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The Five Elements - Explained

Introduction to the Chinese Philosophy of the Five Elements

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The Five Elements are symbolic of the cyclical qualities of nature, where one could say they are a development of the normal seasonal influences. We can all imagine the four seasons brought about by the Earth's yearly movement around the Sun; the movement of the Earth itself producing the changes of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The Five Elements correspond to a yearly cycle as follows:

WOOD - Spring (expansion, growth, flexibility, quickening movement, its climate is wind)

FIRE - Summer (ascends, radiance, full bloom, communication, transformation, its climate is fire)

EARTH - Late Summer (balancing, pivoting, ripening, assimilation, its climate is dampness)

METAL - Autumn (contraction, letting go, leaves falling, precision, clarity, its climate is dryness)

WATER - Winter (descends, associations with storage, like roots, descends, it is still, quiet, powerful, its climate is cold)

Here we see the inclusion of the long summer phase in our seasonal progression, which allows us to imagine a year with five seasonal influences.

With the Five Elements, we can express a more complete dynamic that includes what we call the essential cycles of ‘generation’(Sheng) and ‘control’(Ke). This generation, or feeding cycle proceeds from one to the other as follows: Wood generates Fire, Fire generates Earth, Earth generates Metal, Metal generates Water, Water generates Wood.

The Ke (control) Cycle brings about a balance to all this ‘generation’and it proceeds to the following element after the one being generated. So, Wood controls Earth, Earth controls Water, Water controls Fire, Fire controls Metal, Metal controls Wood. This is simply an expression of a dynamic equilibrium or the natural balance of the cycles occurring around us.


With these two cycles we can see when something is not being generated or controlled properly. There can be over/under generating and over/under controlling. For example, if Wood is not generated fully by Water, it may initially become ‘excessive’ like a child wanting to be fed, before eventually becoming ‘deficient’. If Water does not control Fire sufficiently, the Fire could blaze up more and appear out of balance in an excessive way. (We call this a ‘false excess’ as it is actually due to an underlying ‘deficiency’). Thus when an Element becomes deficient, that which it feeds gets hungry, and that which it controls can become a false excess. When an Element becomes excess, that which it feeds gets overfed, and that which it controls becomes subdued.

The plot really thickens when we apply these principles to the body! If for instance the Water Element is weak, we could expect to see a number of problems within that Element – ie, with the fluids, kidneys or bladder. Then, if Water is consequently unable to feed Wood, we could also see a lack of ‘get up and go’ and furthermore, if Water can no longer control Fire, there could be signs of anxiety and restlessness.

To explore these principles further, please refer to our Five Element Correspondence Chart and detailed explanation of each Elements.


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