Key Learning Points for War and Peace, Yin and Yang
This is my current understanding of the relationship between war and peace, yin and yang. After all, yin and yang can be applied to anything, so why not War and Peace? However, I agree, this page is rather off-message!
And I have a question for you – after reading this post – you’ll find it at the end.
If there is such a thing as an authority on yin and yang, it is the ‘I Ching’ (or Yi Jing), a collection of 64 texts or ‘hexagrams’ describing situations and how they change. Written in antiquity, it has been studied and commented on by China’s greatest sages. Its basic ideas inform my practice of Chinese medicine and, when you understand it, they may help you make sense of your life.
It has a symbol, the TaiChi or TaiQi (“TYE-CHEE”).
Notice that this is a circle, symbolising everything, whether you can conceive of it or not.
It has two parts, each growing out of the other.
They are the same, with complementary shapes. Within the circle neither could exist without the other.
By convention we call the dark side ‘yin’ and the light side ‘yang’.
Take yin: at night, we sleep. Our personality disappears, our bodies rest and breathing slows. Nothing seems to happen, but actually our bodies are repairing and growing: it’s just not obvious. That change comes from the yang ‘drop’ in the yin. However, in sleep we dream, dreams being yang in relation to the body’s quiescence.
Or take winter, another yin time. Nature slows, grows colder, the energy and drive and warmth of yang becomes less obvious. But although above ground things seem to die, the roots of plants are slowly developing, exchanging nutrients with the soil and other plants.
To children, parents are yin: they supply the stability and environment that the child – yang – needs to grow and develop. To the parents, the child is noisy and demanding, disruptive and creative, hot and restless: yang qualities that insist on a response from the (yin) parents.
In our bodies, upper parts are more yang: that’s where we speak, shout and manipulate things. Our lower parts move more slowly, but they support us.
Your back and sides and head are more yang, your front and insides more yin.
Inside is all the messy stuff without which you wouldn’t exist. Assailants know this: if they can, they disable your inside. Conversely you either run away or curl into a ball, protecting your front and inside with your back.
Your outside, your skin, is more yang than your yin inside. Your skin protects, limits and defines you. (‘Limits you’? Your skin is the boundary between you and everything else.)
Click for more on yang deficiency.
Using the same ideas, we can see that a country’s border is yang. Inside that boundary are its people, who define themselves not just by their border but with their name, their currency, their culture and clothing: what others see and some want.
In relation to yin, yang – like children – is creative, entrepreneurial, distracting, and fast. If you attack someone, or another country, do it fast and without warning if you can: your chances of success are greater. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was an example currently deployed by Putin’s Russia, although – in retrospect – Putin gave a great deal of warning, but when it came, his action was quick.
And Putin’s action aims to disable Ukraine’s government and capital without delay. If you get to the centre and disable the heart of a nation fast, you win. Thereby, you hope that you’ve knocked out the ‘heart’ of the nation. (More precisely, your yin has absorbed the other’s yang.)
Click Yin and Yang for more on this.
Why go to war? Usually you go to war to get something you want or to protect something you have or fear to lose.
Certainly Putin, in the period immediately before invading Ukraine, displayed in his speech to his security council and nation very yang qualities. To many he seemed angry, possibly fearful, and certainly impatient and disruptive of the diplomatic processes he had hitherto endured.
Why did he act when he did? Possibly his generals were nervous of keeping huge numbers of his military cooped up for too long without action, perhaps he worried that his citizens might wake up and not agree with his plans, perhaps he judged that he needed to act before reinforcements for Ukraine’s military grew too strong. Perhaps he felt that all the diplomacy wasn’t recognising his, and Russia’s, need for respect.
Perhaps, underlying it all is jealousy of the freedoms of the ‘Western’ World or of China’s iron control of its people.
Of course, he also wants friendly, or at least acquiescent buffer countries between Russia and the rest of the world. Power begets Paranoia!
Both Putin and Xi Jinping, President of China, have arranged it so that they can remain in power almost indefinitely. From what we hear, Putin maintains his position with fear and suppression of other points of view; China increasingly governs by electronic and social media type surveillance and ‘re-education’. The latter is more yin in method and Xi Jinping seems a more watchful, diplomatic type.
By comparison, Putin seems a more Martian, yang type. (He certainly promotes his reputation for being a tough guy, what with martial arts and riding bare-chested, bareback in the cold etc.) Xi Jinping seems more cautious, more yin: he has worked his way up to his presidency over many years, initially continually re-applying for membership of the party, then doing all the right things, gaining agreement and support in a thousand ways, just as a tree gradually extends roots into the ground.
Russia and China have, apparently, made a mutual-support accord. But if I am right, they will fall out, because very yang types are always uncomfortable to have around for long. For example, if Putin threatens nuclear options, I think Xi Jinping would be most un-amused.
For some British examples of the problems very yang types pose government, consider the qualities admired by political parties when in opposition – until they gain power. Steve Hilton was an inspiration with his big ideas for Conservative Cameron who when he later became Prime Minister appointed Hilton his director of strategy: Dominic Cummings concentrated Brexit aims for Johnson who, on becoming Prime Minister, appointed Cummings as his Chief Adviser. Neither of these yang types lasted long once Cameron or Johnson gained power. In government you need steady support and experience, usually provided by a professional civil service. Very yang types have lots of demanding, upsetting aspirations (by no means all bad, or course!) but stable governments can’t endure them for long.
There is a proverb, both Eastern and Western, which says something like ‘He who rides a tiger should not dismount!’ In other words, if you initiate a dangerous or hazardous endeavour, it can easily get out of control, and you may find it easier to continue it than to stop.
With his blitzkrieg, Putin may be tempted to invade other former Russian territories before Nato is ready to defend them or has mustered the resolve to counter-invade.
Putin probably calculates that NATO countries have seldom in recent decades covered themselves militarily in glory and that they won’t agree on a common policy or be able to execute it even if they do agree. Also, they haven’t prioritised defence in their budgets.
So he calculates he’s ‘free’ to ‘take’ or ‘take back’ Ukraine as nobody is seriously going to support its defence.
Hence, from Putin’s point of view, massive action taken quickly will over-run Ukraine, gaining Russia what it needs, will cheer the Russian people, and force the West to take Putin’s Russia more seriously. He’ll probably return us all to the old Cold War too.
In other words, like a playground bully, he’ll get his way by outfacing the opposition, by making impossible demands and extracting more and more concessions from the West which can’t accept that diplomacy is (from Putin’s viewpoint) a game of chicken to play giving him time to prepare for serious stuff.
And, let’s face it, it’s not a bad policy. Democracy is difficult to achieve and hard to keep. It allows people of all beliefs to cohabit and protects the vulnerable. It can tend to make people less patriotic when they understand the needs of a greater whole, as with global warming.
So people lose sight of the first requirement of a government which is to secure the boundaries. After that comes feeding the people, educating them, dealing with their health (all of these are relatively yin processes) and, some way down the line, supporting the rights of minority groups.
The likelihood of being attacked or crushed or killed does concentrate the mind as Ukrainians know well. By buying Kalashnikovs they bring the boundary closer to their homes and families and this supplies motivation for defensive action.
If Putin fails to overwhelm Ukraine quickly, Russia will be mired long-term to its great disadvantage, and to Putin’s. An autocrat’s response to this is usually greater suppression, bringing the weight of yin down on yang complaint, wherever Russia rules.
If Russia succeeds quickly and Ukraine capitulates, then it’s bad news for many who have led resistance, but probably life will go on for the rest, though much less comfortably.
And either situation creates a new yin situation out of which yang change will proceed. As a pariah state, Russia will have to learn to lead a more limited existence, looking for help where it can get it.
For other European states, the most likely result is increased awareness of the dangers and tensions increasing along their borders. What to do?
This is a good question! Europe and by extension its supporters, including the USA, are the yin belly into which Putin is poking his sabre. (There’s a Russian saying which goes something like: ‘If poking a belly meets no resistance, keep poking!)
In response, one course of action is inaction, refusal to fight. If so, a yang bully gets its way, at least in the short term.
In the longer term, that new, yin, situation itself produces the means for new yang to emerge. But waiting out that longer term can mean a long wait – remember the Cold War? Each, yin and yang, harbours the ability for the opposite to appear, to grow from within it. After yang action, the new yin situation can appear quickly. If Europe and the rest refuse to fight, and in effect capitulate, the yin state ensuing might take a long time for yang to reappear, just as winter can seem endless before Spring-like shoots emerge.
So inaction and lack of resistance is a possible way forward, but at the price of reduced choice, more circumscribed lives and for many, intolerable restrictions on their rights. But remember, all the wonderful rights enacted in ‘Western’ developed democracies, so given legal recognition – I’m thinking of rights like religious freedom, pensions for the elderly, a national health system of care, but also including sexual and trans-sexual rights – all these are man-made rights, luxuries compared with the fundamental right of a country to exist, as defined by its boundaries and culture. When there’s a thug in the playground you need to get your priorities right!
Another approach is that of resistance and possibly counter-attack. They are different. Resistance goes on for longer and in fact we had something like this from 1945 to 1990 with the Cold War. Think of all those wonderful spy thrillers – spying is yang! An ongoing situation of one power up against another, without actual warfare, produces lots of little yang actions. This is like two tectonic plates exploring each other’s weaknesses before one overcomes the other.
Another approach is counter-attack. Yang meets Yang. Small boys with small fireworks have a lot of fun, and can be disruptive. Small boys with big fireworks affect the whole world, potentially destructively. That’s the problem with yang.
When we are children, most of us enjoy fireworks, and they are part of many cultural festivals (not least in China).
We don’t enjoy war. It tends to get out of control. (“He who rides a tiger should not dismount.”)
What are the possibilities in broad yin/yang thinking, for Europe and NATO?
First, Putin has exposed what he sees as the weakness of his opponents. From his ‘yang’ perspective, he should push on, if he can, into other countries he covets while his opposition is weak and undecided. In other words, maintain yang momentum.
For Europe and NATO, putting aside (yin-type) passive resistance or indeed inaction, yang action is required to reinforce the boundaries and strength of countries bordering Russia and its buffer states. Ideally, if possible, reinforce Ukraine and let Putin’s force get mired down there.
Secondly, important, but less so, is to appeal to the natives of Russia, many of whom were probably as appalled by Putin’s action as we in the West: but this is a slow strategy, more yin in action, taking longer. And it’s all too easy for propaganda to persuade the Russian people that the privations they will suffer from economic action by the West will be the fault of the West and not because of Putin’s action.
As for citizens of Western democracies, they may need re-education in the realities of life. Not least on why countries need to keep their militia. As we know, in times of extended peace, we wonder why the war machine is necessary so we downgrade it. Then along comes something yang, unexpected, and suddenly we realise our mistake. Countries close to combat or in fear of being over-run are usually much more mindful of the need for defence. Just look at how much is spent by Israel and its opponents.
Then re-arm, of course. So, if you are an investor with money to spare, unneeded for living costs, now is probably a good time to buy commodities, companies that make armaments, and gold. These are, sadly, the products of Metal, the ‘last’ of the five phases of existence before the Water phase, where things seem to go quiet again for a while.
The I Ching lists, for each situation (hexagram) a huge number of possible ways forward and the results of choosing them. In fact, mathematically there are over 4000 possible outcomes for any situation. Each depends on the initial situation. Ancient China went through terrible internal wars and periods of terror and uncertainty. The ancient sages had good reason for studying the matter. It can also show you when to desist or to go no further may be best policy.
John Blofeld, a British scholar of China, suggested that the reason why China did not invade India during its 1950s war to take over Tibet (‘liberate Tibet’ in China’s words), may have been due to consideration of I Ching.
China had ancient claims on Tibet and had little trouble conquering it, the Tibetans being predominantly a peaceable, non-warfaring nation (though ‘armed resistance by the locals and the ensuing crackdown by China resulted in a 7.4% drop in the Tibetan population’). But China never had claims on India, so – suggested Blofeld – China knew when to stop.
This situation is unlike that of Ukraine which has carved out a modern democracy for itself and still shows every indication of the desire to resist.
Even more so the Baltic states, (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), plus Hungary and others which, once under Soviet Russian control, are now in NATO. So probably, supposing he succeeds in Ukraine, Putin should stop there. Otherwise he risks much greater opposition and, I think the I Ching might suggest, disaster.
For the West, learning all this may be an expensive lesson. We may confidently expect an increase in living costs.
In part 2, I look at one of the I Ching’s hexagrams which seems relevant, listed 6th, ‘Conflict’.
In part 3, I look at a possible development in how we interpret change via the I Ching.
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Hexagram 6 Sung is translated as ‘Conflict’. Quoting from Blofeld’s translation, the text reads ‘Conflict. Confidence accompanied by obstacles.’ So, Putin may say, that sounds good!
However, the text continues ‘With care, affairs can be made to prosper in their middle course, but the final outcome will be disaster.’ So perhaps, for Putin, not so good. I interpret this as suggesting that Putin should not over-reach himself, though he may be sorely tempted.
Indeed, the final part of the text says ‘It is advantageous to visit a great man, but not to cross the great river or sea.’
Here you get a typical, somewhat cryptic comment from the I Ching! Blofeld’s footnote suggests we can profit from the advice of someone truly wise, but a journey of any kind at this time would be disastrous.
As I don’t know anything about Putin’s inner circle or about whom he might seek out as being truly wise, probably the closest would be Xi Jinping, President of China, whom one hopes might be a restraining influence. Failing a given individual, the ‘great man’ can be one’s inner conscience, what the Russian people think about it, or indeed, the I Ching itself.
And what about the warning not to cross the great river or sea? Here we speculate! It might be not to cross a river in Ukraine, but more likely it refers to the border with Nato countries, and especially, a warning not to cross the Atlantic and take the war to America.
Over centuries, sages in China studied and commented on the I Ching. One of their comments is translated by Blofeld as ‘The final disaster occurs because the conflict is one which cannot be resolved.’ If apposite here, it suggests to me that autocracy and democracy can never resolve their differences. In which case, if the endeavour was to force autocracy on the world, it won’t work and may rebound on Putin.
Another comment, on one of the lines of the hexagram (one that actually changes the hexagram to number 47 ‘ K’un ‘Adversity, Weariness’) suggests that prizes won through strife do little credit to the conqueror and may be hard to keep, or at least may be uncomfortable to live with.
(Of course, every situation is a result of the previous one and flows immediately into the next one. We do not know what the preceding hexagram might have been for Putin, the one that led to this conflict, so all this is hypothetical!)
There are many translations of I Ching, ancient and modern, including one (partly) by Carl Jung. Some are easier to read than others. I like John Blofeld’s translation because its forwards, introduction and initial explanatory chapters clearly convey the humility with which one should approach use of the book.
His translations of the hexagrams’ texts were, he says, checked by other scholars of Chinese culture and the I Ching, whom he respected. They are often terse, and you need practice to apply them to your situation. Translations by other authors may help. (I have many such, but find I return again and again to Blofeld. But there are as many opinions about I Ching translations as there are users of the I Ching!)
Blofeld was Buddhist. For a flavour of pre-Communist China read the book he wrote ‘The Wheel of Life’. He wrote many other books, and of those that I’ve read all were worth reading, for example his ‘City of Lingering Splendour’.
 I Ching The Book of Change, A translation by John Blofeld, pub George Allen and Unwin 1965
As explained in part one, boundaries are yang. They are where we define and limit ourselves, where we meet others and where, to remain ourselves and unique – distinct, we resist change. With countries, their boundaries, if undisputed, are usually clear.
As with the current Ukraine conflict, one can see that history may alter one’s perspective of the validity of a boundary.
In 1938 Hitler threatened war unless Germany ‘got back’ the Sudetanland (part of what had become Czechoslovakia after the 1914-18 war) since it had originally been part of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (However, the exact borders of the latter were never fixed for long, at various times extending from Poland to Serbia but fluctuating over the years depending on marriages, local disputes, treaties, agreements and wars, including those arising from incursions by Muslim kingdoms from the South.)
Ukraine is regarded by Putin as Russian from ancient times: hence Russia’s by ‘right’.
But nowadays there is an increase in self-definition according to belief systems. For long this was via religion: you were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc.
Then in the 19th Century, groups of people began to define themselves by their commonalities. Unions, Class, then emancipation, now trans rights.
(Quote from the Gondoliers by WS Gilbert, music by Arthur Sullivan)
Firstly, the more of these there are, the harder a boundary is to defend, because although its members may be vocal, they may be few: in a democracy, the louder they must shout for attention and definition. Also, small but similar parties tend to argue among themselves weakening their overall thrust.
But there are overarching movements, one of which might be the idea of democracy itself and the right to adopt and protect the right to hold political views different from someone else. Different countries have different systems for deciding their governments. (Rule by majority, by transferable vote for some parts of the government or with a multi-party system using the Additional Member system, etc.)
So what used to be clear boundaries between nations may become vaguer as movements and unions of like-minded people gather momentum. This moves towards an increasingly yin state where no party has power to enforce its views, but as a whole the State gives rights to everyone to belong to some grouping and be so allowed to live peaceably.
Another problem is that the more rights you allow for, the more rules you must enact, making the whole thing slower and more yin.
Experience seems to show that what then happens is you get a plethora of legal rights, (and, incidentally, of health and safety regulations!) To prevent death by injury from a moving vehicle, speed limits are reduced to the point where one can walk faster! In a yin state, everything slows down! Life becomes peaceful but boring.
And out of this breaks yang energy, time and again, usually represented by youth or by youthful thinking, looking to change or disrupt things. By its nature one cannot predict where yang will next emerge.
So, taking the present Ukraine war as an example, voices of many different hues both outside and now within Russia are taking issue with Putin’s actions. Perhaps these voices, questioning his actions, represent the wise man that Hexagram 6 (see part 2) enjoins him to consult. They may, however, seem to Putin to be ignorant and uninformed, and so to be repressed. Repression is something Putin understands.
In USA there is something similar happening. Everyone has the right to own a gun. This means, possibly for good reasons, everyone has ceased to fully trust the rule of law provided by the State in favour of defining themselves by their family, house, property and gun. So you have USA, looked on as the power for good against autocratic Russia, but itself made up of individuals each wielding guns. Whereas Russia is ruled by someone with all the big guns, jealously guarded for himself.
Both are regarded as peaceful countries to inhabit. Both can be dangerous, however! One by taking a single huge risk with a big gun or bomb, the other by entangling with someone deranged with a small gun.
However, perhaps the main difference is that in USA there is recognition that yang can triumph, that everyone has the potential to break out of the rut and succeed. I doubt if that is the unwritten ethos in Russia, where Class is entrenched and jealously protected.
Much of the thinking about the I Ching emerged during and after the period in China known as that of the Warring States 475BC to 221 BC when different parts of China tried to assert their identity. It was a turbulent and chaotic period. In the previous periods the main, or at least an important, feudal weapon, was the chariot. During the Warring States period, soldiers had individual weapons. Hence the nature of warfare changed. Armies of individually armed soldiers had to be organised differently to armies of chariots.
You can probably see where all this is going. We are, some hope, emerging from an era of state identities where autocracies confront democracies. The latter allow for more yang emergence at the ground level but until movements become much wider, they do not threaten state identities. (Such a movement might be the movement towards renewable energy and decarbonisation.)
Also, movements are not so defensible and lack resources for arms: their arms are those of fact and argument. Fact, as President Trump showed and as internet trolling from Russia demonstrated during recent Western elections, can be interpreted differently to the disadvantage of democracy, leading back to belief as the arbiter of action.
(Facts are more yin as compared with belief, which is more malleable, more yang. Facts, the reality you can measure and experience, are harder to shift whereas you can change your thinking and belief about them in an instant. For example, I have about £20 in cash in my wallet – around US$26. I just counted them: that’s a fact. But if I buy a lottery ticket and win tonight I’ll have millions! But then, suddenly! – I need those £20 to buy food for supper and there’s no money left. My lottery dreams are gone!)
As a result, what you believe to be true defines your actions, which define who you are. Being individual in nature, we can define ourselves many different ways.
For example … I am white Caucasian but depending on what I am doing and to whom I am speaking might be identified as
You may ask, which am I? Well, that depends on the context. And probably the same goes for you.
At present, I expect the State to defend my right to all these different definitions. But if the state fails, to which ‘group’ shall I look for support? Could we then be edging back to a modern equivalent of the Warring States?
In which case, which I Ching hexagram might be appropriate? Sung ‘Conflict’, hexagram 6, suggests it is best not to ask for too much.
What about China? China is watching to see how much we (the ‘West’) support Ukraine or resist any further incursions by Russia, because having fairly ruthlessly absorbed Hong Kong, China now wants to recover Taiwan. Taiwan is, like Ukraine, a country in which its citizens have enjoyed the benefits of democracy for many years.
China has a border difficulty unlike that between Russia and Ukraine, because the China and Taiwan are separated by nearly 100 miles of sea. But China has made a huge investment in Land and Sea power and has flexed the latter’s muscles for some time.
There’s another parallel. Russia has huge reserves of commodities, (oil and gas, for example) which Europe needs: China has invested more than any other country in matters green – renewable energy, wind turbines, electric vehicles and energy storage. Also, Chinese companies own 60% of the global solar power market and are tightening their grip on lithium mining supplies and capacity to manufacture lithium-ion batteries – all of which the West also wants! That means China will also be able to exert control over supply chains.
So in negotiations (or worse, war) China is a big beast: very yin – and able to exert its influence strongly on a world increasingly worried about global warming.
If we choose a hexagram that perhaps matches China’s position, it might be 58, Tui – Joy.
Because in terms of might and strategic influence, China has been doing all the right things.
(Of course, it has certainly NOT been doing all the right things in terms of its minority peoples! The Uighars, for example. Also, China increasingly governs with its ‘thought-police’ via surveillance of both its peoples’ social media reactions and their physical actions, deducting ‘Brownie’ points for mistakes. Without enough Brownie points your ability to live life your way is increasingly curtailed – you may be able neither to travel far nor to buy a house, for example.)
For China, the state, that’s a joyful place to be. Should China choose conflict/war to gain Taiwan, we have to consider the moving lines in 58 that change in order to reach hexagram 6. These are the bottom (ie the ‘first’ line) and the top line (the ‘sixth’ line). The first line says – if it expects to mount a conflict (hexagram 6) – that China will do so free of doubts about itself. (China is good at re-educating’ people to recognise that China’s method of government and centralised economy – its one-party state, etc – is best!) Like Russia, it suppresses alternative viewpoints very successfully.
However, line 6 is more nuanced, and harder to interpret but could mean that China mis-steps by trying to buy its way to recovery of Taiwan or by claiming righteous actions for itself. It could also mean that conflict, if it recovers Taiwan, will not lead to the anticipated benefits.
However, if it does not make that mis-step, the hexagram becomes number 47, K’un – Weariness and Adversity, which is not as bad as it sounds, except that it means things take time, and the text suggests that whatever China actually says about its claims, they will not inspire confidence.
How do you stand up to a big yin beast, flexing its muscles?
Obviously, with another big yin beast, or at least that’s one way of opposing it.
Another way is to encourage the next yang to ‘spark’ in the midst of all that yin. Maintaining a free press outside China, even if Chinese citizens access it only with difficulty, would seem important. The BBC World Service should reconsider its decision to close many of its broadcasting services.
Meantime, if possible, sell shares in companies that invest in China (and Russia). Encourage companies that do invest there, to develop other supply chains than from China.
In other words, take your business elsewhere.
However, this will all still be expensive, as I said. In effect, to pay for our opposition, let alone our military or economic resistance, will cost us. We’ll notice this in lower standards of living.
Having read this page, would you like more posts (like this page) on how Yin and Yang relate to life outside Chinese medicine?
If so, please leave your comment below in the box. In any case, your thoughts, questions and comments (preferably constructive) on the topic of this page are welcome.
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Thank you for the nice clear explanation about the Yin and Yang and for the other information you share on this page and your website.
I get a lot of wisdom, clarity and depth from this.
And it stimulates me by searching further and getting new insights.
Thanks again for that.
Sincerely Gerrit Koers
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