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

The Five Elements, also named Wu Xing (or Wuxing) or Five Phases, including Wood, Fire, Metal, Water, and Earth, constitute the essence of ancient Chinese Philosophy and Cosmology.

It defines the nature and attributes of everything in the universe, including its movements.


Furthermore, it encapsulates the fundamental theories regarding how ancient Chinese perceived the world.

Throughout history, it has found widespread use in various traditional cultural fields, including astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, naming practices, food culture, Feng Shui, and more.

The Five Elements in Chinese Culture

The Five Elements in Chinese Culture, Picture from RayRenault.

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 sides; 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 

  • Birth - Grow - Old - Die

  • Wood - Fire - Metal - Water

  • East  - South - West - North


Five Elements

All lives are born out of and would 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 Elements Meaning and Symbolism


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. 

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 elements.


They can create or overcome one another. 


Inter Generating of the Five Elements


Wood → Fire: branches can create fire

Fire → Earth: burnt ashes become 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 of the Five Elements


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 the Yin Yang and Five Elements Theory in History


It’s entirely possible that Ancient Chinese Cosmology was more of collective intelligence.


However, some famous kings are related to the invention of the Yin Yang and Five Elements 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 (or Bagua). 

He Tu Luo Shu

The theory was mentioned in the Book of Documents and the Book of Changes.


These two ancient books were written and preserved in some old royal places and then compiled by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC). 

Later, the Wuxing theory was formed by the great philosopher Zou Yan (about 324 BC — 250 BC) and further developed and matured in the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). 

Five Elements in Chinese Astrology and Calendar


In ancient Chinese Astrology, the moon is Yin, while the sun is Yang. 


The Wuxing corresponds to five great 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 correspond to the Five Elements

Five Elements in Chinese Medicine and Food Therapy

A human's body is considered a complete cycle, containing a whole Yin Yang and Wuxing. 

People's organ systems, emotions, and food correspond to specific elements based on their different attributes.


Emotion and diet may influence specific organs with the same attributes, hence one's health condition.


Therefore, the Balance of Yin and Yang and the Neutralization of the Five Elements are the essences 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 feels uncomfortable, or for irritable people, it’s good to eat sour flavor or green-colored food.