Wuxing (Chinese philosophy)

Wuxing (Chinese: 五行; pinyin: wǔxíng; Japanese: gogyō (五行);[1] Korean: ohaeng (오행); Vietnamese: ngũ hành (五行)), usually translated as Five Phases or Five Agents,[2] 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 Fire (; huǒ), Water (; shuǐ), Wood (; ), Metal or Gold (; jīn), and Earth or Soil (; ). This order of presentation is known as the "Days of the Week" sequence. In the order of "mutual generation" (相生; xiāngshēng), they are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. In the order of "mutual overcoming" (相克; xiāngkè), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[3][4][5]

Diagram of the interactions between the wuxing. The "generative" cycle is illustrated by grey arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the "destructive" or "conquering" cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle.
Tablet in the Temple of Heaven of Beijing, written in Chinese and Manchu, dedicated to the gods of the Five Movements. The Manchu word usiha, meaning "star", explains that this tablet is dedicated to the five planets: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury and the movements which they govern.

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 Yi jing divination, alchemy, feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy, and martial arts. Although often translated as the Five Elements in comparison to Classical elements of the ancient Mediterranean world, the Wǔxíng were conceived primarily as cosmic agents of change rather than a means to describe natural substances.


Taijitu diagram featuring the Wuxing in the center (from the Gujin Tushu Jicheng by Chen Menglei)

Xíng () of wǔxíng (五行) means moving; a planet is called a 'moving star' (行星 xíngxīng) in Chinese. Wǔxíng originally refers to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Venus) that create five dimensions of earth life.[6] Wǔxíng 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.[7] 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".[8] By the same token, is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood".[9] 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 ( wǔyùn) 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 wǔxíng and Circuit Phase for 五運 wǔyùn, but these terms are unwieldy.

Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts (no later than 168 BC) also present the wǔxíng as "five virtues" or types of activities.[10] Within Chinese medicine texts the wǔxíng are also referred to as wǔyǔn (五運) or a combination of the two characters ( wǔxíngyǔn) these emphasise the external correspondence of the five elemental 'seasons' (four seasons plus one). and internally tradition to the wǔdé (五德), the Five Virtues and Five Emotions.[11]


Scholars believe that various predecessors to wǔxíng were merged into one belief system with many interpretations in the Han dynasty.[12]


The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles, a generating or creation ( shēng) cycle, also known as "mother-son", and an overcoming or destruction ( ) 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 ( xiāngshēng): the effect in the generating ( shēng) cycle
  • Weakening (/ xiāngxiè): the effect in a deficient or reverse generating ( shēng) cycle
  • Inter-regulating ( xiāngkè): the effect in the overcoming ( ) cycle
  • Overacting ( xiāngchéng): the effect in an excessive overcoming ( ) cycle
  • Counteracting ( xiāngwǔ or xiānghào): the effect in a deficient or reverse overcoming ( ) cycle


Common verbs for the shēng cycle include "generate", "create" or "strengthens", as well as "grow" or "promote". The phase interactions in the shēng cycle are:

  • Wood feeds Fire
  • Fire produces Earth (ash, lava)
  • Earth bears Metal (geological processes produce minerals)
  • Metal collects Water (water vapor condenses on metal, for example)
  • Water nourishes Wood (Water flowers, plants and others changes in forest)


A deficient shēng cycle is called the xiè cycle and is the reverse of the shēng cycle. Common verbs for the xiè include "weaken", "drain", "diminish" or "exhaust". The phase interactions in the xiè cycle are:

  • Wood depletes Water
  • Water rusts Metal
  • Metal impoverishes Earth (overmining or over-extraction of the earth’s minerals)
  • Earth smothers Fire
  • Fire burns Wood (forest fires)


Common verbs for the cycle include "controls", "restrains" and "fathers", as well as "overcome" or "regulate". The phase interactions in the cycle are:

  • Wood parts (or stabilizes) Earth (roots of trees can prevent soil erosion)
  • Earth contains (or directs) Water (dams or river banks)
  • Water dampens (or regulates) Fire
  • Fire melts (or refines or shapes) Metal
  • Metal chops (or carves) Wood


An excessive cycle is called the chéng cycle. Common verbs for the chéng cycle include "restrict", "overwhelm", "dominate" or "destroy". The phase interactions in the chéng cycle are:

  • Wood depletes Earth (depletion of nutrients in soil, over-farming, overcultivation)
  • Earth obstructs Water (over-damming)
  • Water extinguishes Fire
  • Fire vaporizes Metal
  • Metal overharvests Wood (deforestation)


A deficient cycle is called the cycle and is the reverse of the cycle. Common verbs for the cycle can include "insult" or "harm". The phase interactions in the cycle are:

  • Wood dulls Metal
  • Metal de-energizes Fire (metals conduct heat away)
  • Fire evaporates Water
  • Water muddies (or destabilizes) Earth
  • Earth rots Wood (overpiling soil on wood can rot the wood)

Celestial stemEdit

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stems Jia
Year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3

Ming neiyinEdit

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


The Wuxing philosophy is applied to explain different concepts in various fields.

Phases of the YearEdit

The five phases are around 73 days each and are usually used to describe the transformations of nature rather than their formative states.

  • Wood/Spring: a period of growth, which generates abundant vitality, movement and wind.
  • Fire/Summer: a period of swelling, flowering, expanding with heat.
  • Earth can be seen as a transitional period between the other phases or seasons or when relating to transformative seasonal periods it can be seen as late Summer. This period is associated with stability, leveling and dampness.
  • Metal/Autumn: a period of harvesting, collecting and dryness.
  • Water/Winter: a period of retreat, stillness, contracting and coolness.

Cosmology and feng shuiEdit

Another illustration of the cycle.

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.[13]

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.

Movement Metal Metal Fire Wood Wood Water Earth Earth
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qián duì zhèn xùn kǎn gèn kūn
I Ching Heaven Lake Fire Thunder Wind Water Mountain Field
Planet (Celestial Body) Neptune Venus Mars Jupiter Pluto Mercury Uranus Saturn
Color Grey White Red Green Purple Black Blue Yellow
Day Friday Friday Tuesday Thursday Thursday Wednesday Saturday Saturday
Season Autumn Autumn Summer Spring Spring Winter Intermediate Intermediate
Cardinal direction West West South East East North Center Center

Dynastic transitionsEdit

According to the Warring States period political philosopher Zou Yan (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.[14]

Chinese medicineEdit

Five Elements – diurnal cycle[citation needed]

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.[15][16]

In order to explain the integrity and complexity of the human body, Chinese medical scientists and physicians use the Five Elements theory to classify the human body's endogenous influences on organs, physiological activities, pathological reactions, and environmental or exogenous influences. This diagnostic capacity is extensively used in traditional five phase acupuncture today, as opposed to the modern eight principles based Traditional Chinese medicine. Furthermore in combination the two systems are the study of postnatal and prenatal influencing on genetics, psychology and sociology. [17][18]

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Mental Quality idealism, spontaneity, curiosity passion, intensity agreeableness, honesty intuition, rationality, mind erudition, resourcefulness, wit
Emotion anger, kindness hate, resolve anxiety, joy grief, bravery fear, passion
Zang (yin organs) liver heart/pericardium spleen/pancreas lung kidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladder small intestine/San Jiao stomach large intestine urinary bladder
Sensory Organ eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Body Part tendons pulse muscles skin bones
Body Fluid tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Finger index finger middle finger thumb ring finger pinky finger
Sense sight taste touch smell hearing
Taste[19] sour bitter sweet pungent, umami salty
Smell rancid scorched fragrant rotten putrid
Life early childhood pre-puberty adolescence/intermediate adulthood old age, conception
Covering scaly feathered naked human furred shelled
Hour 3–9 9–15 change 15–21 21–3
Year Spring Equinox Summer Solstice Summer Final Fall Equinox Winter Solstice
360° 45–135° 135–225° Change 225–315° 315–45°


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

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Color Qing (Grue) Red Yellow White Black
Arctic Direction east south center west north
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin jué zhǐ gōng shāng
solfege mi or E sol or G do or C re or D la or A
  • In this use, the Chinese word (qīng) is an ambiguous color inclusive of both green and blue as its shades. This concept is common in many languages but largely alien to modern English, where it is only sometimes encountered as "grue". See the article on "blue–green distinction in language" for further details. It is said that this is the color of a dragon's scales when seen through the mist.
  • 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 artsEdit

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).[14]

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

Wuxing heqidao, Gogyo Aikido (五行合气道) is an art form with its roots in Confucian, Taoists and Buddhist theory.[further explanation needed] This art is centralised around applied peace and health studies and not that of defence or material application. The unification of mind, body and environment is emphasised using the anatomy and physiological theory of yin, yang and five-element Traditional Chinese medicine. Its movements, exercises and teachings cultivate, direct and harmonise the Qi.[14]


The Japanese term is gogyo (Japanese:五行, romanized: gogyō). During the 5th and 6th centuries (Kofun period),[20] Japan adopted various philosophical disciplines such as Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism through monks and physicians from China. In particular, wuxing was adapted into gogyo (五行). These theories have been extensively practiced in Japanese acupuncture and traditional Kampo medicine.[21][22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hayashi, Makoto; Hayek, Matthias (2013). "Editors' Introduction: Onmyodo in Japanese History". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies: 3. doi:10.18874/jjrs.40.1.2013.1-18. ISSN 0304-1042.
  2. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2011) "Yin-Yang and Five Agents Theory, Correlative Thinking" in ChinaKnowledge.de - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art
  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. ^ Dr Zai, J. Taoism and Science: Cosmology, Evolution, Morality, Health and more. Ultravisum, 2015.
  7. ^ Nathan Sivin (1995), "Science and Medicine in Chinese History," in his Science in Ancient China (Aldershot, England: Variorum), text VI, p. 179.
  8. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan) p. 73.
  9. ^ 千古中医之张仲景 [Wood and Metal were often replaced with air]. Lecture Room, CCTV-10.
  10. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 72.
  11. ^ Dechar, Lorie (2006). Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing. New York: Lantern Books. pp. 20–360. ISBN 1590560922.
  12. ^ Littlejohn, Ronnie. "Wuxing (Wu-hsing)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ a b c Chen, Yuan (2014). "Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China". Journal of Song-Yuan Studies. 44 (1): 325–364. doi:10.1353/sys.2014.0000. S2CID 147099574.
  15. ^ "Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth". National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Archived from the original on 4 April 2017. Retrieved 20 March 2017.
  16. ^ Hafner, Christopher. "The TCM Organ Systems (Zang Fu)". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 6 April 2017. Retrieved 5 April 2017.
  17. ^ "Five Elements Theory (Wu Xing)". Chinese Herbs Info. 2019-10-27. Archived from the original on 2019-12-17. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  18. ^ "five element acupuncture". www.cancer.gov. 2011-02-02. Retrieved 2020-12-27.
  19. ^ Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey. University of California Press. 5 (12): 596–608. doi:10.2307/2642652. JSTOR 2642652.
  20. ^ Watanabe, Kenji; Matsuura, Keiko; Gao, Pengfei; Hottenbacher, Lydia; Tokunaga, Hideaki; Nishimura, Ko; Imazu, Yoshihiro; Reissenweber, Heidrun; Witt, Claudia M. (2011). "Traditional Japanese Kampo Medicine: Clinical Research between Modernity and Traditional Medicine—The State of Research and Methodological Suggestions for the Future". Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2011: 513842. doi:10.1093/ecam/neq067. ISSN 1741-427X. PMC 3114407. PMID 21687585.
  21. ^ Baracco, Luciano (2011-01-01). National Integration and Contested Autonomy: The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Algora Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87586-823-3.
  22. ^ "《赵城金藏》研究" (in Chinese).[permanent dead link]

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit