Western thought considers elements to be the parts of matter. The Greek four elements, for example (fire, air, earth, and water), were said to contain all the building blocks of matter.
But when the Chinese talk about elements, they are talking about change and metamorphosis from one state to another. In Chinese thought, there is no static state or material that does not in some way act upon something else or that is not acted upon by something else. In this way, yin and yang energies, though opposing, balance each other, flow into each other, and influence each other.
Therefore, when talking about Wu Xing, it is better to think of it as the five Chinese phases or cycles.
The Five Elements, the interplay of yin and yang energies, and the Eight Trigrams have been used since ancient times to explain and interpret the natural balance and continuous interaction between everything that exists, including the human body.
The Five Elements
The five Chinese elements are water, fire, wood, earth, and metal. These elements create a pentagon or circle when a line is traced from one element to the next. Interactions between the five elements can also be described as a five-pointed star within the pentagon or circle.
Each element impacts the next, whether it is through creationary cycles or destructive cycles.
Representing the most yin aspect of the five elements, water always finds the path of least resistance. It is fluid and flowing but can be solid or gaseous. It can be quiet in its flow, but it can also be violent.
Water is the Winter of the seasons, a time for inward reflection, curling up to keep warm, and when growing things are at rest.
Fire is the most yang of the five elements as it consumes, grows, produces heat, and ascends. Summer is Fire’s season.
Earth stabilizes and harmonizes the other elements, grounding them in a firmness that is not rigid or stagnant. Earth quiets the mind and helps us focus on achieving the desired outcomes of our actions. It is the centering element.
As the Spring season, when yang is rising, Wood represents new beginnings, new growth, and renewed development. Just as trees sink their roots deep in the earth, they also grow tall toward the sky, bending and twisting with the wind but staying firmly rooted in their place.
Yin rises in the metal element, which represents the autumn season. Growing things become quieter and begin to prepare for the long winter ahead. Metal is also harvest and gathering before a period of separation.
The Cycles of the Wu Xing
Each of the elements interacts with the others in specific ways throughout each of the four cycles of Wu Xing.
In the Sheng (Nourishing) Cycle, there is a mother/child relationship as each element generates and nurtures the next: Wood feeds Fire; Fire creates Earth (ash); Earth bears Metal; Metal carries Water; and Water nourishes Wood.
The Ko (Regulating) Cycle describes a father/child relationship, where each element controls and regulates the next. In this way, all the elements are held in balance: Wood parts Earth; Earth absorbs water; Water quenches Fire; Fire melts Metal; and Metal chops Wood.
The last two cycles—Cheng (Destructive) and Anti-Ko (Insulting)—describe imbalance. In the Cheng Cycle, elements exert too much control, effectively destroying each other.
In the Anti-Ko Cycle, the elements act in reverse of the Ko Cycle, turning on their regulating elements and creating excess. It is as if the child has turned to insult his father through rebellion.
How Wu Xing Relates to Health
The five elements and their cycles are used to describe and understand natural processes and relationships. In Chinese medicine, Wu Xing helps create a picture of the physiological processes—from how tissues and organs relate to each other and the body as a whole to the pathology of disease.
When combined with the other core theories of Chinese medicine, the five elements or phases are used to diagnose health issues and create treatment plans. Each of the yin and yang organs are assigned to an element, and diagnosis is achieved when the practitioner identifies the cycle that has become imbalanced and the element (or elements) within the cycle that has been depleted or is flowing in excess. From the diagnosis, a treatment is created that alleviates the depletion or the excess while supporting the weakened elements and their related organs.