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What are the Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Jan 27, 2013

I suffer from anxiety. What do I need to do to re-balance earth? Can someone explain the five elements in Chinese medicine?

By burcinc — On Jan 27, 2013

@ankara-- I think that's the man idea, but it's very detailed and most people who are serious about creating harmony using five element theory in and around their home hire professionals who can tell them how to change their home to do this.

But there are colors and objects that symbolize the different elements. For example, I know that the color blue symbolizes water, so do mirrors. Red symbolizes fire, white symbolizes metal, earth is yellow and wood is green. But they also have directions associated with them so they can't be put just anywhere.

By bluedolphin — On Jan 26, 2013

I believe it is popular these days to achieve feng shui balance inside the home with furniture, decorations and so forth. I've heard of many celebrities doing this with their homes.

How do the five elements apply in this case? Is the idea to place things that represent the five elements together in a room?

By dbuckley212 — On Jul 19, 2010

Much of eastern medicine having to do with the five elements is selected because of "sympathetic" or "associative" magical thinking. This means that sometimes a plant or animal will be selected as an ingredient because of its apparent similarity to the body part which needs to be cured.

By Renegade — On Jul 19, 2010

The interactions of these five elements create what appears to be a pentagram. The pentagram has many different interpretations, most of them originally having to do with well-being, much like a proper interaction of the five elements. However, an upside-down pentagram is a symbol which raises many negative connotations due to its association with cult groups.

By anon38481 — On Jul 26, 2009

in the first paragraph you all used water twice in the five elements of chinese philosophy, isn't it supposed to be wood, water, earth, fire, metal?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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