Chinese philosophy 101 from  ‘Anzi’ – Professor An Yaming.

Our afternoons for the first three days at Dalian University have been spent with the absolute class favorite thus far, Professor An Yaming.  Professor An teaches Chinese and philosophy at the University of Clemson in South Carolina, USA.   He is fluent in Chinese, English, and German, holds a BA and MA in philosophy, and has a Ph.D in Asian Language and Cultures. He is a Master philosopher in both western and eastern philosophy schools – I affectionately refer to him as Anzi (Master ‘An’, pronounced ‘Ahn-zuh’) in my notes.  If I could be Chinese and have the wise sage grandfather, this is the guy I’d choose. Dr. An is a friend of our own Professor Dr. Carl Mitcham and has ties to Dalian both in his childhood and teaching career.  The professor is instantly likeable with kind, sharp eyes that show brightly behind clear round glasses. Sweat beats down his head this day as our 2nd floor classroom is not air-conditioned (none so far have been) and the temperature is easily in the 90’s with 100% humidity.  Still his smile is large and beaming, and after a minute of his speaking we know why; he lives and breathes Ancient Chinese philosophy. Within an instant we are captivated as he guides us with smooth but deliberate words, mixed with loud, pointed changes of inflection characteristic of Chinese speakers working in English.  He is animated, and damn funny.  He calls all the girls ‘honey,’ smokes, and his laugh is contagious.  Professor An carry’s the rich oral storytelling tradition of the Chinese as effortlessly as a banner blows in the wind.  Once he was started, the effects of the suffocating heat left both the students and the Master.  We were mesmerized.

To understand much of Chinese philosophy, and by extension the current state of the Chinese people’s sentiment, the Professor started with the idea of Yin and Yang (pronounced ‘yeen’ and ‘yaaaahhhng’, we American’s say it incorrectly as ‘yin and yaye-ng’). After three days of very deep Chinese philosophy, I can’t imagine understanding any of it without the insight provided by the basic understanding of Yin and Yang.  Yin and Yang are familiar to Americans; we see them on bumper stickers and on the tie-die t-shirts of the ‘hippies’ running around Boulder.  I will generalize greatly but I think to Americans, (even the hippies), the idea of Yin and Yang are thought of something like good vs evil, light vs dark; something like that.   To begin his discussion, Professor An started by drawing the familiar Yin and Yang symbol on the board.

Yin and Yang

Yin an d Yang

“Do you know this symbol?”  After days of traveling in a country where even bathroom signs are foreign Chinese, here is something I recognized!  Falling for his trap, I eagerly raised my hand and responded, “This is yin and yang, it means something like good vs evil.”

An over zealous American, here we go… Peering behind a kind smile he responded, “No, in fact, this couldn’t be more wrong.  Why do American’s think this?”  Laughing at his blunt response, our class settled in for a most insightful instruction.  Anzi told us that to begin understanding yin and yang, we should start with a list:

Moon and sun,

Baby and adult,

Soft and hard,

Low and high,

Valley and mountain summit,

Male and female,

Light and dark.

And of course this list goes on and on.  What Yin and Yang represent in the literal or metaphorical sense are a sort of separation of two clearly discernable extremes.  However, the examples are not antithesis of one another (another student went that route, “Honey, good idea, but this is wrong!”), the idea is that they are complements of one another, indiscernible without the other half.  For example, using the metaphor of light vs dark in say a photograph, we would say a washed-out photo may lack contrast, or discernibility.  The same idea applies to that of a mountain and a valley, without a valley, a mountain is indiscernible.  They are compliments of one another, strengthening and balancing a greater whole,.  These ideas represent unity and balance in all things in nature.  “Yin and Yang are in table, in chair, in this body, always in struggle for balance” Professor An said.  “It is like the balance between freedom and equality.  A bird needs two wings to fly, to balance, much like freedom and equality must strike a balance.”   I found this method of thought process intuitive and very representative of the reality we see around us.

He continued with the symbol of yin and yang.  “Why the two opposing dots in opposite locations of the symbol? They want to return to their natural state, but it is impossible.  It reminds us that nothing is perfect” Anzi relays through warm eyes and a gentle smile.  The shapes in the yin and yang of course are smooth and perfect; it is a model for the ideal balance of perfection.  Like an ideal, the perfect balance is something we must strive for, but it is never achieved – there is always some piece of us drawing itself to the other side of yin or yang.    This idea is culturally embedded in every Chinese, consciously or not.  For the older generations, yes, it is deliberate – they were raised in the country side with old traditions. For the newer generations, it is unknowingly apart of their tendencies, ambitions, and points of view.  To understand this idea is to begin to understand Chinese thought processes.

Studying electrical engineering, I can immediately relate yin and yang to the positive and negative potentiality intrinsic to the fields of electronics.  There is balance in related rates, economic supply and demand models, and voltage collapse in solar panels.  Considering it further, the interaction of positive and negative charge essentially describe all chemical reactions in nature, all fundamental atomic structures, and much of quantum theory.  Yin and Yang = atomic theory, I’m sold.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is how the yin and yang idea give some visibility into Chinese thought.  For example, a Chinese student asked why when American’s tend to eat lunch, they do it individually but when we eat dinner, we prefer to do it as a group.  I hadn’t even considered the idea of lunch patterns to have cultural significance (yet another reason studying abroad is so important!).  I surmised that for American’s this has much to do with how our culture values efficiency and work; from my experience a typical American has between 30 minutes and an hour to eat lunch on our ‘break,’ after which we must rush back to work to well, work.

My Chinese companion thought it strange, “why don’t you eat with your friends and relax?”

In China, he said, lunch is often sometimes a two-hour ordeal.  It is a time to associate with your co-workers, finalize contracts, and improve on interoffice relations.

I replied, “Why don’t you just do this after work?  American’s will go to happy hour at a bar to do this.”

“What and miss time with our family? This is bad.  It is expected that evening time is family time.  We must balance work and family life,” he said. There it is again, Yin and yang – the balance of family life and work life.  I am starting to get it.  I’ve noticed that the Chinese have a way of pointing out obvious.  Why don’t we do this in the states?  I miss my family and would love to spend more time with them (well, most days) but just don’t make the time.   It seems we have a thing or two to learn from our Chinese friends.

The yin and yang idea is relatable to all fields of Chinese thought, and as Anzi points out, it is an excellent framework to understand what are two of the truly most influential philosophies in China: Daoism and Confucianism.  Daoism is the yin to the yang of Confucianism.  They are opposites, but they define one another, compliment one another, and are critical to understanding the whole of Chinese culture, politics, economics, and family relations, according to Dr. An.  This next lesson, of course, will have to wait :).

Zài jiàn!