Look around and you will always "see"
at least one of the five elements that are (according to TCM
and eastern philosophy) the fundamental components of the
Universe. The five are: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.
The English word "element" has a somewhat fixed
connotation that is not present with the Chinese. Hence the
theory is often known, more accurately, as the Five Transformations
or Five Phases.
The Five Element theory views the Universe and its functioning
as being cyclical and interactive. Accordingly, all of the
'ten thousand things' within and indeed without it are interdependent
or of "dependent origination". This Taoist theory
that 'all phenomena are connected' bears comparison to the
Buddhist ideas of 'karma' and some Indian sub continent and
other eastern ideas on reincarnation.
Everything in existence (a.k.a. 'matter' or 'the ten thousand
things') contains some quantity of all five elements, however,
according to the theory one of the five so particularly predominates
or manifests itself in each thing, and may thus be categorized
Taoist physicians and sages further determined that each element
has special associations with particular organs in the human
body as well as to other things such as colours, flavors,
the time of day, the season of the year, and the way we respond
physically and emotionally to external influences and all
of the forces of nature.
The Five Elements theory identifies the five different modes
(elements) in which chi energy may manifest itself. The five
(Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Air) are arranged into a cyclical
sequence that represents the flow of energy between these
elements as 'phases'.
Each phase of an element characterises a stage in a cyclical
process. The characteristic of each phase is determined by
the 'energy dynamic' personified as the never ending round
of the seasons in the natural world.
It is not per say the passage of time that changes things;
everything changes anyway.
Thus the 5 element theory is simply an observation on natural,
creative change; and it is the natural world that confirms
that throughout that all the forces and energies in nature
can be in constant smooth and harmonious transition from one
phase to another - just as one season 'becomes' the next.
Wood is the most human of the elements. It is the element
of spring; the creative urge to achieve - which can turn to
anger when frustrated. It is associated with the capacity
to look forward, plan and make decisions.
Wood energy is rising, expanding, and is the force of growth
This element represents all the activities of the body that
are self regulating and/or function without conscious thought;
i.e. digestion, respiration, heart beat and basic metabolism.
The liver (which converts food into fuel which is then supplied
to the muscles, tendons and ligaments) is associated to the
Fire is the element of heat, summer and enthusiasm; nature
at its peak of growth, and warmth in human relationships.
Its motion is upward.
Fire is the symbolic of combustion and this represents the
functions of the body that have reached that fleeting moment
of maximum activity; indicating that decline is then inevitable.
The element is associated with the heart and related to the
is the element of harvest time, abundance, nourishment, fertility,
and the mother to child relationship. This element is also
regarded as central to balance and the place where energy
becomes downward in movement. It is the symbol of stability
and being properly anchored.
Earth is associated to the spleen and related to the sense
This category includes the Western idea of the air element.
It is the force of gravity, the minerals within the earth,
the patterns of the heavenly bodies and the powers of electrical
conductivity and magnetism. Metal has structure, but it can
also accept a new form when molten.
Metal energy is consolidating and with inward movement, like
a flower closing its petals.
The symbol of metal is one of a cutting and reforming action,
but it is also regarded as a solidifying process.
The element is associated with the lungs and related to the
Water is the source of life on this planet. Likewise it is the
fluids (the main component of the body) which nourish and maintain
the health of every cell. Water corresponds to the vital fluids,
i.e. blood, lymph, mucus, semen and fat.
The kidney is especially linked to this element. Its motion
Water has the capacity to flow, infinitely yielding yet infinitely
powerful, ever changing and often dangerous with the capacity
also to nourish and cleanse.
Water is the ultimate yin; quiet, cold; representing the resting
time of winter. It has a waiting, silent, still quality that
can be described as "stored potential". It has flexibility (think
of water filling up any shape of vessel), yet it has great power
(think of the devastation caused by floods).
In human psychology the element governs the balance between
fear or being exploited and the desire to dominate.
to the 5 Elements theory - which is of itself no more than
just one element in a far greater united theory of traditional
Chinese medicine - your internal organs, tissues, other parts
of the body and their associated activities, all correspond
to one or another of the Five Elements (phases). Thus, the
relationship between the internal organs is like the relationship
between the seasons. Accordingly, in healthy people the elements
are said to be balanced and in sick people they are said to
be unbalanced. Indications of an imbalance may appear in signs
as varied as an unusual skin colour or body odor, or as the
recurrence of a particular symptom at specific times of the
of each phase (new yang through to full yin) is determined
by what happens in the natural world during each associated
season. One season after another plays its role in the cycle
of the year by just doing what it does when it does it and
then smoothly moves on to the next. It is the smooth and harmonious
transition from one phase to another that is important, along
with the balance between them.
the eastern perception of human
body is not the same as the western X-ray assisted view; and
being born out of very different cultures and technologies,
eastern physiology does apparently pay greater attention to
function than it does to form. In other words - what a thing
does is (to the eastern observer) more important than what
it looks like or where it is. This 'view' is reflected in
many aspects of Chinese medicine, art and culture, and one
only has to look at piece of perspective defying oriental
landscape art to appreciate this difference in perception.
west our knowledge in human anatomy is based upon post mortem
studies of the deceased. This approach is still treated with
skepticism by by traditional Chinese physicians who quite
reasonably point out that cadavers have no living energy and
that the organs are not functioning. They believe that a dead
body can not reveal anything significant about the dynamics
aid to diagnosis and remedy with TCM methods such as acupuncture
and massage as well as as the prescribing of potions of herbs
and dietary control, the five elemental energies theory is
a practical model of the human body in relationship to its
environment and external influences.
and Control - Shen and Ko
(below right) is a graphical representation of the functioning
of the five elemental energies 'in balance'.
Within the image two distinct order sequences are shown.
One, going clockwise in a circle represents the Shen - nourishing
or creative cycle.
Inside of this (in a pentagon or star pattern) is shown the
Ko - regulating or control cycle.
Shen/nourishing cycle is traditionally known as the mother-son
this order each element enables or assists the next. Thus,
water nourishes wood, wood generates fire, the ashes fertilize
the earth, earth yields metal by extraction and metal becomes
liquid like water when it is melted. The eastern notion of
metal also includes the air element.
Ko/control cycle is traditionally known as the grandmother-son
In this order each element has the power potential to control
Over-controlling happens when an element is too strong and
is controlling the other element too much.
Counteracting is the reverse. A controlled element reacts
against its controller.
appreciate the relevance of the relationships of mother-son
and grandmother-son it important that we (westerners) remember
again that the culture and social structure of China is as
'different' to our own as is their medicine.
the mother-son is almost universally understood and functions
in the east pretty much that same manner as it does here in
the west, the relationship between elders and infants and
adolescence is very different. It has come to be that in the
west grandparents have a reputation for 'spoiling' their grandchildren
and perhaps turning a blind eye to naughtiness when a parent
would not. In the east this relationship is very different
and grandparent normally take on the responsibility of disciplining
the children. Thus, the Shen - nourishing and nurturing cycle
is traditionally seen as a mother-son dynamic of energy and
the Ko - control and regulating relationship is traditionally
seen as a grandmother-son dynamic. They both "mean well"!
factual description of difference in the perception of a fundamental
such as the role and function of family members shows, any
'in depth' understanding of TCM requires a similar understanding
of the culture or anthropology of China.
the simple graphic used here to illustrate the five elements
theory does provide us with a remarkably comprehensive and
correct model that can assist enormously in the study and
understanding of Tai Chi and all other ancient or traditional
eastern arts and sciences such as Feng Shui ("wind"
and "water") and the reading of the I Ching.
is most certainly one of these ancient and traditional Chinese
arts, therefore this same theory of energy dynamics is intrinsic
to its practice. Tai Chi as TCM theoretically works by encouraging
the practitioner and patient, whom are in this case one and
the same, to simply 'go with the flow' and follow a sequence
of postures, whilst turning to face particular directions
and all at the same time 'visualizing' a myriad of 'energy
dynamics' and characteristics.
individual energy dynamics are also codified and commonly
represented by a series of 64 Hexagrams, that being 64 picturegrams
(graphical representation) of the sum of all possible combinations
of six lines and arranged one above another - with a broken
line representing Yin and unbroken Yang.
shown left animates this theory and shows just how a simple
program of broken or unbroken lines may be used to represent
the rising and sinking of yin and yang. The image is therefore
a more sophisticated illustration of the same theory of energy
dynamics that may also perhaps be regarded as phases within
Seen first in the I Ching ('I' signifying change or clarity,
and 'Ching' signifying a book written by a sage) this code
is used in mystical divination to interpret mans place within
the universe at that time (the time of the reading) only.
what the image, be it colourful or bland, scientific or creative,
mathematical or abstract ... only one conclusion can be drawn.
No two moments are identical.
In authentic or 'classic' Tai Chi ("New Tai Chi"
is an absurd notion!) every posture corresponds to one or
another of the 64 hexagrams. The rewards and benefits that
may be obtained by Tai Chi as TCM are not elusive and not
difficult to get, but likewise just doing Tai Chi is no panacea.
First of all the Form has to be learnt and committed to memory
in a recognized ('classic') or prescribed order and not in
some abbreviated or 'tinkered with' order to suit. When performed
- according to certain rules, Tai Chi is believed to promote
the smooth flow of Chi and, at a more advance level, develop
the 'sensitivity' of the practitioner to various forms and
dynamics of energy and promote an ability to 'store' and expend
energy in a controlled or appropriate manner.
aid and assistance to memorizing all of a Classic and Long
Tai Chi Form, the five elements theory and the 64 hexagrams
do actually clarify rather than complicate a "Great Ultimate"
that is "beyond ... theoretical ... words".