Wu Xing

This article is about the five-element theory of Chinese philosophy. For other uses, see Wuxing (disambiguation).
Diagram of the interactions between the Wu Xing. The "generative" cycle is illustrated by grey arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the "destructive" or "conquering" cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle.
Wu Xing
Chinese 五行

The Wu Xing (Chinese: ; pinyin: Wǔ Xíng), also known as the Five Elements, Five Phases, the Five Agents, the Five Movements, Five Processes, the Five Steps/Stages and the Five Planets[1] is the short form of "Wǔ zhǒng liúxíng zhī qì" (五種流行之氣) or "the five types of chi dominating at different times".[2] It is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs, and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs. The "Five Phases" are Wood ( ), Fire ( huǒ), Earth ( ), Metal ( jīn), and Water ( shuǐ). This order of presentation is known as the "mutual generation" (相生 xiāngshēng) sequence. In the order of "mutual overcoming" (相剋/相克 xiāngkè), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[3][4][5]

The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena. After it came to maturity in the second or first century BCE during the Han dynasty, this device was employed in many fields of early Chinese thought, including seemingly disparate fields such as geomancy or Feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy, and martial arts. The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts.


Xing (Chinese: ) of 'Wu Xing' means moving; a planet is called a 'moving star'(Chinese: ) in Chinese. Wu Xing (Chinese: ) originally refers to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Venus, Mars) that create five dimensions of earth life.[1] "Wu Xing" is also widely translated as Five Elements and this is used extensively by many including practitioners of Five Element acupuncture. This translation arose by false analogy with the Western system of the four elements.[6] Whereas the classical Greek elements were concerned with substances or natural qualities, the Chinese xíng are "primarily concerned with process and change," hence the common translation as "phases" or "agents".[7] By the same token, is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood".[8] The word 'element' is thus used within the context of Chinese medicine with a different meaning to its usual meaning.

It should be recognized that the word phase, although commonly preferred, is not perfect. Phase is a better translation for the five seasons (五運 Wǔ Yùn) mentioned below, and so agents or processes might be preferred for the primary term xíng. Manfred Porkert attempts to resolve this by using Evolutive Phase for 五行 Wǔ Xíng and Circuit Phase for 五運 Wǔ Yùn, but these terms are unwieldy.

Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts (no later than 168 BC) also present the Wu Xing as "five virtues" or types of activities.[9] Within Chinese medicine texts the Wu Xing are also referred to as Wu Yun (五運 wǔ yùn) or a combination of the two characters (Wu Xing-Yun) these emphasise the correspondence of five elements to five 'seasons' (four seasons plus one). Another tradition refers to the Wǔ Xíng as Wǔ Dé (五德), the Five Virtues (zh:五德終始說).

The Phases

The five phases are usually used to describe the state in nature:


The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle, also known as "mother-son", and an overcoming or destruction (剋/克, ) cycle, also known as "grandfather-nephew", of interactions between the phases. Within Chinese medicine the effects of these two main relations are further elaborated:


The common memory jogs, which help to remind in what order the phases are:

Other common words for this cycle include "begets", "engenders" and "mothers".


This cycle might also be called "controls", "restrains" or "fathers".

Cosmology and feng shui

Main article: Feng shui
Another illustration of the cycle.
Tablet, in Chinese and Manchu, for the gods of the five elements in the Temple of Heaven. The Manchu word "usiha", meaning star, explains that this tablet is dedicated to the five basic planets, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus & Mercury rather than their respect element itself.

According to Wu Xing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five phases. Each phase has a complex series of associations with different aspects of nature, as can be seen in the following table. In the ancient Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng Shui practitioners all based their art and system on the five phases (Wu Xing). All of these phases are represented within the trigrams. Associated with these phases are colors, seasons and shapes; all of which are interacting with each other.[10]

Based on a particular directional energy flow from one phase to the next, the interaction can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive. A proper knowledge of each aspect of energy flow will enable the Feng Shui practitioner to apply certain cures or rearrangement of energy in a way they believe to be beneficial for the receiver of the Feng Shui Treatment.

Movement Metal Metal Fire Wood Wood Water Earth Earth
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qiánduìzhènxùnkǎngènkūn
I Ching Heaven Lake Fire Thunder Wind Water Mountain Earth
Color Silver White Red Green Purple Black Blue Yellow
Season Fall Fall Summer Spring Spring Winter Intermediate Intermediate
Cardinal direction West West South East East North Center Center

Chinese medicine

Five Chinese Elements - Diurnal Cycle

The interdependence of zang-fu networks in the body was said to be a circle of five things, and so mapped by the Chinese doctors onto the five phases.

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Mental Quality idealism, spontaneity, curiosity passion, intensity agreeableness, honesty intuition, rationality, mind erudition, resourcefulness, wit
Emotion anger, determination hatred, love anxiety, trust grief, bravery fear, gentleness
Zang (yin organs) liver heart/pericardium spleen/pancreas lung kidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladder small intestine/San Jiao stomach large intestine urinary bladder
Sensory organ eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Body Part tendons pulse muscles skin bones
Body Fluid tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Finger index finger middle finger thumb ring finger pinky finger
Sense sight taste touch smell hearing
Taste[11] sour bitter sweet pungent, umami salty
Smell rancid scorched fragrant rotten putrid
Life birth youth adulthood old age death, conception
Animal scaly feathered human furred shelled

Celestial stem

Main article: Celestial stem
Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stem Jia 甲
Yi 乙
Bing 丙
Ding 丁
Wu 戊
Ji 己
Geng 庚
Xin 辛
Ren 壬
Gui 癸
Year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3

Ming neiyin

In Ziwei, neiyin (纳音) or the method of divination is the further classification of the Five Elements into 60 ming (命), or life orders, based on the ganzhi. Similar to the astrology zodiac, the ming is used by fortune-tellers to analyse a person's personality and future fate.

Order Ganzhi Ming Order Ganzhi Ming Wuxing Element
1Jia Zi 甲子Sea metal 海中金31Jia Wu 甲牛Sand metal 沙中金Metal
2Yi Chou 乙丑32Gui Wei 乙未
3Bing Yin 丙寅Furnace fire 炉中火33Bing Shen 丙申Forest fire 山下火Fire
4Ding Mao 丁卯34Ding You 丁酉
5Wu Chen 戊辰Forest wood 大林木35Wu Xu 戊戌Meadow wood 平地木Wood
6Ji Si 已己36Ji Hai 己亥
7Geng Wu 庚牛Road earth 路旁土37Geng Zi 庚子Adobe earth 臂上土Earth
8Xin Wei 辛未38Xin Chou 辛丑
9Ren Shen 壬申Sword metal 剑锋金39Ren Yin 壬寅Precious metal 金白金Metal
10Gui You 癸酉40Gui Mao 癸卯
11Jia Xu 甲戌Volcanic fire 山头火41Jia Chen 甲辰Lamp fire 佛灯火Fire
12Yi Hai 乙亥42Yi Si 乙己
13Bing Zi 丙子Cave water 洞下水43Bing Wu 丙午Sky water 天河水Water
14Ding Chou 丁丑44Ding Wei 丁未
15Wu Yin 戊寅Fortress earth 城头土45Wu Shen 戊申Highway earth 大驿土Earth
16Ji Mao 已卯46Ji You 已酉
17Geng Chen 庚辰Wax metal 白腊金47Geng Xu 庚戌Jewellery metal 钗钏金Metal
18Xin Si 辛己48Xin Hai 辛亥
19Ren Wu 壬牛Willow wood 杨柳木49Ren Zi 壬子Mulberry wood 桑柘木Wood
20Gui Wei 癸酉50Gui Chou 癸丑
21Jia Shen 甲申Stream water 泉中水51Jia Yin 甲寅Rapids water 大溪水Water
22Yi You 乙酉52Yi Mao 乙卯
23Bing Xu 丙戌Roof tiles earth 屋上土53Bing Chen 丙辰Desert earth 沙中土Earth
24Ding Hai 丁亥54Ding Si 丁巳
25Wu Zi 戊子Lightning fire 霹雳火55Wu Wu 戊牛Sun fire 天上火Fire
26Ji Chou 已丑56Ji Wei 已未
27Geng Yin 庚寅Conifers wood 松柏木57Geng Shen 庚申Pomegranate wood 石榴木Wood
28Xin Mao 庚寅58Xin You 辛酉
29Ren Chen 壬辰River water 长流水59Ren Xu 壬戌Ocean water 大海水Water
30Gui Si 癸巳60Gui Hai 癸亥


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

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Colour Green Red Yellow White Black
Arctic Direction east south center west north
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin juézhǐgōngshāng
solfege mi or E sol or G do or C re or D la or A

Martial arts

T'ai chi ch'uan uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns. Either forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).[12]

The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):

Xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over.
Water Drilling Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser.
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself.
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking.
Earth Crossing Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over.

Tea ceremony

There are spring, summer, fall, and winter teas. The perennial tea ceremony ("perennial", literally means four steps or sequences that are linked together, each representing a season of the year) includes four tea settings (茶席) and a tea master (司茶). The tea settings are:

Each tea setting is arranged and stands for the four directions (north, south, east, and west). A vase of the seasons' flowers is put on tea table. Sometimes if four tea masters are included then five chairs are arranged per tea setting, making a total of twenty plus the 4 tea masters equalling 24, which symbolizes the 24 solar terms of the Chinese calendar, and represents that nature continues or is perennial.

See also



  1. 1 2 Dr Zai, J. Taoism and Science: Cosmology, Evolution, Morality, Health and more. Ultravisum, 2015.
  2. http://www.kheper.net/topics/eastern/wuxing.html
  3. Deng Yu; Zhu Shuanli; Xu Peng; Deng Hai (2000). "五行阴阳的特征与新英译" [Characteristics and a New English Translation of Wu Xing and Yin-Yang]. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 20 (12): 937.
  4. Deng Yu et al; Fresh Translator of Zang Xiang Fractal five System,Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine; 1999
  5. Deng Yu et al,TCM Fractal Sets中医分形集,Journal of Mathematical Medicine ,1999,12(3),264-265
  6. Nathan Sivin (1995), "Science and Medicine in Chinese History," in his Science in Ancient China (Aldershot, England: Variorum), text VI, p. 179.
  7. Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan) p. 73.
  8. 千古中医之张仲景. Wood and Metal were often replaced with air. Lecture Room, CCTV-10.
  9. Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 72.
  10. Chinese Five Elements Chart Information on the Chinese Five Elements from Northern Shaolin Academy in Microsoft Excel 2003 Format
  11. Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey. University of California Press. 5 (12): 596–608. doi:10.2307/2642652. JSTOR 2642652.
  12. Wu, Kung-tsao (2006) [1980]. Wu Family T'ai Chi Ch'uan (吳家太極拳). Chien-ch’uan T’ai-chi Ch’uan Association. ISBN 0-9780499-0-X.

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