The five phase elements (or 五行 wǔ xíng) of classical Chinese thought is one of the most foundational, and well known, concepts in Chinese medicine. Dividing the world up into elements was a common philosophical move in ancient times, and every culture did it somewhat differently. In Chinese thought, these really weren’t seen as solid “elements” that could be isolated and thought of separately. That’s why we most often call them “phases.”
Like most things in Chinese thought, the elements were seen as something always in the process of creation and transformation. And rather than seeing them as something stable “out there” they were actually seen as processes that are acting on all things, all the time. The five phase elements are:
- Wood 木 mù (sometimes translated as”flora”)
- Fire 火 huǒ
- Earth 土 tǔ (sometimes translated as “soil”)
- Metal 金 jīn (sometimes translated as “ore”)
- Water 水 shǔi
If you look at the image in this post, you will see a five pointed star with the single point facing upwards, and a circle around it. Fire is at the top, the upper right point is Earth, the lower right point is Metal, the lower left point is Water and the upper left point is Wood. The way I have listed them here is called the “Creation cycle,” because each of the elements creates or is transformed into the other in this cycle.
Wood burns to become Fire. Fire / Ash consolidates into Earth. Earth further becomes dense until it is Metal. Metal descends and gives birth to Water. And finally, water feeds up into the roots of Wood.
If you follow the lines of the star itself, you are following the cycle of destruction or control. Destruction/control is just another type of transformation. Both creation and control are necessary for a fully balanced system. So, following the lines starting with Wood… Wood controls Earth, think of tilling the soil with a wooden implement. Earth controles Water, think of an earthen dam holding back a stream. Water controles Fire – that one is easy enough to consider. Fire controls Metal, think of metal melting in a forge. And finally, Metal controls Wood, think of an axe chopping down a tree.
The five phase elements are used extensively in Chinese medicine. In fact, there are whole acupuncture systems that pretty much consider nothing else! Just like Yin & Yang, they can be used in a relative way. A person has an out of balance Fire relative to Water and Wood, for instance. And herbs and acupuncture points are assigned different elemental energies and utilized to correct imbalances. The five phases are also often used to categorize food and drink, and prescribed in much the same way as herbs.
To learn more about each phase element, check out the articles below:
- Wood (coming soon)
- Fire (coming soon)
- Earth (coming soon)
- Metal (coming soon)
- Water (coming soon)