The Five Elements in Chinese Medicine January 14 2016, 0 Comments

Chinese Medicine is a complex and ancient science.  It began its evolution 5000 years ago, relying for its framework and language on the things understood and held in esteem at the time: the natural world, the weather, the manifestations of human and animal functions and environmental interactions.  

While this may make it seem at first simplistic and quaint, Chinese Medicine is an incredibly comprehensive and precise system.  Within its wide perspective, every thing means a thousand things and has myriad connotations.  A given Chinese concept is a universe of related, intertwining but very specific ideas. So, while it may seem imprecise on the surface, each is actually used with extreme care and precision; the same way our modern language may lead us to choose a specific word - say, for example “positive” - for all the layers of meaning it conveys (good, active, progressive, affirmative, upbeat, certain, energizing, etc), rather than for its strict definition alone (‘additive’ as opposed to subtractive or absent).  

The Five Elements (or Wu Xing) system is simply one of the lenses used to organize the complex of ideas and relationships understood in Chinese Medicine.  The first references to it showed up in Chinese medical texts over 2000 years ago.   The Five Element practice begins with the categorization of all natural phenomena and associations into a cycle divided into 5 phases or elements: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood.    


Ideally, each Element flows naturally and harmoniously into the next one, as shown in this chart by the black circle with arrows pointing clockwise.  The red crossing lines indicate the ability of each Element to particularly ‘control’ or restrain the one across from it.  This represents the natural order of things, and makes more sense when we understand some of the associations within each element.   Here are some of them briefly:


  • Season: Summer
  • Environment: heat
  • Color: Red (note the red circle around the symbol)
  • Internal Organs: Heart and Small Intestine
  • External: tongue
  • Tissue: blood vessels
  • Mindset: joy
  • Direction: South
  • Sound: laughter


  • Season: Late Summer/transition
  • Environment: dampness
  • Color: Yellow
  • Internal Organs: Spleen/Stomach
  • External: mouth
  • Tissue: muscle
  • Mindset: thoughtfulness
  • Direction: center
  • Sound: singing


  • Season: Autumn
  • Environment: dryness
  • Color: white
  • Internal Organs: lungs/large intestine
  • External: nose
  • Tissue: skin
  • Mindset: discernment
  • Direction: west
  • Sound: crying


  • Season: Winter
  • Environment: cold
  • Color: deep blue
  • Internal Organs: Kidneys/bladder
  • External: ears
  • Tissue: bones
  • Mindset: willpower
  • Direction: north
  • Sound: groan


  • Season: Spring
  • Environment: Wind
  • Color: green
  • Internal organs: Liver, gall bladder
  • External: eyes
  • Tissue: tendons
  • Mindset: assertiveness
  • Direction: East
  • Sound: shout

This illustrates not only how the cycles of nature and the seasons have a natural and predictable flow, but in the broader sense how all things large, small, animate or inanimate - participate in this flow, and mirror it in themselves individually.  An interruption or disruption of flow would be problematic, as the natural world is always moving, changing, growing, and becoming even as it cycles through its inward and downward phases.  For example, winter is the time of inwardness, hibernation, Ultimate Yin.  That makes it also the time of newest beginnings, of conception of new birth.  New life comes from deepest, undefined inwardness; from the primal Element of Water.  

In the Five Element system, no association is inherently good or bad; but simply is, and has its essential place in the flow of being.   It is the balance of all the elements which is ideal, and which is sought after in using this system as a template in Chinese Medical treatment.  

-K. Jacob