Queering Traditional Chinese Medicine Part 1: The Basics of the 5 Laws of Yin Yang Theory

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a diverse, complicated, and beautiful web of theories and ideas that, like many beautiful ideas and theories, has the potential to be misconstrued or twisted for personal or political agendas. As a queer-identified practitioner of TCM, I have personally encountered this happening from a textbook, historical learning perspective. Even more unfortunately, I have heard queer people describe negative experiences interacting with caregivers who criticize people’s life choices or realities, and feel justified in doing so by using the tenets of TCM to dictate how someone’s life should be lived. I don’t think this is right.

It isn’t right from a personal, moral standpoint. It isn’t right from a modern, (Canadian/Ontarian) legal perspective of human rights. And perhaps most importantly from the viewpoint of TCM itself, it isn’t right from a nuanced and detailed understanding of the core of TCM philosophy, which is Yin Yang theory.

In this series of posts I will be describing why I think that Yin Yang theory is actually a robust and useful conceptual tool that LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, and more) folks of all backgrounds can use to describe their identities, their relationships, their bodies, their communities, and their beliefs.

Context context context!

One of the first things I always tell people when I try to explain Yin Yang theory is that Yin and Yang are words that mean nothing in and of themselves (linguistic scholars, maybe you think this applies to all words, depending on your school of thought… but I digress!) Yin and Yang are words that imply a comparison between two things. It is not quite right to say “This thing is Yin” without also saying “…compared to this other thing, which is Yang”. Such statements always imply a comparison to something more or less Yin or Yang in nature to the thing in question. But where does this nature of Yin, or Yang, come from in the first place?

The oldest meanings of the Chinese terms Yin and Yang literally mean “the shady side of a hill” (Yin) and “the sunny side of a hill” (Yang). You can see this in the Chinese characters 阴 yīn and 阳 yáng, where the left part of the character means “hill” and the right part means “moon” for yīn and “sun” for yáng. (Click on the Chinese characters for a fuller explanation of simplified/classical characters if you’re that kind of person… it’s very interesting, and more literally faithful to the meanings “shady” and “sunny” rather than “moon” and “sun”.)

5 Laws of Yin and Yang

This analogy is the fundamental concept underlying the 5 basic laws of Yin-Yang Theory, which are:

1. Yin and Yang generate, or support, one another

-the contrast of light on one side is what makes the shady side apparent, or light casts the shadow/shadow defines the light

2. Yin and Yang control, or limit, one another

-the light on one side of the hill limited by the line of shadow on the other side; light can erase shadow, and shadow can obstruct light

3. Yin and Yang are contained within each other

-they are both part of the same hill; also, the sunny side has smaller areas of shade within it, and the shady side has areas that are more or less lit up

4. Yin and Yang transform into one another (at their extremes)

-where the light becomes blocked the hill becomes shady,; also refers to the passage of time where the shady side in the morning will become the sunny side in the afternoon

5.Yin and Yang are infinitely divisible (into further Yin-Yang divisions)

-the light is brighter and more intense at a certain spot on the hill than others, and/or there are many small bumps, rocks, bushes that cast shadows on the light side, or refract light on the dark side

It is possible to apply the 5 Laws as a theoretical lens to any subject matter, including gender and sexuality, which I think presents very interesting and affirming possibilities for queer folks of all identities. To claim that divisions like male/female, or hetero/homo, or cis/trans are opposites without any further nuance or relationship might be accurate in one narrow way of looking at it, but it’s not taking into account the appropriate context, or the entire historical and theoretical implications of those terms.

All qualities that are ascribed to Yin or Yang flow from that original description of the sunny/shady side of the hill, but they are not defining of their subjects in a static or unchanging way; just as the sides of the hill change in quality, and are nuanced as you look more closely, so too can the common conceptions of male/female, hetero/homo, and cis/trans, become queered, or changed, or nuanced to more accurately describe the LGBTQ+ experience. Further posts will describe in detail how particular (mis)conceptions of Yin Yang theory can be reinterpreted in pro-queer, pro-LGBTQ+ ways.

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