An idea that appeared early on in the development of the Chinese perception of the world is that of the dual notion of yin and yang 阴阳, two opposite forces that set the world in motion. Yin and yang are represented visually by a symbol - a circle divided by a curved line into two areas - black and white. In the black area there is a small white circle and in the white area a small black circle. The external circle represents the whole, while the black and white areas represent the interaction of the two opposite and complementary energies - yin (black) and yang (white) that cause everything in the world to happen. The areas that represent these two energies, however, are neither completely white nor completely black. The one does not exist without the other, just as our world's reality is not made up solely of black and white. Rather it is an expression of the mutual dependence of opposites. The two dynamic forces lead and comprise each other.
Originally, the lit side of a hill represented yang, while its shadow represented yin. Together they represent the eternal changing of opposites in nature, such as day and night, sun and moon, summer and winter, dry and humid, masculine and feminine. Yin represents qualities such as dark, passive, down, shrinking, cold and weak, while yang represents qualities such as light, active, up, expanding, hot and strong.
The theory of yin and yang can be found in the philosophies of Lao Zi and other philosophers, albeit not in the writings of Confucius. Every aspect of Chinese culture, including medicine and art, is influenced by the idea of yin and yang.
Following the theory of yin and yang, there developed a theory according to which five elements 五行- wood 木, metal 金, water 水, earth 土 and fire 火, are perceived as defining the events of nature. Each of these elements is associated with one of the five directions (wood-east, fire-south, earth-center, metal-west, water-north), the five tastes (wood-sour, fire-bitter, earth-sweet, metal-pungent, water-salty), the five emotions (wood-anger, fire-over excitation, earth-anxiety, metal-sadness, water-fear), etc. This idea of five elements alongside the idea of yin and yang became the foundation of the Chinese perception of the physical world.
Regarding their own place in the physical world, and their way of solving problems, the Chinese have a different approach to that of the West. The American psychologist Richard Nesbitt noted that whereas Westerners focus on an object or an action, while paying little attention to the object/action's background, the Chinese, like other Far Eastern people, see the whole. Objects or actions appear to them as part of an entirety.
As far as the Chinese are concerned, man is a part of nature and not an entity in conflict with it. The word "nature" in Chinese is 自然(literally: being as it is by itself), means letting things take their own course. In the Chinese culture the expectation is that man will merge with the endless eternal cycle of nature - birth, growth, fall, death and rebirth.
As opposed to Westerners, who think in terms of controlling nature and who find it difficult to live in a world of opposites, the Chinese find meaning and harmony in opposites.
In his book The Geography of Thought, Nesbitt presents the differences between Far Eastern people and Westerners with regard to the way they perceive reality. While Westerners tend to be analytic, paying more attention to those things that are at the focus of an issue, the approach of Far Easterners is holistic; they find it difficult to separate reality into different categories and, instead see both the objects and their background as one. They perceive reality as a web of interaction in which objects, including people, have no identity of their own but are defined according to their relationships with other objects.
Nesbitt and his research team carried out an experiment with both Chinese and American subjects. They gave the participants pictures showing a central object with a complex background, and monitored their eye movements while they were looking at the pictures. For example, in one picture a tiger was seen in a forest by a river and in another an airplane was seen above a mountainous landscape. The Americans focused their gaze on the central object and looked at it for a longer period of time than they looked at the background, while the Chinese gazed alternately on the central object and at its background. The researchers concluded that the Chinese invested more time in examining the context in which the object appeared.
The holistic perception of the Chinese can also be found in medicine. Whereas conventional Western medicine divides the body into many parts, dedicating a specific discipline to each of them, traditional Chinese medicine sees the human body as an entirety, with all the organs having reciprocal relations.
The difference in perception between Chinese and Westerners finds its expression too in the way the two peoples write an address. The Chinese first write the state of the addressee, then his city, the street and only at the end - the name of the addressee. This, as opposed to the order in which Westerners write addresses: first the name of the addressee, then the street, the city, and finally - the state. Likewise, a Chinese name is written with the surname first and the given name next, while in the West the given name precedes the surname. The Chinese thus appear to pay more attention to the issues of family and society as a whole, rather than to the individual.