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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
|Dynamic||Potential Activity||Actual Activity||Undifferentiated world of possibility||Potential result||Completion of activity|
|Yin-Yang||Yin-Yang||Mature||Balance||Young Yin||Mature Yin|
|Season||Summer||Late summer, monsoon||Autumn||Winter||Winter|
|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|
|Injured by excessive||Walking||Staring||Sitting||Lying||Standing|
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.
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