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Content created: 1997-12-26
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The Five Elements:
An Ancient Chinese "Thinking Machine"

Compare: Calendar, Eight Trigrams, Heaven Stems & Earth Branches

Page Contents: Introduction, Table, Usage, Experiment

1. Introduction

Traditional Chinese thought about nature often involves a set of five xíng , named after natural entities (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). The word xíng, which usually means "walking" or "moving," is sometimes translated "elements" when speaking of the five xíng, but many authors prefer translations like "forces," "natures," "phases," or "transformations" in order to capture the idea that, despite their names, the xíng are in dynamic interaction with each other, i.e., that they are in some sense "walking." Despite its misleadingly concrete implications, I still prefer the translation "elements," since it fits best with the basic terms always used for them: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. (It is hard for an English speaker to think of wood as a "phase.")

Underlying the utility —some would say, wackiness— of the concept are a number of additional assumptions:

  1. Each of the five elements has a wide number of correspondences with other parts of the natural world. For example, the element wood corresponds with the color blue, the direction east, and the flavor sour. In general, anything that can be subdivided into five categories, can be aligned to the five elements.
  1. Each of the five elements tends to strengthen, support, feed, give way to, or create one of the others (green in the diagram). For example, wood/blue/east tends to support or strengthen fire/scarlet/south.
    Useful mnemonic:
  1. Each of the five elements also tends to weaken, undercut, or destroy one of the others (red in the diagram). Thus wood/blue/east tends to weaken earth/yellow/center. (In this respect, it is reminiscent of playing rock-scissors-paper.)
    Useful mnemonic:
  2. A deficiency or an excess of any element tends to exert unnatural strengthening or weaking influence on other elements, potentially causing illness or distress.
  3. Illness and misfortune can be corrected by adjusting the element that is too strong or weak. One way to do this is to modify those elements that will tend to strengthen or diminish the unbalanced element. Usual applications are in religious ritual (including geomancy) and in medicine.

Here is an interactive table of the five elements and some of their correspondences. Following it there is a short interactive experiment.

2. Table of The Five Elements


Reading down the columns, each of the following elements…

wood fire earth metal water
corresponds with
and amplifies, creates, and expands
but weakens or destroys

3. Using the Table

This table can be expanded to include other things that can be organized to come in fives, such as sacred mountains or kinship relationships. Use of the table provides a logic for ritual action ranging from pilgrimages to clothing colors and from medical prescriptions to mate selection.

For example:

And so on.

4. Thought Experiment (Not to Say Quiz):

The above table should make it possible to answer questions like the following from the perspective of traditional Chinese five-elements thinking.

1. What flavor should you eat if you have a heart problem?  
2. What color clothing may help to make you wise?  
3. If you are already feeling sad, what color will make you even less happy?  
4. What organ may be damaged by excessive consumption of beans?  

Exculpatory Fine Print:

  1. These simplified examples are merely to illustrate the kinds of principles involved in this type of "thinking machine." Actual practitioners make far more complex assessments.
  2. Further, some orderings are different for different practitioners. For example, the sequence liver-heart-spleen-lungs-kidneys is given in the order spleen-lungs-heart-kidneys-liver in some sources.
  3. No claim is here made that medical "prescriptions" deriving from this page have any useful medical effects.
  4. Neither the author of this page nor, especially, the Regents of the University of California make any claim that anything on this page will or won't have any effect on anything whatsoever. If using this page causes the end of the world or some other untoward effect, the Regents have no responsibility.
  5. However, if use of this page results in a saleable product worth actual money (such as a cure for gullibility), then all the money belongs to the Regents, who will suddenly have responsibility after all.

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