The Five Elemental Energies

By Daniel Reid

"The Five Elemental Energies of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water encompass all the myriad phenomena of nature.  It is a paradigm that applies equally to humans."

The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine

(second century bc)

 The Five Elemental Energies (wu sing) represent the tangible activities of yin and yang as manifested in the cyclic changes of nature which regulate life on earth.  Also known as the Five Movements (wu yun), they define the various stages of transformation in the recurring natural cycles of seasonal change, growth and decay, shifting climatic conditions, sounds, flavors, emotions, and human physiology.  Each energy is associated with the natural element which most closely resembles its function and character, and from these elements they take their names.  Unlike the Western and other systems of five elements, the Chinese system focuses on energy and its transformations, not on form and substance.  The elements thus symbolize the activities of the energies with which they are associated.

 As manifestations of yin and yang on earth, the Five Elemental Energies represent various degrees of 'fullness' and 'emptiness' in the relative balance of yin and yang within any particular energy system.  An ancient Chinese text explains this principle as follows:

By the transformation of yang and its union with yin, the Five Elemental Energies of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water arise, each within its specific nature according to its share of yin and yang.  These Five Elemental Energies constantly change their sphere of activity, nurturing and counteracting one another so that there is a constancy in the transformation from emptiness to abundance and abundance to emptiness, like a ring without beginning or end.  The interaction of these primordial forces brings harmonious change and the cycles of nature run their course . . . The Five Elemental Energies combine and recombine in innumerable ways to produce manifest existence.  All things contain all Five Elemental Energies in various proportions.

Let's take a look at this idea in terms of the basic seasonal cycles of nature, which influence every living thing on earth. 

Water is the elemental energy associated with winter, when a state of extreme yin prevails.  Winter is the season of stillness and rest, during which energy is condensed, conserved, and stored.  Water is a highly concentrated element containing great potential power awaiting release.  In the human body, Water is associated with essential fluids such as hormones, lymph, marrow, and enzymes, all of which contain great potential energy.  Its color is black, the color which contains all other colors in concentrated form.  In nature, Water is dissipated by excess heat; in humans, Water energy is depleted by the 'heat' of stress and excess emotions.  The way to conserve the potential energy of Water is to stay still and 'be cool'.

 The next phase of the seasonal cycle is spring, during which the Wood element arises from the potential energy of Water, just as plants sprout from the ground in spring rains.  This is the 'new yang' stage of the cycle.  Wood energy is expansive, exhilarant, explosive.  It is the creative energy of 'spring fever', awakening the procreative drive of sexuality.  It is associated with vigor and youth, growth and development.  In the human body, Wood energy is associated with the movement of muscles and the activity of tissues.  Its color is green, the vibrant color of spring growth.  Wood energy demands free expression and space for open expansion.  Blocking it gives rise to feelings of frustration, anger, jealousy, and stagnation.

 Just as spring develops naturally into summer, so the aggressive creative energy of Wood matures into the flourishing 'full yang' energy of Fire.  This is the most overtly energetic phase of the cycle, during which the 'heat' of full yang energy is sustained.  All life forms flourish in summer owing to the warm, stable glow of Fire energy.  Fire is related to the heart, which is the seat of human emotions and the organ whose constant warmth and pulse keeps blood and energy moving.  Its color is red, the warm color of fire and blood.  It is associated with love and compassion, generosity and joy, openness and abundance.  If blocked it results in hypertension and hysteria, heart problems and nervous disorders.

 Towards the end of summer comes an interlude of perfect balance during which Fire burns down and energy mellows, transforming itself into the elemental energy of Earth.  Neither yin nor yang predominates during this period; instead they are in a state of optimum balance.  This is the pivot of the cycle, the fulcrum between the yang energies of spring and summer and the yin energies of autumn and winter.  The Five Elemental Energies hum in harmony at this time, providing a sense of ease, well-being, and completeness.  The Earth energy of late summer is the phase and the feeling celebrated in the song 'Summertime, and the living is easy ...'  Its color is yellow, the color of sun and earth, and in human anatomy it is associated with the stomach, spleen, and pancreas, which lie at the center of the body and nourish the entire system.  If Earth energy is deficient, digestion is impaired and the entire organism is thrown off balance owing to insufficient nourishment and vitality.

 As summer passes into autumn, the energy of Earth transforms into Metal.  During the Metal phase, energy once again begins to condense, contract, and draw inward for accumulation and storage, just as the crops of summer are harvested and stored in autumn for use in winter.  Wastes are eliminated, like winnowing chaff from wheat, and only the essence is kept in preparation for the nonproductive Water phase of winter.  If the harvest fails or falls short, there may not be sufficient energy stored during Water/winter to generate a strong and healthy cycle in the following Wood/spring.  Metal energy controls the lungs, which extract and store essential energy from air and expel wastes from the blood, and the large intestine, which eliminates solid wastes while retaining and recycling water.  Its color is white, the color of purity and essence.  Autumn is the season of retrospection and meditative insight, for shedding old skin and dumping the excess baggage of external attachments and emotions accumulated in summer, just as trees shed their leaves and bees drive drones from the hive at this time of year.  Resisting this energy by clinging sentimentally to past attachments can cause feelings of melancholy, grief, and anxiety, which manifest themselves physiologically in breathing difficulties, chest pain, skin problems, and low resistance.  Flues, colds, and other respiratory ailments are common indicators of blocked Metal energy, which is associated with the lungs.  Just as Metal is a refined extract of Earth forged by Fire, so autumn is the season for extracting and refining essential lessons from the activities and experiences of summer, transforming them into the quiet wisdom of winter.

And so the great wheel of nature turns in a continuous cycle of elementary energies, drawing all living things in its wake and proceeding in an orderly and rhythmic sequence:

Wood >                 Fire >                  Earth >                     Metal>           Water >

new yang            full yang            balanced yin & yang         new yin            full yin

spring                  summer               late summer                    fall                  winter

dawn                    noon                   afternoon                      dusk              midnight

Like yin and yang, the Five Elemental Energies maintain their internal harmony through a system of mutual checks and balances known as 'creative' and 'control' cycles.  Both these cycles, which counteract and balance one another, are in constant operation, maintaining the dynamic fields of polar forces required to move and transform energies.  The creative cycle is one of generation, like the relationship between mother and child.  Water generates Wood by nourishing its growth; Wood generates Fire by providing its fuel; Fire generates Earth by fertilizing it with ashes; Earth yields Metal by extraction and refinement; Metal becomes liquid like Water when it is melted.

The opposite force is the control cycle, a relationship of subjugation similar to that between the victor and the vanquished in battle.  The Internal Medicine Classic describes the control cycle as follows:

Wood brought into contact with Metal is felled;

Fire brought into contact with Water is extinguished;

Earth brought into contact with Wood is penetrated;

Metal brought into contact with Fire is dissolved;

Water brought into contact with Earth is halted.

 Whenever a particular elemental energy grows too strong, it tends to exert an excessively stimulating influence over the following element in the creative cycle, like a domineering mother over a child, and at this point the element which controls the excessive energy kicks in to subjugate it and restore harmony.  For example, if Wood flourishes to excess, providing so much fuel that Fire burns out of control, Metal steps in to cut down the supply of Wood and thereby re-establish normal balance.  The creative and control cycles maintain constant harmony and balance among the Five Elemental Energies.

Wood helps Fire, is helped by Water, hinders Earth, is hindered by Metal
Fire helps Earth, is helped by Wood, hinders Metal, is hindered by Water
Earth helps Metal, is helped by Fire, hinders Water, is hindered by Wood
Metal helps Water, is helped by Earth, hinders Wood, is hindered by Fire
Water helps Wood, is helped by Metal, hinders Fire, is hindered by Earth

Another cycle, not recognized in this essay, is referred to as the Tonification cycle, where the Earth element is considered to be the fulcrum during periods of transition.  As you can see, each element is dominant for four hours during the 24 hour cycle, except the Earth element, which is dominant for eight hours, but during these periods of transition the Earth element is 'combined' with the energies of the other elements preceding/proceeding those times in the cycle, hence, each of the elements remain balanced.

Theoretical Foundations of the Five Elements

Here is a list of all of the basic foundations of the Five Elements according to ancient Chinese tradition.

General Foundations

New Yang
Full Yang
Yin/Yang Balance
New Yin
Full Yin
Life Cycle infancy youth adulthood old age death
3 - 7 am
9 am - 1 pm
1-3am, 7-9am
1-3pm, 7-9pm
3 - 7 pm
9 pm - 1 am
Energy Quality generative expansive stabilizing contracting conserving
late summer
(between seasons)


Development Phase
sprouting, leaves growing
blooming, fruit growing
ripening, harvest
withering, seeds falling
dormancy, storage
Mental Quality
emotion, sensitivity
willpower, creativity
Negative Emotion
Positive Emotion
Other Emotions
irritability, blame, rage, resentment, jealousy
nervousness, shock, excitement
worry, regret, remorse, obsessiveness, self-doubt
sadness, shame, disappointment, guilt
loneliness, insecurity
propriety, order
faith, trust
rectitude, integrity, righteousness, dignity
Yin (Zang) solid internal organ Liver (LV) Heart (HT) Spleen-Pancreas (SP) Lungs (LU) Kidneys (KD)
Triple Burner (TB)
Yang (Fu) hollow internal organ Gallbladder (GB) Small Intestine (SI) Stomach (ST) Large Intestine (LI) Bladder (BL)
Pericardium (PC)

Active Times

GB= 11pm-1am
LV= 1am-3am
SI= 1pm-3pm
HT= 11am-1pm
ST= 7am-9am
SP= 9am-11am
LI= 5am-7am
LU= 3am-5am
TB= 9pm-11pm
PC=  7pm-9pm
Body tendons pulse muscle skin bones
Aperture eyes tongue, throat lips, mouth nose ears
Bodily Fluids tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Expands Into nails facial complexion lips body hair head/pubic hair
Primal Spirit
Green Dragon
Red Pheasant
Yellow Phoenix
White Tiger
Black Tortoise
Gemini, Cancer
Virgo, Libra
Taurus, Leo
Scorpio, Aquarius
Sagittarius, Capricorn
Aires, Pisces
Male Animal
Dragon, Dog
Female Animal
Cow, Sheep
8, 3
2, 7
10, 5
4, 9
I Ching Trigrams
wind, thunder
earth, mountain
heaven, lake
51, 57
2, 52
1, 58

The organs and energy meridians of the body relate to the Five Elements through the functions they carry out, their associated emotions and overall qualities of energy.

Continue to Twelve Primary Channels and Zang-Fu theory

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