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5 Elements (五行, wu xing)

The 5 Elements or 5 Phases are: Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ). It is a Taoist philosophical construct designed to describe and explain nature and its phenomenon. Although it is usually translated as “element”, the Chinese word 行 (xing) literally means something like “changing states of being”, “permutations” or “metamorphoses of being”. Each of the 5 elements have characteristics that correspond to the human bod as well as fixed modes of interrelating with each other. These observed correspondences and known patterns of interrelationships are important in making diagnoses and prescribing treatments.

The wu xing operates under two fundamental principles:

  • Mutual Production (相生,xiangsheng). Water produces Wood which produces Fire which produces Earth which produces Metal which produces Water.
  • Mutual Conquest (相克,xiangke). Water conquers Fire, which conquers Metal, which conquers Wood, which conquers Earth which conquers Water.


The Chinese believed in the harmony of nature between heaven, earth and man. Man is composed, like everything else in this world, of the 5 elements. Man constitutes a microcosm in the macrocosm in the universe. In this way, the different body parts correspond to different Yin and Yang and the 5 elements. On a basic level, Wood corresponds to the Liver, Fire to Heart, Earth to Spleen, Metal to Lungs and Water to Kidney.


The 5 elements theory is basic to diagnosis. Bodily functions, organs, acupuncture meridians, emotions, even external influences are assigned to various elements. The 5 elements provides a simple means for remembering the interrelationship of these attributes. In treatment, the 5 elements is employed primarily for acupuncture but its also used, though less fundamentally, for herbal medicine.

The mode of herbal treatment is similar to that of acupuncture. For example, an imbalance, (i.e., an excess yang or a deficiency yin) in earth may stem from an imbalance in wood via the creative/production cycle, or a deficiency in metal coupled with an excess in earth may demand the use of a tea to reduce the energy of earth, or to add energy to metal. Which stratagem should be employed will depend upon the diagnostic profile, the symptoms, the pulse diagnosis, and the history of the individual. Usually, 5 element teas are used in conjunction with acupuncture to supplement and reinforce treatment.

History of the 5 Elements

The 5 element theory is found in ancient Chinese history from around 1000 B.C, and was formulated by the same philosophical school that is credited with developing the theory of Yin-Yang from the I Ching, also about 3000 years ago. This school was called the ‘Yin-Yang School’ or the ‘Naturalist School’.

The birth of Yin Yang and Wu Xing theories, and their application to, for example, medicine, helped to create a new system that represented a major shift towards an empirically scientific approach based on observable, inductive and deductive methods of patterns of differentiation and away from the shamanistic view of mystical causes of sickness and disease.

Yin, Yang, and the five elements are associated with themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as 风水 (Feng Shui).

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