Below is an excerpt from an essay on the Five Elements.
1. IntroductionTraditional Chinese thought about nature often involves a set of five xíng 行, named after natural entities (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). The word xíng, which usually means "walking" or "moving," is sometimes translated "elements" when speaking of the five xíng, but many authors prefer translations like "forces," "natures," "phases," or "transformations" in order to capture the idea that the xíng are in dynamic interaction with each other, i.e., that they are in some sense "walking." Despite its misleadingly concrete implications, I still prefer the translation "elements," since it fits best with the basic terms always used for them: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. (It is hard for an English speaker to think of wood as a "phase.")
Underlying the utility (or, some would say, wackiness) of the concept are a number of additional assumptions:
- Each of the five elements has a wide number of correspondences with other parts of the natural world. Thus the element wood corresponds with the color blue, the direction east, and the flavor sour. In general, anything that can be subdivided into five categories, can be aligned to the five elements.
- Each of the five elements tends to strengthen, support, feed, give way to, or create one of the others. For example, wood/blue/east tends to support or strengthen fire/scarlet/south.
(Mnemonic: Wood burns to create fire; fire creates ash/earth; it is from earth that we get metal; metal can be heated to produce liquid/water; water poured on a seedling allows it to grow into wood.)
- Each of the five elements also tends to weaken, undercut, or destroy one of the others. Thus wood/blue/east tends to weaken earth/yellow/center.
(Mnenomic: Wood can grow through earth; fire can melt metal, earth can absorb water, metal tools can cut through wood, water can put out a fire.)
- A deficiency or an excess of any element tends to exert unnatural strengthening or weaking influence on other elements, potentially causing illness or distress.
- Illness and misfortune can be corrected by restoring the element that is too strong or weak. One way to do this is to supplement those elements that will tend to strengthen or diminish the unbalanced element. Usual applications are in religious ritual (including geomancy) and in medicine.