Friday, February 5, 2010

The Origin of the Yin-Yang Symbol

Yesterday, while poking around the Wikipedia, I came up on this surprising fact: the well-known Yin-Yang symbol that you see to the right is attested in European sources seven hundred years before it appears in Asian ones!

The symbol's earliest documented occurrence is on Roman soldiers' shields. Apparently each Roman army unit decorated its shields with a distinctive pattern by which it could be identified. A book written around 400 AD called the Notitia Dignitatum shows many such patterns, some of which are pretty much identical to the modern Asian Yin-Yang symbol. The symbol first appears in Chinese records only in the 11th century.

China did not have anything like the European Dark Ages, so its ancient history is better known than the Western one. If an idea appears in the comparatively scant record of Western antiquity, but is absent from the more voluminous record of Chinese antiquity, then chances are high that this idea originated in the West.


  1. I have to disagree with your conclusions, since the Roman version is a field marking, whereas the Chinese version has a symbolic meaning. If you've ever done any kind of art with basic shapes and curves, you're going to end up making something similar to what someone else has done.

  2. In addition if there were a similar Roman concept paralleling the Taoist one using the same symbol, I think your point would be valid. But since there's a 700 year difference and no such concept, I think you're being presumptuous.

  3. "If you've ever done any kind of art with basic shapes and curves, you're going to end up making something similar to what someone else has done."

    Depends on how basic the shapes and curves are, doesn't it? I don't think this particular symbol is all that basic. First, you have to come up with these particular shapes of the two halves of the circle. Second, you have to orient these halves somehow. The three simplest choices are vertical, horizontal and diagonal. Notice that in both the Roman and the Chinese symbols the two halves are oriented vertically. Moreover, in both of them the light half is placed above the dark half. Both have dots, and the dots are placed in the same spots. OK, the placing of the dots kind of makes sense on aesthetic grounds, but their existence? Not so much.

    So, after we come up with the shapes of the two halves of the circle, we have 3x2x2 options (orientation of the halves x placing of the light half vis-a-vis the dark half x existence or lack of dots).

    And by the way, I'm calling them dots, while they're really little circles in both cases. The design choice of dot vs. circle was solved in the same way as well.

    "I have to disagree with your conclusions, since the Roman version is a field marking, whereas the Chinese version has a symbolic meaning."

    We don't know what meaning this symbol had to the Roman military unit that used it. They might have thought it was pretty, it might have been a part of a long-dead religion of which the late Roman period had dozens, it might have been a tribal identification of the unit's commander or of the bulk of the unit's troops, or it might have had the same meaning as the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol. The truth is that the meaning of the Roman symbol is lost to history.

  4. This is a larger image. The diameter of the little red circles is roughly the same as the distance from the edge of the circles to the edge of the wavy shapes in which the circles are placed. The Yin-Yang symbol seems to follow the same principle. Again, this makes some sense on aesthetic grounds, but probably not to everyone. It's one of many design decisions here that could have easily gone in a different direction.

    I'm not saying that a coincidence like this is impossible, just not very likely.

  5. Scant record of western antiquity?

  6. "Scant record of western antiquity?"

    Anonymous, this is actually a fascinating topic. 99.9% of the book titles that were held in the largest libraries of antiquity (Alexandria and Constantinople) were lost during the Dark Ages. The number of titles held in the Alexandrian library at its peak was in the low hundreds of thousands. The stuff that has survived fits into 200-300 small volumes today. The Loeb Library (pretty much the entire ancient Greco-Roman corpus) takes up only a few book shelves.

    And the stuff that has survived is not very representative of what the ancients considered important. For example, only a quarter of the most authoritative Roman history of Rome (by Titus Livius) has survived. All of Aristotle's works that he actually prepared for publication are gone, the only things that survive from him are his lecture notes, and those aren't even complete. And so on and so forth.

    This is why the Dark Ages are called dark.


  8. Another interesting debate about my favorite symbol. It may be true that it appeared in Roman times and then several hundred years later appeared in Chinese culture. However, this all based on "prospective" history. None of this can be proven based on what we know today. How do we know that the Chinese didn't have a dark age or an isolation period in which this type of information was kept secret. History is written by the victors and isn't always based in the actual facts. And if it appears in other cultures, maybe the symbol isn't earth-based. I mean look at the mythical creatures that stretch over many cultures, like for example the dragon.

  9. It may just be coincidence. According to Wikipedia, the earliest usage of the Yin-Yang concept in Chinese culture dates back to around the fourth and fifth century BCE, predating the earliest known usage of the Yin-Yang symbol by Europeans. Furthermore, the earliest known Yin-Yang symbol, used by Romans, looks slightly different than the Asian version ( That's not to say the Chinese may not have borrowed the European Yin-Yang symbol though -- the earliest known usage of the Yin-Yang symbol by Asians is, like the article states, 700 years after the earliest known European usage. It's just that the CONCEPT of Yin-Yang in Chinese culture predated the European Yin-Yang symbol. So I'm guessing, maybe the Roman Yin-Yang symbol means something else (something unrelated to the Asian Yin-Yang concept), and later on, the Chinese may have borrowed the Roman symbol and modified it to represent the Yin-Yang concept, or maybe the similarities between the Asian symbol and European symbol is just coincidence.

  10. Actually, the Chinese did have their own dark age in which huge amounts of book titles and historical records were lost; similar to the event described by Glossy above. See wikipedia on the burning of books and burying of scholars: