Yin Yang and Five Elements — Meaning, Content, History, and Applications in Tradition of China

Nowadays, those terms, Taiji, Yin Yang, Four Images, and Five Elements, sound mysterious and sometimes connected with being superstitious. They are important parts of the Taoism Religion, Fengshui, and divination. 


Moreover, they are the essence of ancient Chinese Cosmology and Philosophy. 

Taiji — Yin Yang —Four Images — Five Elements

In ancient Chinese Cosmology, the whole universe was believed undifferentiated and oneness.


This is Taiji, the beginning of the cosmos. 

Taiji the beginning of the cosmos

Gradually, Yin and Yang evolved out of the Taiji.


Yang is about releasing energy, which represents those that are upward active, bright, expand, exocentric, masculine, and lively.


Yin is about contracting energy, which is downward, passive, dark, accumulated, introverted, feminine, and quiet. 


Everything in the world has both Yin and Yang side; they are in constant motion and mutual transformation. 

Yin and Yang

The motion of Yin and Yang, then, generates the Four Images.


The transitions between Yin and Yang are the Lesser Yin and Lesser Yang. 

Lesser Yang - Yang - Lesser Yin - Yin can be:

  • Spring - Summer - Autumn - Winter, and 

  • Birth - Grow - Old - Die, and

  • Wood - Fire - Metal - Water and

  • East  - South - West - North.


All lives birth out of and come back to the earth; four seasons change under the Moon and the Sun.


So, the Moon and the Sun together constitute a Taiji, which contains both Yin and Yang; it corresponds to the earth on the ground. 


Then the Five Elements are formed. 







Five Elements — Meaning


The Five Elements Theory is a philosophical term in ancient Chinese culture, which defines the nature and attributes of everything in the universe and its movements. 


The Wood, Fire, Metal, Water, and Earth are five specific representatives, or symbols, of the Five Elements. 


  • Wood: growth, development, extension;

  • Fire: hotness, upward, bright;

  • Metal: convergence, concretion, solid;

  • Water: cold, downward, circulate, nourish;

  • Earth: mild, placid, neutralization. 


Generating and Restraining Cycles of the Five Elements


The only permanent thing is changing.


Therefore, all the elements in the universe are in constant motion, which constituents interactions between the Five Elements.


They can create or overcome one another. 


Inter Generating: 


Wood → Fire: branches can create fire

Fire → Earth: burnt ashes becomes earth

Earth → Metal: metal ores are formed inside the earth

Metal → Water: melted metal will be liquid

Water → Wood: water nourishes wooden plant


Inter Restraining:


Metal ⌦ Wood: metal tools can cut off plants

Wood ⌦ Earth: roots of trees grow inside of the earth and prevent soil erosion

Earth ⌦ Water: dykes and dams can stop the flood

Water ⌦ Fire: water can put out a fire

Fire ⌦ Metal: fire melts metal into liquid 

Origin of Yin - Yang and Five Elements


It’s quite possible that the Ancient Chinese Cosmology was more of collective intelligence, however, there are some famous kings that are related to the invention of this theory. 


Fu Xi, an honorable king from around 5000 years ago, used to observe the universe, trying to figure out a general rule.


Soon, he got two pictograms (named He Tu Luo Shu) from mythical creatures, from which he concluded Yin - Yang, Five Elements, and Eight Diagrams. 

He Tu Luo Shu

In the Book of Documents and the Book of Changes, the theory was mentioned.


These two ancient books were written and preserved in some ancient royal places, and then organized and edited by Confucius (551 B. C. — 479 B. C.) in centuries later. 

Application of of Yin - Yang and Five Elements


Chinese Astronomy and Calendar 


In ancient astronomy, the moon is Yin, while the sun is Yang. 


The Five Elements correspond to five bright stars, Jupiter (wood), Mars (fire), Saturn (earth), Venus (metal), and Mercury (water). 


According to the Inter Generating Order (Wood → Fire → Earth → Metal → Water), each of these five stars shows up for 72 days in the Arctic sky in turn, which corresponds to the changing of the seasons on the earth. 


Meanwhile, based on the movement of the five stars (moving toward the earth is Yang while moving away is Yin), ancient Chinese created the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches System to record and count in the Traditional Chinese Calendar.

Movement of Five Planets

Chinese Medicine and Food Therapy


A human’s body is considered a complete cycle, which contains a whole system of Yin Yang and Five Elements. 


Important organs, emotions, and food all correspond to the Five Elements, based on their different attributes.


Emotion and diet may influence certain organs with the same attributes.


Therefore, the Balance of Yin and Yang and the Neutralization of the Five Elements is the essence of Chinese Medicine and Food Therapy. 

Chinese Food Therapy

Wood: Spring — Eye, Liver, Gallbladder — Anger —  Sour — Green Colored Food

Fire: Summer — Tongue, Heart, Small Intestine — Happy — Bitter — Red Colored Food

Earth: Long Summer — Mouth, Spleen, Stomach — Think — Sweet — Yellow Colored Food

Metal: Autumn — Nose, Lung, Large Intestine — Sad — Spicy — White Colored Food

Water: Winter — Ear, Kidney, Bladder — Fear — Salty — Black Colored Food


Take “Wood” for instance: in spring, or when someone’s eye, liver, or gallbladder feel uncomfortable, or for irritable people, it’s good to eat sour flavor or green colored food. 


Name and the Five Elements

Nowadays, many Chinese parents still would name their babies based on the Five Element theory. 


Since the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches is the counting system of the Chinese Calendar; based on a person’s birth year, month, date, and hour, one’s Five Elements’ attribute can be calculated. 


In order to balance the Five Elements, parents would use Chinese Characters that have the baby’s least attribute.


For instance, if someone has no or few Element of Fire, his or her name can use Chinese Characters that contain the Fire part. 

Chinese Characters of Five Elements

Also, people can use the Inter Generating relationship to name their child; the father or mother’s attribute can generate the baby’s attribute.


For instance, if the father has the most Element of Water, then his child can use Chinese Characters that contain the Wood (water generates wood) part. 


These two principles also apply to name a company or choose a place with a good name to live in. 


Yin Yang and Five Elements in Feng Shui


Every person has his or her own attribute of the Five Elements, so does every house or apartment. 


Wood: East — 3rd or 8th Floor — Cyan 

Fire: South — 2nd or 7th Floor — Red

Earth: Middle — 5th or 10th Floor — Yellow

Metal: West — 4th or 9th Floor — White

Water:  North — 1st or 6th Floor — Black


Color and material of the inside decorations also follow the theory.


For instance, green plants go to the east, the fish tank will be on the north, etc. 


Read More About Feng Shui 


Fundamental Theory of the Divination 


Throughout Chinese history, there have been several ways to predict someone’s future, or to pray for the blessing from ancestors or celestial beings, the Yin Yang and Five Elements is always the fundamental theory.


Nowadays, fortune telling, using someone’s time of birth and attribute of Five Elements, is still quite popular in China.

Read More in Ancient Classic The I Ching