Wuxing (Chinese philosophy)

The wuxing (Chinese: 五行; pinyin: wǔxíng), also known as the Five Elements, Five Agents, Five Movements, Five Phases, Five Planets,[1] Five Processes, Five Stages, Five Steps, or Five Ways, is the short form of "wǔ zhǒng liúxíng zhī qì" (五種流行之氣) or "the five types of chi dominating at different times".[2] It is a fivefold 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 ( ), Fire ( huǒ), Earth ( ), Metal ( jīn), and Water ( shuǐ). This order of presentation is known as the "mutual generation" (相生 xiāngshēng) sequence. In the order of "mutual overcoming" (相剋/相克 xiāngkè), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[3][4][5]


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 feng shui, 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.


Xing () of wuxing means moving; a planet is called a 'moving star' (行星) in Chinese. Wu Xing () originally refers to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Venus) that create five dimensions of earth life.[1] Wuxing is also widely 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.[6] Whereas the classical Greek elements were concerned with substances or natural qualities, the Chinese xíng are "primarily concerned with process and change," hence the common translation as "phases" or "agents".[7] By the same token, is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood".[8] The word 'element' is thus used within the context of Chinese medicine with a different meaning to its usual meaning.

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 Wǔ Yùn) mentioned below, and so agents or processes might be preferred for the primary term xíng. Manfred Porkert attempts to resolve this by using Evolutive Phase for 五行 Wǔ Xíng and Circuit Phase for 五運 Wǔ Yùn, but these terms are unwieldy.

Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts (no later than 168 BC) also present the wuxing as "five virtues" or types of activities.[9] Within Chinese medicine texts the wuxing are also referred to as Wu Yun (}}; wǔ yùn) 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 Wǔ Xíng as Wǔ Dé (五德), the Five Virtues.

The phases

The five phases are around 72 days each and are usually used to describe the state in nature:

  • Wood/Spring: a period of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality
  • Fire/Summer: a period of swelling, flowering, brimming with fire and energy
  • Earth: the in-between transitional seasonal periods, or a separate 'season' known as Late Summer or Long Summer – in the latter case associated with leveling and dampening (moderation) and fruition
  • Metal/Autumn: a period of harvesting and collecting
  • Water/Winter: a period of retreat, where stillness and storage pervades


The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles, a generating or creation (, shēng) cycle, also known as "mother-son", and an overcoming or destruction (剋/克, ) cycle, also known as "grandfather-grandson", of interactions between the phases. Within Chinese medicine the effects of these two main relations are further elaborated:

  • Inter-promoting (shēng cycle, mother/son)
  • Interacting (grandmother/grandson)
  • Overacting ( cycle, grandfather/grandson)
  • Counteracting (reverse )


The common memory jogs, which help to remind in what order the phases are:

  • Wood feeds Fire
  • Fire creates Earth (ash)
  • Earth bears Metal
  • Metal collects Water
  • Water nourishes Wood

Other common words for this cycle include "begets", "engenders" and "mothers".


  • Wood parts Earth (such as roots or trees can prevent soil erosion)
  • Earth dams (or muddies or absorbs) Water
  • Water extinguishes Fire
  • Fire melts Metal
  • Metal chops Wood

This cycle might also be called "controls", "restrains" or "fathers".

Cosmology and feng shui

According to wuxing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five phases. Each phase has a complex series of associations with different aspects of nature, as can be seen in the following table. In the ancient Chinese form of geomancy, known as Feng Shui, practitioners all based their art and system on the five phases (wuxing). All of these phases are represented within the trigrams. Associated with these phases are colors, seasons and shapes; all of which are interacting with each other.[10]

Based on a particular directional energy flow from one phase to the next, the interaction can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive. A proper knowledge of each aspect of energy flow will enable the Feng Shui practitioner to apply certain cures or rearrangement of energy in a way they believe to be beneficial for the receiver of the Feng Shui Treatment.

Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qiánduìzhènxùnkǎngènkūn
I Ching HeavenLakeFireThunderWindWaterMountainField
Planet (Celestial Body) NeptuneVenusMarsJupiterPlutoMercuryUranusSaturn
Color IndigoWhiteCrimsonGreenScarletBlackPurpleYellow
Day FridayFridayTuesdayThursdayThursdayWednesdaySaturdaySaturday
Season AutumnAutumnSummerSpringSpringWinterIntermediateIntermediate
Cardinal direction WestWestSouthEastEastNorthCenterCenter

Dynastic transitions

According to the Warring States period political philosopher Zou Yan 鄒衍 (c. 305–240 BCE), each of the five elements possesses a personified "virtue" (de ), which indicates the foreordained destiny (yun ) of a dynasty; accordingly, the cyclic succession of the elements also indicates dynastic transitions. Zou Yan claims that the Mandate of Heaven sanctions the legitimacy of a dynasty by sending self-manifesting auspicious signs in the ritual color (yellow, blue, white, red, and black) that matches the element of the new dynasty (Earth, Wood, Metal, Fire, and Water). From the Qin dynasty onward, most Chinese dynasties invoked the theory of the Five Elements to legitimize their reign.[11]

Chinese medicine

The interdependence of zang-fu networks in the body was said to be a circle of five things, and so mapped by the Chinese doctors onto the five phases.[12][13]

In order to explain the integrity and complexity of the human body, Chinese medical scientists used the Five Elements theory to classify the human body’s organs, physiological activities, and pathological reactions.[14]

Planet JupiterMarsSaturnVenusMercury
Mental Quality idealism, spontaneity, curiositypassion, intensityagreeableness, honestyintuition, rationality, minderudition, resourcefulness, wit
Emotion anger, kindnesshate, resolveanxiety, joygrief, braveryfear, gentleness
Zang (yin organs) liverheart/pericardiumspleen/pancreaslungkidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladdersmall intestine/San Jiaostomachlarge intestineurinary bladder
Sensory Organ eyestonguemouthnoseears
Body Part tendonspulsemusclesskinbones
Body Fluid tearssweatsalivamucusurine
Finger index fingermiddle fingerthumbring fingerpinky finger
Sense sighttastetouchsmellhearing
Taste[15] sourbittersweetpungent, umamisalty
Smell rancidscorchedfragrantrottenputrid
Life early childhoodpre-pubertyadolescence/intermediateadulthoodold age, conception
Animal scalyfeatheredhumanfurredshelled
Hour 3–99–15change15–2121–3
Year Spring EquinoxSummer SolsticeChangeFall EquinoxWinter Solstice
360° 45–135°135–225°Change225–315°315–45°

Celestial stem

Heavenly Stem Jia
Year ends with 4, 56, 78, 90, 12, 3

Ming neiyin

In Ziwei, neiyin (纳音) or the method of divination is the further classification of the Five Elements into 60 ming (), or life orders, based on the ganzhi. Similar to the astrology zodiac, the ming is used by fortune-tellers to analyse a person's personality and future fate.

Order Ganzhi Ming Order Ganzhi Ming Element
1Jia Zi 甲子Sea metal 海中金31Jia Wu 甲午Sand metal 沙中金Metal
2Yi Chou 乙丑32Yi Wei 乙未
3Bing Yin 丙寅Furnace fire 炉中火33Bing Shen 丙申Forest fire 山下火Fire
4Ding Mao 丁卯34Ding You 丁酉
5Wu Chen 戊辰Forest wood 大林木35Wu Xu 戊戌Meadow wood 平地木Wood
6Ji Si 己巳36Ji Hai 己亥
7Geng Wu 庚午Road earth 路旁土37Geng Zi 庚子Adobe earth 壁上土Earth
8Xin Wei 辛未38Xin Chou 辛丑
9Ren Shen 壬申Sword metal 剑锋金39Ren Yin 壬寅Precious metal 金白金Metal
10Gui You 癸酉40Gui Mao 癸卯
11Jia Xu 甲戌Volcanic fire 山头火41Jia Chen 甲辰Lamp fire 佛灯火Fire
12Yi Hai 乙亥42Yi Si 乙巳
13Bing Zi 丙子Cave water 洞下水43Bing Wu 丙午Sky water 天河水Water
14Ding Chou 丁丑44Ding Wei 丁未
15Wu Yin 戊寅Fortress earth 城头土45Wu Shen 戊申Highway earth 大驿土Earth
16Ji Mao 己卯46Ji You 己酉
17Geng Chen 庚辰Wax metal 白腊金47Geng Xu 庚戌Jewellery metal 钗钏金Metal
18Xin Si 辛巳48Xin Hai 辛亥
19Ren Wu 壬午Willow wood 杨柳木49Ren Zi 壬子Mulberry wood 桑柘木Wood
20Gui Wei 癸未50Gui Chou 癸丑
21Jia Shen 甲申Stream water 泉中水51Jia Yin 甲寅Rapids water 大溪水Water
22Yi You 乙酉52Yi Mao 乙卯
23Bing Xu 丙戌Roof tiles earth 屋上土53Bing Chen 丙辰Desert earth 沙中土Earth
24Ding Hai 丁亥54Ding Si 丁巳
25Wu Zi 戊子Lightning fire 霹雳火55Wu Wu 戊午Sun fire 天上火Fire
26Ji Chou 己丑56Ji Wei 己未
27Geng Yin 庚寅Conifer wood 松柏木57Geng Shen 庚申Pomegranate wood 石榴木Wood
28Xin Mao 辛卯58Xin You 辛酉
29Ren Chen 壬辰River water 长流水59Ren Xu 壬戌Ocean water 大海水Water
30Gui Si 癸巳60Gui Hai 癸亥


The Yuèlìng chapter (月令篇) of the Lǐjì (禮記) and the Huáinánzǐ (淮南子) make the following correlations:

Colour GreenRedYellowWhiteBlack
Arctic Direction eastsouthcenterwestnorth
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin juézhǐgōngshāng
solfege mi or Esol or Gdo or Cre or Dla or A
  • The Chinese word qīng, has many meanings, including green, azure, cyan, and black. It refers to green in wuxing.
  • In most modern music, various five note or seven note scales (e.g., the major scale) are defined by selecting five or seven frequencies from the set of twelve semi-tones in the Equal tempered tuning. The Chinese "lǜ" tuning is closest to the ancient Greek tuning of Pythagoras.

Martial arts

T'ai chi ch'uan uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns. Either forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).[11]

The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):

  • Jìn bù (進步, in simplified characters 进步) – forward step
  • Tùi bù (退步) – backward step
  • Zǔo gù (左顧, in simplified characters 左顾) – left step
  • Yòu pàn (右盼) – right step
  • Zhōng dìng (中定) – central position, balance, equilibrium

Xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over
Water Drilling / Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking
Earth Crossing 橫 / 横 Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over

Tea ceremony

There are spring, summer, fall, and winter teas. The perennial tea ceremony includes four tea settings (茶席) and a tea master (司茶). Each tea setting is arranged and stands for the four directions (North, South, East, and West). A vase of the seasons' flowers is put on the tea table. The tea settings are:

  • Earth, (Incense), yellow, center, up and down
  • Wood, 春風 (Spring Wind), green, east
  • Fire, 夏露 (Summer Dew), red, south
  • Metal, 秋籟 (Fall Sounds), white, west
  • Water, 冬陽 (Winter Sunshine) black/blue, north

See also


  • Feng Youlan (Yu-lan Fung), A History of Chinese Philosophy, volume 2, p. 13
  • Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, volume 2, pp. 262–23
  • Maciocia, G. 2005, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd edn, Elsevier Ltd., London
  • Chen, Yuan (2014). "Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China". Journal of Song-Yuan Studies. 44: 325–364. doi:10.1353/sys.2014.0000.


  1. Dr Zai, J. Taoism and Science: Cosmology, Evolution, Morality, Health and more. Ultravisum, 2015.
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-05-27. Retrieved 2016-05-14.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. Deng Yu; Zhu Shuanli; Xu Peng; Deng Hai (2000). "五行阴阳的特征与新英译" [Characteristics and a New English Translation of Wu Xing and Yin-Yang]. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 20 (12): 937. Archived from the original on 2015-07-16.
  4. Deng Yu et al; Fresh Translator of Zang Xiang Fractal five System,Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine; 1999
  5. Deng Yu et al,TCM Fractal Sets 中医分形集,Journal of Mathematical Medicine ,1999,12(3),264-265
  6. Nathan Sivin (1995), "Science and Medicine in Chinese History," in his Science in Ancient China (Aldershot, England: Variorum), text VI, p. 179.
  7. Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan) p. 73.
  8. 千古中医之张仲景 [Wood and Metal were often replaced with air]. Lecture Room, CCTV-10.
  9. Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 72.
  10. Chinese Five Elements Chart Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine Information on the Chinese Five Elements from Northern Shaolin Academy in Microsoft Excel 2003 Format
  11. Chen, Yuan (2014). Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China. https://www.academia.edu/23276848/_Legitimation_Discourse_and_the_Theory_of_the_Five_Elements_in_Imperial_China._Journal_of_Song-Yuan_Studies_44_2014_325-364: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies.
  12. "Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth". National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Archived from the original on 4 April 2017. Retrieved 20 March 2017.
  13. Hafner, Christopher. "The TCM Organ Systems (Zang Fu)". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 6 April 2017. Retrieved 5 April 2017.
  14. "Five Elements Theory (Wu Xing)". Chinese Herbs Info. 2019-10-27. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  15. Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey. University of California Press. 5 (12): 596–608. doi:10.2307/2642652. JSTOR 2642652.
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