In Chinese philosophy, the five elements — also called the five phases or wu xing — are wood, water, fire, earth and metal. These elements are used in several schools of Chinese thought, including feng shui, traditional philosophy, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, and martial arts. Philosophers dedicate their lives to researching these elements and their interactions in the hope of learning more about the intricate and carefully balanced systems which make up the universe.
Thinking about these elements in the traditional Western sense can be confusing, because the Chinese view of them is as constantly shifting entities that coexist in a cyclical cycle of change and progression. According to Chinese philosophy, an imbalance in this cycle can lead to problems. Things like feng shui and traditional Chinese medicine are supposed to identify elemental imbalances and correct or prevent them to keep people happy and healthy.
Wood is the element of growth and creativity, associated with the spring. It is a masculine element with a dark side of anger and depression. Water is a feminine, flowing element associated with patience and quiet strength, but it can also generate fear with its power. Fire is a dynamic, masculine element that moves upwards, and it is associated with joy and luck. When fire goes bad, it brings about hate.
Earth balances feminine and masculine elements, with a tendency to conserve, consolidate, and strengthen. Anxiety and disquiet are associated with earth imbalances. Metal, the final element, is feminine, with a contracting energy and the ability to conduct and control emotion. The negative association with metal is grief.
The five elements feed each other, and they can also consume each other. In the cycle of generation, wood feeds fire, which creates earth in the form of ash, and earth bears metal, which collects water to nourish wood. In the cycle of consumption or overcoming, wood parts earth, which absorbs water, quenching fire to melt metal, which chops wood. When they are in a state of balance, the flow of energy between the elements is smooth and cyclical, rather than static or discordant.
These elements are only a small part of a much larger framework of ideas within Chinese philosophy. In addition to interacting with each other, they also interact with things like locations, people, periods of time, shapes, and colors. Understanding the full complexity of Chinese philosophy as it relates to things like astronomy, tai chi, or acupuncture is usually left to the experts, although you may hear people making a casual remark “so and so has a lot of wood,” in a reference to that element and its associated traits.