It’s difficult to imagine two more iconic images than the sun and the yin-yang. The enormous symbolic content of each of these ancient ideograms is so huge that it’s impossible to treat either in their entirety, even more so when they’re together–which is probably why I’ve avoided it. Yet, the popularity of this tattoo begs the question of why (it is so popular) and, to some extent, how.
When (this is an obligatory bonus, since I’m an archaeologist)
Human beings have been creating sun symbols, also called solar images, ever since the stone age. Our first physical evidence for sun symbols in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings) comes from Neolithic Europe, about 5,000 years ago–a simple circle with small radiating rays. It’s simple but so undeniably an image of the sun that it’s difficult to even throw another interpretation at it, so let’s not.
The earliest writing of the characters for yin and yang comes from Chinese oracle bones (used to predict the future) dating to approximately 1300 BCE (otherwise known as about 3,300 years ago, to put it on the same scale). Even then, they meant the opposite (daylight and and the lack of daylight at night), although they didn’t necessarily come in a pair. The yin yang symbol as we now know it made its first appearance under the pen of Zhao Huiqian (1351 – 1395 CE) in an image titled “Heaven and Earth’s Natural Diagram of the River”.
“Why?” is the impossible question to answer, in terms of archaeological images, because we can rarely say with certainty what ancient man was thinking when he made those images. Even so, there are some standard answers in the wider world of symbolism as to why the sun was such a pervasive ideogram.
The sun is life–and not in some New Agey metaphorical way. The sun, in terms of warmth and light, translates directly into life. It’s very likely that even our hominid ancestors, millions of years ago, grasped this notion. Oddly enough, Paleolithic artists who came after the hominids but before Neolithic people seemed to have mostly skipped solar images, preferring giant animals instead.
So, the sun is important because it’s essential to life. Fine. Water is essential to life too, not to mention air. The sun, however, also possesses the characteristics of being constant, cyclic, and the most fundamental measure of time. In the belief systems of many ancient peoples, the sun was a god who descended nightly into the underworld, only to rise again, with power to destroy as well as create.
For the yin yang symbol, there are written records that trace the development of the different schools of thought and art where black and white drawings were used to interpret life and beliefs, particularly a well-lived life as defined by the classic texts of Chinese philosophy. When Zhao Huiqian drew his version of one of those interpretive drawings, he hit upon an image that has nearly become synonymous with Taoism and even Chinese culture. He created a masterpiece.
As always in the tattoo universe, the reason that some tattoo symbols seem to be everywhere, i.e., “how” they’ve become popular, often lies in the fact that they have an aesthetic appeal–they look good. As an image, it’s hard to think of something as simple, complete, and unifying as a circle. No matter which type of sun symbol you’re using (a blank circle, a circle with rays, a circle with a dot in the middle, concentric circles), the central image is a circle.
Likewise, the principal element in the yin yang is the outer encasing circle. Thus, one explanation for the “how” of the popular union of these two tattoo symbols comes from that shared circle. They are paired because they fit together well. The yin yang fills the void in the center of the sun. They even work together as one color designs.
Do the sun and yin yang match symbolically? Not particularly. Were we to carry the balance and union of opposites represented by the yin yang through to its conclusion, then we’d want a moon in addition to the sun. Then again, as a modern tattoo, are people really thinking of Neolithic rock art and Taoist philosophy? Possibly not. They might, however, be sun worshippers in the modern sense of the word, enjoy the implicit balance in the yin yang, and simply appreciate a good looking tattoo design.
Fun Fact: I’ll bet you didn’t know that two times the length of the middle curve of the yin yang symbol equals the circumference of the encasing circle.