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The Five Elements or Wu Xing — Meaning, Formation, Content, History, and Application

The Five Elements in Chinese Culture

The Five Elements in Chinese Culture, Picture from RayRenault.

Five Elements and Yin Yang
Five Elements

What Is the Five Elements Theory?


Five Elements, also named Wu Xing or Five Phases, is the essence of ancient Chinese Philosophy and Cosmology.

It defines the nature and attributes of everything in the universe and its movements and concludes the fundamental theories regarding how ancient Chinese perceived the world. 

Throughout history, it has been widely used in many traditional cultural fields, such as astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, name, diet, Feng Shui, etc. 

Natural Herbs and five elements
Five Elements and Yin Yang

How Are the Five Elements Formed? 


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


This is Taiji, the beginning of the cosmos. 

Taiji the beginning of the cosmos

Yin and Yang


Gradually, the movement of Taiji evolves the Yin and Yang.


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

  • Yang is about releasing energy, representing upward active, bright, expand, exocentric, masculine, and lively.


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

Click to Read More About Taiji and Yin Yang

Yin and Yang

Four Images


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

The Four Images, Lesser Yang - Greater Yang - Lesser Yin - Great Yin, can be:

  • Spring - Summer - Autumn - Winter, and 

  • Birth - Grow - Old - Die, and

  • Wood - Fire - Metal - Water and

  • East  - South - West - North.


Five Elements

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


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


Then the Five Elements or Wuxing are formed. 

five element wood


five element fire


five element earth


five element metal


five element water


Five Elements and Yin Yang

Meaning and Symbolization.


The Five Elements Theory is a philosophical term in ancient Chinese culture that 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 Phases. 


  • Wood: growth, development, extension;

  • Fire: hotness, upward, bright;

  • Metal: convergence, concretion, solid;

  • Water: cold, downward, circulate, nourish;

  • Earth: mild, placid, neutralization. 

Five Elements and Yin Yang