Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine


A collection of notes on the topics of classical Chinese, medicine, and traditional culture.

This blog is a collection of ruminations, translations, and personal opinions by Sabine and some guest authors. Reflecting my own personality, some posts are academic, some clinical, and some personal, some are excerpts from existing books and some may become part of future books. Please leave comments with feedback, questions, constructive criticism, and differences of opinion as long as you argue your reasons for disagreement logically. Any personal attacks, uncivil remarks, or self-promoting comments will be deleted.

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Harmonizing yin and yang in an alpha versus beta world

Auspicious Cranes Emperor Hui-Tsung (1082-1135)

Auspicious Cranes
Emperor Hui-Tsung (1082-1135)

A few months ago, I had a seemingly innocuous conversation with a young man and former student, who was just getting started in his Chinese medicine practice. To personalize this story and protect his anonymity, we shall name him Frank. While chatting with me about my teenage daughter’s first foray into the foreign turf of intimate male-female relationships and the complications of such interactions in our modern world, he shared an insight about men as either alpha males or beta males that struck me as very odd at the time. But since I am a woman, a bit older, and at heart still a foreigner who frequently finds modern US culture hard to relate to, I merely expressed my surprise and moved on to cooking dinner. In retrospect, I wonder whether I could have prevented the nasty downward cascade of ultimately self-destructive rage and violence that I witnessed over the next two months, had I been conscious of the implications of this way of thinking and addressed them head-on at that moment.

Frank presented his understanding of men as being either alpha males or beta males with quite a bit of scientific-fact-sounding authority not as his own invention but as a commonly held, valuable insight into male-female relationships. And a quick internet search indeed reveals that this theory is widely accepted and perpetuated on websites from E-harmony to Psychology Today. Numerous sites offer quizzes that allow the reader to identify his or her status as an alpha or beta person, which should then grant sexual conquest (in the case of most sites targeting men) or guide the choice of the appropriate partner (in non-gendered sites), thereby guaranteeing a thriving love life. It is unclear to me to what extent this way of thinking about males and females has been shaped by the psychotherapist Dr. Sonya Rhodes in her book “The Alpha Woman Meets her Match: How Today’s Strong Women can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling.” Her influence on mainstream culture has clearly been immense, though, as evidenced by her appearance on NPR and articles in such major publications as the Wall Street Journal (“The Upside of ‘Marrying Down’”) and the Huffington Post (“10 Rules for Dating When You Want a Serious Relationship” and others). So this is not just one disgruntled lonely man’s view but authoritative advice expressed and sold by a renown psychotherapist with a PhD from Columbia, a lot of cultural clout, and impressive scientific backing from evolutionary and animal psychology and anthropology. It is now widely perpetuated in mainstream popular culture by dating services, relationship counselors, countless bloggers, and other “experts” in male-female relationships.

In Frank’s application of this theory to my young daughter’s tender friendships with her male classmates, teenage boys could be divided into alpha males and beta males. According to Frank, it was beyond a shred of doubt that my daughter was an alpha female, given that she is a straight A student, president of a thriving service organization at her High School, successful long-distance runner, experienced international traveler, and confident goat midwife, to name just a few of her accomplishments. As such, she was a highly desirable target for both alpha and beta males. Based on his own life-long experience as a self-identified beta male, Frank now pointed out, all the close friendships with men that my daughter had developed in her various roles in school, sports, and her job were doomed to lead to disappointment and frustration for these boys because every one of them was motivated by the hope of becoming her boyfriend. And none of them would stand a chance, given that they were all beta males, once an alpha male showed up. This alpha male would swoop my daughter off her feet and whisk her away, leaving behind a trail of agony for all the disappointed beta males who might be close and trusted friends but were ultimately thwarted in their futile desire for physical intimacy. As Frank explained to me, he knew this story all too well from his personal experience. He had enjoyed many close relationships with alpha females in his life but continued to be either completely rejected or eventually replaced as a sexual partner by alpha males who would appear out of nowhere to steal the affection of his women friends. As a result, I watched this man constantly struggle with loneliness, rejection, bitterness, and intense deep-lying and perhaps even unconscious resentment and anger towards women, in spite of his proclaimed public identity as a practicing Buddhist and professional healer in a medical tradition dedicated to “harmonizing yin and yang.”


I see this innocuous-sounding pop-culture image of alpha and beta men thumping their gorilla chests or burying their walrus tusks in each other’s neck in a deadly fight for sexual access to the harem as a thread of poison that stitches together medieval witch hunts with Nazi misogyny with the current epidemic of mass shootings in the US. In my humble opinion, reducing male-to-female, or really all human-to-human, interaction to a paradigm of power over others, and male-female interactions to the sole goal of sexual penetration is lower than low and ultimately self-destructive to humanity. Is this the reality we want to live in? Is this a functional social paradigm with which to structure our relationships to ourselves, other humans, and the environment? In the case of my young daughter, she is full of love and respect for all her male friends regardless of their status on the local football team. And yes, she has in fact developed a more intimate relationship with one particular young man, who happens to be sweet, tender, quietly insightful, and definitely not fitting the stereotype of the alpha male described in popular media. I find it insulting to her intelligence to reduce her choice of male friends to this paradigm of power. And I find it equally insulting to her male friends to reduce their friendship with my daughter to the sole intention of sexual conquest as yet another expression of domination. When I shared this theory of alpha-male versus beta-male competition with her, she simply laughed it off as something straight out of High School Musical.

I wish we could just laugh this way of thinking off as an adolescent stage that a normal healthy adult is bound to outgrow. Its pervasive presence in popular culture produced and perpetuated by and for adults, however, suggests otherwise. And on a more global level, this paradigm of domination extends to an ideology of power and control over other men, over women, over animals, and over our natural environment. It has given us mass shootings, the campus rape epidemic and domestic violence, Bhopal and Hoover Dam and Chernobyl, global warming, the Syrian refugee crisis, and a whale swimming up the Columbia River this past summer. This way of thinking is not laughable, or “normal,” or scientific, or unavoidable. It is literally killing us and will destroy us all if we fail to address and transform it. As Buddhism (and many other religions) teaches us, we are all one. What happens to my neighbor happens to me.

As a translator and teacher in the field of Chinese medicine and philosophy, I have spent much of my life trying to wrap my head and heart around a very different way of thinking, namely the paradigm of yin and yang. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Chinese civilization to my personal conception of nature and health is encoded in this language of “harmonizing” (hé 和) or “attuning” (tiáo 調) yin and yang as the key to the role of humanity as intermediary between Heaven and Earth. In my class on classical Chinese gynecology in particular, we explore the complementary, mutually responsive, and ever-changing relationship between yin and yang as a model for thinking about the health of the macrocosm (the universe) and of unlimited numbers of microcosms, from female and male or father and mother in society, to blood and qi, water and fire, kidney and heart in the body, to inside and outside, below and above, heaven and earth, cold and hot, winter and summer, stillness and activity, old age and adolescence, contracting and expanding, etc. etc.  The dynamic equilibrium of these two forces is the core of health and harmony, in the individual body, in society, in nature, and in the universe. And as a logical consequence, treatment consists of restoring or fine-tuning this balance in ever-widening overlapping circles of interconnectedness and of stimulus and response (gǎnyìng 感應).

While women have a greater affinity with yin and men with yang because of their physical body, natural sex is only one among many factors that determine the balance of yin and yang in any human body. For this reason, early medical texts like the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic do not focus their attention on the male body as the model for the human body, with the implication that a body with a uterus is a deviation that makes this body literally “hysterical” (“hysteria” being derived from the Greek word for “womb”), as was done in the history of bio-medicine. Rather, the early Chinese medical texts mostly envision, diagnose, and treat what Charlotte Furth has termed an “androgynous” body. With minor exceptions like the association with developmental cycles of 7 and 8 in women and men, respectively, this is a body that is marked by a functional equivalence between the sexes. Ever since the development of gynecology as a separate clinical specialty in the Sòng dynasty (960-1279), Chinese gynecologists have certainly treated women on the basis of truisms like “In women, one first regulates Blood, and in men, one first regulates qi,” or “Men think of the bedroom when their essence is exuberant; women crave pregnancy when their Blood is exuberant.” Nevertheless, blood and qi, or blood and essence, are present in both male and female bodies and must always interact in a balanced state of mutual support and cooperation. Restoring or fine-tuning this equilibrium between yin and yang is the goal of any medical intervention.

As the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic explains in the introduction to the “Great Discourse on the Responsive Manifestations of Yin and Yang” 黃帝內經素問《陰陽應象大論篇第五》:

The Yellow Emperor said: “As for yīn and yáng, they are the Dào of Heaven and Earth. They are the lead rope and connecting strands of the myriad things, the father and mother of alterations and metamorphoses, the root and beginning of giving and taking life, and the palace of spirit illumination.
To treat disease, you must seek out the root.
Thus, yáng, accumulated, becomes Heaven, and yīn, accumulated, becomes Earth. Yīn stills and yáng agitates; yáng gives life and yīn promotes growth; yáng takes life and yīn withdraws into storage.
Yáng transmutes qì; yīn completes the physical form.

In the traditional Chinese way of thinking, everything in the universe, from the tiniest cell to the tadpole in the puddle, the stalactite in the cave, and the thunderstorm on the mountaintop, is nothing but qi in continuously changing states of alteration and transformation (biàn huà 變化). As such, every aspect of the universe vibrates harmoniously with everything around it in a cosmic symphony of yin and yang. And in this symphony, nothing could be more detrimental to the ideal state of harmony between these two forces than the notion of power and domination of one over the other, which I see expressed so simplistically in the theory of alpha and beta males competing over sexual access to females. 

Of course one can object to my simplistic contrast between ancient yin-yang harmony and modern alpha-beta domination on many levels. Idealizing the Oriental other is not usually a game I engage in. We are all aware of the intrinsically patriarchal and patrilineal nature of so-called “traditional Chinese culture” and its grossly misogynistic expressions, best symbolized by foot-binding and concubinage. As a historian of early and medieval China, however, I emphasize with every chance I get that that image of so-called “traditional” Chinese society is based on late imperial culture, affected profoundly by Sòng period Neo-Confucianism. For the classical period, women’s lived experiences certainly looked very different. Yes, the Confucian system of social organization was structured as a network of hierarchical relationships, and “husband-wife” was one of the key five relationships that form the basis of social order. But what did it mean to be a true “husband” or “wife” at this far distant time, and to properly fulfill the duties that went with that role? Do we really have all the information and knowledge to judge that idealized husband-wife relationship in comparison to our contemporary models of family life, whatever these may be?

Moreover, we must always keep in mind that the female-male relationship is only one among countless manifestations and associations of yin-yang dualism. And while there are far too many question marks in my mind concerning the lived meaning of “husband” and “wife” in early China, the philosophical, medical, and cosmological writings offer quite a nuanced description of the ideal yin-yang relationship, and domination of one over the other is never a healthy state or intended outcome. As anybody familiar with even basic Chinese medicine theory knows, “exuberance” (shèng 盛) or even “repletion” (shí 實, usually translated as “excess”) of one side over the other is not a state of health but an indication of an imbalance that needs to be treated by draining that aspect and by supplementing the other. To cite another example from the “Great Treatise on the Responsive Manifestations of Yin and Yang”:

Examine [the patient’s] yīn and yáng in order to differentiate softness and hardness. In yáng disease, treat the yīn; in yīn disease, treat the yáng. Settle [the patient’s] blood and qì so that each abides by its own territory. When the blood is replete, it is appropriate to dredge it; when the qì is vacuous, it is appropriate to confine it and draw it in.

All the medical classics emphasize that the ancient sages were able to live out their allotted lifespan and follow the Dào, the “Way” of Nature, by harmonizing yin and yang, not by strengthening one at the expense of the other. Likewise, Heaven and Earth are a unit, both parts of which are equally essential to sustaining human life in between them, with our feet firmly rooted on Earth and our head reaching up to Heaven. Too much yin or too much yang are fatal for any human, regardless of the person’s physical manifestation in a male or female body. And as a logical conclusion of this thinking, sexual intercourse, seen as “matching/linking yin and yang” (hé yīn yáng 合陰陽), was a key aspect of practices aimed at “nurturing life” (yǎngshēng 養生), along with diet, cultivation of breath and qi, and consciously placing oneself in harmony with one’s natural and social surroundings, a.k.a. the Dào.

The conclusion of the first chapter in the Plain Questions, titled “Discourse on Heavenly Genuineness in Remote Antiquity”《上古天真論篇第一》, describes the two most evolved states of human beings in this way:

The Yellow Emperor said: “I have heard that in remote antiquity there were Genuine Persons (zhēnrén). These people held up Heaven and Earth, had a firm grasp on yīn and yáng, inhaled and exhaled essence and qì, stood upright on their own and kept their spirit/s well-guarded, and had flesh that was as if One/resembled the One. Therefore they were able to live so long as to wear Heaven and Earth ragged, without a time of ending. This was their life in the Dào.
At the time of mid-antiquity, there were Accomplished Persons (zhìrén). Their virtue power undiluted and their Dào intact, they were in harmony with yīn and yáng and attuned to the Four Seasons. Having left behind the world of ordinary mortals, they collected essence and kept their spirit/s complete, traveled freely in the space between Heaven and Earth, and were able to see and hear beyond the far reaches of the Eight Directions. This, then, was how they must have increased their lifespan and become strong. [In that case?], they can also be counted among the Genuine Persons.

One beautiful aspect of this yin-yang (as opposed to female-male) language that often gets missed is the adaptability of yin-yang thought to our currently emerging paradigm of fluid gender and sexual identities. Perhaps because many practitioners and students are forced to rely on English translations that carry their own cultural baggage, yin and yang are all too often conflated with female and male, when that is not at all expressed in the texts. For example, the emperor’s title of tiān zǐ 天子 is usually translated as “Son of Heaven” and often cited as proof for the patriarchal nature of early Chinese politics. Not so: the Chinese literally just means “child of heaven.” The most common and harmful misreading along these lines, in my opinion, is seen in almost all existing Western-language “translations” of the Yìjīng 易經 (“Classic of Changes”), especially those based on Richard Wilhelm’s work that is so heavily influenced by the understanding of his Late Qing dynasty tutors. A welcome correction to this trend is Margaret Pearson’s The Original I Ching: An Authentic Translation of the Book of Changes, published in 2011.

Probably stretching this line of thinking beyond the comfort limits of many current scholars and practitioners, why must we read the expression hé yīn yáng 合陰陽 (“matching yin and yang”) as necessarily referring to heterosexual intercourse, as is done in every translation I am aware of? In the context of classical medical literature, where male and female bodies are always seen as fluid combinations of yin and yang, wouldn’t it be more accurate to consistently and accurately translate this phrase literally, instead of reading it as a euphemism for heterosexual intercourse alone? As a result, can we not envision homosexual intercourse as having the same potential health benefit of “matching yin and yang” as the most intimate physical interaction between any two human bodies with differing balances of yin and yang? From this perspective, Chinese medicine, and the paradigm of yin and yang in particular, offers us a powerful new way to conceptualize and support changing male and female roles and bodies in a world of increasing gender and sexual fluidity.

Can you see how far this perspective has distanced us from the ruthless competition of alpha and beta males over sexual access to an appropriated female body with no agency of its own? Of course we can give this Neanderthal-sounding theory a modern patina, as Dr. Rhodes has done, and account for alpha females, who now need to find themselves beta males as partners, to ensure an appropriate distribution of power. But even this version of the old dominance paradigm still insists on having one partner dominate the other to make harmonious coexistence possible. As I have learned in my own journey of co-parenting for 16 years after divorce, in countless other conflict situations with bosses, students, employees, and friends, and in a few lectures and discussions on non-violent communication, human beings are not dogs or goats. Raising a rescue mustang, a wolf-dog and other powerful working dogs, goats, sheep, geese, turkeys, and many other critters, even pruning old apple trees or weeding a corn field have taught me a few things. I know that a firm hand and clear leadership are absolutely vital attributes for a farmer, to ensure the harmonious coexistence of many species in a small space. Regardless of the amount of love and connection between us, my young horse needed my firm single-minded leadership during training in the saddle, and I have a big hole in my head to account for my lack of respect for this need. I love every one of my critters unconditionally and start each day by being grateful for their presence in my life. But shearing a sheep or teaching goats proper milking manners requires my consistent dominant presence, no ifs and buts, or I end up with a whole lot of spilled milk.

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Progressing along this continuum, young children and students require varying degrees of leadership and authority, to demonstrate to them what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, asserting power is always a double-edged sword. Even with my four-year-old daughter, I learned to pick my battles and present choices whenever possible. And I firmly believe in empowering students to find their own truths, as opposed to me presenting the only “Truth” with a capital T. As a result, my students have, for example, gifted me with insights into possible modern applications of this yin-yang dualism that I would have never been able to arrive at on my own. I love teaching because I see it as an opportunity to learn and grow alongside my students. In each class, I navigate the difficult balance between presenting authoritative knowledge and empowering students to think critically and create their own meaning, sometimes consciously, oftentimes not, and sometimes more successfully than other times. As a teacher, parent, farmer, and publisher with a limited amount of time and money, I am familiar with the need for authoritative action, which can certainly be necessary to get things done efficiently. Is this the sort of action that the philosophers in early China envisioned in their ruminations about social hierarchy and the roles of the ruler and his officials? And how should this expression of authority differ from the relationship of teacher to student, friend to friend, and husband to wife? 

Unfortunately we will never know how Confucius, or Zhuangzi, or the Yellow Emperor would have answered these questions. We do know, however, how they envisioned the relationship between yin and yang. And that paradigm might be able to serve as a guiding light to steer us out of the brewing hurricane of conflict between and within cultures, religions, genders, and bodies, as we are all being forced to share space in an increasingly interconnected world of limited resources. As specialists in the art of “harmonizing yin and yang” and situating humanity firmly in the space between Heaven and Earth, I see a crucial role for practitioners of Chinese medicine that goes far beyond treating the scratches and trauma that result from this alpha-beta fight!