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Wu Xing

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Wu Xing

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
Chinese 五行

The Wu Xing, (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 (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

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

  • Wood/Spring=(72 days) a period of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality
  • Fire/Summer=(72 days) a period of swelling, flowering, brimming with fire and energy
  • Earth=(72 days=4x18days (4 transitional seasons x 18days each) the in-between transitional seasonal periods, or a separate 'season' known as Late Summer or Long Summer - in the latter case associated with leveling and dampening (moderation) and fruition
  • Metal/Autumn=(72 days) a period of harvesting and collecting
  • Water/Winter=(72 days) a period of retreat, where stillness and storage pervades


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:

  • Inter-promoting (mother/son)
  • Inter-acting (grandmother/grandson)
  • Over-acting ( cycle)
  • Counter-acting (reverse )


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

  • Wood feeds Fire
  • Fire creates Earth (ash)
  • Earth bears Metal
  • Metal enriches Water (as in water with minerals is more beneficial to the body than pure water)
  • Water nourishes Wood

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


  • Wood parts Earth (such as roots; or, Trees can prevent soil erosion)
  • Earth dams (or muddles or absorbs) Water
  • Water extinguishes Fire
  • Fire melts Metal
  • Metal chops Wood

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


  • Fire evaporates Water
  • Water washes away (or penetrates) Earth
  • Earth (rocks) breaks Wood
  • Wood dulls Metal
  • Metal shields against Fire

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

Cosmology and feng shui

Another illustration of the cycle.

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".

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Material Wind, Sound, Air, Minerals, Mana, UV, Ink, Acid, Mind, Rubber, Paper, Static, Wax, Health Visible light, Soap, Rust, Bleach, IR, Burn, Thermal radiation, Blaze, Oil, Glass, Mass, Clay Rock, Carbon, Dust, Sand, Energy, Powder, Sugar, Smoke, Gems, Ash, Gravity, Quake, Muscle Forge Sea, Space, Electrical currents, Storms, Rain, Steam, Fluid, Mud, Slime, Sludge, Salt, Time, Pressure, Glass mirror, Shadow
Color Green, brown Red, purple Yellow, orange White, silver Black, grey
Shape Rectangular Angular Square Round Undulating
Cardinal direction East South Center West North
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Heavenly creature Azure Dragon
Vermilion Bird
Yellow Dragon 黃龍 / Qilin 麒麟 White Tiger
Black Tortoise
Heavenly Stems , , , , ,
Phase New Yang Full Yang Yin/Yang balance New Yin Full Yin
Direction and Natural phenomena Expansive and exterior (in all directions) Ascending Stabilizing (representing harmony) Contracting and interior Descending
Season Spring Summer Late Summer Autumn Winter
Climate Windy Hot Damp Dry Cold
Development Sprouting Blooming Ripening Withering Dormant


The movements have also been correlated to the eight trigrams of the I Ching:
Movement Metal Earth Wood Wood Water Fire Earth Metal
I Ching Heaven Earth Thunder Wind Water Fire Mountain Lake
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qián kūn zhèn xùn kǎn gèn duì

Chinese medicine

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.

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.

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]
Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Mental Quality Idealism, Spontaneity, Curiosity Passion, Intensity Agreeableness, Honesty Intuition, Rationality, Mind , Resourcefulness, Wit
Emotion anger happiness love grief, sadness fear, scare
Zang (yin organs) liver heart/pericardium spleen/pancreas lung kidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladder small intestine/San Jiao stomach large intestine urinary bladder
Sensory organ eyes Tongue mouth Nose Ears
Body Part Tendons Pulse Muscle Skin Bones
Body Fluid Tears Sweat Saliva Mucus Urine
Finger thumb index finger middle finger ring finger little finger
Sense sight speech taste smell hearing
Taste[11] sour bitter sweet pungent salt
Smell Rancid Scorched Fragrant Rotten Putrid
Life birth youth adulthood old age death
Animal scaly feathered human furred shelled

Celestial stem

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stem Jia 甲
Yi 乙
Bing 丙
Ding 丁
Wu 戊
Ji 己
Geng 庚
Xin 辛
Ren 壬
Gui 癸
Year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3


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

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Colour Green or Blue Red Yellow White Black
Direction east south center west north
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin jué zhǐ gōng shāng
solfege mi sol do re la
  • The Chinese word 青 qīng, has many meanings, including green, azure, cyan, and black. It refers to green in Wu Xing.
  • In most modern music, various seven note or five note scales (e.g., the major scale) are defined by selecting seven or five frequencies from the set of twelve semi-tones in the Equal tempered tuning. The Chinese "lǜ" tuning is closest to the ancient Greek tuning of Pythagoras.

Martial arts

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):

  • Jìn bù (進步) Forward step
  • Tùi bù (退步) Backward step
  • Zǔo gù (左顧, in simplified characters 左顾) Left step
  • Yòu pàn (右盼 ) Right step
  • Zhōng dìng (中定) Central position, balance, equilibrium.

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

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over.
Water Drilling Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser.
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself.
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking.
Earth Crossing Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over.

Tea ceremony

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:

  • earth, center incense, yellow, up and down
  • wood, 春風 (Spring Wind), green, east
  • fire, 夏露 (Summer Dew), red, south
  • metal, 秋籟 (Fall Sounds), white, west
  • water, 冬陽 (Winter Sunshine) black, north

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

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.


  • Feng Youlan (Yu-lan Fung), A History of Chinese Philosophy, volume 2, p. 13
  • Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, volume 2, pp. 262–23
  • Maciocia, G. 2005, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd edn, Elsevier Ltd., London

Notes and references

  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.  
  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 ( 
  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.  

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