Wu Xing

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  Classical Elements


Water Aether Fire

Hinduism (Tattva) and
Buddhism (Mahābhūta)

  Vayu/Pavan (Air/Wind)  
Ap/Jala (Water) Akasha (Aether) Agni/Tejas (Fire)
  Prithvi/Bhumi (Earth)  

Japanese (Godai)

  Air/Wind (風)  
Water (水) Void/Sky/Heaven (空) Fire (火)
  Earth (地)  

Tibetan (Bön)

Water Space Fire

Chinese (Wu Xing)

  Fire (火)  
Metal (金) Earth (土) Wood (木)
  Water (水)  

Medieval Alchemy

Water Aether Fire
Sulphur Mercury Salt

In ancient Taoist thought,Wu Xing (Chinese: 五行; pinyin: wǔxíng), or the Five Phases, usually translated as five elements, five movements, or five steps are five dynamic qualities or energies that can be perceived in all natural phenomena. The elements are:

  • Metal (Chinese:金, pinyin: jīn, "gold")
  • Wood (Chinese: 木, pinyin: mù)
  • Water (Chinese: 水, pinyin: shuǐ)
  • Fire (Chinese:火, pinyin: huǒ),
  • Earth (Chinese:土, pinyin: tǔ).
Zhongwen.png This article contains Chinese text.
Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Chinese characters.

The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and interpreting relationships between phenomena. It was employed as a device in many fields of early Chinese thought, including geomancy or feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, art, military strategy, and martial arts. The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts, and in feng shui, fortune-telling and casting horoscopes.

Origin and meaning

The Chinese character 行 (xing, hsing), though translated as “phase” or “element,” is a verb meaning “to act” or “to go.” The Five Agents were believed to control the change and movement of the universe, and to provide the energy for all the other groups of five in the Chinese cosmology, such as the Five Virtues of Confucianism, Five Government Ministers, Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism, Five Musical Notes in the pentatonic scale, and the Five Basic Colors. The source of these ancient beliefs is the I Ching (Book of Changes).[1] Some scholars theorize that the original foundation for the five elements is the concept of the Five Cardinal Points.

Each of the five agents is associated with a specific element in each group of five. For example, fire is associated with summer, red, and the Ministry of War. Wood is associated with the spring season, the color green, and the Ministry of Agriculture. The Five Sacred Mountains represent the four cardinal directions plus the center of the universe; the eastern mountain is green, the southern is red, the central mountain yellow, the northern mountain black, and the western mountain white. In Chinese history, the successive dynasties were linked to each of the five phases; the Xia dynasty (2200–1750 B.C.E.) was wood; the Shang dynasty (1750–1040 B.C.E.) was metal; the Zhou dynasty (1100–256 B.C.E.) was fire and red; and the founder of the Qin dynasty (221 B.C.E.–206 C.E.) chose black and water as his symbols.[1]

Traditional schools of the internal martial art Taijiquan relate the five elements to footwork and refer to them as five "steps." The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts. Some claim the original foundation for these elements are the concept of the Five Cardinal Points.


Interactions of Five Chinese Elements—Cycles of Balance and Cycles of Imbalance.

The doctrine of five phases describes two Cycles of Balance, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克/剋, ) cycle of interactions between the phases. In any creative activity, such as martial arts, medicine, painting or music, each element should only be combined with the elements that come before and after it in the cycle.

There are also two Cycles of Imbalance. An overacting cycle (cheng) occurs when the balance maintained in the generating sequence is disrupted, causing one element to become excessive and “overcontrol” another element. An insulting sequence (“wu,” also known as counteracting cycle, insulting cycle) operates in reverse to the overcoming sequence, when the balance between two elements is broken and the element that is usually being controlled “insults” the controlling element by rebelling against it and overcoming it.[2]


The common memory devices to help remember the correct order of the phases are:

  • Wood feeds Fire
  • Fire creates Earth (ash)
  • Earth bears Metal
  • Metal carries Water (as in a bucket or tap)
  • Water nourishes Wood

Other common words for this cycle include "begets," "engenders," and "mothers."


Each of the five elements also has dominance over another:

  • Wood parts Earth
  • Earth absorbs Water
  • Water quenches Fire
  • Fire melts Metal
  • Metal chops Wood

This cycle is also called "controls," "restrains," or "fathers."

Cosmology and feng shui

According to Wu Xing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five elements. Each "element" has a complex series of associations with different aspects of nature, as can be seen in the following table. In the ancient Chinese form of geomancy known as feng shui, practitioners based their art and system on the five elements (Wu Xing). All of these elements are represented within the bagua (eight trigrams). Associated with each of these elements are colors, seasons and shapes, all of which interact with each other.[3]

Based on a particular directional energy flow from one element to the next, the interaction can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive. Proper knowledge of these principles of energy flow enables feng shui practitioners to apply specific cures by rearrangement of energy in a way they believe to be beneficial.

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Color green red yellow white blue or
Direction east south center / zenith west north
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Heavenly creature Azure Dragon
蒼龍 or 青龍
Vermilion Bird
Yellow Dragon or Yellow Qilin
黃龍 or 黃麟
White Tiger
Black Tortoise
Heavenly Stems , , , , ,
Phase New Yang Full Yang Yin/Yang balance New Yin Full Yin
Energy generative expansive stabilizing contracting conserving
Season spring summer change of seasons
(every third month)
autumn winter
Climate windy hot damp dry cold
Development sprouting blooming ripening withering dormant
Livestock dog sheep/goat cattle chicken pig
Fruit plum apricot jujube(dates) peach chestnut
Grain wheat beans rice hemp millet


The elements have also been correlated to the eight trigrams of the I Ching:

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
I Ching Wood, splinter Fire, lightning Earth, sand Metal, iron Water, ice
Trigrams :|| (xùn) |:: (zhèn) |:| () ::: (kūn) ::| (gèn) ||| (qián) ||: (duì) :|: (kǎn)

Chinese medicine

Five Chinese Elements—Diurnal Cycle.

The interdependence of organ networks in the body was noted to be a circle of five majpr systems, and was mapped by Chinese doctors onto the five phases. For instance, the liver (wood phase) is said to be the "mother" of the heart (fire phase), and the kidneys (water phase) the “mother” of the liver. In the case of a kidney deficiency affecting the function of the liver, the observation is made that the "mother" is weak, and cannot support the child. However, the kidneys (water phase) control the heart (fire phase) in the “overcoming” (“ke”) cycle, so the kidneys are said to restrain the heart. Many of these interactions have now been linked to known physiological pathways (such as the pH of the kidney affecting activity of the heart).

The application of the five elements in Chinese medicine is only a model, with some known exceptions, but because it seems to produce valid results, it has remained in use for thousands of years.

The order in which the Five Phases are cited in the Bo Hu Tong and other Han dynasty texts is: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. According to Chinese medical theory, the organs are most effectively treated during the following four-hour periods throughout the day, beginning with the period from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.:

  • 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. metal organs
  • 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. earth organs
  • 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. fire1 organs
  • 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. water organs,
  • 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. fire2 (the "non-empirical" pericardium and “triple burner” organs
  • 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. wood organs

These two orders are further related to the sequence of the planets going outward from the sun (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn; or Water, Metal, Fire, Wood, and Earth) illustrated in a star diagram similar to the one shown above.

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Mental Quality sensitivity creativity clarity intuition spontaneity
Negative Emotion anger, frustration over-excitation worry, anxiety grief, sadness fear, lack of will
Positive Emotion patience joy empathy,love courage calmness
Zang (yin organs) liver heart/pericardium spleen/pancreas lung kidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladder small intestine/San Jiao stomach large intestine urinary bladder
Sensory organ eye tongue mouth nose ears
Body Part tendons pulse muscle skin bones
Body Fluid tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Finger index finger middle finger thumb ring finger little finger
Sense sight speech taste smell hearing
Taste sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Smell rancid scorched fragrant putrid rotten
Life birth youth adulthood old age death

Chinese astrology

Chinese astrology is based upon the interaction of the five elements with the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, to produce a 60 year cycle of signs. A 60th birthday celebration is especially significant because the person has lived through a complete cycle of 60 years.

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stem Jia 甲
Yi 乙
Bing 丙
Ding 丁
Wu 戊
Ji 己
Geng 庚
Xin 辛
Ren 壬
Gui 癸
Birth year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3

For example, someone born in the year 1953, the year of the Snake, is said to be born in the year of the Water Snake because his or her birth year ends with 3, a number associated with Water. Fortune-tellers use these associations in determining whether a couple will have a fortuitous marriage.


Main article: Chinese music

The Yuèlìng chapter (月令篇) of the Lǐjì (禮記) and the Huáinánzǐ (淮南子) make the following correlations:

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Colour green red yellow white blue
Direction east south center west north
The Chinese Five-note Scale jué 角 (mi) zhǐ 徵 (so) gōng 宮 (do) shāng 商 (re) 羽 (la)

The Chinese word 青 qīng, traditionally translated as azure in this context, includes the range in the spectrum from green to blue, with shades down to black.

In modern Western music, various seven note or five note scales (for example, the major scale) are defined by selecting seven or five frequencies from the set of twelve semi-tones in the Equal tempered tuning. The Chinese "lǜ" tuning is closest to the ancient Greek tuning of Pythagoras.

Xingyi martial arts

The martial art Xingyiquan uses the five elements to metaphorically represent five different states of combat. Xingyiquan practitioners use the five elements as an interpretative framework for reacting and responding to attacks. The five element theory is a general combat formula which assumes at least three outcomes of a fight; the constructive, the neutral, and the destructive. Xingyiquan students train to react to and execute specific techniques in such a way that a desirable cycle will form based on the constructive, neutral and destructive interactions of five element theory. Where to aim, where to hit and with what technique—and how those motions should work defensively—is determined by the point of the cycle in which the combatant sees himself or herself.

Each of the elements has variant applications that allow it to be used to defend against all of the elements (including itself), so any set sequences are entirely arbitrary, though the destructive cycle is often taught to beginners as it is easier to visualize and consists of easier applications.

Element Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself.
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking.
Earth Crossing Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over.
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over.
Water Drilling Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser.

Shan shui painting

Shan shui (Chinese: 山水 lit. "mountain-water") is a style of Chinese painting that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints. Mountains, rivers and often waterfalls are prominent in this art form. Shan shui is painted and designed in accordance with Chinese elemental theory, with the five elements representing various parts of the natural world, and has specific directions for colorations that should be used in cardinal 'directions' of the painting, and for which color should dominate.[4]

Direction Element Colour
East Wood Green
South Fire Red
NE / SW Earth Tan or Yellow
West / NW Metal White or gold
North Water Blue or Black

Positive interactions between the Elements are:

  • Wood produces Fire
  • Fire produces Earth
  • Earth produces Metal
  • Metal produces Water
  • Water produces Wood.

Elements that react positively should be used together. For example, Water complements both Metal and Wood; therefore, a painter would combine blue and green or blue and white. There is a positive interaction between Earth and Fire, so a painter would mix Yellow and Red.[5]

Negative interactions between the Elements are:

  • Wood uproots Earth
  • Earth blocks Water
  • Water douses Fire
  • Fire melts Metal
  • Metal chops Wood

Elements that interact negatively should never be used together. For example, Fire will not interact positively with Water or Metal so a painter would not choose to mix red and blue, or red and white.[6]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 161.
  2. Dantian Health, What are the five elements in Chinese Medicine? Retrieved June 26, 2019.
  3. Nations Online, Five Elements Chart Retrieved June 26, 2019.
  4. Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Hong Kong University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-9888139736).
  5. Chiang Yee, The Chinese Eye: An interpretation of Chinese Painting (Indiana University Press, 1971, ISBN 978-0253200624).
  6. Alexander Coburn Soper, Textual Evidence for the Secular Arts of China in the Period from Liu Sung through Sui (Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1967).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bush, Susan, and Hsio-yen Shih. Early Chinese Texts on Painting Hong Kong University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-9888139736
  • Feng, Youlan (Yu-lan Fung). A History of Chinese Philosophy. 1952.
  • Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. 1954.
  • Maciocia, G. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd ed. London: Elsevier Ltd., 2005. ISBN 9780443039805.
  • Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture. New York: Facts on File, 1999. ISBN 978-0816026937
  • Soper, Alexander Coburn. Textual Evidence for the Secular Arts of China in the Period From Liu Sung Through Sui (A.D. 420-618). Excluding Treatises on Painting. Artibus Asiae, 24. Ascona: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1967.
  • Yee, Chiang. The Chinese Eye: An interpretation of Chinese Painting. Indiana University Press, 1971. ISBN 978-0253200624

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2023.


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