Yin and Yang


Nothing is harder to come to terms with in Chinese society than the embedded influence of the Yin and Yang principle. Everything in China will ultimately be an expression of the duality of Yin and Yang

The key to understanding China is the recognition that for every single statement you can make about China, the exact opposite is also just as likely to be true.

It makes a consistent understanding of China almost impossible. It is that almost quantum like quality of not knowing which state something is in until the probability cloud is collapsed. Its Schrodinger’s cat in a box – alive or dead. Is it black or white and does it catch mice.


Take the police for example. You could say that the police are among the harshest in the world – and you would be right. You could also say that the police are among the softest in the world and you would be right. Harsh when you step over an invisible line – and enter the orbit of justice and soft when you have kept to the right side of that invisible line.

For example: drive through a red light and maybe the policemen will gently advise you not to do so again – but generally with a lightness of touch. On the street the police are friendly, almost endearing – always ready to assist and certainly not officious like some other supposedly free countries police are. There is a light touch – not a heavy hand. Tolerance is always shown at this point.

Drive through the same red light and show anger, rage or disrespect and you enter a whole new world where you have no possibility of winning. Once you cross the line justice is swift, harsh and all-encompassing.

Another example: The government takes virtually no interest in what happens in the home – domestic issues are exactly that – domestic issues. It is very hard to get the police out for a domestic argument for example, and if they do come out then it is to mediate and not to arrest or get involved. As long as the issue has not spilled into other people’s areas then it is likely there will be no police action.

On the other hand, the government also reserves the right to manage virtually every single other part of society – what you read in the newspaper, hear on the radio or see on the TV is micro-managed – there is only one voice and that voice is the governments voice.

So, on a day to day basis the hand of the government feels very light – no personal intrusion in going about your day to day life but on a macro level everything is completely managed.

It is often said that the Chinese people think in terms of fifty to one hundred years—and that statement is absolutely true. It is also true that, in a business deal, there is no thought for future business, only the profit in this particular business transaction.

This concept is hard for Westerners to understand, but if you look at it in light of China’s repetitive history, then it all makes sense:

If I take my profit today then it is in my hand. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? It might be a famine, a war, a cultural revolution, a Great Leap Forward or a political revolution, so in business, the profit/benefit in this immediate transaction is essential for me to move forward.

Symbol of yin and yang of the background.

I must mitigate my risk in a business transaction until I am 200% covered, but I will go to the casino in Macau and throw every cent I just made on one golden number.

In a way, this mindset is a very compelling example of “nowism”: seeking immediate gratification on the premises that tomorrow there will be none left. If you have ever stood in a Chinese queue, you know that everybody thinks there will be none left, so better knock down that old granny and get yours first.

In another example, think of the circles of relationship: Family and friends are in the first circle, and potential friends and partners may become part of that inner circle if they prove reliable over a period of time. If you are in the inner circle, you are safe. You will be protected by the other members of your circle and all the connections they can bring to bear.

No one will harm you, and anything you ask will be done for you. This is the Confucian ideal of family values. If you are going to be successful in business in China, you must cultivate true, honest friendships. If you are not in one of the reliable circles, then you are outside—and fair game—because outside there is a jungle, and the law of the jungle prevails.

This is one of the most important aspects of the Yin and Yang principle in business – that the people you do business with must have been cultivated until you are in their inner circle and they feel they are in your inner circle. You must be one of the people that they share the journey with.

On one hand – Heaven. On the other hand – Hell.

Getting into this level of relationship is both time consuming and difficult – it is a reflection of the time you have spent in areas of friendship not business – you cannot enter the inner circle by business meetings alone – no matter how well they go.

One of the single biggest mistakes I see foreigners make in China is to over-estimate their depth of relationship with prospective business partners. Having a deep and meaningful over a wonderful dinner, replete with smiles, toasts and laughter is not a deep relationship. A well quoted statement: ‘You get to know your friends on a long journey’ is far more relevant. This is Yin and Yang – the appearance of a truly deep relationship after a few meals and the reality that it is nothing more the gracious hospitality of the Chinese people. It is beguiling, enticing and warm – but it is general not deep.

Until your ‘partner’ is so close to you that he starts to reveal the truth in his heart – the good and the bad – it is unlikely that he trusts you as an equal. Getting to this point is going to take a long time – perhaps years.

Residing in the inner circle once you get there is an amazing experience – there is generosity of spirit, warmth, true friendship on the level that whatever you ask will be done. In return you will have a moral responsibility to reciprocate help in whatever way it is asked for without hesitation. In our business we often get asked by friends to give jobs to relatives for example – strange unknown people turn up sitting in a desk and, if the truth were known, doing pretty much nothing, until, hopefully the get bored and leave. But refusing a friend is tantamount to severe insult and will turn the friend into an enemy.

On the flip side, in the Chinese mind those who stand outside of the concentric circles of relationships, are part of the rule of the jungle – they are not close therefore they are fair game. The outer rings are where a selfish gene manifests itself. People will have absolutely no compunction about taking whatever they can get from people in the outer rings.

This is why there are terrible stories of people doing dreadful things in Chinese society—for example, the recent case of the little girl run over in a market in Guangzhou, seemingly in the coldest and most compassionless way. By the way, this incident sickened me, and I am not seeking to condone or justify what happened—and neither do the Chinese people, judging from the social media outrage in this incident’s wake. But because of this idea that there are circles—and you bring your best game to the inner circles of family, friends, classmates and possibly workmates—the mores and the thinking are different. Yin and Yang.

There is only a recognition of people with whom you are connected – it is almost like there are too many people in China to feel compassion for and it causes sensory overload – so it is best (and very easy) to ignore those people who are not within a circle of relationship.

Speaking of these circles, it is a bit unfortunate that both of the commonly accepted words for “foreigner,” wai gou ren and lao wai, use the character wai, which means “outside” or “outlanders,” if you will. This implies that a foreigner is outside of the cultural understanding that only a Chinese can have.

When you look at the symbol for Yin and Yang there is a bit of light in the dark and a little bit of dark in the light.
Yin Yang

In the heart if every farmer resides a billionaire and in the heart of every billionaire stands a longing for the tranquillity of rural existence.

There are conflicting feelings in everyone’s heart – noisy on one hand, tranquillity on the other – restaurants are dens of ‘re nao’ bustle and clatter and noise while early morning Tai Ji in the park is about as tranquil as you can get it; immense chaos in some ways and  immense discipline in others – think how hard Chinese children study and compare that with a crowd at a railway station; frugality on one hand and extreme largesse on the other (single most sold lightbulb in China is a 40W balanced against banquets that cost $20,000 USD); generosity on hand and rapacity on the other.

The bedrock of Chinese medicine is built around the principles of Yin and Yang – hot and cold; wet and dry; fast and slow. When the doctor holds your hand and listens to your pulse he is assessing where you fall in the duality of the body functions. Is your body too wet – eat ‘dry’ foods – which can be anything but dry. If you are ‘hot’ cooling foods and medicines are applied. I usually get into trouble in my house for referring to these hot and cold preparations as boiling a pot of garden rubbish. And a dog box awaits me on these occasions.

Yin and yang symbols with traditional chinese herbal medicine se

Perhaps one of the best examples of the duality of Yin and Yang is the contradiction of the statement ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’

From a strict philosophical state of Marxism, China has embraced an almost out-of-control capitalism.

One side of the duality has the government is guided by socialistic principles but acting in an all-out capitalist way. The United States is considered to be the epitome of capitalism and has a wealth distribution where the wealthiest 1% own 42% of the country’s wealth whereby currently in Chinas the top 1% own around 70% of the wealth. The Gini coefficient in China, which is a widely used measure of inequality is a staggering 0.474 – the World Bank considers a coefficient above 0.40 to represent severe income inequality.

On one had a commitment to the principles of socialism and on the other hand a rampant capitalism and both sides of this contradiction sit easily in the Chinese mind.

There are infinite contradictions in the Chinese psyche. With a history of more than five thousand years, the essence of the Chinese is not ethnicity but culture. What identifies the Chinese as a people is a unique and complex range of behaviour, beliefs and systems that are shared across more than a billion individuals. It is these things that make the Chinese, well, Chinese—not a collection of ethnicities.

China has a talent for absorbing other peoples and making them Chinese over time. The Yuan dynasty—the offshoot of the Mongol empire, the largest the world has ever seen—did not stamp its seal on China; rather, China stamped its seal on the Mongols and converted their emperors into cultural Chinese. If the immovable Chinese nation had power to influence even the irresistible Mongol force, then the prospect of China changing in response to the current wave of foreign investment is extremely unlikely. It therefore behoves current entrants into the Chinese market to learn exactly how this powerful cultural tradition will affect thinking in the business world.

The Chinese traits burned into each of its souls carry a complex and sophisticated civilization forward, generation by generation. In fact, this almost genetic cultural imprint may account for a commonly stated aphorism:

“China does not have 5,000 years of history, it has 350 years of history repeated over and over.”

Each generation learns the same cultural lessons over again—and that is the essence of the Chinese spirit.

Bo Yang, in his book Crisis of Chinese Culture, alluded to (actually, described rather categorically) this dynamic. His primary premise was that China had become a “soy paste vat,” its culture grown putrid because of the suppression of fresh ideas throughout its long, isolationist history. Now, while Bo Yang was deliberately harsh, seeking to provoke debate, there is certainly some truth in his assertions of a “pseudo-genetic imprint” on the nation that creates the circumstances for a different set of set of thinking structures than the thinking structures in the West.

One of these ingrained characteristics is the principle of Yin and Yang. Just for interest’s sake, here is what Yin and Yang stand for—and I thank Mr Google for such a concise and accurate explanation:3D Guy With A Yin Yang Symbol

The yin-yang symbol represents opposite chi energies that can’t exist without each other. The black curve, with its white dot, stands for femininity, cold, night, matter, softness and passivity, while the white curve represents masculinity, spirit, heat, day, hardness and activity.

Light and dark, positive and negative—call it what you like, this duality exists in nearly every aspect of Chinese life.

Now I’m off to run a red light.



2 replies

  1. I always enjoyed your writing style ( except maybe for some emails you sent to me when i was doing something wrong – which, let s be honest, was rare 🙂 ) but most of all i love your external, and by that i meant foreign, vision of China. So please, keep offering us those pages, they are full of our reality.


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