32. Five-phases, wu-hsing

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The philosophies that were to be named Taoism continued to evolve during the Warring States Period. Another important Chinese metaphor was also articulated during this time – the five-phases theory, wu-hsing.


Five Elements theory & yin yang

Tsou Yen (c. 350- 270 BCE) first set down the five-phases [or element] theory during the Warring States Period of the crumbling Chou Dynasty. He spent time at the aforementioned Chia-hsia Academy in the state of Ch’i. While there, he mixed with scholars of a mystical bent. He systematized their writings into the yin-yang and 5-phase theory. This system has infused many forms of Chinese thought even unto modern times.

“They [scholars belonging to mystical schools] were nevertheless extremely influential here [at the Academy] and throughout China during the fourth and third centuries BCE. They were practitioners of the various technical and esoteric arts (literally formulas and techniques; fang shu) that included medicine, macrobiotic hygiene (which comprises dietetics, breath cultivation, and physical exercise), divination, astrology and calendrics, and even demonology. Their writings are often linked with Tsou Yen, who is credited with extracting elements of a coherent cosmology from them. By the second century BCE, this cosmology of yin and yang and the Five Phases of ch’i had entered the writings of the philosophers to such an extent that it continued to be the dominant cosmological scheme in China from that point on.”1

Tsou Yen’s theory must have touched upon some universal truths as the Chinese terms yin and yang have even entered popular parlance in the West. According to our basic understanding, yin and yang balance each other as polar opposites – with yin representing the feminine principle and yang the masculine. Although yin and yang have been translated into a Western context, the 5-phase theory has been ignored.

“According to this system the great ultimate (t’ai-ch’i) produces the positive-negative dualism of yang and yin, the interaction of which in time gives birth to the five elements (wu-hsing) from which all events and objects are derived.”2

5 Elements, Agents or Phases?

Generally speaking, Chinese philosophy focuses upon dynamic processes rather than permanent states. This is especially true of Taoism. This emphasis upon process might have been a contributing factor as to why their science never discovered or even aimed at the fundamental material elements of the universe, i.e. atoms. While their process orientation didn’t reveal the secrets of material systems, the Chinese emphasis upon process is quite applicable to the dynamics of living systems.

Five phase, element, or agent theory: all the same, wu-hsing

Those of us in the West have a tendency to view the world in terms of discrete events rather than dynamic processes. Due to this mindset, scholars originally and still continue to refer to wu-hsing as the five-element theory. However, the five-phase theory, wu-hsing, is based upon the transformations that the five elements, i.e. fire, water, earth, wood and metal, go through between each other. Element, however, implies static rather than dynamic. Another translation calls it the five-agent theory, because agent implies elements that act.

It doesn’t really matter which translation is used because the complexity of the wu-hsing theory transcends any single word. This short article only hopes to give a taste of the marvelous complexity of the many applications of 5-phase theory. We will attempt to tie this theory into the Journey to the West, Internal Alchemy, and everyday life.

Basics of Wu-hsing

According to wu-hsing theory, the five fundamental phases have a cyclical dynamic that moves the universe. An example of one of the dynamic cycles: water puts out fire, which melts metal, which destroys wood, which overcomes earth, which absorbs water.3

In the 5-phase theory, there are no permanent states, just processes. Everything is in a constant state of transition, from one element to another. The I Ching and the 5-phase theory share this emphasis upon process rather than state. In the I Ching when a process reaches a limit, it turns into its opposite. In the 5-phase theory, when one process is completed, another takes over in endless succession. For instance, after fire burns wood, the fire disappears and the live wood is transformed into earth.

Traditional Chinese symbolism

The Chinese employ these dynamic relationships in a purely symbolic fashion. Every process ‘under Heaven’ is assigned an appropriate element. For instance, each of the 5 phases is associated with directions, seasons, colors and certain symbols or animals. These associations are based upon traditional Chinese symbolism.

“Water is connected to black, north, winter, and the ‘black warrior’ (snake and tortoise).
Fire is connected to red, south, summer, and represented by the bird (phoenix).
Metal is connected to white, west, autumn, and represented by a tiger.
Wood is connected to green, east, spring, and the dragon.
Earth is connected to yellow, the center, and the tsung, a circle within a square.”4

Universality of wu-hsing theory

While the Chinese symbols are certainly not universal to humankind, the elements and their interactions certainly are. In the discussion that follows, we will attempt to focus upon specific examples, general and personal, to illustrate how wu-hsing can be applied to any life.

Identifying the Proper Solution via the 5-phases

One of the primary features of wu-hsing theory is identifying proper solutions to problems, especially those relating to physical and mental health. The dynamic relationships between the 5-phases reveal these solutions. Following is an elementary phase cycle that reveals some rudimentary relationships between the 5-phases – Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal. (For clarity and because they are symbolic, we will capitalize the phases.)

The first four phases

Water nourishes earth from which grows wood, which is fuel for fire, which then turns wood into earth, i.e. soil, which when combined with water then becomes trees, i.e. wood, which is consumed by fire, and the cycle continues. In other words, Fire dominates Wood by consuming it; Water dominates Fire by putting it out; Earth dominates Water by absorbing it; and finally Wood dominates Earth by growing from it.

In this simplified transition cycle, Water dominates Fire. We throw water, not wood, on a fire to quench the flames. Further, we must employ a sufficient amount of water; else the fire will simply evaporate it.

Water quenches Fire; Fire evaporates Water

Chinese medicine employs these dynamic relationships to provide insight into the proper remedies for sickness. Inner Alchemy employs the wu-hsing theory to cure the soul. Let us suppose that the emotion of anger is assigned to Fire and the calmness of meditation is assigned to Water. In this case, the master might recommend that the afflicted individual douse his anger with meditation. But the meditation must be of sufficient duration, as the Fire of anger will easily overwhelm the Water of just a little quietude.

The healer’s first task was and is to recognize the true identity of the problem. Only then could he or she prescribe the proper remedy. Many of the ordeals in Journey to the West are only resolved after Monkey identifies the true nature of the obstacle. Only then is he able to employ the proper solution. For instance, after a particularly difficult demon is finally identified as a centipede, they call in a supernatural rooster to overcome the demon.

As with any theory, some adherents claim that it explains every process in the known universe. The assumption of this writer is that no theory can explain everything. As metaphors, there are always holes in any intellectual construct. Reality surpasses the idea. Despite this inherent limitation, the five-phase theory illuminates many phenomena, especially those related to health and the Quest for Mastery.


1 Harold Roth, Original Tao, Inward Training (Nei-yeh), Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 21-22,

2The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan, p. 83

3The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 83

4The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 83


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