Virtual lecture: Allan “Yin, Yang, and Qi before Yinyang Theory”

Yin , Yang , and Qi  before Yinyang Theory: The Role of Metaphor in the Formation of a Correlative System

Colloquium: Center for Chinese Studies | February 26 | 5-6:30 p.m. |  Online – Zoom Webinar

Speaker: Sarah Allan, Professor of Asian Studies, Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures, Dartmouth College

Panelist/Discussant: Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Professor and Eliaser Chair of International Studies, EALC, UC Berkeley

Sponsor: Center for Chinese Studies (CCS)

In The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue (1997), Sarah Allan argued that water and plant life provided root metaphors for some of the most important early Chinese philosophical concepts and that understanding how natural imagery informed these concepts sheds light on their relationships and range of meaning as abstract ideas. These concepts included yin 陰, yang 陽, and qi 氣. Yin and yang were terms associated with mountainous landscape; yin was the shaded side of a river valley; yang was the sunny side of a mountain slope. Qi, originally water vapor, became an abstract concept modeled on water in all its manifestations, from vapor in the atmosphere to running water to ice.

Scholars have long hypothesized that Yinyang as a correlative system was formulated during the third century BCE. Thus, the discovery of bamboo manuscripts, buried in tombs around 300 BCE, allows us to test this hypothesis. These manuscripts also provide clues to how the system developed. In this talk, Allan will examine the uses of yin, yang, and qi in these manuscripts. She will argue that while yin and yang had begun to function metaphorically in these manuscripts, there is no evidence of the later correlative system in which they were primal pairs. However, qi, which had meant breath as well as vapor in the atmosphere, had already become an abstract concept used in relationship to the body as well as the natural world. This theorization of qi allowed the correlation of the human body with the cosmos and led to the formulation of the all-encompassing correlative dualism.

Registration required

Registration info: Register online

Event Contact:

Access Coordinator: Xiaojie Ma,,  510-643-6321

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