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What is the Five Elements Theory?

Based on observations of the natural world, ancient Chinese people recognized continuous patterns of transformation and change in the universe. Initially, these observations were interpreted using yin yang logic, but later these interpretations were expanded using a new theory called the five elements.

The five elements theory evolved from the study of various processes, functions, and phenomena of nature. The theory asserts substances can be divided into one of five basic elements: wood, fire, water, metal and earth, which contain their own specific characteristics and properties. Today, the five elements theory is still used as a tool for grouping objects, and as a method for analyzing changes of natural phenomena.

The Origin of the Five Elements Theory

The yin yang theory has a close relationship with the five elements theory. They are often used simultaneously to explain natural phenomena. Ancient Chinese medical philosophers integrated the yin yang and five elements theories into their medical practices as early as the Warring States Period (475-221BC). As integration of these theories took place, a more formalized system of medicine was established. Today we refer to this medical system as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The Five Elements and their Relationships with Nature and the Body

The five elements correspond to different aspects of the natural world and the body. Wood, for example, corresponds to spring and wind in the natural world and to the liver, gall bladder, eyes and tendons in the body. (See Table 1 for a summary of these relationships.)

Table 1
  Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Orientation East South Middle West North
Season Spring Summer Late Summer Autumn Winter
Climate Wind Summer Heat Dampness Dryness Cold
Cultivation Germinate Grow Transform Reap Store
Yin Organ Liver Heart Spleen Lung Kidney
Yang Organ Gall Bladder Small Intestine Stomach Large Intestine Bladder
Orifice Eye Tongue Mouth Nose Ear
Tissues Tendons Vessels Muscles Skin & Hair Bones
Emotions Anger Joy Pensiveness Grief Fear
Colour Blue/ Green Red Yellow White Black
Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty
Voice Shout Laugh Sing Cry Groan

As shown in the above table, there are organized relationships between the elements, nature and the body. The different vertical characteristics belong to the same element, and horizontally, each characteristic interacts with another according to a specific order and element. Working within this system of thought, everything has a correlation in nature.