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Five Elements in Chinese Medicine

 

 

The Divisions of Cyclic Change

The five elements (‘wu xing’ in Chinese) means literally the ‘five movements’ or five different types of activity. It deals with the processes of change that occur in Nature, the orderly cycles of growth, renewal and decay. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) it allows a more detailed examination of patients in order to arrive at a precise diagnosis and develop a specific treatment plan.

Spring is the time of germination and new growth. This is the emerging Yang and is related to Wood

In its essence, the five elements theory is used to describe the different phases or types of activity that occur within a repetitive cycle. A prime example is the cycle of growth and activity that occurs during the seasons of the year. Spring is the time of germination and new growth. This is the emerging Yang and is related to Wood. Summer is the period of active growth and is the mature Yang, related to Fire.

Summer is the period of active growth and is the mature Yang, related to Fire.

In autumn the harvest occurs and this is the emerging Yin, related to Metal. Finally, in winter there occurs storage and dormancy, which is the mature Yin, related to Water.

…the period of ripening and maturing of the crops, which occurs in late summer…
In autumn the harvest occurs and this is the emerging Yin, related to Metal.

In addition there is the period of ripening and maturing of the crops, which occurs in late summer. In this period the activities of growth and decline are momentarily balanced. This period is the fifth season and belongs to Earth.

In this period the activities of growth and decline are Another example is seen in a description of the four cardinal directions: North, South, East and West – a simple division into four. However, a system of co-ordinates must have a reference point, i.e.the center.

Finally, in winter there occurs storage and dormancy, which is the mature Yin, related to Water.
…the period of ripening and maturing of the crops, which occurs in late summer… belongs to Earth.

In the northern hemisphere the activities that relate to the North are the colder climate from which arise cold winds; in the South there is a warmer climate, sending hot winds; the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Thus East relates to Wood, South to Fire, West to Metal and North to Water, while the center is Earth.

TCM APPLICATION

In TCM all of the structures and functions of the human body are classified according to this system.
All of the things listed within each Element correspond with one another, i.e. they have a very close relationship, which may be causal in nature, or synchronous (i.e. they always tend to occur together in time).

ELEMENT Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Dynamic Potential Activity Actual Activity Undifferentiated world of possibility Potential result Completion of activity
Yin-Yang Yin-Yang Mature Balance Young Yin Mature Yin
Development germination growth ripening harvest storage, seed
Season Summer Late summer, monsoon Autumn Winter Winter
Climate/Pathogen Wind Heat Damp Dryness Cold
Solid organs (viscera) Liver Heart Spleen Lung Kidney
Hollow organs (bowels) Gallbladder Small Intestine Stomach Large Intestine Urinary Bladder
Emotional quality Self-assertion, righteous indignation Joy, enthusiasm Orderliness Instincts Will, drive
Pathological Emotion Anger Over-excitement Obsession, worry Sadness, grief Fear, timidity
Human quality Planning,decision making Clarity of consciousness Ideas, inspiration, understanding, focus of attention, working memory Taking in, holding on & letting go Long term memory, concentration
Tissue Tendons and nails Blood and blood vessels Muscle, fat Skin and body hair Bones and marrow
Sense organ Eyes, vision Tongue, Speech Mouth, taste Nose, Smell, Touch Ears, Hearing
Fluid Tears Sweet Watery, saliva Nasal mucus Mucoid saliva
Sound (or tone of voice) Shouting Laughing Singing Crying Groaning
Colour Green Red Yellow White Blue, black
Injured by excessive Walking Staring Sitting Lying Standing
Flavour Sour Bitter Sweeter Pungent (spicy) Salty

As you can see from this brief introductory discussion, the TCM approach is more philosophical and universal in its scope, taking a broad understanding of events in the natural world as the basis for understanding the processes that occur within the human body and mind. This viewpoint underlies all of TCM physiology and pathology as well as diagnosis and treatment.

As with Yin-Yang, we have a system that begins with simplicity and, being universal in scope, allows for increasing degrees of complexity. Thus, although these concepts may be easily understood, it takes many years of study and experience to be able to apply them successfully in the clinic.
Once again, we would like to caution against self-prescribing and recommend that you seek the services of a qualified and registered TCM practitioner for your healthcare needs.
For more information about how TCM can help with specific health issues.

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