The most well-known of Taoist visual symbols is the Yin-Yang symbol, also known as the Taiji symbol. The image consists of a circle divided into two teardrop-shaped halves — one white and the other black. Within each half is contained a smaller circle of the opposite colour. What is the meaning of the Taiji symbol?

In terms of Taoist cosmology, the circle represents Tao — the undifferentiated Unity out of which all of existence arises. The black and white halves within the circle represent Yin-qi and Yang-qi — the primordial feminine and masculine energies whose interplay gives birth to the manifest world: to the five elements and “ten-thousand things.” The curves and circles of the Yin-Yang symbol imply a kaleidoscope-like movement. This implied movement represents the ways in which Yin and Yang are mutually-arising, interdependent, and continuously transforming, one into the other. One could not exist without the other, for each contains the essence of the other. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. Birth becomes death, and death becomes birth (think: composting). Friends become enemies, and enemies become friends. Such is the nature — Taoism teaches — of everything in the relative world. The black and white halves of the Yin-Yang symbol are similar to the two sides of a coin. They are different, and distinct, yet one could not exist without the other. The circle itself — which contains these two halves — is like the metal (silver, gold or copper) of the coin. It is what the two sides have in common — what makes them “the same.”

When we flip a coin, we will — in terms of the imprints — always get either “heads” or “tails,” one answer or the other. Yet in terms of the essence of the coin (the metal upon which the “heads” and “tails” symbols are imprinted) the answer will always be the same. What’s great about the Yin-Yang symbol is that the smaller circles nested within each half of the symbol serve as a constant reminder of the interdependent nature of the black/white “opposites.”

It reminds the Taoist practitioner that all of relative existence is in constant flux and change. And while the creation of pairs-of-opposites would seem to be an aspect of our human software, we can maintain a relaxed attitude around this, knowing that each side always contains the other, as night contains day, or as a mother “contains” the infant that she will, in time, give birth to.

“Existence” and “non-existence” is a polarity which we can understand, also, in the way suggested by the Yin-Yang symbol: as mutually-arising and interdependent “opposites” which are in constant motion, transforming one into the other. The things of the world are appearing and dissolving continuously, as the elements of which they are composed go through their birth-and-death cycles. In Taoism, the appearance of “things” is considered to be Yin, and their resolution back into their more subtle (“no-thing”) components, Yang.

Source: Elizabeth Reninger