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The Five Elements Theory

The Five Elements theory posits wood, fire, earth, metal, and water as the basic elements of the material world. These elements are in constant movement and change. Moreover, the complex connections between material objects are explained through the relationship of interdependence and mutual restraint that governs the five elements. In traditional Chinese medicine Five Elements theory is used to interpret the relationship between the physiology and pathology of the human body and the natural environment.

The Basic Content of the Five Elements Theory

The Categorization of Things

The ancient physicians used the Five Elements theory to study extensively the connections between the physiology and pathology of the zang-fu organs and tissues and the natural environment. By adopting the methodology of "comparing similarity to expose phenomenon," the ancient Chinese attributed different phenomena to the categories of the five elements. On the basis of the phenomena's different characteristics, functions, and forms, the complex links between physiology and pathology as well as the correlation between the human body and the natural environment were explained.

Categorization of Zang, Fu, Flavours and Senses according to the Five Elements

Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Flavors sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Zang liver heart spleen lung kidney
Fu gall bladder s. intestine stomach l. intestine urinary
Senses eye tongue mouth nose ear
Tissue tendon vessel muscle hair/skin bone

Five Elements theory assigns each of the five elements a series of abstract generalizations and then applies them to the classification of all phenomena. Wood, for example, involved the aspects of germination, extension, softness, and harmony. It is then inferred that anything with those characteristics should be included in the category of the wood element. As for the rest of the five elements: fire involves the aspects of heat and flaring; earth involves the aspects of growing, nourishing, and changing; metal is associated with cleaning up, killing, strength, and firmness; and water is associated with cold, moisture, and downward flowing. As in the case of wood, the aspects of the other five elements are used to categorize all material objects in terms of one of the particular five elements. The following table shows the five categories of objects and phenomena according to five elements classification.

Categorization of Objects, Nature and Phenomena according to the Five Elements

Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Directions east south center west north
Changes germinate grow transform reap store
Color green red yellow white black

The Mutual Generation, Mutual Subjugation, Extreme Subjugation, and Counter Subjugation Relationships of the Five Elements

The Five Elements theory asserts that between each of the elements there exists the close relationships of mutual generation, mutual subjugation, extreme subjugation, and counter subjugation. The theory explains the interrelatedness of all things through the use of those close relationships.

Mutual generation means multiplication and promotion, while mutual subjugation means mutual restriction and restraint. The order of mutual generation among the five elements is that wood generates fire, fire generates earth, earth generates metal, metal generates water, and water generates wood. In this way generation is circular and endless. In the mutual generating relation of the five elements, each of the elements has the property of "being generate" and "generating." The one which generates is the "mother," the one which is generated is the "son." This is known as the "mother-son relationship." Each of the five elements has this type of mutual generating relationship with the other.

According to the order of mutual subjugation, however, wood subjugates earth, metal subjugates wood, etc. Each of the five elements also shares this subjugation relationship with the other. This relationship has the properties of "being subjugated" and of "subjugating." The former means that my ability is inferior to the object, while the later denotes my superiority to the object. Therefore, the mutual subjugating relationship among the five elements is also known as the relationship of "being superior to" and "being inferior to" another element.

Mutual generation and mutual subjugation are two aspects which cannot be separated. If there is no generation, then there is no birth and growth. If there is no subjugation, then there is no change and development for maintaining normal harmonious relations. As the Leijing tuyi says, "If there is no generation, then there is no growth and development. If there is no restriction, then endless growth and development will become harmful." Thus the movement and change of all things exists through their mutual generating and subjugating relationships. These relationships are the basis of the never ending circulation of natural elements.

Extreme subjugation and counter subjugation are the pathological conditions of the normal mutual generation and subjugation relationships. Extreme subjugation denotes that the subjugation of one of the five elements to another surpasses the normal level. For example, if there is hyperactivity of the wood element, it will subjugate the earth element. The latter elements is made weak and insufficient.

Counter subjugation means that one of the five elements subjugates the other opposite to the normal mutual subjugation order. For example, when metal is weak and insufficient, it leads to the hyperactivity of wood. The latter will then counter subjugate the former. In the Suwen it says:

When the qi of one of the five elements is excessive, it will subjugate its subjugated element (such as wood subjugating earth) and counter subjugate the subjugating element (such as wood counter subjugating metal).

Moreover, the Five Elements theory recognizes a correlation between those things which are related to a particular element. As the Suwen points out, "The East generates wind, wind generates wood, wood generates sour, sour generates liver, liver generates tendons....". According to Five Elements theory, each element has its own repertory of relationships among the objects that compose the physical world. The theory of Five Elements is therefore the theoretical basis of the unique bond between man and nature.

Related Subjects

Application of the Five Elements Theory to Traditional Chinese Medicine
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