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Wu Xing

the Five States of Change

Whereas Western thought developed the idea of elements as subtsances, and Indian thought as emenations, Chinese philosophy conceived of the five elements, or Wu Xing, as dynamic states of change.

The concept of Wu Xing is central to all elements of Chinese thought, including science, philosophy, medicine, astrology, andFengshui.

Although the term is generally translated as "five elements", this is  incorrect. The word Wu does indeed mean "five".  But there is no simple translation for Xing.  Translations such as "five elements", "five agents", "five qualities", "five properties" "five states of change", "five courses", "five phases" and "five elementals", are all used.  As Master Joseph Yu explains

"Wu Xing" is actually the short form of "Wu zhong liu xing zhi chi" or "the five types of chi dominating at different times". Water dominates in winter, wood in spring, fire in summer, metal in autumn. At the intersection between two seasons, the transitional period is dominated by earth. It is customary in Chinese writing to summarize a longer phrase into a couple of characters. Sometimes the meaning is completely lost in the abbreviated form if the original phrase is not referred to. Wu Xing is one such example.
The names "water", "wood", "fire", "metal" and "earth" are only substances whose properties resemble the respective chi in the closest possible way. They do help us understand the properties of the five types of chi but they also mislead us if we take everything in the literal sense.

The following table gives but a few of the many correspondences associated with Wu Xing.

Wu Xing number and polarity Colour Season weather Direction yin and yang organs emotion taste shape movement quality
Earth 5/10 - Tao yellow, brown late summer humid center Spleen and Stomach meditation sweet cubic attracts and concentrates stable
Metal  4/9 - senior yang white, Golden, Silver autumn  dry west Lungs and Large Intestine worry, sorrow pungant Spherical pierce inwards sharp and pointing. 
Wood 3/8- junior yin green or blue  spring windy east Liver and Gall Bladder anger sour Rod like or beam like grows upwards enduring
Fire 2/7 - junior yang red, Orange, Purple, Pink  summer hot south Heart and Small Intestine joy bitter Triangular spreads in all directions,  radiant and hot
Water 1/6 senior yin black, dark blue winter cold north Kidney and Bladder fear salty wavy runs downwards liberal

Note that qualities such as winter, cold and north only apply to the northern hemisphere.  In the southern hemisphere winter and cold would be associated with the south (antarctic)

Because these five qualities are dynamic, they interact in various ways.  There are three cycles in traditional Chines ethought:

relationship with wood on top relationship represented clockwise description
The Creative or Producing or Enhancing cycle Producing Cycle Moving clockwise from the top: Water produces wood. When a tree is watered, it grows better.  When wood burns, we get fire. Fire reduces things to ashes which becomes part of the earth. Earth is mined for metal, which then changes to liquid (water) under heat. Finally, water provides nourishment for trees to grow, producing wood
The Weakening Cycle
The Weakening Cycle e.g. Wood is burned by fire and hence weakened (reduced to ashes)
Destroying or Controlling Cycle
Destroying or Controlling cycle e.g., a metal knife can cut wood and shape or control it


books Books and Web Links Web links

web pagegraphics Chinese Five Elements - great site

web sitegraphics Chinese Five Elemenst - neat site, includes Five Phases Complete Overview, Introduction to Zang Fu Theory, Twelve Primary Channels, Eight Extraordinary Vessels, The Three Dantians, and The Seven Chakras

web pagegraphics Introduction to oriental medicine - the five phases or elements by Master Joseph Yu

web pagegraphics The Theory of the Five Elements - by Karel Koskuba - this page also has some material on is Wuxingquan , a type of martial art that can be translated as Five Element Boxing.

more links to be added....


In Association with

book Traditional Acupuncture : The Law of the Five Elements by Dianne M. Connelly

book Five Elements and Ten Stems : Nan Ching Theory, Diagnostics and Practice by Kiiko Matsumoto, Robert L. Felt (Editor), Stephen Birch

book Four Pillars and Oriental Medicine : Celestial Stems, Terrestrial Branches and Five Elements for Health by David Twicken

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 16 July 1999