What are the five elements in Chinese Medicine?
by Dr Jason Chong
The Wu Xing, commonly known as the Five Elements of nature are phases of movement or change. The theory of Wu Xing is central to the practice of Chinese Medicine.
They describe stages of the constantly moving cycle between Yin and Yang. The Five Elements include Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.
Five Element Theory
Five Element theory arose from the ancient Chinese observation of nature around them.
Wu translates as five. Xing is translated most commonly as elements, though may also be translated as phases, forces, nature, transformations, walking or moving. Considering the range of translations guides us to a deeper understanding of the dynamic states that they describe.
The Five Elements are not static descriptions but described dynamic interactions. Each element is a description of one phase of constant movement. Each phase maintains a relative kinetic balance with the rest.
These phases of movement describe stages of the growth cycle from birth to death. They can be used to describe the phases of life that we pass through.
They are a manifestation of the ways in which the movements of Qi are guided. Within this is contained all the basic materials and movements within the universe.
The Five Elements can thus be used to describe everything in existence, and their relationships to everything else.
In the body, all of the internal Zang-Fu organs have a Five Element association.
Description of the Five Elements
The Wood Element describes a period of flourishing and growth. It is the Element of Spring and new life, being filled with vigour and vitality. The movement of energy at this time is outwards. It is a time full of promise, making plans and looking forward.
We come from an ultimate stillness in the womb, a place of Yin within Yin. Once we enter the world, drawing into ourselves the energies of heaven and earth with our first breath and first food, we begin the process of growth.
This is the time of our Yang energies increasing, the period of Yin within Yang. We are still small and Yin, however, are filled with the growth and vitality of Yang.
This is the Wood phase when we are infused with the upward movement of growth and development. Over the course of our lives, we equate this period to childhood through adolescence.
From Wood, we move into Fire, Yang within Yang. Fire is the Element of Summer, filled with warmth and activity. The movement of energy at this time is upwards, ascending. This is a time of being busy, connecting and laughter.
This is the period of maximum activity when we are highly productive in establishing our identities, careers, families, social networks etc. This is the time of young adulthood.
Earth follows and is the period of harvest, relating to late summer. This is when the fruits of summer are ripe for the picking. The movement of energy is central, stable, not dynamic. This is a period of receiving nourishment.
It is associated with balance and does not correlate to one of the four movements of Yin and Yang. It is central in nature, representing the changes between seasons and the axis around which the other phases are oriented.
This is when we reap the bounties from our actions of the Fire phase. Our careers advance, our families grow and we settle into our homes.
Metal is the phase where Yang energies remain, but we move into Yin. This is the cleansing period of Autumn when energy begins to move inwards.
We begin to internalise our energy, winding down our activities. We reduce our workload, retiring into a position of respect as is affiliated with the element of Metal. This is the time we become an elder.
This is the time we draw from our storehouse of wisdom and learning, a time of reflection for our soul and a time when dryness begins to take hold and make our bodies brittle.
Water is the final phase of the cycle. It is the time of winter when energy moves downwards achieving stillness. Everything is cold and contracted.
Our activities slow down and we enter a period of rest, preparing to move onwards and close the cycle.
We return to the earth below us, providing the seed for new life to be reborn. We have reached Yin within Yin once more. From here the generation cycle can begin anew.