In Chinese cosmology, Yin and Yang are two opposite but complementary principles that regulate the functioning of the cosmos. Their repeated alternation provides the energy necessary for the cosmos to sustain itself, and their continuous joining and separation is at the origin of the rise and the disappearance of entities and phenomena within the world of the "ten thousand things" (wanwu).
Like several other cultures, China has developed the macrocosm-microcosm theory in different forms. Taoism has borrowed some of them and elaborated others. These multiple formulations are not restricted to the universe and the human being, as other components come into play. The first is the state: the human community with its codes, hierarchies, and physical seats of power ideally mirrors the configuration and order of Heaven. Reciprocally, Heaven is an administrative system managed through bureaucratic procedures similar to those performed at court and in government offices.
The relations among the different cosmological configurations that intervene between the Dao and the "ten thousand things" are illustrated in the Chart of the Great Ultimate (Taiji tu), which was discussed at length by both Taoist and Neo-Confucian authors. Texts in the Daozang (Taoist Canon) contain several versions of this chart; the one reproduced below is the best-known version.
Three main terms define the traditional Chinese views of the human body. The first, ti or "body," designates the physical frame as an ordered whole made of interdependent parts. The second, xing or "form," mainly refers to the body as the counterpart and residence of spirit. The third, shen or "person," denotes the whole human being, including its non-material aspects ranging from thinking and feeling to personality and social role. These terms show that the Western notion of "body" as physical structure is inadequate to convey the complexity of the Chinese views.
Besides the gods and goddesses who reside in heaven, a veritable pantheon of Taoist deities also exists within the human being. These deities fulfill various related functions: they personify abstract notions such as the Dao, Yin and Yang, or the Five Agents; they allow the human being to communicate with the major — and in several cases corresponding — gods of the outer pantheon; they act as officers in the bureaucratic system that manages the whole body; they perform healing tasks by supporting the balance of the body's functions; and they are objects of meditation.
The Taoist master, alchemist, and pharmacologist Tao Hongjing was born in 456 near present-day Nanjing. He served in various positions at the courts of the Liu Song and Qi dynasties until 492. In that year he retired on Mount Mao (Maoshan), the early seat of Shangqing or Highest Clarity, a Taoist tradition based on meditation and visualisation techniques (see Robinet 1993). The retreat he built on the mountain remained the centre of his activities until his death in 536.
Isabelle Robinet was concerned with both Taoist thought and Taoist religion. The unity of these two theoretical extremes in the wide spectrum of Taoism (or, as she would have said, their "complex unity") is the main theme that runs throughout her work. In her view, what characterized the Laozi, the Zhuangzi, and some other early sources is the meaning of "Ultimate Truth" given to the term dao ("primal because nothing was before it," "the source of everything").