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The Theory of Five Elements (I)
Addtime:2014-07-01 13:32:59 Hit:1103

The five elements refer to wood, fire, earth, metal and water as well as their motion and changes in the natural world. In the long course of living and working, the ancient Chinese people came to understand that these five categories of substances are the most essential ones indispensable to their existence.


The theory of the five elements holds that all phenomena in the universe correspond in nature either to wood, fire, earth, metal or water, and that these elements are in a state of constant motion and change. In TCM, the theory of five elements is used to generalize and explain the nature of the zang-organs and fu-organs, the interrelations among these organs as well as the relation between human beings and the natural world, thus guiding clinical diagnosis and treatment.


According to this theory, everything in nature is attributed to one of the five elements. For instance, wood is characterized by growing freely and peripherally. So anything with the functions of growing and developing freely is attributed to the category of wood. Fire is characterized by flaming up. Thereby anything with the functions of warming and rising is attributed to the category of fire. Earth is characterized by cultivation and reaping. So anything with the functions of generating, transforming, supporting and receiving is attributed to the category of earth. Metal is characterized by change. Hence anything with the functions of purifying, descending and astringing is attributed to the category of metal. Water is characterized by moistening and downward flowing. Therefore anything with the functions of cooling, moistening and moving downward is attributed to the category of water.


The movement of the five elements is mainly characterized by generation, restriction, subjugation, and counter-restriction, and mutual interaction between mother-element and child-element.


Generation means that one kind of object generates, strengthens or brings forth another, i.e., wood generates fire, fire generates earth, earth generates metal, metal generates water, and water, in turn, generates wood. Each of the five elements is marked by such relations as “being generated” and “generating”, This relationship of the five elements is termed as the “mother-child” relationship. Each element is the “child” of the element that generates it and the “mother” of the one it generates. Take wood for example. Since wood generates fire, it is the mother of fire; because wood is also generated by water, so it is the “child” of water.


Restriction implies bringing under control or restraint. The restricting activity among the five elements follows a circular order: wood restricts earth, earth restricts water, water restricts fire, fire restricts metal, and metal, in turn, restricts wood. In this circular order, each of the five elements is marked by “being restricted” and “restricting”. For example, the element restricting wood is metal, and the element that is restrained by wood is earth.


Subjugation is similar to launching an attack when a counterpart is weak. It is an excessive restriction among the five elements. For instance, wood normally restricts earth. However, if wood is in excess, it may over restrict earth and brings on insufficiency of earth, also known as wood subjugates earth. The order of subjugation is the same as that of restriction. Subjugation is not a normal restriction but a harmful condition occurring under abnormal circumstances.

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