Five Elements in Chinese Medicine   

Five Elements, Five Phases, the Five Agents, the Five Movements, Five Processes, and the Five Steps / Stages, is a five fold 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 Wood ( mu ), Fire  huo ), Earth  tu ), Metal ( jin ), and Water  shui ). This order of presentation is known as the mutual generation xiang sheng 相生 ) sequence. In the order of mutual conquest xiang sheng 相勝 )  or   mutual overcoming xiang ke 相剋 ), they are Wood,  Earth, Water,  Fire, and Metal. Wu Xing is often 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. Whereas the classical Greek elements were concerned with substances or natural qualities, the Chinese xing are primarily concerned with process and change , hence the common translation as phases or  “  agents. ”  By the same token,  Mu is thought of as Tree ” rather than Wood . The word “ element  is thus used within the context of Chinese medicine with a different meaning to its usual meaning. Evolution of language in this way is not without precedent. It should be recognized that the word “ phase , although commonly preferred, is not perfect. “ Phase  is a better translation for the five seasons  ( 五運 wu yun )  mentioned below, and so “ agents or “ processes  might be preferred for the primary term xing. Manfred Porkert attempts to resolve this by using Evolutive Phase  for 五行 wu xing and “ Circuit Phase  for 五運 wu yun, but these terms are unwieldy. In some ways arguing for one term over another is pointless because any single word is probably inadequate for translation of what is a concept.


Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts  ( no later than 168 BC )  also present the Wu Xing as “ five virtues or types of activities. Within Chinese medicine texts the Wu Xing are also referred to as Wu Yun  ( 五運  wu yun ) or a combination of the two characters ( Wu Xing-Yun ) these emphasise the correspondence of five elements to five “ seasons ( four seasons plus one ). Another tradition refers to the wu xing as wu de 五德, the Five Virtues  ( 五德終始說 ).


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 Geomancy or Fengshui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy and martial arts. The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts.


Five Element theory is one of the major systems of thought within traditional Chinese medicine. Also referred to as the “ five phase ” theory by some practitioners, Five Element theory has been used for more than 2,000 years as a method of diagnosis and treatment. 


Five Element theory is used to help explain the cause of particular diseases, and to associate signs or symptoms to particular organs and afflictions. In the context of “ phases ”, Five Element theory helps to explain the processes that are occurring the body throughout various stages of disease and healing. This is particularly useful in explaining the processes that take place during the generating and controlling cycles mentioned in Five Element theory.


Listed below are the Five Elements and their corresponding organs, directions, colors, etc.

FIVE ELEMENTS

  Wood  

  Fire  

  Earth  

   Metal  

  Water  

Seasons

Spring

Summer

Late Summer

Autumn

Winter

Zang / Yin organs

Liver

Heart

Spleen

Lung

Kidney

Fu / Yang organs

Gallbladder

Small Intestine

Stomach

Large Intestine

Bladder

Directions

East

South

Middle

West

North

Tastes

Sour

Bitter

Sweet

Pungent

Salty

Tissues

Tendons

Vessels

Muscles

Skin/hair

Bones

Colors

Green

Red

Yellow

White

Blue/Black

Sense organs

Eye

Tongue

Mouth

Nose

Ear

 

Within Five Element theory are four main cycles, or ways in which the elements (and their associated emotions, colors, sounds, odors, etc.) interact. The first of these is the sheng, or generating cycle. In this cycle, each element serves as a “ mother ”, which promotes the growth and development of the following, or “child ”,  element. Each element provides a generating force or foundation for the element that immediately follows it, i.e., the Fire element provides a foundation for the Earth element, the Earth element provides a nurturing foundation for the Metal element, and so on.


The second main cycle is called the ke, or controlling cycle. According to ke cycle theory, each element is involved in a checks-and-balances relationship that helps keep things in order; each element both controls and is controlled by another element  ( Water, for example, controls Fire, but is itself controlled by Earth ).


The third and fourth cycles in Five Element theory are cycles of imbalance. In the cheng cycle, or overactive cycle, an element overacts, or exerts too much control, over its subordinate element, damaging the element and causing imbalances in the body. For example, the Water element may completely put out the Fire element, or the Earth element may soak up the Water element completely. In the wu or insulting cycle, forces are actually reversed; the subordinate element returns the controlling force generated by the controlling element, again causing an imbalance in the body. Instead of  Water suppressing Fire, in the wu cycle,  Fire would actually burn up Water.

 

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