Wuxing (Chinese Philosophy)
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Wuxing Chinese Philosophy
Diagram of the interactions between the wuxing. The "generative" cycle is illustrated by grey arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the "destructive" or "conquering" cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle.
Tablet in the Temple of Heaven of Beijing, written in Chinese and Manchu, dedicated to the gods of the Five Movements. The Manchu word usiha, meaning "star", explains that this tablet is dedicated to the five planets: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury and the movements which they govern.

Wuxing (Chinese: ; pinyin: w?xíng), usually translated as Five Phases, is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs, and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs. The "Five Phases" are Fire (? hu?), Water (? shu?), Wood (? ), Metal or Gold (? j?n), and Earth or Soil (? t?). This order of presentation is known as the "Days of the Week" sequence. In the order of "mutual generation" ( xi?ngsh?ng), they are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. In the order of "mutual overcoming" ( xi?ngkè), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[1][2][3]

The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena. After it came to maturity in the second or first century BCE during the Han dynasty, this device was employed in many fields of early Chinese thought, including seemingly disparate fields such as Yi jing divination, alchemy, feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy, and martial arts.


Xíng (?) of w?xíng () means moving; a planet is called a 'moving star' ( xíngx?ng) in Chinese. W?xíng originally refers to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Venus) that create five dimensions of earth life.[4] W?xíng is also widely translated as "Five Elements" and this is used extensively by many including practitioners of Five Element acupuncture. This translation arose by false analogy with the Western system of the four elements.[5] Whereas the classical Greek elements were concerned with substances or natural qualities, the Chinese xíng are "primarily concerned with process and change," hence the common translation as "phases" or "agents".[6] By the same token, is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood".[7] The word element is thus used within the context of Chinese medicine with a different meaning to its usual meaning.

It should be recognized that the word phase, although commonly preferred, is not perfect. Phase is a better translation for the five seasons (?? w?yùn) mentioned below, and so agents or processes might be preferred for the primary term xíng. Manfred Porkert attempts to resolve this by using Evolutive Phase for w?xíng and Circuit Phase for w?yùn, but these terms are unwieldy.

Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts (no later than 168 BC) also present the w?xíng as "five virtues" or types of activities.[8] Within Chinese medicine texts the w?xíng are also referred to as w?y?n () or a combination of the two characters (??? w?xíngy?n) these emphasise the correspondence of five elements to five 'seasons' (four seasons plus one). Another tradition refers to the w?xíng as w?dé (), the Five Virtues [zh].

The phases

The five phases are around 73 days each and are usually used to describe the state in nature:

  • Wood/Spring: a period of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality
  • Fire/Summer: a period of swelling, flowering, brimming with fire and energy
  • Earth: the in-between transitional seasonal periods, or a separate 'season' known as Late Summer or Long Summer - in the latter case associated with leveling and dampening (moderation) and fruition
  • Metal/Autumn: a period of harvesting and collecting
  • Water/Winter: a period of retreat, where stillness and storage pervades


The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles, a generating or creation (? sh?ng) cycle, also known as "mother-son", and an overcoming or destruction (? ) cycle, also known as "grandfather-grandson", of interactions between the phases. Within Chinese medicine the effects of these two main relations are further elaborated:

  • Inter-promoting (?? xi?ngsh?ng): the effect in the generating (? sh?ng) cycle
  • Weakening (??/?? xi?ngxiè): the effect in a deficient or reverse generating (? sh?ng) cycle
  • Inter-regulating (?? xi?ngkè): the effect in the overcoming (? ) cycle
  • Overacting (?? xi?ngchéng): the effect in an excessive overcoming (? ) cycle
  • Counteracting (?? xi?ngw? or ?? xi?nghào): the effect in a deficient or reverse overcoming (? ) cycle


Common verbs for the sh?ng cycle include "generate", "create" or "strengthens", as well as "grow" or "promote". The phase interactions in the sh?ng cycle are:

  • Wood feeds Fire
  • Fire produces Earth (ash, lava)
  • Earth bears Metal (geological processes produce minerals)
  • Metal collects Water (water vapor condenses on metal)
  • Water nourishes Wood


A deficient sh?ng cycle is called the xiè cycle and is the reverse of the sh?ng cycle. Common verbs for the xiè include "weaken", "drain", "diminish" or "exhaust". The phase interactions in the xiè cycle are:

  • Wood depletes Water
  • Water rusts Metal
  • Metal impoverishes Earth (overmining or over-extraction of the earth's minerals)
  • Earth smothers Fire
  • Fire burns Wood (forest fires)


Common verbs for the cycle include "controls", "restrains" and "fathers", as well as "overcome" or "regulate". The phase interactions in the cycle are:

  • Wood parts (or stabilizes) Earth (roots of trees can prevent soil erosion)
  • Earth contains (or directs) Water (dams or river banks)
  • Water dampens (or regulates) Fire
  • Fire melts (or refines or shapes) Metal
  • Metal chops (or carves) Wood


An excessive cycle is called the chéng cycle. Common verbs for the chéng cycle include "restrict", "overwhelm", "dominate" or "destroy". The phase interactions in the chéng cycle are:

  • Wood depletes Earth (depletion of nutrients in soil, overfarming, overcultivation)
  • Earth obstructs Water (over-damming)
  • Water extinguishes Fire
  • Fire vaporizes Metal
  • Metal overharvests Wood (deforestation)


A deficient cycle is called the w? cycle and is the reverse of the cycle. Common verbs for the w? cycle can include "insult" or "harm". The phase interactions in the w? cycle are:

  • Wood dulls Metal
  • Metal de-energizes Fire (metals conduct heat away)
  • Fire evaporates Water
  • Water muddies (or destabilizes) Earth
  • Earth rots Wood (overpiling soil on wood can rot the wood)

Cosmology and feng shui

Another illustration of the cycle.

According to wuxing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five phases. Each phase has a complex series of associations with different aspects of nature, as can be seen in the following table. In the ancient Chinese form of geomancy, known as Feng Shui, practitioners all based their art and system on the five phases (wuxing). All of these phases are represented within the trigrams. Associated with these phases are colors, seasons and shapes; all of which are interacting with each other.[9]

Based on a particular directional energy flow from one phase to the next, the interaction can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive. A proper knowledge of each aspect of energy flow will enable the Feng Shui practitioner to apply certain cures or rearrangement of energy in a way they believe to be beneficial for the receiver of the Feng Shui Treatment.

Movement Metal Metal Fire Wood Wood Water Earth Earth
Trigram hanzi ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Trigram pinyin qián duì zhèn xùn k?n gèn k?n
Trigrams ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
I Ching Heaven Lake Fire Thunder Wind Water Mountain Field
Planet (Celestial Body) Neptune Venus Mars Jupiter Pluto Mercury Uranus Saturn
Color Indigo White Crimson Green Scarlet Black Purple Yellow
Day Friday Friday Tuesday Thursday Thursday Wednesday Saturday Saturday
Season Autumn Autumn Summer Spring Spring Winter Intermediate Intermediate
Cardinal direction West West South East East North Center Center

Dynastic transitions

According to the Warring States period political philosopher Zou Yan (c. 305-240 BCE), each of the five elements possesses a personified "virtue" (de ?), which indicates the foreordained destiny (yun ?) of a dynasty; accordingly, the cyclic succession of the elements also indicates dynastic transitions. Zou Yan claims that the Mandate of Heaven sanctions the legitimacy of a dynasty by sending self-manifesting auspicious signs in the ritual color (yellow, blue, white, red, and black) that matches the element of the new dynasty (Earth, Wood, Metal, Fire, and Water). From the Qin dynasty onward, most Chinese dynasties invoked the theory of the Five Elements to legitimize their reign.[10]

Chinese medicine

Five Elements - diurnal cycle

The interdependence of zang-fu networks in the body was said to be a circle of five things, and so mapped by the Chinese doctors onto the five phases.[11][12]

In order to explain the integrity and complexity of the human body, Chinese medical scientists and physicians use the Five Elements theory to classify the human body's endogenous influences on organs, physiological activities, pathological reactions, and environmental or exogenous influences.This diagnostic capacity is extensively used in traditional five phase acupunture today, as opposed to the modern eight principal based Traditional Chinese medicine.[13][14]

Celestial stem

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stem Jia ?
Yi ?
Bing ?
Ding ?
Wu ?
Ji ?
Geng ?
Xin ?
Ren ?
Gui ?
Year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3

Ming neiyin

In Ziwei, neiyin () or the method of divination is the further classification of the Five Elements into 60 ming (?), or life orders, based on the ganzhi. Similar to the astrology zodiac, the ming is used by fortune-tellers to analyse a person's personality and future fate.

Order Ganzhi Ming Order Ganzhi Ming Element
1 Jia Zi Sea metal 31 Jia Wu Sand metal Metal
2 Yi Chou 32 Yi Wei
3 Bing Yin Furnace fire 33 Bing Shen Forest fire Fire
4 Ding Mao 34 Ding You
5 Wu Chen Forest wood 35 Wu Xu Meadow wood Wood
6 Ji Si 36 Ji Hai
7 Geng Wu Road earth 37 Geng Zi Adobe earth Earth
8 Xin Wei 38 Xin Chou
9 Ren Shen Sword metal 39 Ren Yin Precious metal Metal
10 Gui You 40 Gui Mao
11 Jia Xu Volcanic fire 41 Jia Chen Lamp fire Fire
12 Yi Hai 42 Yi Si
13 Bing Zi Cave water 43 Bing Wu Sky water Water
14 Ding Chou 44 Ding Wei
15 Wu Yin Fortress earth 45 Wu Shen Highway earth Earth
16 Ji Mao 46 Ji You
17 Geng Chen Wax metal 47 Geng Xu Jewellery metal Metal
18 Xin Si 48 Xin Hai
19 Ren Wu Willow wood 49 Ren Zi Mulberry wood Wood
20 Gui Wei 50 Gui Chou
21 Jia Shen Stream water 51 Jia Yin Rapids water Water
22 Yi You 52 Yi Mao
23 Bing Xu Roof tiles earth 53 Bing Chen Desert earth Earth
24 Ding Hai 54 Ding Si
25 Wu Zi Lightning fire 55 Wu Wu Sun fire Fire
26 Ji Chou 56 Ji Wei
27 Geng Yin Conifer wood 57 Geng Shen Pomegranate wood Wood
28 Xin Mao 58 Xin You
29 Ren Chen River water 59 Ren Xu Ocean water Water
30 Gui Si 60 Gui Hai


The Yuèlìng chapter () of the L?jì () and the Huáinánz? () make the following correlations:

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Colour Green Red Yellow White Black
Arctic Direction east south center west north
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch ? ? ? ? ?
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin jué zh? g?ng sh?ng y?
solfege mi or E sol or G do or C re or D la or A
  • The Chinese word ? q?ng, has many meanings, including green, azure, cyan, and black. It refers to green in wuxing.
  • In most modern music, various five note or seven note scales (e.g., the major scale) are defined by selecting five or seven frequencies from the set of twelve semi-tones in the Equal tempered tuning. The Chinese "l?" tuning is closest to the ancient Greek tuning of Pythagoras.

Martial arts

T'ai chi ch'uan uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns. Either forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).[10]

The Five Steps ( w? bù):

  • Jìn bù (, in simplified characters ) - forward step
  • Tùi bù () - backward step
  • Z?o gù (, in simplified characters ) - left step
  • Yòu pàn () - right step
  • Zh?ng dìng () - central position, balance, equilibrium

Xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting ? P? To split like an axe chopping up and over
Water Drilling ? / ? Zu?n Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser
Wood Crushing ? B?ng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself
Fire Pounding ? Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking
Earth Crossing ? / ? Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over

Wuxing heqidao, Gogyo Aikido (-Chinese) is an art form with its roots in Confucian, Taoists and Buddhist theory. This art is centralised around applied peace and health studies and not that of defence or material application. The unification of mind, body and environment is emphasised using the anatomy and physiological theory of yin, yang and five-element Traditional Chinese medicine. Its movements, exercises and teachings cultivate, direct and harmonise the QI.[10]

Gogyo (Japan)

During the 5th and 6th centuries,[] Japan adopted various philosophical disciplines such as Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism through monks and physicians from China. In particular, wuxing was adapted into gogy? (). Theories on gogy? have been extensively practiced in Japanese acupuncture and traditional Kampo medicine.[16][17]

See also


  • Feng Youlan (Yu-lan Fung), A History of Chinese Philosophy, volume 2, p. 13
  • Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, volume 2, pp. 262-23
  • Maciocia, G. 2005, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd edn, Elsevier Ltd., London
  • Chen, Yuan (2014). "Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China". Journal of Song-Yuan Studies. 44: 325-364. doi:10.1353/sys.2014.0000.


  1. ^ Deng Yu; Zhu Shuanli; Xu Peng; Deng Hai (2000). "" [Characteristics and a New English Translation of Wu Xing and Yin-Yang]. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 20 (12): 937. Archived from the original on 2015-07-16.
  2. ^ Deng Yu et al; Fresh Translator of Zang Xiang Fractal five System,Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine; 1999
  3. ^ Deng Yu et al,TCM Fractal Sets ,Journal of Mathematical Medicine ,1999,12(3),264-265
  4. ^ Dr Zai, J. Taoism and Science: Cosmology, Evolution, Morality, Health and more. Ultravisum, 2015.
  5. ^ Nathan Sivin (1995), "Science and Medicine in Chinese History," in his Science in Ancient China (Aldershot, England: Variorum), text VI, p. 179.
  6. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan) p. 73.
  7. ^ [Wood and Metal were often replaced with air]. Lecture Room, CCTV-10.
  8. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 72.
  9. ^ Chinese Five Elements Chart Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine Information on the Chinese Five Elements from Northern Shaolin Academy in Microsoft Excel 2003 Format
  10. ^ a b c Chen, Yuan (2014). Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China. https://www.academia.edu/23276848/_Legitimation_Discourse_and_the_Theory_of_the_Five_Elements_in_Imperial_China._Journal_of_Song-Yuan_Studies_44_2014_325-364: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies.CS1 maint: location (link)
  11. ^ "Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth". National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Archived from the original on 4 April 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  12. ^ Hafner, Christopher. "The TCM Organ Systems (Zang Fu)". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 6 April 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  13. ^ "Five Elements Theory (Wu Xing)". Chinese Herbs Info. 2019-10-27. Retrieved .
  14. ^ "https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/five-element-acupuncture". www.cancer.gov. 2011-02-02. Retrieved . External link in |title= (help)
  15. ^ Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey. University of California Press. 5 (12): 596-608. doi:10.2307/2642652. JSTOR 2642652.
  16. ^ Baracco, Luciano (2011-01-01). National Integration and Contested Autonomy: The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Algora Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87586-823-3.
  17. ^ "" (in Chinese).

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