Five Elements is also known as Wu Xing, Five Movements, Five Phases, Five Processes, and Five Steps that is a philosophy. It describes the occurrence, development, change and mutual relationship of matter in nature.
The meaning of Wu in the Wu Xing is five basic substances (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). The meaning of the Xing in the Wu Xing is movement and transformation.
The ancient Chinese thought that everything in nature is consisted of five basic elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). The development and change of things in nature are the result of constant movement and transformation of these Five Elements.
This theory is used in many fields such as Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, divination, and fortune-telling.
In Chinese medicine, it is used to explain the physiological and pathological changes of the human body, so as to achieve the effects of diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Classification of the Five Elements
Initially, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water refer to five specific substances.
In the long-term life and production practice, the ancient Chinese people had a new understanding of these five substances. After describing and summarizing them, they concluded that these five substances represent five different attributes.
Ancient book said that “water flows downward”,”fire flames up”, “wood can be flexed and extended”,”metal can be changed in the form” and “earth can grow crops”.
The meaning of “water flows downward” is that water has the properties of moistening and descending. Everything that has moisture, decline and cold belongs to water.
The meaning of “fire flames up” is that fire has the properties of hot, rising, and bright. Things with these properties belong to fire.
The meaning of “wood can be flexed and extended” is that wood has the properties of growth, softness, flexing, and extension. Things with these properties belong to wood.
The meaning of “metal can be changed in the form” is that metal has the properties of astringency, settlement, and change. Things with these properties belong to metal.
The meaning of “earth can grow crops” is that earth has the properties of breeding, supporting, and accommodating. Things with these properties belong to earth.
When constructing the classification of the Five Elements theory, people compared the nature of things in nature with the nature of the Five Elements, each of which has specific properties.
Chinese people use the geographical orientation to distinguish
- Water: the north is cold and has the property of water.
- Fire: the south is hot and has the property of fire.
- Metal: the west is where the sun is falling and has a meaning of settlement.
- Wood: the east is where the sun rises and has the meaning of growth.
- Earth: the crops in the central region of China can grow well and has the meaning of breeding and supporting.
Interrelationship of Five Elements
This relationship refers to the orderly mutual needs and promotions between the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
Wood gives birth to fire; fire gives birth to earth; earth gives birth to metal; metal gives birth to water; water gives birth to wood. Each element has two identities – mother and child.
Such as wood is the mother and fire is its child. fire is the mother, and the earth is its child. The relationship between elements is like a mother-child relationship.
Or, the burning of wood will produce a flame. When the flame burns out, it will turn into ash. The ash will become the earth, and the metal mine will be excavated in the earth. In paleogeography, metal mines are in the vicinity of rivers, and there is water in places where there is metal. Water nourishes the growth of trees.
This relationship refers to the orderly restrictions between the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
Wood restricts earth; earth restricts water; water restricts fire; fire restricts metal; metal restricts wood. Each element can restrict one element and be restricted by another.
Such as, wood absorb nutrients from the earth; earth can block floods; water can extinguish flames; fire can melt metals; metal cutting tools can destroy wood. In this relationship, the first element is the winner, the second element is the loser.
The five elements maintain a dynamic balance through mutual promotion and mutual restriction and promote the stable change and development of things.
- Wood gives birth to fire; fire gives birth to earth; wood restricts earth.
- Fire gives birth to earth; earth gives birth to metal; fire restricts metal.
- Earth gives birth to metal; metal gives birth to water; earth restricts water.
- Metal gives birth to water; water gives birth to wood; metal restricts wood.
- Water gives birth to wood; wood gives birth to fire; water restricts fire.
When an element is increased or decreased, the element that this element produces changes with it, as well as the element that restricts this element.
This relationship refers to an abnormal state that an element excessively restricts another one.
The order of excessive restriction of the five elements is the same as the order of mutual restriction.
Such as, when there are too many wood elements, the earth elements will decrease with the restriction of the wood elements. When the earth element is weak and the wood element is strong, the earth cannot withstand the restriction of the wood and the earth will become less.
The original relationship is that A restricts B, but the current relationship is that B restricts A.
For example, metal can restrict wood under normal conditions, but if there are too many wood elements, metal cannot restrict the wood, but will be restricted by wood.
When the wood element is less, the wood cannot restrict the earth, but will be restricted by the earth.
The promotion of the elements will influence each other. When an element is abnormal, the corresponding element will also be abnormal.When any one of the mother and the son is sick, the other one will be affected.
When there are too many wood elements, the wood does not need water, and both wood elements and water elements will increase.
In traditional Chinese medicine, mutual promotion and mutual restriction in the Five Elements are physiological changes. Excessive restriction and reverse restriction in the Five Elements are pathological changes.
Application of the Five Elements Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Five Elements theory and five internal organs
In order to explain the integrity and complexity of the human body, medical scientists used the Five Elements theory to classify the human body’s organs, physiological activities, and pathological reactions.
In Chinese medicine, the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, gold, water) correspond to the five internal organs (liver, heart, spleen, lung, kidney).
The liver can secretes bile, stores glycogen, and has a function of hematopoiesis, and regulates the metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The liver belongs to wood.
The heart provides power of the flow of blood and provides heat to the body. During exercise, the heart beats faster and the heat of the body increases. The heart belongs to fire.
The spleen can provide kinetic energy to organs and support organ movement. If the spleen is abnormal, other organs will be affected. Plants will be die if they leave the earth, so the spleen belongs to the earth.
The lungs can dominate the body’s metabolism and regulate body temperature. This function is like the heat conduction of metal, so the lung belongs to metal.
Water accounts for 70% of the body’s composition. The main role of the kidney is metabolizing water in the body. The water flows downwards so the kidneys belong to water.
Liver gives birth to Heart; Heart gives birth to Spleen; Spleen gives birth to Lung; Lung gives birth to Kidney; Kidney gives birth to Liver.
Liver restricts Spleen; Spleen restricts Kidney; Kidney restricts Heart; Heart restricts Lung; Lung restricts Liver.
The functions of the five internal organs are diverse and the relationship is complicated. The nature of the five elements does not fully explain all the functions of the five internal organs, so the Five Elements theory can only be served as a reference for Chinese medicine practitioners.
Pathological influences between the five internal organs
In the Five Elements theory, when an element is abnormal, the element that it give birth to or the element that it restricts will be abnormal.
When one of the five internal organs is sick, the organ associated with it may also be sick. When the essence of the kidney is insufficient, it will cause deficiency of liver blood or abnormality of lung function.
When the liver qi is stagnant, it will cause spleen deficiency, dizziness, fatigue, chest tightness, and abdominal pain. When the spleen is weak, the function of the kidney is affected, causing edema.
In addition, the Five Elements Theory is also used to explain the relationship between the season and the disease.
The spring corresponds to the liver, the summer corresponds to the heart, the long summer corresponds to the spleen, the autumn corresponds to the lung, and the winter corresponds to the kidney. Just as the active season of liver disease is in the spring.
Diagnosis and treatment of diseases
When organic disease occurs, the function of organs will be abnormal. The disease usually has some superficial symptoms.
Chinese medicine can determine the diseased internal organs by observation, listening, smelling, questioning, pulse feeling and palpation. If people’s face is dark and his pulse is abnormal, it is may be caused by liver disease. If people’s face is redness, bitter taste in the mouth, it is may be caused by heart disease.
In Chinese medicine, the Five Elements Theory can be combined with the five tastes (spicy, sweet, bitter, sour, salty) of Chinese herbal medicine. Sour herbs can work on the liver, bitter herbs can work on the heart, sweet herbs can work on the spleen, spicy herbs can work on the lungs, and salty herbs can work on the kidneys.
Clinically, the Five Elements theory also needs to combine the yin yang theory to treat the disease. Acupuncture also uses the Five Elements theory.