China’s Five Elements Philosophy — Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water

Five Elements Theory is a Chinese philosophy used to describe interactions and relationships between things. The five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal, and water — are believed to be the fundamental elements of everything in the universe between which interactions occur.

  • Chinese: 五行 Wǔ Xing /woo sshing/ ‘Five Actions’

The History of Five Elements Theory

Five Elements Theory first appeared during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC). It became widespread: mostly used in Chinese medicine, philosophy, fengshui, fortune-telling, and martial arts.

Associations of the Five Elements

Each element has its own characteristics and associations with different aspect of nature, such as direction, season, color, shape, and so on. See the tables below.

Fengshui Associations

Characteristic Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Direction East South Center West North
Season Spring Summer change of seasons (last month of each season) Autumn Winter
Climate Windy Hot Damp Dry Cold
Color Green Red Yellow White Black
Shape Rectangular Angular Square Round Undulating

Astrology Associations

Characteristic Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planets Venus Jupiter Mercury Mars Saturn
Heavenly Creatures Azure Dragon(青龙) Vermilion Bird (朱雀) Yellow Dragon (黄龙) White Tiger (白虎) Black Tortoise (玄武)
Heavenly Stems 1st (Jia 甲), 2nd (Yi 乙) 3rd (Bing 丙), 4th (Ding丁) 5th (Wu 戊), 6th (Ji 己) 7th (Geng 庚), 8th (Xin 辛) 9th (Ren 壬), 10th (Gui 癸)
Virtue Benevolence Propriety Fidelity/ Honesty Righteousness Wisdom
Represents Creativity, luxuriance, blooming, and flourishing Enthusiasm and passion Nurturing, stability, and security Ambition, determination, progress, and persistence Aptitude, brightness, agile mind, and mental strength

Chinese Medicine Associations

Characteristic Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Spicy Salty
Sensory Organs Eyes Tongue Mouth Nose Ear

Interactions Between the Five Elements

Five Element Theory asserts that the world changes according to the five elements’ generating or overcoming relationships. Generating and overcoming are the complementary processes — the yin and yang — of Five Element Theory.

Generating processes promote development, while overcoming processes control development. By promoting and restraining, systems are harmonized and balance is maintained.

Generating Interactions

The generating interactions of the five elements are like the conception, gestation, birth, and nurture relationship between a mother and a baby. Such element pairs are deeply attached, and together imply success and luck.

The five generating interactions are fueling, forming, containing, carrying, and feeding:

  • Wood fuels fire.
  • Fire forms earth (volcanoes, ash, etc.).
  • Earth contains metal.
  • Metal carries water (buckets, pipes, etc.).
  • Water feeds wood (trees, plants, etc.).

Overcoming Interactions

The overcoming interactions of the five elements are like the acts of hostility between two sides in a war.

The five overcoming interactions are melting, penetrating, separating, absorbing, and quenching:

  • Fire melts metal
  • Metal penetrates wood (chopping, sawing, drilling, nailing, screwing).
  • Wood separates earth (tree roots breaking up soil/rock).
  • Earth absorbs water.
  • Water quenches fire.

Five Elements Theory and the Chinese Zodiac

Everybody belongs to one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs and a 12-year cycle according to the year in which they were born. One of the five elements is associated with each of the Chinese zodiac signs and 12-year cycles.

Chinese astrology asserts that personality and luck are determined by both zodiac sign (element) and 12-year cycle element, while life force (or qi) is determined by birth date and time. Use the tool on the left to find your Chinese zodiac sign and element.

The Fixed Elements of Each Chinese Zodiac Sign

In Chinese astrology, each of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs is associated with one of the five elements, which is known as the fixed element of the sign:

Fixed Element Chinese Zodiac Sign
Wood Tiger, Rabbit
Fire Snake, Horse
Earth Ox, Dragon, Goat, Dog
Metal Monkey, Rooster
Water Pig, Rat

The allocation is because elements and signs are associated with months of the traditional Chinese solar calendar. Each element has a season, except Earth, which marks seasonal change, and is associate with the end month of each season.

Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Feb 4– Mar 6– Apr 5– May 5– Jun 5– Jul 6– Aug 7– Sep 8– Oct 8– Nov 7– Dec 7– Jan 6–
Tiger Rabbit Dragon Snake Horse Goat Monkey Rooster Dog Pig Rat Ox
Wood Wood Earth Fire Fire Earth Metal Metal Earth Water Water Earth

The 12-Year Cycles of the Five Elements

Each zodiac sign also has an element according to the 12-year cycle of the birth year. Each 12-year cycle starts with a year of the Rat:

Element 12-Year Cycle 12-Year Cycle
Wood 1924–35 1984–95
Fire 1936–47 1996–2007
Earth 1948–59 2008–19
Metal 1960–71 2020–31
Water 1972–83 2032–43

So 2015 is an Earth year by element cycle and by sign (2015 is a Goat year, and the Goat is also associated with the Earth element).

The five elements combined with the 12 zodiac signs produce a sixty-year cycle: e.g. an Earth Goat recurs once every 60 years.

A person’s characteristics are said to be determined both by the fixed element of their zodiac sign and the element of the 12-year cycle they were born in. E.g., a Wood Goat (born in 1991 or 1931) has a personality with aspects associate with both Wood and Earth.

How to Make Good Luck Using Five Elements Theory

Five Elements Theory is the most important part of Fengshui Theory. According to ancient Chinese philosophy, good fengshuiwill bring good luck. The qi energy of every direction is said to be ruled by one of the five elements. So aligning one’s life with the qi should bring good luck and smooth all obstacles.

First you should find the fixed element (lucky element) of your sign, and then find the direction of your element’s energy from the Fengshui Associations table above. Then make use of both the energy direction and the color of your lucky element to enhance your luck.

Example Using the Zodiac Tiger

Your sign is the Tiger, so your lucky element is Wood. Wood energy is in the east, so facing east can bring you good luck. It can enhance your wealth, health and longevity. The color associated with the Wood element is green, so you can decorate the east of your house green, or put a green plant in the east, to bring yourself good luck.

According to the generating cycle of the five elements, Water generates Wood, so you can also add some Water element in the east to enhance your good luck. For example, you could put a fish tank filled with water in the east of your house.

However you should avoid putting the Metal element in the east, according to the overcoming cycle of the five elements. Likewise avoid putting the Fire element in the east, as it will consume the energy of Wood.

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