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Five Elements

In traditional Chinese philosophy, natural phenomena can be classified into the Five Elements (五行, wǔxng): wood, fire, earth, metal, and water (Chinese: 木, 火, 土, 金, 水). These elements were used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena. (Five phases is another way of translating wǔxng — literally, "five goings").

The doctrine of five phases describes both a generating (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming (克, k) cycle of interactions between the phases. In the generating cycle, wood generates fire; fire generates earth; earth generates metal; metal generates water; water generates wood. In the overcoming cycle, wood overcomes earth; earth overcomes water; water overcomes fire; fire overcomes metal; metal overcomes wood.

The doctrine of five phases was employed in many fields of early Chinese philosophy, including seemingly disparate fields such as music, medicine, and military strategy.

Correlations between the five elements and other categories

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

Element Direction Color Musical Note
Wood east blue/green ju 角 (mi)
Fire south red zhǐ 徵 (sol)
Earth center yellow gōng 宮 (do)
Metal west white shāng 商 (re)
Water north black 羽 (la)

Some other correspondences are shown below:

Element Heavenly creature Season Direction Planet Tastes Sense Viscera Finger
Wood Qīng-lng (青龍)
the Blue Dragon
Spring east Jupiter sour sight liver ring finger
Fire Zhū-qu (朱雀)
the Red Phoenix
Summer south Mars bitter sound heart middle finger
Earth Hung-lng (黃龍)
the Yellow Dragon
Change of seasons center Saturn sweet smell spleen index finger
Metal Bi-hǔ (白虎)
the White Tiger
Autumn west Venus hot taste lung thumb
Water Xun-wǔ (玄武)
the Black Tortoise-Serpent
Winter north Mercury salty touch kidney little finger

The elements have also been correlated to the eight trigrams of the I Ching:

Element I Ching Trigrams
Wood Wind, thunder :|| (☴ 巽 xn) |:: (☳ 震 zhn)
Fire Fire |:| (☲ 離 l)
Earth Earth, mountain ::: (☷ 坤 kūn) ::| (☶ 艮 gn)
Metal Sky, lake ||| (☰ 乾 qin) ||: (☱ 兌 du)
Water Water :|: (☵ 坎 kǎn)

See also


  • 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

Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:09:45
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