the difference is explained as biàn being a change where the two states can be present simultaneously, like the alterations or variations between Yīn and Yáng or between day and night or winter and summer. In contrast, huà is a complete and irreversible substantive change from one thing into something else, like the caterpillar into the butterfly, where the two states cannot be present simultaneously, or even a coming into being. In the context of cosmology, huà change is the origin of creation, while biàn are the innumerable and never-ending cyclical alterations that are the defining characteristic of the material realm in the cycles of the Five Dynamics and Yīn and Yáng. Reflecting the importance of change in early Chinese culture, the medical anthropologist Elisabeth Hsu has written an entire article on these two characters: “Change in Chinese Medicine: Bian and Hua. An Anthropologist’s Approach,” Notions et Perceptions de Changement en Chine. Mémoires de l’Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoise 36 (1994), pp. 41-58.

Note that in the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, huà often implies the meaning of “to produce through change,” or even “to create.” In the phrase yáng huà qì 陽化氣 “Yáng creates Qì”, for example, the verb huà really does mean a coming into being, the production of something that did not exist previously, and must be translated accordingly. To conclude this discussion and avoid frustration, let us just remember that different languages have different levels of specificity for terms that matter more in one culture than another. So perhaps the most important message to take away is not the precise meaning of the phrase biàn huà here but the fact that early Chinese culture placed such an emphasis on understanding change as the essence of the universe that it needed to distinguish between different types of change with far more accuracy than we are capable of in any Western language, or even in modern Chinese. Different cultures emphasize different areas of knowledge:

“In 2010, a lexicon of sea ice terminology in Nunavik, called Siku: Knowing Our Ice, included no fewer than 93 different words. No matter the type of term it uses to refer to a particular type of snow or ice, Inuktitut has a far superior ability to distinguish between them than most languages.”[2]

Understanding the Concept of Shén Míng

Another phrase that is in need of an explanation is the compound shén míng 神明. I have actually left this term untranslated here because it is too complex of a concept to convey in a single combination of English words, and given its importance in early medical literature, it deserves some attention. In other contexts, I tend to follow the standard practice and translate shén 神 as “spirit” or “spirits”, and míng 明as “bright” or “to brighten”, or “brightness”. In medical and philosophical texts, shén míng often comes close in meaning to the perhaps most literal English translation, “spirit radiance”, and may even express an actual physical halo-like light, or at least the “illuminated” state, of certain individuals who have attained a high level of self-cultivation. But what precisely does this mean?

Looking at the etymology of the characters, shén 神 is a combination of the radical 示 (“altar” or any place where sacrifices are offered to the ancestors) and the phonetic 申 (two hands stretched upward). The whole character thus has the connotation of stretching and reaching upward, presumably to Heaven, in an effort to establish sacred connection, as is done in sacrifices, which result in the bestowal of blessings when performed correctly. The term is so important and yet so difficult to render in English that many contemporary Chinese medicine practitioners simply call it “the shén” in professional publications and conversations. “Spirit” or “spirits” often works quite well, except that we are forced in English to either make it a singular or plural term when the Chinese encompasses both of these meanings at the same time: Our consciousness, the vitality that is reflected in our eyes when we are alive and “full of spirit”, which we might be tempted to write with a capital “S,” but at the same time the many spirits that inhabit our body and the world around us and connect us to Heaven. Whether we read it as singular or plural, it is significant that it/they is/are housed in the Heart and that, in the meaning of “spirits”, it is often paired in a Yīn-Yáng combination with the term guǐ 鬼, which is usually translated as “ghosts”. While shén “spirit/s” is associated with Yáng and with Heaven, guǐ “ghost/s” is associated with Yīn and with Earth. Used as an adjective, the character carries the meaning of “spiritual,” “divine,” or “sacred,” but can also be used to describe something that transcends ordinary human experience or capabilities. Here is another quotation from my beloved Zhuāngzi for perspective:

“The Sage rests. Resting then results in balance and ease. Balance and ease then result in tranquil indifference. Balance, ease, and tranquil indifference mean that worries and trouble are unable to enter and that evil qi is unable to carry out a sneak attack. For this reason, the Sage’s virtue/power is complete and the shén is/are not lost.”

Míng 明, the second character in the compound shén míng 神明, is simply a combination of 日 (“sun”) and 月 (“moon”) and hence indicates the notion of light or brightness, as symbolized by the two brightest bodies in the sky. On the basis of this literal meaning, it can be used as a verb in the causative sense meaning “to make something bright”, or metaphorically as “to explain/shed light on something”, or in the putative sense as “to consider something bright”. In other words, míng as a verb can refer to emitting light, to light shining out from an object and onto other things, or to receiving light, to light being shone onto an object. Like the English “bright” but often with a more powerful positive connotation, it is used in the metaphorical sense to refer to something that is clearly apparent and shining forth for all to see, like the ruler’s wisdom or virtue. As the famous text Dàxué《大學》 (Great Learning) begins, “The Dào of Great Learning lies in making bright virtue shine forth… (大學之道在明明德)”. Reflecting the importance of perception, of seeing and understanding the true nature of things in the ever-changing flow of the Dào, míng is thus a key term used frequently to describe the sage, the ruler, and the healer.

To grasp the full meaning of míng in the compound shén míng, we might have to suspend our need in the English language to decide between “emitting light” and “receiving light,” and therefore leave the term untranslated. The reader is invited to attempt to hold both meanings at the same time, that of the spirit/s shining brightly from within and that of the spirit/s being illuminated from without and reflecting the light of the sun and moon through the connection with Heaven. Ultimately, these need to be comprehended as the same thing.

In pharmaceutical literature, the phrase shén míng describes the effect of certain medicinals, specifically ones that are taken long-term in an alchemical context. In the Shénnóng běncǎojīng 神農本草經 (Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica), for example, we commonly encounter the phrase tōng shén míng 通神明, which I eventually ended up rendering rather awkwardly as “facilitating the break-through of spirit illumination” in my published translation of this text.[3] As a brave effort to translate shén míng for non-medical readers of early Chinese literature, Paul Kroll’s Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese offers “divinely luminous Essences” as a translation for this compound and explains it as “all spiritual entities amidst Heaven and Earth, from spirits to natural objects to body-gods to transcendent beings of practical immortality.”[4] To return to other published translations of the passage discussed here, Paul U. Unschuld’s “spirit brilliance” nicely complements Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée’s “radiance of the spirits”.[5]

Now, however, I need to complicate things further and offer yet another possible interpretation of the compound shén míng—one that is cited by most Chinese commentators but ignored in all English translations that I am aware of: the following definitions come from the Xìcízhùan 繫辭傳 (Commentary on the Appended Phrases), a commentary on the Yìjīng 易經》 (Book of Changes):

“What is immeasurable/unfathomable in Yīn and Yáng is called Shén; what is clearly apparent on the outside in affairs and things is called míng” 陰陽不測謂之神;事物照章謂之明.”

As such, the compound shén míng, at least in the minds of traditional Chinese readers of the Nèijīng, also refers to both the ineffable dimensions of Yīn and Yáng and the visible manifestations of their interplay in all perceptible things and actions.

All that being said, what do we now take away as the meaning of this statement that Yīn and Yáng are the “palace of the shén míng”? If you have been reading this far in the hope of getting an answer, I must disappoint you, dear reader. It is far from my intention to tell anybody else what this expression means. I invite you to contemplate the various dimensions of the terms that I have introduced above and then, through many more decades of studying texts, experiencing life, and contemplating in silence, develop your own ever-deepening understanding of Yīn and Yáng as the “palace of the shén míng”.

[1] This article is a slightly altered expert from my book Humming with Elephants: The Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng, published in 2018 by Happy Goat Productions.

[2] Katie D’Angelo, “30 Inuktitut Words for Snow and Ice,” Historica Canada Blog. Accesssed 10/18/2-17 at

[3] See Wilms, The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica, 10-12.

[4] Kroll, A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese, 407.

[5] Unschuld and Tessenow, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, 95, and Rochat de la Vallée, The Rhythm at the Heart of the World, 13.

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Sabine Wilms

Sabine Wilms, PhD, is the author and translator of more than a dozen books on Chinese medicine. Her publications include translations of Sun Simiao’s writings on pediatrics (Venerating the Root) and of the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica (Shennong Bencao Jing); two books on Wang Fengyi’s system of “Five Element Virtue Healing” (Let the Radiant Yang Shine Forth and Twelve Characters); a translation and discussion of the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huangdi Nei Jing Suwen) chapter five (Humming with Elephants); and of Qi Zhongfu’s Hundred Questions on Gynecology (Nüke Bai Wen, published as Channeling the Moon). Dr. Wilms is known for her historically and culturally sensitive approach to Chinese medicine, but also sees it as a living, effective, ever-changing, and much needed response to the issues of our modern times. She lives on Whidbey Island near Seattle.

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