Chinese five elements

Chinese 5 Element Theory – Wu Xing

Chinese Five Elements Theory -Wu Xing (五行) – 5 Element Cycles Explained

The Chinese five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Wood comes first, water comes last with earth in the middle. In Chinese five element theory the relationships between the five Chinese elements forms four dynamic cycles:

  1. Creative cycle (also known as generating cycle or productive cycle) follow the arrows clockwise around the outside:
    Each element is the mother of the following element and the son of the preceding element. Wood feeds fire, fire creates (ash) earth, earth produces metal, metal collects (condensation) water and water nourishes wood completing the cycle.
  2. Weakening cycle (also known as exhaustive cycle) counter-clockwise around the outside:
    The opposite of the creative cycle. For example; when metal ore is removed from the earth it becomes exhausted.
  3. Destructive cycle (also known as overcoming cycle or control cycle) follow the straight lines:
    Each element exerts control to suppress or inhibit the following element. For example; wood takes nutrients from earth, earth can stop the flow of water, water can overcome fire, fire can melt metal and a metal (axe) can split wood.
  4. Suppression cycle (also known as insults cycle or counter-acting cycle) backwards around the straight lines:
    If the acted-upon element is too strong, or the acting element is too weak, the cycle can temporarily reverse. For example; if there’s not enough water to put out a fire the water is vaporized and the fire continues. However, if the flow of water is too strong it could overcome its river banks and flow freely.

The Chinese five elements (also known as five phases and five elementals) influence every aspect of daily life in Chinese culture. From setting up home (feng shui) to cooking healthy Chinese food. Entertaining guests (tea ceremonies), listening to music, health (Chinese medicine) and relaxation (tai chi and other martial arts). Making decisions (Chinese astrology) through philosophy, spirituality and religion (Chinese cosmology).

five element cycles
Chinese five element theory chart created by ADDucation and released under the Creative Commons Zero license. No credit required but always appreciated.

List of Chinese Five Elements in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese Five Elements Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine List

More people rely on traditional Chinese medicine for their health and well being than western medicine. A traditional Chinese medicine practitioner takes a holistic approach to diagnosis. The external evidence presented by a person (their body, pallor, skin, hair, gait, nails, feet, hands, tongue and bodily fluids) is taken in conjunction with the meridian system (which charts the flow of life-energy “qi” through the body) to diagnose “blockages” and suggest treatments. These could include acupuncture, acupressure, manipulative therapy “Tui na”, massage and herbal remedies.

Important! This ADDucation list is published for information only and does NOT constitute medical advice. If you have any health issues always seek professional medical advice.

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)
Color/sGreen (Azure Blue).RedYellow (Brown).White (Silver).Black
Ying organs (Zang)LiverHeart / pericardium.The spleen / pancreas.The lungsThe kidneys.
Yang organs (Zu)Gall bladder.Small intestine.StomachLarge intestine.Urinary bladder.
Face parts / Sensory organsEyesTongueMouthNoseEars
Bodily fluidsTearsSweatSalivaMucusUrine
Body partTendonsPulseMuscleSkinBones
Bodily fluidTearsSweatSalivaMucusUrine
FingersIndex finger.Middle finger.ThumbRing finger.Little finger.
Body tissueLigamentsArteriesMusclesSkin and hairBones
Life-stageBirthChildhood and adolescence.AdulthoodMaturation, old age.Old age, death.
List of Chinese Five Elements in Chinese Cosmology

How Chinese Cosmology Uses Chinese Five Element Theory

In Chinese cosmology (The System of Correspondences) the universe has three layers:

  • Heaven (tian)
  • Earth (Di 地)
  • Humans (ren 人)

When the yin and yang aspects of each of the five elements are in balance we can lead happier balanced lives. Heaven and earth gave birth to the ten thousand things, including humans, and we are the most valuable treasure. Each layer is made up from the same five elements and they are connected to universal energies which resonate within each layer and between the three layers. Consequently our bodies mirror the energy in the universe internally. For example, the five yin organs (the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys) are connected to earthly energy, and the six yang organs (the small intestine, gall bladder, stomach, large intestine, bladder and pericardium) are connected to heavenly energy. The energy of all five elements connects the layers together in the universal macrocosm.

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)Chinese 5 Elements Notes:
The PlanetsJupiterMarsSaturnVenusMercuryThese five planets, combined with the Sun and the Moon, make up the Seven Rulers (Qi Zheng). Their position in twenty eight Chinese lunar houses governs everything that has happened in the past or is yet to happen in the future on a personal, earthy and universal level.
Heavenly creaturesAzure Dragon / Blue-green Dragon.Vermilion Bird / Scarlet Bird.Yellow Dragon.White Tiger.Black Tortoise / Mysterious Warrior.The 28 lunar houses are divided into four directions, each with seven houses. The east by the blue/green dragon, the south by the red bird, the west by the white tiger and the north by the black turtle and snake.
Seasons of the yearSpringSummerChanging of the seasons / Late Summer.AutumnWinterEach season lasts seventy two days.
Moon PhaseNew Yang.Full Yang.Yin/Yang balance.New Yin.Full Yin.
Direction and Natural phenomenaExpansive and external in all directions.AscendingStabilizing (harmony).Contracting and internal.Descending
Spiritual dimensionEthereal soul (hun 魂).Spirit (shen 神).Intention (yi 意).Corporeal soul (po 魄)Vital essence (jing 精).
Beneficial emotionKindness (ren 仁).Respect (li 禮).Honesty (xin 信).Discernment (yi 義).Wisdom (zhi 志).
Damaging emotionAnger (nu 怒).Excessive joy (xi 喜).Worry (si 思).Grief (ku 苦).Fear (kong 恐).
Chinese Five Elements in Martial Arts Table

Chinese Five Elements Theory in Martial Arts & Five Elements Boxing (Wuxingquan)

The Chinese five elements (directions) can be combined with the eight powers/trigrams of the Bagua (Ba Fa/Pa Kua/eight symbols) associated with Taoist cosmology to give thirteen tactics, often referred to as “five elements, eight methods”. The Chinese five elements can also be combined with the I Ching 64 permutations “hexagrams” (derived from the trigrams) and the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac (Sheng Xiao). These combinations offered many other tactics which have evolved into other arts and methods.

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)
DirectionsLook around / move left (Zuo gu).Move forwards (Jin bu).Centered (Zhong ding).Move backwards (Tui bu).
EnergyGenerative energy.Expansive energy.Stabilizing energy.Contracting energy.Conserving energy.
Taichi chuan energiesJoining or connecting energy.Following energy.Do not let go and do not resist.Adhering energy.Sticking energy.
 connecting jin.following jin.adhering jin.sticking jin.
Wuxingquan five fistsCrushing Fist (Pengquan).Cannon Fist (Paoquan).Crossing Fist (Hernquan).Splitting / Cutting Fist (Piquan).Drilling Fist (Tzuanquan).
List of Chinese Zodiac Signs

Chinese Five Elements Theory – List of Zodiac Signs

Each of the 12 Chinese zodiac animal signs is associated with one of the Chinese five elements. Use the table below to find the fixed Chinese element for each sign of the Chinese Zodiac.

Chinese Zodiac Animal SignsChinese 5 Elements (Wu Xing)
Monkey, Rooster.Metal
Tiger, Rabbit.Wood
Rat, Pig.Water
Snake, Horse.Fire
Ox, Dragon, Sheep, Dog.Earth

Each Chinese animal sign is also sub-divided into the five elements. In Chinese astrology the animal signs play a similar role to the signs of the zodiac in western culture.
You can find your Chinese animal sign and associated personality traits, lucky colors, ideal partners and more by entering your birth year on ADDucation’s Chinese Animal Signs of the Zodiac List

Chinese Five Elements in Chinese Music

Chinese Five Elements Theory in Chinese Music List

The Chinese pentatonic scale has just five notes compared to the seven note western scale. Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si becomes:

  • Gong (Do)
  • Shang (Re)
  • Jiao (Mi)
  • Zhi (Sol)
  • Yu (La)

Each tone influences the human body in different ways:

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)Notes
NoteJiao (Mi)
Affects the liver.
Soothing, giving a sense of comfort and relaxation.
Can be used to dispel anger.
Zhi (Sol)
Affects the heart.
Invigorating with a  sense of passion and excitement.
Can be used to treat depression.
Gong (Do)
Affects the spleen.
Mediating in nature giving a sense of calm and seriousness.
Ideal to help anyone who has been frightened.
Shang (Re)
Affects the lungs.
Cleansing in nature and gives a sense of quietness.
Can be used to help anyone suffering from anxiety and irritability.
Yu (La)
Affects the kidneys.
Cooling and moistening in nature with a sedative effect.
Can be helpful for insomnia caused by excessive joy or sorrow.
Gong=Do (note 1)
Shang=Re (note 2)
Jiao=Mi (note 3)
Zhi=Sol (note 5)
Yu=La (note 6)
notes 4 (Fa) and 7 (Si) are omitted.
ToneChueh (Jiao)
Chueh based music is Spring like. Makes one feel conciliatory and kind hearted.
Chih (Zhi)
Chih based music is highly emotional, even fiery and makes one feel generous.
Keng (Gong)
Keng based melodies are noble and can make one tolerant and kind.
Shang based melodies are unbending and heavy like metal which makes one feel righteous and friendly.
Yue (Yu)
Yue based tunes are melancholy, like running water and can help restore balance and feel generous.
Five tones are based on perfect fifth, in order of Gong, Zheng, Shang, Jiao, Yu. Mode-structures of Gong and Zheng have sprightly major property, while mode-structures of Jiao and Yu have oppressive ditty property, mode-structure of Shang is between the two. Because mode-structures of five notes do not include acumination sound, tense and disharmonious intervals like minor second, tritone, major second seventh, the whole music is tranquil and soft, by which people can express emotions. For example, happy memories, beautiful wishes, nature and so on.
Emotions / Feelings
AngerOver excitement.Anxiety /Meditate.Grief / Worry.FearSee the emotions in our Chinese Horoscope table.
VirtuesHumanityMannerTrustRighteousnessWisdomVirtues ascribed by Dong Zhong Shu.
Chinese Five Elements and Feng Shui

Chinese Five Elements Theory in Feng Shui List

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)
Compass directionEastSouthCenterWestNorth

Chinese 5 element theory underpins the Chinese art (system/practice/mythology) of Feng Shui which is used to design and position things, based on ying and yang energy flow, to achieve harmony with the environment.

Chinese Five Elements in Religion

Chinese Five Elements Theory and Religion List

The Chinese five elements are an integral part of ceremonies and rituals in religions including Taoism, Confuscianism, Buddism and others.

Taoist shrines typically include:

  • Five bowls of fruit which represent the Chinese five elements in their pre-natal (earlier heaven) form in the creative cycle between the elements.
  • Five plates of food which represent the Chinese five elements in their post-natal (later heaven) form in the destructive cycle between the elements.

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Chinese Five Elements in Chinese Cooking

Chinese Five Element Theory Related to Chinese Cooking Table

Within the framework of five element theory Chinese doctors, acupuncturists, herbalists etc. strive to maintain a healthy balance between the five elements taking into account many factors. In general terms a deficiency (or excess) in any of the five ying and yang organs can be addressed by eating food which affects the element/s that needs to be strengthened and avoiding foods which weaken it. In western culture we often say “we are what we eat” so here’s a flavor of how 5 element theory can be used to improve health and well being.

Important! This ADDucation list is published for information only. Always seek professional medical advice before making changes.

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)
FoodsGreen colored food is supposed to benefit your liver, gall bladder, muscles, eyes and joints.Red colored food is supposed to benefit your heart, small intestine and brain including brown sugar etc.Yellow colored food is supposed to benefit your spleen and digestive system including egg yolk, bean curd, ginger, honey etc.White colored food is supposed to benefit your lungs, large intestine, nose, respiratory system and skin including noodles, milk, , soy milk, tofu/bean curd, white wood ear fungus, rock sugar etc.Black colored food is supposed to benefit your kidneys, bones, urinary bladder, reproductive organs and ears including seaweeds, Shiitake mushrooms, wood ear fungus, black vinegar, tea, sweet bean sauce etc.
Ying organs (Zang)LiverHeart, pericardiumSpleen, pancreasThe lungsThe kidneys
Yang organs (Zu)Gall bladderSmall intestineStomachLarge intestineUrinary bladder
VegetablesGreen colored vegetables including Chinese leeks, green bell peppers, wasabi, green peas, lettuce, string beans, zucchini/courgettes etc.Red colored vegetables including, sweet potato, carrots, chilli, red pepper, tomatoes, beets, okra, dandelion root, red bell peppers, scallions etc.Yellow colored vegetables including sweetcorn, taro, yellow sweet potato, pumpkin, butternut squash, yellow pepper, soy beans, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga/swede, spinach etc.White colored vegetables including onions, daikon (radish), garlic, bitter melon, winter melon, broccoli, bamboo shoots, asparagus, celery, cucumber, mustard green etc.Black colored vegetables including eggplant/aubergine, kale, water chestnuts etc.
FruitPlums, avocado, grapes, lemons, limes etc.Apple, strawberry, goji berry, dragon fruit, cherry, persimmon etc.Jujube (Chinese date), orange, star fruit, lemon, pineapple, papaya, fig etc.Peaches, pears, bananas, apricots etc.Chestnut, blueberry, raisins, black grapes, mulberry, pomegranate, raspberry, watermelon etc.
Wheat, oats, ryeAmaranth, cornMillet, barleyHemp, riceBuckwheat
Legumes / Pulses / Beans
Mung beans, green lentils, lima beans etc.Red lentils, red beans etc.Chick peas/garbanzo peas etc.Navy white beans etc.Black beans, aduki beans, kidney beans, pinto beans etc.
Nuts / SeedsBrazil nuts, cashew nuts etc.Sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts etc.Pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, peanuts etc.Almonds, white sesame seeds, lotus seed etc.Black sesame seeds, walnuts etc.
Avoid / CautionSoft diaryChocolate, sugarMeatEggsCheese
Flavor / TastesSourBitterSweetPungent / SpicySalty
Tea ceremony settingsSpring wind
green, east.
Summer Dew
red, south.
Center incense
yellow, up and down.
Fall Sounds
white, west.
Winter sunshine
black, north.
Chinese Five Elements in Other Lists

More Chinese Five Elements Theory References

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Elements (Wu Xing)Wood (mu 木)Fire (huo 火)Earth (tu 土)Metal (jin 金)Water (shui 水)
Materialsair, sound, minerals, mana, ink, acid, mind, rubber, paper, static, wax, plywood, health.visible light, soap, thermal radiation, uv rays, rust, bleach, infrared beams, burn, blaze, oil, glass, mass, clay.rock, carbon, dust, sand, energy, powder, space, sugar, smoke, gems, ash, gravity,, platinum, holy water, snow, ice, frost, alloys, forge, nimbus clouds, ether, milk.the sea, vegetation, electrical currents, storms, rain, steam, fluid, mud, slime, sludge, salt, time, pressure, glass mirror, shadows.
LivestockDogSheep, goatCattleChickenPig
Animal typeScalyFeatheredHumanFurredShelled
Climate / Weather
WindHot / Heat.Dampness / Humid.DrynessCold

ADDucation’s Chinese five elements theory lists, five element theory charts and tables have attempted to distill the key facts from centuries worth of inscrutable wisdom. If you spot a mistake or you can help us along the path to further enlightenment please add your comments below…

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