Wu Xing

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Wu Xing
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This article is about the five-element theory of Chinese philosophy. For other meanings, see Wuxing.
Diagram of the interactions between the Wu Xing. The "generative" cycle is illustrated by white arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the "destructive" or "conquering" cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle.
Wu Xing

The Wu Xing, ( wŭ xíng) also known as the Five Elements, Five Phases, the Five Agents, the Five Movements, Five Processes, and the Five Steps/Stages, is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs, and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs. The "Five Phases" are Wood ( ), Fire ( huǒ), Earth ( ), Metal ( jīn), and Water ( shuǐ). This order of presentation is known as the "mutual generation" (xiāngshēng 相生) sequence. In the order of "mutual overcoming" (xiāngkè 相克), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[1][2][3] "Wu Xing" is often translated as Five Elements and this is used extensively by many including practitioners of Five Element acupuncture. This translation arose by false analogy with the Western system of the four elements.[4] Whereas the classical Greek elements were concerned with substances or natural qualities, the Chinese xíng are "primarily concerned with process and change," hence the common translation as "phases" or "agents."[5] By the same token, is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood".[6] The word 'element' is thus used within the context of Chinese medicine with a different meaning to its usual meaning. Evolution of language in this way is not without precedent. It should be recognized that the word 'phase', although commonly preferred, is not perfect. 'Phase' is a better translation for the five 'seasons' (五運 wŭ yùn) mentioned below, and so 'agents' or 'processes' might be preferred for the primary term xíng. Manfred Porkert attempts to resolve this by using 'Evolutive Phase' for 五行 wŭ xíng and 'Circuit Phase' for 五運 wŭ yùn, but these terms are unwieldy. In some ways arguing for one term over another is pointless because any single word is probably inadequate for translation of what is a concept.

Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts (no later than 168 BC) also present the Wu Xing as "five virtues" or types of activities.[7] Within Chinese medicine texts the Wu Xing are also referred to as Wu Yun (五運 wŭ yùn) or a combination of the two characters (Wu Xing-Yun) these emphasise the correspondence of five elements to five 'seasons' (four seasons plus one). Another tradition refers to the wŭ xíng as wŭ dé 五德, the Five Virtues (zh:五德終始說).

The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena. After it came to maturity in the second or first century BCE during the Han dynasty, this device was employed in many fields of early Chinese thought, including seemingly disparate fields such as geomancy or Feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy and martial arts. The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts.

The Phases[edit]

The five phases are usually used to describe the state in nature:


The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle, also known as "mother-son", and an overcoming or destruction (剋/克, ) cycle, also known as "grandfather-nephew", of interactions between the phases. Within Chinese medicine the effects of these two main relations are further elaborated:


The common memory jogs, which help to remind in what order the phases are:

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


This cycle might also be called "controls", "restrains" or "fathers".


This cycle runs in the opposite direction of the "overcoming" cycle.

Cosmology and feng shui[edit]

Another illustration of the cycle.
Main article: Feng shui

According to Wu Xing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five phases. Each phase 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 all based their art and system on the five phases (Wu Xing). All of these phases are represented within the Bagua. Associated with these phases are colors, seasons and shapes; all of which are interacting with each other.[8]

Based on a particular directional energy flow from one phase to the next, the interaction can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive. A proper knowledge of each aspect of energy flow will enable the Feng Shui practitioner to apply certain cures or rearrangement of energy in a way they believe to be beneficial for the receiver of the Feng Shui "Treatment".

MaterialWind, Sound, Air, Minerals, Mana, UV, Ink, Acid, Mind, Rubber, Paper, Static, Wax, HealthVisible light, Soap, Rust, Bleach, IR, Burn, Thermal radiation, Blaze, Oil, Glass, Mass, ClayRock, Carbon, Dust, Sand, Energy, Powder, Sugar, Smoke, Gems, Ash, Gravity, Quake, MuscleNimbus, Ether, Copper, Milk, Cast iron, Holy water, Snow, Ice, Frost, ForgeSea, Space, Electrical currents, Storms, Rain, Steam, Fluid, Mud, Slime, Sludge, Salt, Time, Pressure, Glass mirror, Shadow
ColorGreen, brownRed, purpleYellow, orangeWhite, silverBlack, grey
Cardinal directionEastSouthCenterWestNorth
Heavenly creatureAzure Dragon
Vermilion Bird
Yellow Dragon 黃龍 / Qilin 麒麟White Tiger
Black Tortoise
Heavenly Stems, , , , ,
PhaseNew YangFull YangYin/Yang balanceNew YinFull Yin
Direction and Natural phenomenaExpansive and exterior (in all directions)AscendingStabilizing (representing harmony)Contracting and interiorDescending
SeasonSpringSummerLate SummerAutumnWinter
DevelopmentSproutingBlooming[citation needed]Ripening[citation needed]WitheringDormant[citation needed]


Main article: Bagua

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

I ChingHeavenEarthThunderWindWaterFireMountainLake
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyinqiánkūnzhènxùnkǎngènduì

Chinese medicine[edit]

Five Chinese Elements - Diurnal Cycle

The interdependence of Zang Fu networks in the body was said to be a circle of five things, and so mapped by the Chinese doctors onto the five phases.[citation needed]

The Liver (Wood phase) is said to be the "mother" of the Heart (Fire phase).

The Kidneys (Water phase) the mother of the Liver.

The key observation was things like Kidney deficiency affecting the function of the Liver. In this case, the "mother" is weak, and cannot support the child.

However, the Kidneys control the Heart along the Kè cycle, so the Kidneys are claimed to restrain the Heart.[clarification needed]

The citation order of the Five Phases, i.e., the order in which they are cited in the Bo hu tong 白虎通 and other Han dynasty texts, is Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth.

The organs are most effectively treated, according to theory, in the following 4-hour(2h-Yin + 2h-Yang) periods throughout the day, beginning with the 3 a.m. to 7 a. m. period:

Metal organs= Lung[Yin] 3am-5am /\ Large intestine[Yang] 5am-7am

Earth organs= Stomach[Yang] 7am-9am /\ Spleen[Yin] 9am-11am

Fire1 organs= Heart[Yin] 11am-1pm /\ Small Intestine[Yang] 1pm-3pm

Water organs= Bladder[Yang] 3pm-5pm /\ Kidney[Yin] 5pm-7pm

Fire2=Ministerial Fire=Lifegate Fire (the "non-empirical" Pericardium and Triple Burner organs)= Pericard[Yin] 7pm-9pm /\ Triple Burner[Yang] 9pm-11pm

Wood organs which is the reverse of the citation order (plus an extra use of Fire and the non-empirical organs to take care of the sixth four-hour period of the day) = Gallbladder[Yang] 11pm-1am /\ Liver[Yin] 1am-3am

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) by a star diagram similar to the one shown above.[9]

The sequence of the five elements (Traditional Chinese medicine): promotion, inhibition, Cheng (bullying), Wu (insult).[10]

Mental QualityIdealism, Spontaneity, CuriosityPassion, IntensityAgreeableness, HonestyIntuition, Rationality, MindErudition, Resourcefulness, Wit
Emotionangerhappinesslovegrief, sadnessfear, scare
Zang (yin organs)liverheart/pericardiumspleen/pancreaslungkidney
Fu (yang organs)gall bladdersmall intestine/San Jiaostomachlarge intestineurinary bladder
Sensory organeyesTonguemouthNoseEars
Body PartTendonsPulseMuscleSkinBones
Body FluidTearsSweatSalivaMucusUrine
Fingerthumbindex fingermiddle fingerring fingerlittle finger
Lifebirthyouthadulthoodold agedeath

Celestial stem[edit]

Main article: Celestial stem
Heavenly StemJia 甲
Yi 乙
Bing 丙
Ding 丁
Wu 戊
Ji 己
Geng 庚
Xin 辛
Ren 壬
Gui 癸
Year ends with4, 56, 78, 90, 12, 3


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

ColourGreen or BlueRedYellowWhiteBlack
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyinjuézhǐgōngshāng

Martial arts[edit]

T'ai chi ch'uan uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns. Either forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).[12]

The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):

Xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

MetalSplittingTo split like an axe chopping up and over.
WaterDrillingZuānDrilling forward horizontally like a geyser.
WoodCrushingBēngTo collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself.
FirePoundingPàoExploding outward like a cannon while blocking.
EarthCrossingHéngCrossing across the line of attack while turning over.

Tea ceremony[edit]

There are spring, summer, fall, and winter teas. The perennial tea ceremony ("perennial", literally means four steps or sequences that are linked together, each representing a season of the year) includes four tea settings (茶席) and a tea master (司茶). The tea settings are:

Each tea setting is arranged and stands for the four directions (north, south, east, and west). A vase of the seasons' flowers is put on tea table. Sometimes if four tea masters are included then five chairs are arranged per tea setting, making a total of twenty plus the 4 tea masters equalling 24, which symbolizes the 24 solar terms of the Chinese calendar, and represents that nature continues or is perennial.

See also[edit]

Tablet, in Chinese and Manchu, for the gods of the five elements in the Temple of Heaven. The Manchu word "usiha", meaning star, explains that this tablet is dedicated to the 5 basic planets, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus & Mercury rather than their respect element itself.


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Deng Yu, Zhu Shuanli, Xu Peng et al,New Translator with Characteristic of Wu xing Yin Yang,Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine,2000, 20 (12)
  2. ^ Deng Yu et al; Fresh Translator of Zang Xiang Fractal five System,Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine; 1999
  3. ^ Deng Yu et al,TCM Fractal Sets中医分形集,Journal of Mathematical Medicine ,1999,12(3),264-265
  4. ^ Nathan Sivin (1995), "Science and Medicine in Chinese History," in his Science in Ancient China (Aldershot, England: Variorum), text VI, p. 179.
  5. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan) p. 73.
  6. ^ 千古中医之张仲景. Wood and Metal were often replaced with air. Lecture Room, CCTV-10. 
  7. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 72.
  8. ^ Chinese Five Elements Chart Information on the Chinese Five Elements from Northern Shaolin Academy in Microsoft Excel 2003 Format
  9. ^ See 5 Xing in Citation Order.
  10. ^ promotion inhibition Cheng wu
  11. ^ Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey (University of California Press) 5 (12): 596–608. JSTOR 2642652. 
  12. ^ Wu, Kung-tsao (2006) [1980]. Wu Family T'ai Chi Ch'uan (吳家太極拳). Chien-ch’uan T’ai-chi Ch’uan Association. ISBN 0-9780499-0-X. 

External links[edit]