Taoist Visual Symbols (2023)

The most well-knownTaoistsymbol is the Yin-Yang: a circle divided into two swirling sections, one black and the other white, with a smaller circle of the opposite color nestled within each half. The Yin-Yang symbol can also be found embedded within a more complex Taoist image called the Taiji Tu, which is a visual representation of all ofTaoist cosmology. Also within the Taiji Tu we find a symbol of the interactions among the Five Elements which produce the Ten-Thousand Things, i.e. all the "things" of our world. The Ba Gua are trigrams that represent various combinations of Yin and Yang.

The beautifully intricate diagram called the Neijing Tu maps the transformations that happen within the bodies of Inner Alchemy practitioners. The He Tu and Luo Shu are important in understanding theEight Extraordinary Meridians—the most important meridians inQigongpractice. The Lo Pan Compass is one of the main tools of Feng Shui practitioners.


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Yin-Yang Symbol

The Yin-Yang Symbol is one you're probably already familiar with. It represents Taoism's way of understanding opposites, e.g. masculine/feminine, light/dark.

To learn more about various aspects of the Yin-Yang and the Taoist philosophy that it represents, we recommend the following essays:

  • Introduction to the Yin-Yang Symbol. A look at what makes Taoism's approach to working with opposites—as a fluid and ever-shifting "dance of opposites."
  • Gender and the Tao. A closer look at the masculine/feminine polarity, and the role of women in Taoist practice.
  • Polarity Processing Techniques. Specific practices utilizing journaling and meditation to help us relate to opposites in the way suggested by the Yin-Yang symbol.
  • Taoist Cosmology. How do Yin and Yang relate to qi (chi), the Tao, and the Five Elements? This is Taoism's story of the creation and maintenance and continuous transformation of the universe.


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Taijitu Shuo

Taoist Visual Symbols (1)

The Taijitu Shuo—Diagram of the Supreme Polarity—represents the whole of Taoist Cosmology, and is similar in many ways to the Wu Ji Diagram.

The single circle at the top of the Taijitu Shuo represents wuji—undifferentiated timelessness. What we see below that is actually an early version of the Yin-Yang Symbol—and represents the first movement into duality—the play of Yin Qi and Yang Qi. From the blending of Yin Qi and Yang Qi come the Five Elements: Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire. From the Five Elements are born the "myriad things" of the world.

Taoist practitioners enter into a "path of return"—a movement from the myriad things of the world back into wuji. The Immortals, or those who have entered the Tao, are those who have completed this "path of return."

According to Lu Jun Feng in "Sheng Zhen Wuji Yuan Gong: A Return To Oneness":

Through practice I came to understand that love is the source of all—love that is unconditional and selfless: love which is totally free. Qi came into being, flowing out of unconditional love. From timelessness, from wuji, qi created the universe. From a non-definable reality, yin and yang, the world of duality, came into being. Wuji became taiji. Yin qi and yang qi blended together and gave birth to the universe. It is qi that created the universe and it is unconditional love that gave birth to qi.


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Five Element Chart

Taoist Visual Symbols (2)

Yin Qi and Yang Qi give birth to the Five Elements, whose various combinations produce the Ten-Thousand-Things.

The operation of the Five Elements can be seen within the human body, within an ecosystem, or within any other living system. When the elements of a system are in balance, the cycles of generation and control function to both nourish and contain one another. When the elements are out of balance, they "overact" on and/or "insult" one another.


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Ba Gua

Taoist Visual Symbols (3)

Undifferentiated Unity—the Tao—differentiates into Supreme Yang, Lesser Yang, Supreme Yin, Lesser Yin.

Supreme Yang, Lesser Yang, Supreme Yin, Lesser Yin then combine in various ways to form the Ba Gua—the "Eight Symbols" or "Eight Trigrams." In the circles of this diagram are the Chinese names of each of the Trigrams. Each Trigram consists of three lines (hence the name: tri-gram), either broken (the Yin lines) or solid (the Yang lines). The Trigrams in combinations of two make up the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching (Yi Jing)—a principle scripture and divination technique of Taoism.

The ordering of the Eight Trigrams comes in two basic arrangements: the early- or pre-heaven Bagua; and the later- or post-heaven Bagua. The pre-heaven Bagua represents heavenly influences. The post-heaven Bagua represents earthly influences. According to Taoism, our job as humans is to align ourselves intelligently (via the principles revealed by the I Ching, and practices such as Feng Shui and Qigong) so that we can derive the greatest benefit from the Heavenly and Earthly influences.


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Lo Pan Compass

Taoist Visual Symbols (4)

The Lo Pan Compass is one of Feng Shui's most complex tools. Around a center which houses a compass are many rings, each containing a unique orientation system.

The Lo Pan Compass is used by Feng Shui practitioners to orient and evaluate a site—a house or business or landform—for which a Feng Shui consultation has been requested. In the same way that there are many different schools of Feng Shui, so there are many different varieties of Lo Pan Compasses.

What Lo Pan Compasses have in common is that each has a center which contains a magnetic compass, around which are a number of rings. Each ring contains a particular orientation system, for instance: Ring 1 usually contains the pre-heaven Ba Gua; and Ring 2 the post-heaven Ba Gua. Ring 3 typically contains the "24 Mountains" (aka the 24 Stars in the Sky or Directions or Shen), which are a combination of trigrams, heavenly stems (from the Luo Shu system) and earthly branches. The outermost ring (Ring 20 in many systems) is likely to contain the I Ching portent readings of the 64 hexagrams.


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He Tu & Luo Shu Diagrams

Taoist Visual Symbols (5)

Legend has it that Fu Xi, the Heavenly Sovereign who is credited with the discovery of the Ba Gua, also found the He Tu diagram sometime in the Xia dynasty.

Referring to the He Tu Diagram, David Twicken wrote:

This Taoist cosmological model contains energetic pairings that can be used to identify relationships in the practice of acupuncture. From an Eight Extraordinary Channel perspective, the He Tu provides the theory for coupled pairs.
In the center are five dots. Five represents the center, core, yuan or primordial; number patterns in each direction are multiples of five, which is the Earth element. This diagram reveals that all elements, numbers and directions originate from the center or earth.

Various He Tu combinations create the other four elements, and form the basis for the Eight Extraordinary Channel coupled pairs.

While Fu Xi was credited with discovering the He Tu Diagram, it was Yu the Great who received the Luo Sho Diagram as a reward from Heaven, as described by Mr. Twicken:

Yu the Great was rewarded by Heaven for his many positive contributions to humanity. Out of the river a horse-dragon appeared with special markings on its back. Those marks are the Luo Shu. The Luo Shu has many applications in the Taoist arts; for example, flying stars feng shui, meridian clock theory, nine star astrology and neidan—internal alchemy.


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Nei Jing Tu

Taoist Visual Symbols (6)

The Nei Jing Tu represents the transformations that happen within the bodies of inner alchemy practitioners.

The right-hand border of the Nei Jing Tu represents the spinal column and skull. The scenes depicted at different levels along the spine are alchemical changes occurring within the fields of the dantians or chakras.

The space in front of the tailbone and sacrum is known, in Taoist yoga, as the Golden Urn. In Hindu yoga traditions, it's known as the home of Kundalini Shakti—an energy which, when dormant, lies coiled like a snake at the base of the spine. When awakened, it initiates the energetic transformations depicted in the Nei Jing Tu.


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Guodian Bamboo Strips

Taoist Visual Symbols (7)

One of the most exciting events of this century, for Taoist scholars and practitioners alike, has been the discovery of the Guodian Bamboo Strips.

The number of Guodian bamboo strips is about 800, together bearing approximately 10,000 Chinese characters. Some of the strips comprise the oldest existing version of Laozi's Daode Jing. The remaining strips contain the writings of Confucian disciples.

Writing for the Harvard Gazette, Andrea Shen captured a bit of the excitement surrounding the discovery of the Guodian Bamboo Strips:

Near a river in Guodian, China, not far from a farmhouse made of earth and thatched with straw, Chinese archaeologists in 1993 discovered a tomb dating back to the fourth century B.C.
The tomb was just slightly larger than the coffin and stone sarcophagus within. Scattered on the floor were bamboo strips, wide as a pencil, and up to twice as long. On closer scrutiny, scholars realized they had found something remarkable.
"This is like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls" ...
These texts radically alter scholars' understanding of not just the principles of, and relationship between, Taoism and Confucianism, two major streams of Chinese thought; they affect our understanding of Chinese philology, and reopen debate on the historical identities of Confucius and Laozi.
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