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Whether it’s in Feng Shui, traditional martial arts, or in the organization of the year, the Chinese have adopted a system of Five Elements to help describe, organize, and process the interplay of forces in the world. This system is similar to the Classical Four Elements that come directly from Ancient Greece and other cultures before them, as well as the Medicine Wheel seen in different Indigenous Nations of North America.

What are the five Chinese elements?

In Chinese thought, the five basic elements are Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth.  These represent phases of the Universe, and the Chinese believe their interactions cause everything to happen. They have all manner of correspondence and can take any form, from planets to seasons to organs of the body.

There are two main roads that these phases travel: the Creation/Destruction Cycle and the Overcoming Cycle. The Creation Cycle is seen as the following: Metal creates Water via condensation, Water creates Wood, as it would any plant, Wood feeds Fire, and the remnants of Fire then enriches or feeds the Earth which, in turn, gives birth to Metal in the form of ore, iron, etc.

The Overcoming Cycle, on the other hand, says that Metal can chop Wood, Wood breaks up Earth, Earth dams/hinders Water, Water quenches Fire, and Fire melts Metal.

What does each element represent?

Understanding the Five Chinese Elements Each of the Elements represents energy and intent.  Metal is adamant but can be molded to fit a given situation.  Water, probably the most written about Element—especially when considering its use as an analogy—is soft and flows, but can wear down mountains as well as crash roughly against the Earth. It can change its phase, and always takes the path of least resistance. Wood is also flexible, but it understands steady growth and adaptation.

On top of that, Wood lives in two worlds; the ground and the sky, making it able to understand multiple perspectives.  Fire consumes but also gives life and can be used when harnessed with the correct intent and focus.  It is lively and powerful but can be either dangerous or extinguished if mishandled. Earth is solid and supportive. Earth is nurturing and has a perspective of the long game.

In his book Xing Yi Quan Xue: The Study of Form-Mind Boxing, author Sun Lu Tang talks about playing the martial arts forms associated with each Element “mildly” in order to be able to refine the energies that correspond to the Elements in the body and gain the health and spiritual benefits from each. However, if one was to perform the routines incorrectly, with too much stiffness, force, or a lack of focus, then the very things that the practitioner is trying to help will be hindered or even harmed instead.

Understanding the Five Chinese Elements This realm of thought is representative of the philosophy that these Elements and the theory behind them reside in, which talks about being in harmony with the larger forces of creation, instead of trying to force things to be a way that is “other” or even contrary to those forces.

Practicing Chinese Tradition at Stella Luna Counseling & Wellness

The Five Elements, and the unified interplay of forces they represent, are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese thought and offer the modern world a framework and perspective on how to organize and interact with our surroundings.

The author of this blog, Sifu John Cosma, has been training in Chinese Internal Arts – Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Qigong, and meditation – as well as other martial and energy arts, continuously since 1999, most of that time as an instructor. Find more information about John by following the link here.

Check our events page regularly for updates on Chinese Internal Arts workshops with John, or contact us to get started on your own transformative journey at Stella Luna.