Five Elements in Chinese Medicine (Wu Xing)

Five elements chinese medic

Another important point in Chinese medicine is the theory of the Five Elements which are considered to be the elementary bricks of the universe.

The Five Elements are as the following:

  • wood
  • fire
  • earth
  • metal
  • water

The relations of Five Elements

The term “Wu Xing” or Five Elements appears for the first time in SHANGSHU, but it was not until later that the theory of their mutual relations was established. These relations can be described briefly as mutual creation (xiangsheng) and mutual destruction (xiangke).

On the basis of the conception of mutual creation and mutual destruction there appeared further laws (like mutual creation and mutual destruction /zhihua/ and detrimentary destruction /xiangcheng xiangwu/), explaining the complicated processes in nature.

The theory relations of Five Elements

Meaning and relations of the Five Chinese Elements

1. Rule of Mutual Creation

The creative force in nature is manifested in the following way:

  1. water creates wood
  2. wood creates fire
  3. fire creates earth
  4. earth creates metal
  5. metal creates water

Such a relation between the Five elements is called the relation between mother and son (mu lai gu zi – The mother comes to take care of the son). Each element after having been created creates another element. Wood, creates fire (wood representing mother and fire representing son), but fire creates earth (fire becomes mother while earth becomes son) etc.

2. Rule of Mutual Destruction

The destructive force in nature is manifested in the opposite way:

  1. wood destroys earth
  2. earth destroys water
  3. water destroys fire
  4. fire destroys metal
  5. metal destroys wood

Each element after having been destroyed destroys another element. This relation is called sons revenge upon his mother (zi fu mu chou – The son avenges his mother).

3. Rule of Mutual Creation and Mutual Destruction

Each destruction contains creation while each creation contains destruction in itself. If only creation or only destruction existed, the balance could not be preserved. The relation between the Five Elements must be viewed as the relation involving mutual creation as well as mutual destruction.

The relations are as the following:

  1. wood destroys earth
  2. earth creates metal
  3. metal destroys wood
  4. fire destroys water
  5. water creates wood
  6. wood destroys earth
  7. metal destroys wood
  8. wood creates fire
  9. fire destroys metal
  10. water destroys fire
  11. fire creates earth
  12. earth destroys water

The harmony in nature can be preserved only in the case, when the constructive and destructive forces are in balance. Each element implies four relations: it is created, it creates itself, it is destroyed and it destroys itself.

4. Rule of Detrimentary Destruction

The rule of mutual creation and mutual destruction reflects the normal relations between the Five Elements. In the case the balance is disturbed (in medicine if Qi is either excessive or insufficient), the so called detrimentary destruction appears. For example, if fire is too strong and water too weak to destroy it, then fire destroys not only metal, but also water. The theory of the Five Elements applied to Ancient Chinese medicine established a perfect theoretical system. Even now in some modern Chinese books on medicine much stress is put on the theory of the Five Elements without which it is impossible to understand the elementary principles of the traditional medicine.

The universe as a whole and the man as a part of it are subordinated to the rigid schema of the number five. Here only a partial chart is given.

Five Elements wood fire earth metal water
Development birth growth change decline extinction
Five Colours green red yellow white black
Five Flavours sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Five Seasons spring summer mid-summer autumn winter
Five Climates wind heat damp dryness cold
Five Viscera (Zang Organs) liver heart spleen lungs kidney
Five Bowels gall-bladder small intensine stomach large intensine bladder
Five Tissues tendon blood vessels flesh skin bones
Five Ofirices eye tongue mouth nose ear
Five Emotions anger joy strain due to excessive mental activity grief fear
Diurnal Cycle of Five Chinese Elements

Diurnal Cycle of Five Chinese Elements

The relations between the Five Elements and internal organs

In ZHONGYIXUE-GAILUN the following example is given:

Spring corresponds to the element of wood. In spring the wind, mostly the east wind is blowing; the weather is warm; the grass and the trees begin to grow. In spring the man is full of vigour which manifests the function of the liver and abounds in joy.

1. Relations between the Five Elements and the Five Zang Organs

Wood corresponds to the liver, fire is identified with the heart, earth with the spleen, metal with the lungs, water with the kidney. If Qi accumulates in some organ or is lacking there, the organ becomes sick. On the basis of the theory of the Five Elements there exists a relation between the Yang (Fu) Organs and the Yin (Zang) Organs, in other words the two organs are always coupled together. Thus liver corresponds to gall-bladder, heart to small intestine, etc. In the case an organ becomes sick, the diseased Yang (Fu) Organ can influence the corresponding Yin (Zang) Organ.

2. Relations between the Five Zang Organs and the Five Orifices

Liver leads into the eye, lungs into the nose, kidney into the ears etc. According to the experiences of the ancient Chinese physicians the liver can be cured when the eye is diseased and the lungs can be healed when the nose is diseased etc.

3. Relations between the Five Zang Organs and the Five Tissues

In the case the organs become sick, the tissues are affected as well. The liver disease affects the tendons and cramps occur. If the spleen becomes sick, the flesh begins to dwindle, etc.

4. Relations between the Five Zang Organs and the Five Emotions

Strong emotions can evoke strong, nervous stimulation and thus cause the disease of some organ. Thus the liver can be destroyed by anger, the heart by great joy, the lungs by sadness, the kidney by anxiety and the spleen by strain due to excessive mental activity.

Five elements

Five elements – Cycles of generation and control and cycles of imbalance

5. Relations between the Five Zang Organs and the Five Sounds

The Five Sounds are the pathological sounds uttered in various diseases. Thus the heart disease, often accompanied by nervous collapse, is characterized by incessant cheerful laughter.

6. Relations between the Five Zang Organs and the Five Colours

A patient suffering from the heart disease is red in his face, that suffering from the liver disease becomes green; the one suffering from lung disease is pale, while he suffering from kidney disease has his face quite dark in colour. As far as colours are concerned, distinction must be made between the good colour (shan) and the ominous (e) one. Smooth and moist skin represents the good colour, while a dry spiritless skin suggests the ominous colour. The disease of the second type usually has a bad prognosis. In more complicated cases, however, colours need not coincide with the diseases. If the patient suffering from the liver disease is pale in his face, it means that metal is destroying wood, i.e. detrimentary destruction is taking place between the Five Zang Organs.

7. Relations between the Five Flavours and the Five Zang Organs

The sour flavour corresponds to wood and enters the liver; the bitter flavour corresponds to fire and enters the heart; the sweet flower corresponds to earth and enters the spleen; the pungent flavour corresponds to metal and enters the lungs; the salty flavour corresponds to water and enters the kidney. In ancient Chinese thought, each organ chooses only one flavour. In the case the illness dwells in the muscles, the patient should not eat sour food, if it dwells in the bones, he should refrain from salty food, if it is in the blood, he should avoid bitter food and if it is in the flesh, he must not take anything sweet. When only one flavour is preferred for a long time, the man becomes sick. The sour flavour destroys the tendons, the sweet flavour destroys the flesh, etc. Even in the selection and combination of the Chinese drugs to be used the relations between the Five Flavours and the Five Zang Organs were taken into consideration.

On the basis of the Five Elements even the characterology of people has been elaborated. A gentle, good-tempered man belongs to wood, a choleric, violent person to fire. People belonging to wood and fire can bear spring and summer and do not bear autumn and winter. By the expression “to bear” we meant to resist illness in that particular season.