YinYang Principle

    Keywords: Theory, Culture & History
Yin & Yang  

Tamsin The basic idea behind the Daoist concept of "Yin Yang" is to divide the things of nature into two fundamental categories: Yin (陰) and Yang (陽). These are complementary opposites, such as female (yin) and male (yang), water (yin) and fire (yang) and so on. My purpose here is not to construct an elaborate philosophical conceit using go and the Yin/Yang division, but simply to express in a memorable way a view one might want to adopt while playing. Consider the following situations:

A) Thickness versus Territory. This is a frequent dilemma: do you choose the move that provides thickness or the one that claims or solidifies territory? The Yin Yang Principle might come into play here: if you take one thing, then you are likely to cede the opposite but complementary thing to the opponent. If you defend your territory against, say, a shoulder hit, you will probably help the opponent to build thickness; if you fight for thickness, you will likely lose some territory. Unreasonable players try to take both, but stronger ones recognise that some kind of exchange is required. Granting the opponent territory while taking thickness is not worth it if that thickness cannot be used; taking profit is a bad deal if the price is giving the opponent thickness that can be used effectively; at other times, the thickness and territory will match one another.

B) Defending versus Tenuki. Do you reply to the opponent's attack or seek to claim sente by playing elsewhere (tenuki)? You cannot do both, so you need to make a choice. Seizing or preserving one thing will result in the loss of the other.

I think that trying to divide go techniques into Yang and Yin categories is of little value, but I would contend that it is vital to realise that most actions produce negative as well as positive results. The important thing is to choose the way that produces the most positive effects at the cost of the fewest negative ones. Too often people think only of gain or loss; it must be better to be aware of both gains and losses.

Please note that there are other perfectly good ways of expressing this idea than Yin Yang - for instance, one might use one of the three Newtonian laws of motion that "For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction". Whatever you use does not in itself matter, so long as it helps you to see both sides of an exchange. Please feel free to add your thoughts here:

Timber: This is one of the lessons for life one can learn by playing go. Sadly I cannot say that I really consistently apply this insight in either.

Velobici: Does that Newtonian law of motion apply? If a move on the goban has an equal and opposite reaction, each game would end in a tie due to equal gains and losses by each side. Before each move the set of possible paths for the game is larger than afterward. Trimming the possible responses of ones that are nonsensical leaves a narrow set of possibilites. It seems a minimax problem (disclaimer, I know nothing of game theory). Finding the move/response that minimizes the maximal possible gain left to your opponent.

Sebastian: That Newtonian law probably does apply, but it does not govern the game, and can not explain it. It matters substantially if you choose Newton's law of action or the Yin/Yang concept to explain Go. It is exactly this difference that makes Go such an interesting game. I hope, someone can contribute to this wiki by writing about what Yin/Yang can offer that Newton can't. -- 2003-09-11

B Yin - Yang 2  

victim: Of course both images are simplistic. There are always more than two options in go. With the tenuki example this should be obvious - where is that tenuki? Also, there are different ways of playing for influence - building a moyo out of loose stones, building thickness threatening the opponent's moyo, securing your groups before they are attacked... And you can build own territory or reduce the opponent's.

Forcing a complex situation into the yin-yang two-way pattern or comparing it to simple physics may help one begin to understand it, but the whole thing seems to me to be a somewhat convoluted way of saying "you can't have everything". If you deviate from the thin "line" of balance (simplistic again) you will have to pay for it.

As an aside, the allocations of concepts (hot, female, dark etc.) to yin or yang always seemed to me to be pretty arbitrary. That's what happens when you try to force complex things into simple patterns. Often it smells just like numerology with the number two. Maybe I'm a bit harsh because I saw too many misapplications of things like that...

Sebastian: OK, you convinced me. I was going to write that you dismiss it too easily. My argument was like this:

Who says you have to stop at 2? You can easily go on to divide your tenukis in binary classes and subclasses. The Yi Jing expands this division to differentiate 64 different hexagrams. Of course, even at that number you may have to do a bit of forcing to include all possible moves. Nevertheless, this is an interesting classifying concept, and I wouldn't be surprised if it offered us some new insights. (BTW, you can use the Yi Jing without believing in divination. Didn't the goban originate from a divination board? And look how far it has come! - I hope.) But it's not just that. It becomes even more interesting once you look at the dynamics...

I'm not a believer in theories that claim to explain everything in the universe. So I don't think that anyone ever can count out a ladder with Yin/Yang. You may be right, and it can explain nothing other than the most trivial cases. But I wouldn't be surprised if someone found a way to use such a concept to see strategic connections that can not be easily understood with other methods.

But then it occurred to me: The Yin/Yang concept and Go have grown up together for two milennia, and in all these years there seems to have emerged no such practical concept. So I would be surprised. -- 2003-09-12

Tamsin: I did not really mean such direct relationships as you are talking about here. If a move has, for instance, a "yin" quality, then it is conceivable that it would take the whole game for its "yang" qualities to become apparent. Suppose I take definite territory on the inside with a move which allows my opponent to perfect thickness on the outside. My opponent's move may appear to be yielding (yin) something (territory), but later on the thickness will enable him to fight hard (yang), thereby recouping points. Indeed, his thickness might not even affect any fights at all in a simple sense; I might be deterred from playing in a certain way because of the presence of that thickness, which means that it gains points in what you might call an "invisible" way. It is this kind of thinking I meant: when you choose one objective or group of objectives, you have to consider the possible drawbacks and side effects that it may lead to (as far as you can). Again, put in "Newtonian" terms, an action will generate "opposite reactions", but these may be small ones that accumulate in seemingly disconnected ways over time. I hope that's helpful.

Scartol: The accumulation of small reactions actually fits more neatly into a chaotic model of the universe, rather than that of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Indeed, chaos theory (with its sister complexity theory) seems to make it clear that there can be no theory that explains everything in the universe. Lao Tzu apparently picked up on exactly that, centuries ago -- The Way governs everyone and everything, but no one can understand it.

I don't believe that the Tao is useful to inspect our moves, but it does help me (at least) to inspect my approach. I know that I must maintain a series of balances in order to be successful on the goban, but only experience can tell me when to adjust each.

In this way, Taoism does help me inform my thinking and my mental state when playing Go. I have found no similar usefulness in the deterministic way of science. Can the concept of Yin/Yang offer us new insights? Yes, I think so. Why haven't there been any "practical concepts" that relate Go to the Tao? I believe there have -- but they are individual and cannot be shared, beyond the most basic maxim of "Achieve balance."

"Of what use is it to discuss how grass and trees become enlightened?" asked Shinkan. "The question is how you yourself can become so."

Ellbur: For chaos to exist, it is never necessary that there be no definite physical laws that govern everything. Pure, simple rules, when applied recursively, in a system such as the Universe or a Go game, naturally develope into chaos. According to imformation theory, the entire strategy of Go, all the way to the Kami no Itte, can be communicated with simply the rules.

The rules of Go are specific to the game of Go. With different rules, there will be different strategy. Chaos forms because the rules must be applied to successive board possesions to derive the next. A slight change in one possition will cause a large change further on in the game. This is chaos, nothing more.

Scartol (Very quickly, because I have a date to play some Go): For me, chaos -- particularly its ability to demonstrate emergent properties of systems -- in some ways represents the nature of the divine (and, as the divine appears in particularly directed forms, the Tao). Obviously it's an oversimplification, but many of us are familiar with the example from Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs' frog DNA causes them to spontaneously switch sexes. This unexpected quality of chaotic systems (and the universe, as the ultimate chaotic system) makes the world around me (and Go in particular) both beautiful and unknowable.

I believe that part of what fascinates me about Go (and why I shy away from mathematical approaches to the game) is this mysterious, inexplicable "collapsing" of the laws into patterns and metapatterns. (For more on the collapsing idea, check out Cohen and Stewart's Collapse of Chaos.)

I feel like I don't understand what you're saying, Ellbur, so I shan't respond in depth (either here or at Scartol/Philosophy of Go, except to say the following. You said: "For chaos to exist, it is never necessary that there be no definite physical laws that govern everything." I never meant to imply that there are no physical laws that govern everything; rather, that there can be no "Grand Unification Theory" as proposed by Hawking and others. (Again, see Cohen and Stewart for a much better explanation that I could ever hope to provide.)

And now, as this conversation has officially nothing whatsoever to do with Go, I shall end my participation in it.

BenAxelrod: I have a question about Yin, Yang, and Go. If yin is female and dark, and yang is male and light, then why in standard Go terminology is white refered to as she, and black as he? It seems like it should be the other way around.

Bill: As far as I know, that is only the SL convention. Mathematical Go, for instance, does it the other way. (Oriental languages have no need for those gendered pronouns, I believe, and do not have this problem.)

Joei: We Chinese use the word 他(ta) in general reference to a person so yes, there is no gender reference.

Velobici: ??? I was taught that 他 (ta1) is "he, him", that 她 (ta1) is "she, her", and that 它 (ta1) is "it, other". 它 should only be used for inanimate objects. The result being that Chinese, like English, uses the masculine plural 他們 to refer to mixed gender groups, reserving the feminine plural 她們 for female only groups. ????

unkx80: I was taught the way Velobici was taught too. However, I observed that in some imported TV shows, the subtitles have 他 (ta1) throughout so I think there are some Chinese use it that way.

Anonymous user: Chinese hasn't historically distinguished third-person pronouns by gender like English, with 他 (ta1) being used in all cases. In speech they remain all alike, but in modern usage due to European influence you can find 她 for female referents, 祂 for translating "He" in Christian works to refer to God, 牠 for animals and 它 for objects.

YinYang Principle last edited by on October 6, 2019 - 01:57
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