Five Element or Five Phase Theory is something which many people are increasingly familiar with, whether they have a background in Chinese Medicine or not. It sometimes goes by the Wuxing (“Five Phase” in Chinese), and dates back to approximately 200 BC. The five phases are Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. The phases are energetic archetypes which are expressed in different ways through Nature and through the world at large. The seasons have a phase, the organs and channels each have a phase, and certain characteristics of the mind, body, and spirit each have an associated phase as well. One of the great tasks of Confucianism was fitting governmental structure into the five phase model. This just goes to show that the five phases are expressed in a multitude of ways.
Each individual phase has a unique set of correspondences and characteristics that it embodies. They are also considered to be cyclical in nature, meaning there is an explicit order to the phases. Any given phase has another phase which it generates, a phase which it controls, and a phase which it is controlled by. Here I will give a brief overview of the phases and some of the characteristics of each. Some of these associations may seem strange, but it is best to look at each of these elements as encompassing an energetic blueprint that unites all of it’s associations into a complex web of correspondence.
Water (水 shuǐ)
The Water phase is associated with the color black or blue. Its yin organ is the Kidney and its yang organ is the Bladder. The energy of Water is one of storage and it shares a relationship with one’s past and one’s ancestors. The emotion associated with Water is fear and the psychospiritual aspect of the Water is the willpower or zhi. It opens to the ears and is related to the bones. Its sound is groaning, its taste is salty, and its smell is putrid. Its direction is North and its season is Winter. It is associated with old age and with conception. It is also related to the cold and with the sense of hearing. The virtue of Water is wisdom.
Having healthy Water means having healthy Kidney and Bladder energy and having a sense of connection to one’s history. Working through one’s trauma and being able to move through the world without fear is also important for the Water phase. Being able to access one’s Water energy is important when you need to take a break from the world to pray or meditate.
Water generates Wood and is generated by Metal. Water controls Fire and is controlled by Earth.
Wood (木 mù)
The Wood phase is associated with the color green. Its yin organ is the Liver and its yang organ is the Gallbladder. The energy of Wood has to do with birth, growth, and development. The emotion associated with Wood is anger and the psychospiritual aspect of Wood is the hun or the ethereal energy that wanders when we dream or daydream. It opens to the eyes and is related to the tendons and ligaments (“sinews”). Its sound is shouting, its taste is sour, and its smell is rancid. Its direction is East and its season is Spring. It is associated with infancy and early childhood. It is also related to the wind and with the sense of sight. The virtues of Wood are peace and kindness.
Having healthy Wood means having healthy Liver and Gallbladder energy and having a sense of purpose and direction in life. Working on one’s temper is important for the Wood phase. Being able to access one’s Wood energy is important when expressing oneself and in being creative. It is also important to move one’s body and to be active to prevent the Wood phase from stagnating.
Wood generates Fire is generated by Water. Wood controls Earth and is controlled by Metal.
Fire (火 huǒ)
The Fire phase is associated with the color red. It yin organs are the Heart and the Pericardium, and its yang organs are the Small Intestine and a mysterious organ called the Sanjiao or Triple Burner (often associated with the fascia). The energy of Fire is expansion. The emotion associated with Fire is joy and the psychospiritual aspect of Fire is the shen or spirit, often associated with conscious awareness. It opens to the tongue and is related to the blood and vasculature. Its sound is laughing, its taste is bitter, and its smell is a burnt or scorched odor. Its direction is South and its season is Summer. It is associated with pre-pubescent childhood. It is also related to conditions of heat and with the sense of taste. The virtue of Fire is love.
Having healthy Fire means having a healthy Heart, circulatory system, Small Intestine, and fascia. It also means having passion and a zest for life. Working on being grounded and not getting overexcited or anxious is important for the Fire phase. Nervous or inappropriate laughter is associated with Fire phase imbalance.
Fire generates Earth and is generated by Wood. Fire controls Metal and is controlled by Water.
Earth (土 tǔ)
The Earth phase (sometimes referred to as soil) is associated with the color yellow. Its yin organ is the Spleen and its yang organ is the Stomach. The energy of Earth is transformation. The emotion associated with Earth is pensiveness or overthinking and the psychospiritual aspect of Earth is yi or intention. It opens to the mouth and is related to the flesh and musculature. It’s sound is singing, it’s taste is sweet, and it’s smell is fragrant. It’s direction is towards the center and it’s season is associated with the change between seasons. It is associated with adolescence. It is also related to the condition of dampness and with the sense of touch. The virtue of Earth is hope.
Having healthy Earth means having healthy digestion and avoiding excess carbohydrates and dampening or cold foods. It also means being able to think clearly and to process information effectively. Working on being grounded and taking time to concentrate on eating (without distractions) and focus the mind rather than multitask is important for the Earth phase.
Earth generates Metal and is generated by Fire. Earth controls Water and is controlled by Wood.
Metal (金 jīn)
The Metal phase is associated with the color white. Its yin organ is the Lung and its yang organ is the Large Intestine. The energy of Metal is harvesting and sifting. Metal is also about making and breaking bonds. The emotion associated with Metal is grief and sadness and the psychospiritual aspect of Metal is the po or the corporeal energy that is stored in the body and returns to the Earth upon death. It opens to the nose and and is related to the skin and hair. It’s sound is weeping, it’s taste is pungent, and it’s smell is rotten. It’s direction is West and it’s season is Autumn. It is also related to condition of dryness and with the sense of smell. The virtue of Metal is honesty.
Having healthy Metal means having healthy breathing, healthy skin and hair, and a healthy colon and microbiome. Healthy Metal also means having healthy boundaries in relationships, being organized, and being able to let go when necessary (and to cry). Working on grief and on breathing deeply is important for the Metal phase.
Metal generates Water and is generated by Earth. Metal controls Wood and is controlled by Fire.
I hope this information is useful to you and inspires you to explore Chinese Medicine more deeply! Here is a lovely Qigong form that you can practice to balance the Five Phases: