heaven earth, yin yang

yin and yang in huainanzi chapter 3

‘When Heaven and Earth were yet unformed, all was ascending and flying, diving and delving. Thus it is called the primal beginning. The dao begins in the nebulous void. The nebulous void produces space-time; space-time produces the primordial qi.

A shoreline (divides) the primordial qi. That which is pure and bright spreads out to form heaven; the heavy and turbid congeals to form earth. It is easy for that which is pure and subtle to disperse, but difficult for the heavy and turbid to congeal. Therefore, first  heaven is completed, and then earth fixed.

The combined essences of heaven and earth produce yin and yang. The successive essences of yin and yang cause the four seasons. The scattered essences of the four seasons create the ten thousand things.’

Elisabeth Rochat: We must always remember that in translating a text like this it is possible to use the present tense. This idea is timeless. So we can say that the dao begins in the nebulous void. The nebulous void  produces space and time, or the ability to have a place and a moment of time. Space and time (yu zhou 宇 宙) here are not an abstraction, but more the ability to be in a specific place (the north or the south), or a specific moment of time (a day in spring or in autumn, with its specific quality of qi). It is impossible to translate this in any other way but space and time, but it is not exactly the same as the conceptual notion we have in the West. For the Chinese, the whole of nature comes into this concept of space and time, and that potentiality of space and time produces the primordial qi. It is not yet concrete, it is more the possibility of various divisions of qi making specific places and moments of time. Qi appears, and the shoreline divides the primordial qi, so the qi is no longer in oneness but has a kind of determination. When there is differentiation, division or limits taken by the qi, there will also be yin and yang. 

‘That which is pure and bright spreads out to form Heaven. The heavy and turbid congeals to form Earth.’

Pure and bright is pure yang (qing yang 清 陽). Heavy and turbid (zhong zhuo 重 濁) alludes to the yin without naming it. There is a movement of qi which is clear, rising up and spreading out to form heaven, whereas what is heavy and turbid will congeal, concentrate, condense to form earth. This is a kind of cosmogenesis, from the first appearance of qi there is a division, a limit, called here a shoreline, a determination and a movement of opposition. And through that, through the opposite movements of qi, heaven and earth take form.

The ease of heaven is within the yang movement of qi, and the difficulty is within the more compact, the heavy. Sometimes heaven is called easiness, and earth difficulty, because when there is difficulty it is usually because of some kind of knot or contraction. The yang qi soar and rise with ease, so they accumulate to form heaven. It is an accumulation through this easy spreading out. But the earth, the turbid, is more compact. This is a way of showing the difference of stature between heaven and earth. There is a precedence, heaven is first. We see the same thing with the hun (魂) and po (魄) at death, when the hun fly away faster than the po.  For the hun it may take just a matter of hours, for the po it may take years to fully disperse.

‘The combined essences of Heaven and Earth produce yin and yang.

This is the first appearance in this text of yin and yang, though of course they were already suggested in the double movement of the qi. The clear and bright are the yang, the heavy and turbid the yin; the yin concentrate as a compact mass and the yang diffuse and spread the qi. Once the exchange occurs between heaven and earth making the yin yang qi, ‘The quintessential essences of yin and yang become the four seasons.’

When the yin yang qi exist between heaven and earth, a differentiation by four is possible, which is the pattern for all forms and the taking of form.

‘The scattered essences of the four seasons create the ten thousand things.’

Scattering in all directions, yin yang qi are manifest in the ten thousand beings. This is the actual taking of form. Fire and water, sun and moon appear as manifestations of yin yang in heaven and earth.

(Excerpted from Yin Yang in Classical Texts; Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée)

the triple heater and ‘no form’

The Nanjing (Difficulty 25) states that the triple heater (san jiao 三 焦) and master heart (xin zhu 心 主) have a ‘name but no form (you ming wu xing 有 名 無 形)’. This statement has been debated throughout the centuries, earlier commentaries, including Sun Simiao, suggesting that the use of ‘no form’ (wu xing 無 形) within the Nanjing is close to the meaning found in early Daoist texts – referring to that which is un-manifest, coming before physical manifestation – and maybe holding the qi patterning for future manifestation. They imply that the triple heater and heart master have no physical substance but are functions of qi. Nanjing 8 and 66 make a connection between the triple heater and ming men (life gate, or the gate of the unfolding of life), Difficulty 66 suggesting that the three heaters are ‘the agents for the distribution of original qi (yuan qi 原 氣)’.

Read more

Communication and circulation 通

There are many characters used for the vital function of free-flow of blood and qi throughout the body, but the most important and commonly used is tong (通).

The character tong (通) describes any kind of communication which is free from obstruction; it is particularly used for the spreading and free movement of qi, but can describe communication between people as much as free-flow within the organism. In classical Chinese it is to open the way, to open dialogue, to allow the mingling of different things, ideas, people. It is to give free access to something; to penetrate and to permeate. Read more


Recently our server crashed and we lost the last two blogs. They have now been re-instated. I was particularly concerned that the tribute to our great friend Tim Gordon disappeared.

Tim’s memorial service will take place this Friday (July 7th) at 2pm at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1

Tim’s Preface to Jing Shen

On the translation of Jing Shen – chapter 7 of the Huainanzi

Our group has been meeting for more than twenty years. The thrust of our work has been the joy of learning about translation from Chinese helped by our illustrious guides, and the insights we gain from the process of producing a translation paying scrupulous attention to the original Chinese characters and text. Read more

Tim Gordon

Tim Gordon has been a great supporter of Monkey Press and was involved in the earliest seminars of Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée in the UK. His years as a medical doctor and researcher made him sharp inquisitor into the meanings of the Chinese medical texts, and Father Larre would often call upon him to clarity certain concepts in the light of modern science. His voice is occasionally heard in the early Monkey Press transcripts of the seminars. Read more

yuan – source 原/元

Two characters are found with the meaning of source or origin, and both have the pronunciation of yuan – though with a different toning. Both characters can be found within the expression yuan qi, and most sinologists suggest that they are interchangeable in this context. Others suggest that yuan (元) should be translated as origin – yuan (原) as source.

Etymologically, yuan (元) is to be above everything else, the most important, the highest principle. It is found in ancient oracular inscriptions, where it is often used in relation to the original ancestry. It is metaphysical and obscure, reflecting the mysterious, deep origins of life, the universe and everything. Read more

the northern quarter

The following is an extract from the Monkey Press book The Kidneys which has recently been re-edited and reprinted. This section is on the text of Suwen Chapter 5, which deals with the resonances of the five elements/phases. Here, at the beginning of the description of the resonances of the kidneys, Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée discusses the nature of the north, water and their relationship to the origins of life.

suwen chapter 5:

‘The northern quarter gives rise to cold, cold produces water, water produces the salty, the salty produces the kidneys, the kidneys produce bones and marrow, marrow produces the liver; the kidneys master the ear.

‘In heaven it is cold, on earth it is water, among the parts of the body it is the bones, among the zang it is the kidneys, among colours it is black, among notes it is yu, among sounds it is to sigh, among movements which react to change it is to shiver, …among the expressions of will-power it is fear.

‘In the north there are always two animals – the snake and the tortoise.’ Read more

Change and Transformation

Bian hua 變 化

Bian hua is a phrase commonly found in the medical texts for all kinds of change and transformation that occur within the body.

The fu are involved with chuan hua (傳 化) – they move food through the digestive tract, chuan (傳), extracting nutrients and consolidating waste in a process of transformation hua (化). The large intestine ‘changes and transforms’ – bian hua (變 化). The spleen, working with the purer aspects of food, has the function of ‘yun hua’ (運 化) – a term which describes the transmutation, transformation and diffusion of subtle essences. Chuan moves things from one place to another, yun distributes and permeates like a shower of rain. Bian hua (變 化) is the process within the body which constantly recreates our being. Read more

表 裏 biao li

The terms biao li may be translated as outer and inner, exterior and interior, and they must be differentiated from the similar terms nei (內) and wai (外). In medicine biao/li is often used to indicate a movement of qi, which is either yin (towards the interior) or yang (towards the exterior).

The etymology of the characters can be seen in the radical they both share – that for cloth or clothing (衣). The biao (表) of a garment is its external outer appearance, the li (裏) its lining, or hidden aspect. The biao faces towards the exterior and can be seen, the li faces towards the inner and cannot be seen. Biao can also mean to be manifest, and the interesting interplay of these two characters expresses the way in which inner qualities and conditions can manifest themselves at the exterior – a very important aspect of diagnosis. Read more