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Taoist philosophy, yin and yang, the five elements; and their relationships to tai chi

The Five Elements


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 accordingly.

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 and flexibility.
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 Wood element.

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 tongue.

Earth 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 of taste.

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 nose.

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 is downward.
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.


According 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 day.

The characteristic 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.

new yang full yang yin/yang balance new yin full yin
green red yellow white black
east south center (nadir/zenith) west north
Life Cycle
infancy youth adulthood old age death
Energy Quality
generative expansive stabilizing contracting conserving
spring summer between seasons autumn winter
windy hot damp dry cold
sprouting blooming ripening harvest withering dormant
rancid scorched fragrant putrid rotten
sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Mental Quality
sensitivity creativity clarity intuition spontaneity
Negative Emotion
anger hate anxiety grief fear
Positive Emotion
patience joy empathy courage calmness
tendons pulse muscle skin bones
eyes tongue, throat lips, mouth nose ears
Bodily Fluids
tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Primal Spirit
green dragon red pheasant yellow phoenix white tiger black tortoise
Male Animal
tiger horse dragon, dog monkey rat
Female Animal
rabbit snake cow, sheep hen pig
8, 3 2, 7 10, 5 4,9 6,1
I Ching Trigrams
wind, thunder fire earth, mountain heaven, lake water
51, 57 30 2, 52 1, 58 29

Depth perception?

Clearly 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.

In the 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 of life.

As an 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.

Nourishment and Control - Shen and Ko

The image (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.

the five elements cycleThe Shen/nourishing cycle is traditionally known as the mother-son cycle.
In 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.

The Ko/control cycle is traditionally known as the grandmother-son relationship.
In this order each element has the power potential to control the next.

Over-controlling and Counteracting.
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.

To 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.

Whilst 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"!

As this 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

Tai Chi 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.

64 Hexagrams

fhexagramThese 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.

The graphic 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 phases.
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.

No matter 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.

As an 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".

GR 21.12.03



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".

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