Stephen L. FIELD

The symbols for the five sacred Daoist mountains in China represent the five elements: water, fire, earth, wood, and metal, which correlate to the four cardinal directions (and center) of the square. Northern Peak is associated with the water element and the color black.

Often called the five material elements of the world and compared with Aristotle’s four elements, the Chinese wuxing, or “five movements” refer instead to the physical processes of water sinking, fire rising, wood bending, metal molding, and soil growing. The philosopher Zou Yan (350–270 BCE) is credited with being the first to combine the theory of yin and yang with that of wuxing to create a unified cosmology.

During the Warring States (475–221 BCE) period of ancient China, when feudal kingdoms were vying for supremacy and chaos reigned, the search for a correspondence between natural and social order was the overriding concern of the great thinkers of the day. This was the blossoming of the “hundred schools” when philosophical reasoning flourished. Ontological questions (those dealing with the nature of existence) were debated in the intellectual centers of the various states, and the answers to such questions became the origins of metaphysics and cosmology. As to the question of what constitutes the universe, the Chinese posited qi as the constituent matter or energy, and wuxing (the “five elements”) as its physical manifestation.

The origin of the concept of wuxing is unknown, but scholars speculate that the five xing or “movements” were originally the gods of the five visible planets, or “moving” stars, which share their names with the elements (Mars is the “Fire Star,” Mercury is the “Water Star,” etc.). The wuxing categories sport the seemingly elemental designations—water, metal, fire, earth, and wood—which explains the term’s earliest English translation. But rather than being merely material elements of the world, these categories refer instead to physical processes. This is evident from the first textual explication of the concept (occurring in the “Great Plan” section of the Book of Documents), where the wuxing are described as water sinking, fire rising, wood bending, metal molding, and soil growing. Scholars now refer to wuxing as the “five processes” or “five phases.”

Transmutation of the Wuxing

The intellectual center where early theories of wuxing received their first hearing was an academy in the northeastern state of Qi called Jixia, founded towards the close of the fourth century BCE. An eclectic text called the Guanzi originated here, chapter 8 of which introduces the concept of the transmutation of the five processes. Several enumeration orders of the wuxing would be developed over time, but perhaps the most important sequence and the one outlined in the Guanzi was that of “mutual production.” It may be characterized as follows:

Wood produces fire (by combustion);
Fire produces earth (as ash builds the soil);
Earth produces metal (by harboring the ores);
Metal produces water (as condensate on bronze caldrons);
Water produces wood (as it nourishes woody plants).

These phases of physical transmutation were then correlated with the cycle of the four seasons and the square of the four cardinal directions. The fire phase, the process of heating, matched south and summer, while the wood phase, the process of vegetal growth, matched east and spring. Water was matched with north and winter because ice and snow—the solid phase of water—accumulate there in that season. Soil was relegated to the center, since all of the other phases either originated in soil (the ores of metal and growing wood) or terminated there (the ash of fire and soaking water). That left the metal phase to be matched with autumn and west. With these correlations established, beginning in the center with soil and following the natural order of the seasons, the whole sequence was interpreted as the order in which the phases generate each other throughout the year.

Zou Yan and the School of Yin and Yang

The philosopher most closely identified with the theory of wuxing is Zou Yan (350–270 BCE), one of the first masters in attendance at the Jixia Academy. He is the purported leader of the School of Yin and Yang, and is credited with combining the theory of yin and yang with that of wuxing to create a unified cosmology. Unfortunately, none of his writings have survived and little is known about him aside from his state of origin—Qi, the location of Jixia. Zou Yan’s unique contribution to the history of Chinese cosmology was to correlate what he called the “five powers” with the cyclical patterns of human history so that the rise and fall of dynasties could be predicted. He based this idea on the second most important of the enumeration orders—the mutual conquest order, which may be characterized as follows:

Earth conquers water (by damming it);
Water conquers fire (by extinguishing it);
Fire conquers metal (by melting it);
Metal conquers wood (by cutting it);
Wood conquers earth (with its tap root).

In his scheme, the current dynasty, the House of Zhou, was correlated with the phase of fire. So the succeeding dynasty would be governed by the phase of water, which extinguishes fire. As the master of wuxing theory, and therefore perceived to be the person most likely to know which ruler accorded with what element, Zou Yan was the favorite of every hegemonic power seeking to seize the Mandate of Heaven from the declining Zhou dynasty. Under the patronage of some of the most powerful kings of the Warring States, Zou was able to refine his theories and disseminate them widely.

The Correlative Universe

Following upon the popularity of Zou Yan’s system, wuxing theories became very nearly universal. Every conceivable structural relation reducible to a factor of five was now correlated with the five phases. Red is the color of fire, yellow is the color of the soil of the Central China Plain, foliage is green, deep water is black, and the salts of metal are white. Fire rises, and feathered creatures fly up, so birds are correlated with fire. Water sinks, and shelled creatures dive down. Vegetation sheds its leaves and goes dormant in the winter, and scaly creatures shed their skin and hibernate, and so on. In similar fashion, the sense organs and internal organs of the human body, agricultural products, and land animals, for instance, are all correlated with the five phases. With these associations established, the production and conquest orders of the phases are then keys to properly affecting the natural process of particular organisms and organs. For example, when the five internal organs (spleen, lungs, heart, kidney, liver) are correlated with the five phases, wood governs the liver. When the five grains (rice, millet, barley, wheat, legumes) are correlated with the five phases, legumes belong to the element water. In the production order of the phases, water nourishes wood, so a diet rich in soybeans can be beneficial to the liver.

Further Reading

Fung Yulan. (1952-3). A history of Chinese philosophy. (D. Bodde, Trans.). 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao: Phi
losophical argument in ancient China.
La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co.

Legge, J. (Trans.). (1861–1872). The Chinese classics. Vol. 3, The Shoo King (The Book of Documents). Hong Kong and London.

Major, J. S. (1984). The five phases, magic squares, and schematic cosmography. In H. Rosemont (Ed.), Explorations in early Chinese cosmology (pp. 133–66). Chico, CA: Scholar’s Press.

Major, J. S., (Trans.). (1993). Heaven and Earth in early Han thought: Chapters three, four, and five of the Huainanzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Needham, J. (1956). Science and civilisation in China. Vol. 2, History of scientific thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rickett, W. A. (Trans.). (1998). Guanzi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rosemont, H. (Ed.). (1984). Explorations in early Chinese cosmology. Chico, CA: Scholar’s Press.

Rosemont, H. (Ed.) (1991). Chinese texts and philosophical contexts: Essays in honor of A. C. Graham. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co.

Source: Field, Stephen L.. (2009). Five Elements, The. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 831–833. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The symbol for the Southern Peak, associated with the fire element and the color red.

The symbol for Central Peak, associated with the earth element and the color yellow.

The symbol for Eastern Peak, associated with the wood element and the color green.

The symbol for the Western Peak, associated with the metal element and the color white.

Five Elements, The (W?xíng ??)|W?xíng ?? (Five Elements, The)

Download the PDF of this article