Five elements in Chinese philosophy

By David Koh and Joe Choo

Many philosophies around the world have a set of classical elements believed to represent the simplest essential parts of the world. This could be related to phases of matter, chemical compounds or natural substances.

The ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Indians count earth, water, air, fire and the “aether” as five elements. These five elements also form the basis of analysis in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Babylonians count sea, earth, sky, fire and wind as the five cosmic elements.

The Chinese have a different series of elements – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Unlike the Western concept of classical elements as distinct materials, the Chinese version considers these elements as different types of energy that interact and are in flux with each other.

The term Five Elements is actually one possible translation for the Chinese term, “wu xing” – “xing” means phases or metamorphoses. Therefore, Five Elements could also be translated as the five changing states but this is not entirely accurate either. To this day, there is no agreement among Sinologists as to the best translation for “wu xing”.

Hence, in Chinese philosophy, there is the concept of producing and contrasting elements. The “producing cycle” is that metal produces water; water produces wood; wood produces fire; fire produces earth; and earth produces metal. Another elemental relationship is the contrasting cycle.

Some feng shui books talk about a depleting cycle, but this is simply the Producing Cycle in reverse. When an element “produces” another element, it becomes depleted.

The Five Elements are akin to a language, just like the I-Ching. It can be applied to many traditional Chinese fields, from cosmic cycles, internal organs, traditional Chinese medicine and feng shui, to astrology, music, art of war, martial arts and even the succession of political regimes.

The false analogy between Western and Chinese notions of the elements has given rise to confusion with many people taking the Chinese elements literally. It is not uncommon for us to hear people saying they are “water” people and must therefore avoid “fire”.

The elements merely relate to characteristics and interaction, and are used contextually depending on the application.

For the seasons, wood is analogous to spring; fire to summer; metal to autumn; water to winter; and earth to the transitional period between seasons.

In the bagua used in feng shui, gua 1 is linked to north and water; 2 to southwest and earth; 3 to east and wood; 4 to southeast and wood; 5 is treated as either 2 or 8 which is earth; 6 is northwest and metal; 7 is west and metal; 8 is northeast and earth; and 9 is south and fire.

In Life Profile, Eight Character Stem and Root or Bazi, each stem and root is associated with an element and the relationship follows the producing cycle.

In astrology, wood represents Jupiter; fire, Mars; earth, Saturn; metal, Venus; and water, mercury.

In traditional Chinese medicine, wood is linked to liver and gall bladder; fire to heart and small intestines; earth to spleen, pancreas and stomach; metal to lung and large intestines; and water to kidneys and urinary bladder.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but it indicates how deeply rooted the concept of Five Elements is in Chinese philosophy and how we must not take it literally. So, enough of this nonsense of placing porcelain all over your house just because your life profile lacks earth; or loading up on fish tanks and ponds because you “lack water”!

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