Words are by their nature a great yanging. They assert. They declare. They impose.

Zhuangzi suggests there is also a “wordless instruction” (5:2), a teaching by way of example. And in this instance, that example is stillness, wordlessness, itself: “People cannot see their reflections in running water, but only in still water. Only stillness can still the multitude to the point of genuine stillness.” (5:9)

How do we know this? Words.

Even were we to assume that Zhuangzi realized what he preached (which I do not), how could he teach anyone but his few disciples (if he had any) except through words?

Zhuangzi thus sought to convey his teaching through words that were also imbued with yin. This is the hallmark of his writing as noted by several of his interpreters. “Vague! Ambiguous!” (33; p 124) We might add: Fantastic! Unbelievable! Ridiculous! Untruthful! Contradictory!

But that would not be original: “He used ridiculous and far-flung descriptions, absurd and preposterous sayings, senseless and shapeless phrases, indulging himself unrestrainedly as the moment demanded, uncommitted to any one position, never looking at things exclusively from any one corner.” (33; p 123) Whew! And to think that we sometimes take him literally.

This all makes perfect sense, of course, given his commitment to not-knowing as an invitation to a transcendent leap into “far-flung and unfettered wandering” “in our homeland of not even anything”.


These posts are obviously a lot of yanging. They make positive declarations about the nature of things.

I do sometimes try to put an empty edge on things—usually in the form of a question—something that will invite the reader to think outside their box and mine—but in the end, it’s admittedly an excessive lot of yanging. Perhaps this is unavoidable. Words are a yanging.

It must be the reader, therefore, who supplies a balancing lump of yin. Doubt, if it furthers the process, is some of that yin. Certainly belief, taking things as unambiguously the case, only leads to being thoroughly yanged.

The Inner Chapters are also unavoidably a yanging. But, as I frequently note (in agreement with their own testimony and that of their later interpreters), they are presented in such a way as to also be a yinning. If “the radiance of drift and doubt is the sage’s only map” (2:29), then it is understandable that the medium by which sagacity is presented also be ambiguous.

I have often spoken to this, and a series on Words will speak to it still further.


Yang is light. Yin is darkness. Yang is knowing. Yin is not-knowing. Yang is positive. Yin is negative. Yang is life. Yin is death.

All these are reversible, of course. “Reversal is the movement of the Dao.” (Laozi 40) This means that they can all be equalized and “united to form a oneness.” Psychological Dao is realizing this oneness. Yet not-oneness remains. “Realizing” is by nature dualistic. As the convergence of all daos, Dao is both oneness and not-oneness.

Life and death taken as a single thread is the realization of this oneness. They are equalized. The sage is thankful for both. She welcomes life’s coming and its going. This is the uniting of yin and yang to form a oneness. She therefore is able to make the best use of each in their not-oneness. The use of life is living and the enjoyment of life. The use of death is . . . .

What is the use of death? Death is the looming of Yin. It is the contextualization of our yang in yin. Yin, darkness, sheds light on our yang.

We are caught in this vise, this existential dangle. All of Zhuangzi’s philosophy can be seen as a response to death, an embrace of this yin. There is no escape; there are only coping mechanisms. From the human perspective, this is at the heart of messiness. It probably didn’t have to be; the universe could have remained self-consciousness free. But it happened. Accidentally—for all practical purposes. Now we are left to live with it.

Thus, yin and yang can themselves be united to form a oneness. But in our not-oneness they are very useful dualistic concepts by which to orient ourselves in the world.


I often represent yin and yang as verbs. In their practical expressions this is what they are—activities. (It’s also fun to create a bunch of neologisms, especially when they require the mind to think in new ways.)

Yin is an activity? Yang is doing, being, self-asserting—it is the essence of activity. How then can yin, its opposite, also be an activity? It is something we choose to do. We are what we do—we are a doing. We are unavoidably doers in every instance. If I decide to do nothing, then that it what I do. Though the goal of spontaneity is unmediated doing, it is doing nonetheless.

This is wuwei—not-doing. Wuwei is an activity informed of yin. Wuwei is a healthy balance of yin and yang.

In pedagogical midwifery, teaching has a goal and is an activity. It yangs. But it also yins. It is the yin of the method that makes it an expression of wuwei. Yin is the vacuous space that calls forth yang.

This parallels Zhuangzi’s unique take on qi (ch’i). You want to accumulate more qi? “Just be empty, nothing more.” “Qi is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings.” (4:9) This qi is yin. Like water, its power resides in its yielding.

Yet qi is often represented as yang—an accumulation of a something, with a subsequent endowment of power. It may be (if it exists at all). But like the yanging of water, this happens only incidental to its yinning.

As inveterate yangers, we turn every call to yin into still more yanging. Even Dao becomes ultimate Yang.


Dao is ultimate Yin. Everything else both yins and yangs. Dao does nothing—it is Emptiness. We can say nothing more about “it”. It has no content. It is, as I have said, the big Question Mark, not the big Answer.

In Daoism water is symbolic of yin. It follows the path of least resistance. It yields. Yet in the process it wears down the hardest rock. It occupies the lowest places. But then in wearing and occupying it also yangs. Everything both yins and yangs.

This is of utmost importance in the context of Daoism’s psychological prioritization of yin. The goal is a realization of balance, not the eradication of yang. The implication is that typically we are not in balance. We have become excessive yangers.

The root cause of this is that we have taken our selves as “full and real”. We wish to be ultimate Yang. Immortal. The alternative renders us a passing phenomenon. The core Zhuangzian experience of realizing that we “have not-yet-begun-to-exist”, of “just being empty”, is thus the yinning of our yang. We are exhorted to identify with Transformation instead of a concrete, static self.

But then no-self is not no self; that would be the eradication of yang. No-self is the self free from belief in a reified self. It is yang recontextualized in yin. It is the realization of balance.

The ultimate value here is simply to enjoy being the self that we are—to get the most out of the fleeting experience of our “temporary lodging”.


At the heart of the Daoist revolution is the embrace of yin. Yin is what lies beyond the ever-receding horizon of our understanding, our yanging. It is that which unavoidably contextualizes all we think and experience in Mystery. It is that which is always left out, no matter how grand our pronouncements about Reality. It is the not-God beyond God.

What is left out, Zhuangzi tells us, is the most important thing of all. This is the discovery of Daoism. It is only the most important thing because it is left out. It has no other value. Were it to have some other value, it would be yang. It is not something yet to be discovered—Dao, God, I AM, Brahman, true self, true purpose—but the emptiness of Mystery.

Yin is Mystery. And Mystery has no content.

The Laozi is often represented as the first extant locus of this radical philosophical pivot toward yin. This may or may not be the case, but Zhuangzi’s understanding may have been more radical still. This is a matter of interpretation; but the glorious first chapter of the Laozi seems to invite taking Non-Being as ultimate Yin in contrast to the Yang of Being. If this is the case, then this yin has been properly yanged. Yin (at this level) is the opposite of nothing—not even yang.

The embrace and prioritization of yin is not motivated by a belief that it is “higher”, “better”, or “more real”. It is because we are by nature all about yang. We tend to forget our embedding in yin. And this makes for psychological dissonance. And this diminishes our enjoyment of life.

And that, to my thinking, is Zhuangzian Daoism’s highest value, however parochial and prosaic that may seem.


It took me a long time to warm up to yin and yang. The stench of religious belief and metaphysical hocus-pocus was just too strong. But I have clearly had a change of heart; though I have only really just taken them for my own purposes. And still I have not studied their uses in Chinese philosophy in any significant depth. I cannot, therefore, pretend to represent them in their traditional meanings or contexts. But that, of course, has never hindered my blabbering in other instances.

It might be good to begin by saying that there are no doubt lots of very helpful and insightful aspects to yin/yang philosophy even when embedded in the stinkiest of beliefs. And I have obviously profited from them.

Zhuangzi only explicitly speaks of yin and yang three times, and each time through the mouth of another and only in a reference to “internal yin and yang”, a principle in Chinese medical theory.

Some commentators have suggested that they are together one of the “six atmospheric breaths” (qi) upon which the sage chariots in her wandering. (1:8) For the purpose of establishing my point of departure, let’s assume that they are.

The sage wanders in non-dependence, and this renders all things and circumstances equal and interchangeable. If there were things or cosmic principles called yin and yang, the sage would have no need of them except as something upon which to “ride atop”. But she can do that with any- and everything. They are interchangeable. This is her freedom.

The existence or non-existence of a metaphysical yin and yang is therefore absolutely moot. Just as the existence of metaphysical Dao or qi (ch’i) is moot.

In my usage, therefore, yin and yang are terms descriptive of psychological orientations. They are no more “real” than any other dialectic—they “exist” only as descriptive of a relationship between things.

There is value, however, in making reference to a hypothetical yin and yang as cosmic principles, just as there is in referencing metaphysical Dao. Dao is the big Question Mark—not the big Answer. This is its value. So too with yin and yang—they are useful concepts by which to interpret the world, but only as long as we do not render them substantively “real”.

Now, after all this yanging I’m ready for some yinning.


Tiny birds laugh derisively at the flight of the mighty Peng. Their laughter evinces their egoic closed-mindedness. Their narrow experience is the measure of all things. Song Xing laughs at those who, like the birds, commit to their petty accomplishments as sufficient to make them “someone”. He is “better” than they. (1:7)

The sage laughs joyously in the freedom of play. Her laughter is celebratory. She “takes part everywhere as the springtime of each being”. (5:16) Her laughter is an affirming appreciation of every expression.

A Zennist who has just experienced satori declares: All that’s left is to have a good laugh. How so? Previously, all was so serious; there was a self to be saved. Now, all is well and is seen to have always been so.

But why laugh? Laughter turns on incongruity; all these messes, this Great Mess, are recontextualized in an experience of unconditional Wellness. This laughter evinces transcendence.

But transcendence is not negation. The messes remain. Indeed, without them there would be no transcendence, nor occasion for laughter.

We have before us a picture of a bloodied child, irredeemably traumatized by war. Shall we laugh? Can we laugh still? We cannot laugh at this, but we still laugh, do we not? Or do we descend into an abyss of anguished despair? What is it then that allows us to live on—to laugh with our own children, to enjoy the bitter-sweet of life?

Some may be scandalized by a declaration of universal Wellness—but they live it just the same. Life itself is hopefulness and trust. Hope dawns eternal because life itself is irredeemably celebratory.


As already suggested, an ironic statement requires thoughtful engagement in order to be understood. Yet, when understood, there is no sure form that that understanding will take. It is a subjective truth.

This, of course, is an example of wu-wei, non-being the change. It is pedagogical midwifery. The midwife does her part to be sure, but the real work is done by she who delivers, and that which she delivers is uniquely her own.

This reflects the Daoist position on the exercise of power generally. The ruler rules in such a way that when there are positive outcomes the people declare, “We did it ourselves.” (Laozi 17) She yins. Yet most rulers and teachers want to be in full control so as to be sure of the results and to be able to take credit for them. They yang.

Taken ironically, the Inner Chapters do not guarantee a single interpretation. “The guidelines within them are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones. Vague! Ambiguous! We have not got to the end of them yet.” (33; p 124)

The real parting of ways when interpreting Zhuangzi is found here. Are we to take it all literally, or do we understand it as only a vague pointing? Is it yang, or is it yin? Does it tell us the truth of things, or does it help us to find our own truth?

The ability to rest in this ambiguity and its consequently diverse “truths” is in itself part of the purpose of this Zhuangzian joke. It is Dao as the confluence of all daos and the ability to “go by the rightness of the present ‘this’.” (2:16)

“For him [the sage], each thing is just so, each thing is right, and so he enfolds them all within himself by affirming the rightness of each.” (2:41)


Zhuangzi’s humor is basically ironic. Ironic humor typically turns on the incongruity of a statement with perceived “facts”. It states the opposite of what we likely believe to be the case so as to make us actively reconsider and (probably) recommit to that belief, though now some ambiguity has entered the equation. We are required to engage in a process. This is often good for a chuckle.

Irony can take different forms.

On a sweltering day I can say, It’s hot. Or I can ask, Is it hot enough for you? This latter requires you to think about it and come to your own conclusion that yes, it’s hot as hell. When Zhuangzi poses the possibility of depending on nothing we are similarly required to engage in an imaginative exercise.

A classic example of an ironic situation is seen when an Athenian general consults the Oracle on the eve of battle, and asks about the outcome. “There will be a great victory,” is the reply. He thus confidently engages in battle only to discover that that victory belongs to the opposing general. He failed of a sense of irony—the ability to see the ambiguity inherent in all things and to avoid literalism.

Then there is the case of Socrates who was told that the Oracle had declared him the wisest man in the world. Since he knew he knew so little, he made it his mission to prove the Oracle wrong by questioning those who “knew” what he did not. The mission itself was ironic, of course, since he knew that not-knowing was the source of his wisdom. But his ironic questioning served to awaken others to their own not-knowing and to perhaps become a bit wiser thereby.

Zhuangzi brazenly declares the fantastic, the obviously fictional, and historical truth bent to his purposes to make us consider and engage with possibilities that lie beyond what can be said.