The Wu Xing, ( wŭ xíng) also known as the Five Phases, the Five Agents, the Five Movements, and the Five Steps/Stages, are chiefly an ancient mnemonic device, in many traditional Chinese fields. Within Chinese medicine texts the Wu Xing are also referred to as Wu Yun (五運 wŭ yùn) or a combination of the two characters (Wu Xing-Yun) these emphasise the corresondence of five elements to five 'seasons' (four seasons plus one). Another tradition refers to the wu xing as wu de 五德, the Five Virtues (五德終始說).

It has customarily been translated as Five Elements probably because of the similarity of this doctrine to the Western system of four elements. Text from the Mawangdui Silk Texts suggest that it was originally like the Western system representing elemental substances. The Wu Xing were mainly used as memory tools, hence the preferred translation of "movements", "phases" or "steps" over "elements". By the same token, Mu is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood".[1]

The five elements are:

Element Chinese pinyin
Fire huǒ
Metal jīn
Water shuǐ

The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena. It was employed as a device in many fields of early Chinese thought, including seemingly disparate fields such as geomancy or Feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy and martial arts.

The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts. Some claim the original foundation of these are the concept of the Five Cardinal Points.


The doctrine of five phases describes two cycles, a generating or creation (生, shēng) cycle, also known as "mother-son", and an overcoming or destruction (剋/克, ) cycle, also known as "grandfather-nephew", of interactions between the phases.


The five elements are usually used to describe the state in nature:

  • Wood/Spring: a period of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality;
  • Fire/Summer: a period of swellness, which overbrews with fire and energy;
  • Metal/Autumn: a period of fruition, which produces formation and bears fruit;
  • Water/Winter: a period of retreat, where stillness pervades;
  • Earth: the in-between transitional seasonal periods

The common memory jogs, which help to remind in what order the phases are:

  • Wood feeds Fire;
  • Fire creates Earth (ash);
  • Earth bears Metal;
  • Metal carries Water (as in a bucket or tap, or water condenses on metal);
  • Water nourishes Wood.

Other common words for this cycle include "begets", "engenders" and "mothers."


  • Wood parts Earth (such as roots; or, Trees can prevent soil erosion);
  • Metal chops Wood;
  • Fire melts Metal;
  • Water quenches Fire;
  • Earth dams (or muddies or absorbs) Water;

This cycle might also be called "controls", "restrains" or "fathers".

Cosmology and feng shui

According to Wu Xing theory, the structure of the cosmos mirrors the five phases. Each phase has a complex series of associations with different aspects of nature, as can be seen in the following table. In the ancient Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng Shui practitioners all based their art and system on the five phases (Wu Xing). All of these phases are represented within the Ba gua. Associated with these phases are colors, seasons and shapes; all of which are interacting with each other.[2]

Based on a particular directional energy flow from one phase to the next, the interaction can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive. With proper knowledge of such aspect of energy flow will enable the Feng Shui practitioner to apply certain cures or rearrangement of energy in a way they believe to be beneficial for the receiver of the Feng Shui "Treatment".

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Material Wind, Moisture, Air, Minerals, Mana, Ink, Mind, Rubber, Paper, Plants, Poison, Wax, Dissolve, Carbon, Clouds, Health, Space Heat, Light, Lava, Radiation, Sparks, Plasma, Explosions, Burn, Blaze, Oil, Ash, Smoke, Glass, Napalm, Sun, Matter Clay, Rock, Dust, Sand, Mud, Crystal, Powder, Shadow, Space, Darkness, Gravity, Bone, Quake, Silicon Lightning, Magnetism, Electric, Rust, Gold, Silver, Steel, Iron, Platinum, Titanium, Copper, Bronze, Brass, Blood, Forge, Stars, Diamond, Energy Sea, Ice, Storms, Rain, Steam, Fluid, Sound, Mist, Acid, Slime, Salt, Time, Pressure, Moon, Mirror, Snow, Frost, Sugar
Color Green Red Yellow White Black
Shape Rectangle Triangle Square Circle Curve
Cardinal direction East South Center West North
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Heavenly creature Azure Dragon
Vermilion Bird
Yellow Dragon 黃龍 or Qilin 麒麟 White Tiger
Black Tortoise
Heavenly Stems , , , , ,
Phase New Yang Full Yang Yin/Yang balance New Yin Full Yin
Direction and Natural phenomena Expansive and exterior (in all directions) Ascending Stabilizing (representing harmony) Contracting and interior Descending
Season Spring Summer Change of seasons
(Every third month)
Autumn Winter
Climate Windy Hot Damp Dry Cold
Development Sprouting Blooming Ripening Withering Dormant

Ba gua

The movements have also been correlated to the eight trigrams of the I Ching:

Movement Metal Earth Wood Wood Water Fire Earth Metal
I Ching Heaven Earth Thunder Wind Water Fire Mountain Lake
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qiánkūnzhènxùnkǎngènduì

Chinese medicine

The interdependence of Zang Fu networks in the body was noted to be a circle of five things, and so mapped by the Chinese doctors onto the five phases. For instance, the Liver (Wood phase) is said to be the "mother" of the heart (Fire phase), and the Kidneys (Water phase) the mother of the Liver. The key observation was things like kidney deficiency affecting the function of the liver. In this case, the "mother" is weak, and cannot support the child. However, the Kidneys control the heart along the Ke cycle, so the Kidneys are said to restrain the heart. Many of these interactions can nowadays be linked to Western physiological pathways (such as Kidney pH affecting heart activity).

The key thing to keep in mind with the Chinese medical application of the five elements is that it is only a model, and it is known to have exceptions.

The citation order of the Five Phases, i.e., the order in which they are cited in the Bo hu tong 白虎通 and other Han dynasty texts, is Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. The organs are most effectively treated, according to theory, in the following four-hour periods throughout the day, beginning with the 3 a.m. to 7 a. m. period: Metal organs (see the list below), Earth organs, Fire1 organs, Water organs, Fire2 (the "non-empirical" Pericardium and Triple Burner organs), and Wood organs, which is the reverse of the citation order (plus an extra use of Fire and the non-empirical organs to take care of the sixth four-hour period of the day). These two orders are further related to the sequence of the planets going outward from the sun (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or Water, Metal, Fire, Wood, and Earth) by a star diagram similar to the one shown above.[3]

The sequence of the five elements (Traditional Chinese medicine):promotion, inhibition, Cheng (bullying), Wu (insult).[4]

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Mental quality sensitivity creativity clarity intuition spontaneity
Emotion anger happiness love grief, sadness fear
Zang (yin organs) liver heart/pericardium spleen/pancreas lung kidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladder small intestine/San Jiao stomach large intestine urinary bladder
Sensory organ eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Body part tendons pulse muscle skin bones
Body fluid tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Finger index finger middle finger thumb ring finger little finger
Sense sight speech taste smell hearing
Taste[5] sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Smell rancid scorched fragrant rotten putrid
Life birth youth adulthood old age death
Animal scaly feathered human furred shelled

Celestial stem

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stem Jia 甲
Yi 乙
Bing 丙
Ding 丁
Wu 戊
Ji 己
Geng 庚
Xin 辛
Ren 壬
Gui 癸
Year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3


The Yuèlìng chapter (月令篇) of the Lǐjì (禮記) and the Huáinánzǐ (淮南子) make the following correlations:

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Color green or blue red yellow white black
Direction east south center west north
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin juézhǐgōngshāng
Solfege mi so do re la
  • The Chinese word 青 qīng, has many meanings, including green, azure, cyan, and black. It refers to green in Wu Xing.
  • In most modern music, various seven note or five note scales (e.g., the major scale) are defined by selecting seven or five frequencies from the set of twelve semi-tones in the equal tempered tuning. The Chinese "lǜ" tuning is closest to the ancient Greek tuning of Pythagoras.

Martial arts

T'ai chi ch'uan uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns. Either forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).[6]

The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):

  • Jìn bù (進步) Forward step
  • Tùi bù (退步) Backward step
  • Zǔo gù (左顧, in simplified characters 左顾) ) Left step
  • Yòu pàn (右盼 ) Right step
  • Zhōng dìng (中定) Central position, balance, equilibrium.

Xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over.
Water Drilling Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser.
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself.
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking.
Earth Crossing Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over.

Tea ceremony

There are spring, summer, fall, and winter teas. The perennial tea ceremony ("perennial", literally means four steps or sequences that are linked together, each representing a season of the year) includes four tea settings(茶席) and a tea master(司茶). The tea settings are:

  • earth, center incense, yellow, up and down
  • wood, 春風(Spring Wind), green, east
  • fire, 夏露(Summer Dew), red, south
  • metal, 秋籟(Fall Sounds), white, west
  • water, 冬陽(Winter Sunshine) black, north

Each tea setting is arranged and stands for the four directions (north, south, east, and west). A vase of the seasons' flowers is put on tea table. Sometimes if four tea masters are included then five chairs are arranged per tea setting, making a total of twenty plus the 4 tea masters equalling 24, which symbolizes the 24 solar terms of the Chinese calendar, and represents that nature continues or is perennial.


  • Feng Youlan (Yu-lan Fung), A History of Chinese Philosophy, volume 2, p. 13
  • Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, volume 2, pp. 262–23
  • Maciocia, G. 2005, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd edn, Elsevier Ltd., London


  1. 千古中医之张仲景. Wood and Metal were often replaced with air, Lecture Room, CCTV-10
  2. Chinese Five Elements Chart Information on the Chinese Five Elements from Northern Shaolin Academy in Microsoft Excel 2003 Format
  3. See 5 Xing in Citation Order.
  4. promotion inhibition Cheng wu
  5. Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey (University of California Press) 5 (12): 596–608. 
  6. Wu, Kung-tsao (1980, 2006). Wu Family T'ai Chi Ch'uan (吳家太極拳). Chien-ch’uan T’ai-chi Ch’uan Association. ISBN 0-9780499-0-X. 
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Wu Xing. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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