Wuxing - Understanding the Five Elements

This article explores the five phases in detail and discusses their application in body and mind.

Wuxing - Understanding the Five Elements

The key concept of Wǔ Xíng, meaning five phases, captures the essence of movement and changes among the fundamental elements. Like we learned in the theory of Yin and Yang, Daoists hold a firm belief that everything in the physical and non-physical universe finds its manifestation through the ceaseless motion and interplay of the five elements. By comprehending the unparalleled properties and relationships of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, the theory elaborates on the very composition and phenomena of the physical world.

The theory of Wǔ Xíng and the doctrines of Yin and Yang form the fundamental basis of an ancient medical system widely recognized as Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM). They are the core of medical theories and practices that originated thousands of years ago in China. Make sure to understand the principles of Yin and Yang before advancing here.

The term denotes five, while Xíng signifies phase, movement, process, to go or conduct behaviours. In Chinese culture, these five phases are associated with five elements, not solely as static material entities but rather as dynamic forces consistently adapting and interacting within both the internal and external environment.

Study the principles of Yin Yang first:

Yin and Yang
The Way of Heaven is called the Round; the Way of Earth is called the Square. The square governs the obscure; the circular governs the bright. The bright emits qi, and for this reason fire is the external brilliance of the sun. The obscure sucks in qi, and for this

Isolated Properties of the Elements

The Five Phases are Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth. Water moistens downwards, Fire flares upwards, Wood can be bent and straightened, Metal can be moulded and can harden, Earth permits sowing, growing and reaping. That which soaks and descends (Water) is salty, that which blazes upwards (Fire) is bitter, that which can be bent and straightened (Wood) is sour, that which can be moulded and become hard (Metal) is pungent, that which permits sowing and reaping (Earth) is sweet. [1]

The interconnectedness of all phases lies within the generation, regulation, exaggeration, and counterbalancing of various systems. A comprehensive comprehension of Classical Chinese Medicine necessitates a profound understanding of the properties and characteristics associated with each of the five phases. It is imperative to recognize that these elements do not represent distinct stages of matter; rather, they signify distinct stages of dynamic processes.

To fully understand the properties of the five phases, we will step by step recreate the aspects each phase/element is made of. We start with direction and time.

Direction

The five phases are not seen as individual systems in Classical Chinese Medicine, but rather as aspects rooted in the interpretation of the five directions. The concept of direction plays a crucial role in identifying and understanding the inherent characteristics of diseases (imbalances of phases), providing a guiding principle for practitioners. The Classical Chinese Medicine approach employs the principle of “fang” (方), representing compass directions, to collate contributing factors to various diseases (imbalances of phases). For instance, diseases caused by pathogenic cold are typically associated with the northern direction. Grasping the essence of a phase, or an element, therefore, essentially involves comprehending its related direction. The directions serve as an orientation to assimilate similar phenomena.
The basic level recognizes five directions: east, west, north, and the centre.

& Time

In Classical Chinese Medicine, the five directions — east, south, west, north, and centre — are closely connected to time and seasons, offering an insight into the natural cycles and transitions of life. This concept is embodied in the theory of the Five Phases (Wǔ Xíng).

East

The eastern direction is associated with Spring, the period of growth and renewal. This is a time when life-force energy (Qi) begins to rise, signifying new beginnings and rejuvenation.

South

The southern direction signifies Summer, a period of peak activity and brightness. Summer is when Qi reaches its maximum level, embodying growth, joy, and the heart's energy.

Centre

The centre is associated with the Late Summer or the transitional periods between the seasons, known as the fifth season in this context. It is a time of transformation and balance, indicating the digestion and absorption of life's experiences, mirroring the Earth's role in nurturing growth and providing stability.

West

The western direction is associated with Autumn. During Autumn, a time for harvesting and letting go, the energy starts to contract and withdraw inward, preparing for the resting phase.

North

Associated with the Water element, the northern direction signifies Winter, a period of stillness and rest. This is the time when Qi is conserved, and the focus is on restoration and conservation of energy.

The Five Phases

In Classical Chinese Medicine, the five phases are closely related to the cardinal directions: east corresponds to wood, south to fire, west to metal, north to water, and the centre to earth.

Both the Yellow Emperor’s Classic and the modern Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine often equate the five phases with the yin and yang concepts, highlighting that these phases represent varying states of yin and yang. For instance, the emerging state of yang qi is referred to as wood, its growth state as fire, the withdrawal and gathering state as metal, the storage state as water, and the transitioning process between phases is termed as earth. Therefore, the five phases essentially depict the cyclical transformations of yin and yang. [2]

The cyclical changes of Yin and Yang can be seen more clearly by looking at them through the lens of the eight trigrams. In Daoist philosophy, it is believed that Yin and Yang are not static; rather, they are continuously evolving into each other through a dynamic and cyclical process.

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To provide a deep understanding of the influence of yin and yang within the concept of Wǔ Xíng, we introduce shortly the trigrams here, as their qualities perfectly underline the ever-changing states of the five phases.

The trigrams are composed of three lines, with each line representing either Yin (broken) or Yang (non-broken).

Unbroken Lines (Yang) ──

Represent the active, male, positive, outward, bright, hot, and heaven elements of life, among other things. They symbolize the state of fullness, like the height of the day when the sun is shining its brightest, or the fullness of life at its peak.

Broken Lines (Yin) - -

These represent the passive, female, negative, inward, dark, cold, and earth elements of life, among others. They symbolize the state of emptiness, like the darkness of the night or the void of life at its ebb.


When reading the trigrams, each line is read from the bottom to the top. The lower line represents the earliest stage, and the upper line represents the latest. Each line is also understood in the context of its position within the trigram. In a trigram, the bottom line is the beginning, the middle line is the middle stage, and the top line is the end stage – the position and context are crucial.

Traditions state that Yin and Yang, in their dualistic nature, give rise to five tangible components—water, fire, metal, wood, and earth.

The primary concept of the trigrams is transformation, and the lines within each trigram are also capable of undergoing transformation. A solid line can change into a broken line, and vice versa, resulting in a different trigram, representing the dynamic and changing nature of reality. Hence, the application of these trigrams to the five elements of Wǔ Xíng can be seen as a way of further differentiating the Yin and Yang into more specific categories or states, providing a more nuanced understanding of the five phases.

Read more about the Bagua system here:

Comprehensive Guide to the Bagua System
Explore the world of Bagua, where eight trigrams symbolise a humble balance of Yin and Yang, each representing a unique facet of existence. Discover their connections to the elemental forces of Wuxing.

Wood (木)

In CCM, the Wood element signifies the state of a rising Yang energy and is associated with the Liver (Yin organ) and Gallbladder (Yang organ). Wood corresponds to the direction of the East.

The Wood element symbolizes growth, vitality, expansion, and flexibility. This element is associated with the characteristics of life, sprouting forth with vigorous energy, and reaching outwards towards the light, much like a tree in springtime. It is a symbol of life's ascending and expanding energy. At the same time, Wood also embodies flexibility and adaptability. Just like a young, healthy tree bends with the wind but doesn't break, the Wood element signifies the capacity to adjust and change direction when faced with obstacles.

Zhen (震) ☳

Zhen is traditionally associated with thunder, which can be seen as nature's initiating force or awakening energy. In the context of the Wood element, the Zhen trigram is the perfect representation of the energetic burst of new growth that happens in spring. Just as thunder marks the transition from the quiet of winter to the vibrant activity of spring, the Wood element represents the vigour and vitality of life as it begins a new cycle of growth.

Xun (巽) ☴

Xun is traditionally associated with wind. Wind symbolizes the ability to penetrate gently but persistently into every nook and cranny, reflecting the pervasive influence of life. Xun indicates flexibility and adaptability, bending but not breaking when faced with the force of the wind. This correlates with the aspect of the Wood element that embodies adaptability and the capacity to adjust to circumstances.

Fire (火)

The Fire element in the Wǔ Xíng system symbolizes the utmost Yang state. It corresponds to the heart (Yin organ) and small intestinal (Yang organ), along with the pericardium (Yin organ) and triple burner (Yang organ). Fire represents the maximum activity, reflecting the direction of the South.

Fire represents the peak of activity, full expansion, and the height of power, akin to the midday sun at its zenith, and nature is in full bloom. This phase embodies warmth, dynamism, transformation, and connection. Just as physical fire provides heat and light, enabling us to see and cook our food, the Fire element signifies the active engagement with the world, relationships, and transformative processes of life.

Li (離) ☲

The trigram Li, composed of one Yin (broken) line between two Yang (unbroken) lines, traditionally represents fire and the sun, both sources of light and warmth. This trigram is a perfect representation of the Fire element. Just as fire brings light, warmth, and the ability to transform, the Fire element symbolizes the transformative energy of life, the capacity to change, mature, and create connections that nourish the spirit. The structure of the Li trigram itself, can be seen as symbolizing the dynamic nature of fire: a process that requires a stable fuel source (the Yin line) for the active, transformative fire (the Yang lines) to burn brightly without being extinguished.

Earth (土)

The Earth element embodies the transition between other elements and is associated with the Spleen (Yin organ) and Stomach (Yang organ). It signifies the transitional and balancing state between Yin and Yang. This phase represents a point of equilibrium, a balanced and harmonious state that mediates between the extremes of Yin and Yang, much like the late summer or the moments of dusk and dawn when day transitions into night and vice versa. Earth directs to the centre.

The transitional state between Yin and Yang is embodied in this phase, which encapsulates the nurturing, stability, and balance that reflects the grounded and supportive nature of the Earth itself. Both Kun and Gen trigrams encapsulate these characteristics of the Earth element. Kun emphasizes Earth's receptive, nurturing aspect, while Gen underscores its immovability and steadfastness. This combination reveals a deep appreciation for the Earth's elements, capturing the dynamic, sustaining, and constantly revolving nature of life.

Kun (坤) ☷

Kun represents the receptive and nurturing aspects of the earth. The structure of the Kun trigram, with its three Yin lines, further emphasizes these qualities, symbolizing a holding and containing force and receptive energy.

Gen (艮) ☶

Gen represents the mountain and symbolizes stillness and stability. Linked with the Earth element, Gen emphasizes the element's steadfastness and stability. A mountain provides a grounding force and a solid foundation.

Metal (金)

The Metal element signifies the increasing Yin state. This means Metal represents a period of contraction and inward movement, the beginning of a retreat from the utmost Yang state, and it correlates with the Lung (Yin organ) and Large Intestine (Yang organ). This phase is a time for letting go and introspection, directing us into the West.

The Metal element stands for the powers of yield and receptivity, as metal is extracted from the earth and then melted and shaped into useful tools and objects. It embodies the qualities of gathering, holding, and transforming, corresponding to nature's movement of drawing its energy inward in preparation for the dormant winter.

Dui (兑) ☱

The Dui trigram is associated with the lake, and it symbolizes joy, pleasure, and satisfaction, but also potential stagnation if these qualities become excessive or unbalanced. The Dui trigram is linked with the qualities of receptivity and the ability to hold or contain. This reflects the yielding and receptive qualities of the Metal element. Like a lake collecting and holding water, Metal embodies these qualities of gathering and containing.

Qian (乾) ☰

The Qian trigram represents heaven, indicating creative power and the initiating force in nature. Linked with the Metal element, Qian emphasizes the transformative aspect of Metal. Just as metal is shaped and transformed into useful tools, the Metal element symbolizes transformation and change. It signifies strong, creative, and initiating forces, similar to the process of transforming raw metal.

Water (水)

The Water element represents symbolizes the ultimate Yin state, a period of utmost quiet and storage, the conservation of Yang energy, connected with the Kidney (Yin organ) and Bladder (Yang organ). This phase denotes a time of rest and stillness, akin to the direction of the north.

The Water element is also associated with wisdom and introspection, signifying a time of reflection and internal focus, and stands for wisdom, clear perception, and adaptability. Its fluid and yielding nature enables it to flow around obstacles and penetrate the hardest rock, demonstrating resilience and persistence. This inward-focused energy is represented by the Kan trigram, with the Yang line enclosed by two Yin lines, symbolizing inward flow and introspection. The Kan trigram encapsulates these characteristics of the Water element, emphasizing the transformative and flowing nature of water, along with its depth and potential danger. It embodies a profound understanding of the Water element, highlighting its correlation with the ultimate Yin state and its qualities of wisdom and adaptability.

Kan (坎) ☵

The Kan trigram is associated with water, which embodies the concept of continual movement and flow despite obstacles. Kan symbolizes depth, inward reflection, and introspection, capturing the wisdom and clear perception as water also has a profound depth, and its capacity to reflect allows for deep introspection. It encapsulates the characteristics of the Water element. Its symbolism represents the persistent flow and adaptability of water, its potential for danger and unpredictability, and its capacity for depth and introspection.


Further attributes of the five phases

The Six Pathogenic Qi

The six qi (wind, cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness, and fire) are also assembled according to the directions of the compass. The east produces wind, the south produces fire (and summer heat), the west produces dryness, the north produces cold, and the central region produces damp.

The Five Qi

The five qi are different from the six pathogenic qi mentioned in the previous section. The five qi refer to the particular orientation of a medicinal substance, whether it is cold, hot, warm, cool, or neutral. The east is warm, the south is hot, the west is cool, the north is cold, and the centre is neutral.

The Five Flavours

When the element of wood is in the dominant position of a given year, it can be reduced with the sour flavor and tonified with the pungent flavor; when fire rules, it can be drained with the sweet flavor and tonified with the salty flavor; when earth is in the dominant position, it can be drained with bitterness and built up with sweetness; when metal prevails, it can be purged with acridity and tonified with sourness; when water dominates, it can be reduced with the salty flavor and tonified with the bitter flavor.

The five flavours, like the five energies, are also arranged in relation to the directions. The east gathers the sour flavour, the south the bitter flavour, the west the acrid flavour, the north the salty flavour, and the central region the sweet flavour.

The Five Colours

The five colours are blue-green, red, yellow, white, and black. The East is blue-green, the South red, the Center yellow, the West white, and the North black.

The Five Tones

The five tones are jue, zhi, gong, shang, and yu. The jue tone pertains to the East, the zhi tone to the South, the gong tone to the Center, the shang tone to the West, and the yu tone to the North.

The Five Odours

The five odours are fetid, burnt, fragrant, rancid, and rotten. The odour of the east is fetid, that of the south is burnt, the central region is fragrant, the west is rancid, and the north is rotten.

The Five Grains

The five grains are wheat, millet, sorghum, rice, and beans. The grain of the east is wheat; the grain of the south is broomcorn millet, also known as common millet; the grain of the central region is sorghum; the grain of the west is rice; and the grains of the north are beans.

The Five Emotions

The five emotions are anger, joy, pensiveness, sadness, and fear. The emo- tion of the east is anger, of the south joy, of the center pensiveness, of the west grief, and of the north fear.

The Five Numbers

Heaven is one and earth two, heaven is three and earth four, heaven five and earth six, heaven seven and earth eight, heaven nine and earth ten.

In other words, the odd numbers one, three, five, seven, and nine pertain to heaven, and the even numbers two, four, six, eight, and ten pertain to earth. The odd numbers are yang and the even numbers yin. As far as the five directions are concerned, the numbers one and six belong to the North and to water; two and seven belong to the South and to fire; three and eight are of the East and of wood; four and nine correspond to the West and metal; and five and ten correlate with the Center and earth.

Influences Among the Phases

The five elements—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—interact in complex cycles that mirror the ebb and flow of nature's forces. These cycles, which are called the Generating, Controlling, Insulting, and Overacting Cycles, show many connections that can be understood through the lens of Yin and Yang.

The cycles between the phases are more studied to understand the internal processes of Wǔ Xíng in our mind and body. Practitioners are prone to deduct their diagnosis from interpretations of symptoms given through pulse, tongue, and question analysis. The symptoms are interpreted as signs of imbalances within the Wǔ Xíng system and are treated accordingly. We mention here a short overview of the matter, but since sickness, treatment, and diagnosis are even more complicated topics, later articles will discuss the differentiation and categorization of the mentioned. By the end of this year (2023) the categorization of disease and treatment will be covered further and more in depth.

Generating Cycle

The Generating Cycle represents the nurturing aspect of nature, where each element gives life and support to the next.

  • Wood feeds Fire: Wood is the fuel for Fire.
  • Fire creates Earth: Fire turns into ash, which becomes part of the Earth.
  • Earth bears Metal: Minerals in the Earth form Metal.
  • Metal carries Water: Metal can be shaped to hold Water.
  • Water nourishes Wood: Water is essential for the growth of trees and plants.

This cycle symbolizes a harmonious flow of energy that reflects growth, transformation, and creation.

Controlling Cycle

This is a balancing cycle where each element controls or checks the next, preventing any single element from becoming too dominant.

  • Wood depletes Earth: Too many trees can take nutrients from the Earth.
  • Earth muddies Water: Too much Earth in Water makes it unusable.
  • Water extinguishes Fire: An overwhelming amount of Water puts out Fire.
  • Fire destroys Metal: Extreme heat can destroy the structure of Metal.
  • Metal chops Wood: Too much cutting damages the growth of Wood.

The controlling relationships can have profound effects, leading to severe imbalances and disharmony.

Insulting Cycle

This cycle is an inversion of the Generating Cycle and represents a disturbance or imbalance in the natural order.

  • Wood weakens Water: Wood (such as a boat) can travel on Water, defying its flow.
  • Water weakens Metal: Water can cause Metal to rust and degrade.
  • Metal weakens Earth: Mining and extracting Metal can deplete the Earth.
  • Earth weakens Fire: Earth can smother Fire and block its energy.
  • Fire weakens Wood: Fire can consume Wood, leaving it charred and broken.

This relationship ensures equilibrium and order.

Overacting Cycle


The Overacting Sequence is the reversion of the Controlling sequence, meaning the direction of the natural flow is disturbed, and the phases are overacting on the element that controls them.

  • Wood insults Metal: Wood dulls Metal
  • Metal insults Fire: Metal extracts heat from Fire
  • Fire insults Water: Fire evaporates Water
  • Water insults Earth: Water softens Earth
  • Earth insults Wood: Earth suffocates Wood

It's a cycle of conflict and reduction.

The Force behind the Influence

At the heart of these relationships are - again - the basic concepts of Yin and Yang, which represent the dualistic nature of existence. Yin, with its receptive and still qualities, contrasts with Yang's active and bright characteristics..

The elements themselves carry these dual energies. Wood and Fire are Yang, associated with growth and dynamic energy, while Metal and Water are Yin, linked to contraction and stillness. Earth uniquely embodies both, signifying balance.

These Yin and Yang forces play a vital role in the interactions within the cycles:

  • In the Generating Cycle, Yang fuels growth, while Yin nurtures.
  • The Controlling Cycle reflects the harmony of Yin and Yang.
  • The Insulting Cycle symbolizes a disruption in balance.
  • The Overacting Cycle portrays a dominance of one force over the other.

Impact

Understanding the intricate philosophy of Yin and Yang interwoven with the Wǔ Xíng (Five Phases) forms a cohesive and interdependent framework that mirrors the complexities of our nature. Rather than separate entities, Yin and Yang, along with Wǔ Xíng, exist in a delicate and continuous dance of balance, mutual nourishment, and control. This relationship provides profound insights into comprehending not only the universe in which we reside or our bodily mechanisms, but also our very essence. Yin and Yang are the fundamental forces that animate

and guide the interactions within the System of Wǔ Xíng. Yin, with its qualities of stillness and nourishment, and Yang, with its attributes of movement and warmth, are not isolated principles but rather permeate every aspect of the Generating, Controlling, Insulting, and Overacting cycles. Each element within the Five Elements carries these dual energies, reflecting a microcosm of the greater cosmic balance. The Five Phases, in turn, illustrate the complex relationships between different parts of the body, providing a wholesome understanding of health. It is the constant interplay of Yin and Yang

within these elements that gives life to these relationships, defining their nature, their balance, and their flow. By understanding this complex understanding of Yin and Yang and the Wǔ Xíng, one can better grasp the nuances of ones own nature. This is a way of thinking that goes beyond just being healthy physically. It helps you become more aware of yourself, take care of yourself, and live in harmony with others. The trick lies in recognizing that every part of us is connected, every movement is balanced by stillness, and every growth is checked by restraint.

By embracing these Daoist principles, we allow ourselves to align with the natural rhythms of life, nurturing a state of well-being that is both profound and enduring.


Wuxing Qigong Routine

Learn the complete what and why of the Wuxing Qigong routine along with the meaning behind all movements!

Learn Wuxing Qigong

References

  1. Shang Shu (Book of Documents)
  2. Liu, L. (2019). Classical Chinese Medicine, The Chinese University Press, ISBN: 978-988-237-057-9