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TCM Five Element Theory

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

The Five Elements

The idea that all of nature is governed by yin and yang and the Five Elements lies at the heart of Chinese medicine. The Five Elements, which are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, represent the fundamental qualities of all matter in the universe. The Chinese term for Element is Xing (行). Xing means to walk or to move, and therefore the word ‘Element’ is somewhat misleading because it implies something more akin to a basic constituent of matter. For this reason, the translation “The Five Phases” is often used. An Element is a process, movement or quality of Qi, no to fixed ‘ building block’

Each Element has its own particular quality of Qi, as soon as the Five Elements are formed, they have each their specific nature. One of the ealier texts describing the Five elements outlined this emphasis on the different qualities of the Elements.

  • Water is the quality in Nature which we describe as soaking and descending.

  • Fire which we describe as blazing and uprising.

  • Wood which permits of curved surfaces or straight edges.

  • Metal which can follow the form of a mould and then becomes hard.

  • Earth which permits of sowing growth and reaping.

Above all, the Five Elements serve as a model for understanding the inexorable succession of the seasons. For many Daoists and Naturalists virtually no distinction was made between the mature of the seasons, the climate resonant with each season and the cyclical changes taking place in the human, animal and vegetable worlds. In plants, the never-ending cycle of growth, flowering, harvest, decline and storing informed them of the differing qualities of each season. The behaviours of animals and humans in each season was also seen to be governed by the same laws.

Chinese medicine, like any system of medicine, is predominantly concerned with understanding and alleviating physical and psychological suffering.

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