The Wu Xing – 5 Phases

The Wu Xing – 5 Phases

FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalanceThe Wu Xing or 5 elements are an ancient mnemonic device. It was and is used to describe interactions and relationships between phenomena.

According to Wu Xing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five phases. Any action, any incident, any occurrence or any event can be related to one of these phases.

This is rather interesting; the system bases on the 5 cardinal points which relate to the directions of North, South, East and West and most likely as a 5th point, the center (or the middle)!

In Traditional Chinese medicine, we apply the theory of Wu Xing for both, assessment of an individual or a condition. We also use it as a diagnostic tool.

We differentiate between the following five phases:

Wood (Chinese: 木, pinyin: mù)
Fire (Chinese: 火, pinyin: huǒ)
Earth (Chinese: 土, pinyin: tǔ)
Metal (Chinese: 金, pinyin: jīn)
Water (Chinese: 水, pinyin: shuǐ)

Phase Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Green Red Yellow White Black
Emotion Anger Happiness Worry Sadness Fear
Yin organs Liver Heart / Pericardium Spleen Lung Kidney
Yang organs
Gallbladder Small Intestine, Triple Burner Stomach Large Intestine Urinary bladder
Sensory organ Eyes Tongue Mouth Nose Ears
Sense Sight Speech Taste Smell Hearing
Body part Tendons Blood vessels Muscles Skin Bones
Body fluids Tears Sweat Saliva Mucous Urine
Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty

Having now established the basis of the Wu Xing, allow me to use several descriptive samples for your perception & understanding.

The colours are linked to the colour of the facial colour for instance. Black shadows under the eyes will be a sign for kidney deficiency. A yellowish-green complexion can show a disharmony between the spleen and liver and at the red tip of the tongue relates to heat in the heart which would stop people from sleeping restfully.

Emotions display the state of health, either conveying a sense of dis-eases or good health. Someone being overly angry is an unmistakable sign of a liver pattern. Sadness drains the Lung energy and hence allows external disease factors to enter our internal system or can result in Skin conditions.

The Yin and the Yang organs pair and become a unit. If one of them is out of balance, it will affect the partner’s organ or Acupuncture channel as well. So, we have pairs of Liver/Gallbladder, Heart/Small Intestine, Spleen/Stomach, Lung/Large Intestine, Kidney/Urinary bladder and Triple burner/Pericardium. As a system of transport the Triple burner and the Pericardium pair and in the Wu Xing, they also belong to the Fire element.

Any condition of sensory organs and associated senses, relate directly to the element. Eye problems all have something to do with the liver and particularly the liver blood nourishing the eyes or ear problems such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) will have to be treated via the kidney organ. The nose is related to the Lungs (the Yin organ closest to the exits) and manifests with head colds, then penetrating a deeper level and hence affecting the Lung organ (bronchitis, pneumonia, etc.). The sensory organs are the openings/entry-exits of the organs.

How do body parts relate to the Wu Xing? It’s the quality of an element or phase that represents each part. An example are muscles, if nourished properly with appropriate food, they will flourish, look pink and firm and feel strong. Nourishment in Chinese medicine is provided by a strong partnership: the stomach and the spleen.

The body fluids categorise the same way: each element governs a certain fluid. If we consider urine (that is related to the Water element) we can assess the state of the kidney and urinary bladder. Too much urine, too little urine, burning or frequent urination will allow us to treat the respective organ.

The tastes are not only related to a certain phase, but also play an imperative role in treatment with herbs. The herb actions in Chinese medicine are classified by their flavours and not by their chemical constituents!

We look at individual elements but also look at their interaction. In healthy phenomena, remember that’s what the Wu Xing represents and we use the human body as an example, the cycle goes from Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and back to Water. And this cycle is the nourishing cycle.

Wood brings about Fire, Fire brings about Earth, Earth brings about Metals (or the nutrients that grow in it) and Metal brings about Water where Water nourishes Wood.

If any of the phases become weak, for instance because someone has endured a long time of sadness, the control cycle kicks in. Wood controls Earth, Fire controls Metal, Earth controls Water, Water controls Fire, etc. one disharmony or weakness will usually cause more disharmonies over time. This is also how we can connect emotions and emotional states to individual organs and treat them via the organs.

As you can see, it’s an intrinsic system that is based on observation of nature and cycles in our universe. That’s how we treat the individual and not the ailment.