32A. Fire, Earth, Water, Wood & Metal: Applications

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Tsou Yen first elucidated the five-phase theory, wu-hsing, during the late Chou Dynasty. However, the origin of wu-hsing is rooted in metallurgical processes developed in prehistoric China. Let us first examine the five elements as they emerge into human consciousness. This will yield a bit of the character of each of the 5 elements on this primordial level. As we come to an understanding of some of these features, we will explore some basic metaphors and how they apply to human life, especially the quest for mastery and self-realization.

Fire points to dynamic phases

Let us start with Fire. Fire granted Homo erectus, our genetic ancestors, protection from the elements and wild animals. Fire also enabled these early humans to cook food, which provided them with a huge evolutionary advantage. Due to the difficulty of starting a fire, it established a home base and quite a few lessons. These include: don’t let the fire go out, and don’t let it burn too hot, both associated with fuel conservation. Fire was also the first type of energy that was domesticated, and globally is still the most prevalent.

Fire is more phase than element

Furthermore, the nature of fire pointed to the dynamic processes of the 5-phase theory. The other elements, i.e. water, wood, metal and earth, can exist relatively independently. However, fire exists only as long as it is consuming fuel, i.e. wood in this context. In fact, fire is dependent on fuel for its very existence. Inherent to fire is phase theory. It only exists in process and only exists as long as it is transforming wood into earth, 2 of the other elements.

Fire transforms wood into heat energy. After the fire has consumed all the life energy of the wood, it goes out. The wood has been transformed into earth, i.e. ashes or charcoal. In this process, wood can be viewed as a metaphor for life. Fire transforms life-filled wood into lifeless earth.

Earth as container

The use of fire pointed to the 'containing' function of earth. While Fire consumes Wood, Earth contains both Fire and Water. To better understand the function of Earth as a container, let us examine how the Chinese have employed earth from their earliest beginnings.

Homo erectus contained the almost magical energy of fire in earthen pits. The villages of the Neolithic Yangshao culture of North China located in the Yellow River basin were the first to employ pottery, a type of cultivated earth, to contain things, for instance liquids, such as river water. These prehistoric humans could easily see that one of the functions of Earth was to contain both Fire and Water. For the Chinese, Earth also served to contain humans.  

Earthen Walls

Besides cultivating the earth for agricultural purposes, the Yangshao also dug into the soft ground to make their houses, their burrows. These burrows contained them and their families, protecting them from the elements. The following Longshan culture were the first to employ earth for fortification. Living in more hostile times, the Longshan began building pounded earth walls around their villages to protect their village or clan from external attack. The Shang Dynasty extended the pounded walls to protect entire cities. Their walls grew thicker and enclosed more territory.

During the following Chou Dynasty, the Chinese military aristocracy began erecting great walls to protect vulnerable parts of their states from attack by both other Chinese states and the nomadic cultures to the north, non-sinofied barbarians, as far as the Chinese were concerned. After the Warring States Period, the First Emperor of China built an enormous earthen wall1 around the northern periphery of China to further insulate it from the same aggressive northern tribes. The primary function of these walls was to provide defense from attack, just like city walls worldwide.

 “During the Early Warring States period … the Chung-Yuan, or Central Plain, of southern Shensi and northern Honan was still the heart of Chinese civilization, protected by the defensive walls which were being constructed at intervals along China’s northern frontiers. The most ancient section of wall was built about 353 BC across modern Shensi, not only to keep the marauding nomads out, but equally to keep the Chinese in, in the attempt to prevent ‘desinicization’.”2

Protective or prison walls to prevent peasant escape

Another function of the earthen walls was to keep the peasantry from escaping. These earthen walls both provided protection and contained the peasantry. The court historians do not write about this aspect of Chinese civilization. Those who belonged to the imperial culture considered themselves at the height of human civilization. However they were dependent upon the agricultural peasantry to provide the foundation of the society. They did all the work to provide the food for the aristocracy. Judging by the fact that the aristocracy built walls to contain the population, they understood their dependency. Evidently the peasantry didn’t feel dependent upon the aristocracy judging by the need for the great earthen walls to prevent them from escaping. It seems that these walls could have been considered prison walls by the peasantry rather than protective walls. In this context, earth was employed to contain property, whether livestock or the peasantry.

Walls boundary between inside and outside

These earthen walls provided the boundaries between inside and outside – initially inside and outside the home. Later these walls defined the inside and outside of the city. In the final manifestation, these walls defined the boundary between Chinese and non-Chinese. Thus earth has always served a very important function in Chinese culture that centered on protection, enclosure, and boundary.

Sha Monk, as Earth protector, in Journey to the West

An understanding of 5-phase theory, wu-hsing, reveals many of the underlying processes and relationships in Journey to the West. Each of the Quest’s 5 members symbolizes one of the phases. For instance, Sha Monk plays the role of the Earth protector. It is his duty to protect Tripitaka (Fire) and the Horse (Water). Before he joins the Quest, Tripitaka is captured while Piggy and Monkey are off fighting a threatening demon. After Sha Monk joins the quest, there are a few episodes when for one reason or another he leaves Tripitaka to perform another duty, i.e. find Piggy or fight monsters. Each time that Sha Monk leaves, Tripitaka is captured.

Protecting the wrong thing

In one episode, the monster sends in decoys to deliberately draw Sha Monk away due to his prowess as a fighter. The monster then captures Tripitaka with the hope of consuming him for dinner. Without Tripitaka, the journey means nothing. The lesson from this episode is that protecting the essential is the first priority.

As an example of this notion, witness the game of chess. Busily guarding his Queen, a player loses his King and thereby the game. Conversely a player deliberately gives up his Queen as a decoy and then captures the opponent’s King to win the game.

Not only does Sha Monk as Earth protect Tripitaka, he also contains Piggy in this same capacity. Piggy is needed on the Quest, but is regularly plagued by doubts. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles or lack of creature comforts, Piggy wants to give up the Quest and go home. Sha Monk regularly contains the errant desires of Piggy.

Sha Monk is level headed and keeps Piggy focused on the Path. Sha Monk frequently offers Piggy the words of encouragement that he needs to hear. Sha Monk has no doubts about the Journey. He realizes that this is all he has. He can’t go back. There is nothing to go back to. He reminds Piggy that he is in a similar situation. Once contained by their common Quest, Sha Monk and Piggy team up in an effective way. Sha Monk’s Earth is necessary to contain Piggy’s desires, so that he doesn’t leave the Journey.

Water flows, nourishes & adapts

Let’s add water to the mixture. While earth is stable, water like fire has tremendous transformative powers. The earliest inhabitants of the Yellow River regularly experienced the power of the melting floodwaters to change the course of this huge river. Although nourishing to life, the irresistible flow of enormous amounts of water was able to transform the landscape.

Although both are transformative, fire and water are fundamentally different. In fact, they cannot co-exist. Depending upon the proportions, water can extinguish fire or fire can transform water into steam. While fire is immediately hot and dangerous to touch, water in smaller amounts is soft to the touch and quenches our thirst.

Adaptability is another significant feature of water. It flows around anything in its path. In this context, water is also associated with flexibility. It follows the path of least resistance.

Agri-cultures, first to cultivate water power

Homo erectus marshaled the power of fire. Perhaps the Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherer societies harnessed the power of water passively by constructing rudimentary boats to float downstream. However, it was probably the Neolithic agricultural communities that were the first to actively employ the power of water to transform the earth. The prehistoric Yellow River farmers harnessed water’s nourishing power with irrigation projects for their crops. They watered the earth to create life.

It was also these stable communities that first employed earth to contain water, both to protect their homes from rising floodwaters and to channel the nourishing substance into their fields. They may have also contained water and other ingredients in an earthen pot and then cooked it over fire to obtain a nourishing soup. These fundamental processes supply some powerful metaphors with which to understand human behavior, especially personal transformation.

Mixing Fire’s Attention, Water’s Desires, & Earth’s Containment

Let us now explore the combination of our first three elements, i.e. Fire, Water and Earth, in the context of Taoism’s Inner Alchemy. In order to maximize the transformational process, these 3 elements must be in a proper relationship to each other. Let’s examine the cooking metaphor to understand what this means. In order to boil water for tea, the water must be contained in a pot with fire beneath. If the order is reversed, the fire’s energy is dispersed into the air and the water is spilled upon the ground.

Taoists employ this dynamic relationship as a metaphor for the process of spiritual refinement. As mentioned in a prior article, one of Taoist goals is to refine the coarser bodily energies of jing and ch’i into the subtler spiritual energy of shên. In this context, Taoists speak about cooking the jing or ch’i until it becomes shên.

In terms of the metaphor, Water can be likened to our life force; Fire to our attention; and Earth to our body. If Fire is above and Water is below, then attention is directed outward and our life force is dissipated by desires. If Fire is below and Water is above, then attention is focused upon transforming our life force into a higher state – from liquid into steam – from the mundane to the spiritual – from average to mastery. In such a way, we nurture, rather than dissipate, our life force.

However in terms of our cooking metaphor, water must be in a container, if fire is to transform it into steam. In the context of Inner Alchemy, the Earth of our body contains the Water of our life force. If the Fire of attention is concentrated upon body alignment for sufficient time, the result is spiritual transformation.

Earth can also be viewed as a mental muscle that contains and focuses our life force, Water. If Earth does not contain Water’s desires, the Fire of attention shifts from one activity to another. Without a consistent Fire, the Water does not boil. There is no refinement of our vital energies and personal transformation does not occur.

The same process can be applied to the quest for mastery. In this context, Fire is practice, Water is the desire for mastery, and Earth contains the desire – keeping it focused. Let’s see how this process relates to the mastery of an instrument. If the Fire of attention is not focused upon practice and Water’s life force instead drifts aimlessly from one distraction to another, then the student remains in the mundane world of mere notes. If, however, Earth contains the Fire of attention and Water’s life force for a sufficient time, then the student eventually attains the goal of Music.

In brief, Fire’s self-cultivation practices must be applied consistently to achieve transformation. Without Earth’s containment, Water’s life force is dissipated pursuing desires and Fire’s conscious attention is interrupted by myriad external distractions. In this fashion, the Earth/Fire/Water metaphor applies to any quest for Mastery.

Wood as Life, the fuel for the Fire of Attention

A fourth element in the wu-hsing system is Wood. Wood represents unrestrained life and growth.

Wood representative of life

Though made of wood, trees are not exclusively wood. Wood is the essence of a tree that has been trimmed of all its excess life. Wood could be considered a tree that has been tamed. While tamed, wood is still alive. Lumber must be treated so that it doesn’t sprout. There is something very magical about wood. Its seemingly dead elements can still sprout when watered. In the European Tarot deck, one of the suits, Wands, is many times represented as wooden clubs or staffs that are sprouting branches and leaves. In such a way, wood is connected with life.

A Campfire with four elements

Our earliest ancestors, homo erectus, employed wood as fuel for fire. The four elements are contained in this simple campfire. Water combined with earth yields the life force of wood. The life force of wood is converted into the energy of fire. Once the life force is consumed, the wood becomes earth again.

Achieving a Slow, Bright Burn

Containment is essential in order to maximize the longevity of the wood and the intensity of the fire. This notion of containment arises fairly quickly to anyone who has made a campfire knows, the idea. In order to prevent the fire from spreading, one contains it with a circle of bare earth. Further, one might dig an earthen pit around the fire to contain the heat and conserve the wood. Before going to sleep, one might cover the fire with earth. Earth contains fire.

Again we can apply this containment process to our lives. The Wood of our life is finite and will inevitably be consumed. We only have control over how our Wood is consumed – slow, hot, and long or quickly burning out with only a smoldering heat.

How long and hot will our Wood burn? This is determined by the amount of containment. In this context, Fire represents the intentionality of consciousness – awareness - attention. While Wood is fixed, how we employ the Fire of our Attention is variable. Some focus the Fire of their Attention upon satisfying desires, whether material or spiritual. They run frantically around pursuing this and that craving and quickly burn up their life force. If we instead focus the Fire of our Attention upon nurturing our life force, our Wood, our Fire is able to burn long and bright.

Fire for Illumination

By consuming wood, fire can provide light and heat; it can be terribly destructive; or it can just burn randomly. The Sage uses his Fire to shed light and heat upon humanity. Most personal Fires just randomly burn; some create widespread destruction. The intent of the Sage’s Fire is to illuminate the darkness of the human world. This is achieved by containing the Fire that burns our Wood.

Metal/Discipline refines Wood/Growth

We have explored some of the metaphorical aspects of the interactions of Fire, Earth, Water and Wood. Metal is the final element to be added to the mixture. What is the significance of Metal? How does it interact with the others?

Metal dominates wood

Humans employ metal to carve and shape wood. The metal ax chops down trees. A variety of metal tools shape and carve the wood. Hence Metal dominates Wood.

As a metaphor, Metal is discipline applied to Wood’s wild growing life force. Too much Metal is rigid and inflexible, while too much Wood is sloppy and overgrown. Monkey from Journey to the West is Metal – mentally quick, hard body, no flab. Piggy is Wood – full of the pleasures of life, loving comfort, food, and security. In the Journey, Monkey is needed to tame Piggy. 

Extraction and Adding

In the context of woodcarving, metal is applied to wood and then withdrawn. The interaction permanently changes the wood. Once the job of shaping is finished, the metal is not necessary anymore.

Following is a personal example of how this metaphor applies to this specific document. Initially Wood was the dominant energy. I just wrote down any wu-hsing related associations that came to mind. The writing process was unrestrained growth similar to ‘flow of consciousness’ writing. Much later, I applied Metal’s discipline – editing, refinement, and word choice – to the document’s Wood. The trick is to apply just enough Metal to get an intelligible, readable and organized article. Too much Metal kills Wood’s Life; not enough Metal leaves a sloppy mess.

Metal on Wood is discipline applied to our life force. We must be careful to apply just enough refinement to prune our creation. Sometimes, uncontrolled Metal/discipline can kill the Wood/the life force that it is meant to shape. This is what it means to kill the spirit.

The Metal on Wood metaphor can also be applied to a variety of physical practices including music and Tai Chi. We must always balance discipline and the life force behind our art – technique and music. Raising a child is subject to the same balancing process – both establishing and enforcing rules – Metal – and allowing for self-expression – Wood.

Metal & Immortality

Permanence of metal

Metal also has another significant property. Metal’s form can be relatively permanent. This significant factor differentiated Metal from the other elements.

Fire has no form. Water is constantly changing. Wood grows and then decays. The Earthen walls around the cities had to be constantly renewed due to the rains – Water dominates Earth. Once it has been cast, metal’s form, for instance gold, bronze and iron, is relatively permanent.

Personal immortality

Metaphorically, this becomes the quest for personal permanence. On a superficial level, we seek immortality for our body. On higher levels, we seek immortality for our works, art or deeds. Many of us want our personal memory to be carried on by our creations, our actions, or even our children. Looking at the production of the metal, especially bronze, purification, integration, and actualization were all necessary parts to achieving immortality. We covered this aspect earlier in our section on bronze. Metal was simultaneously the tamer, the shaper, the source of discipline, and also the permanence of the finished product.

The casting process provides the metaphorical background. As examples, gold is cast to make jewelry and bronze was cast to make weaponry. How is this achieved?

We must generate heat through our practices – Fire. To achieve sufficient and sustained heat, the fire must be contained – Earth. We must restrain our practices from excess – Metal. For the fire to be sustained, there must be enough fuel – Wood. We must cultivate our life force. The fire must be quenched at the right time – Water. We must have sufficient flexibility to be sensitive to changes and know when to stop.

Applying Wu-hsing to Tai Chi, Music & Child rearing

We can also apply each of wu-hsing’s 5 phases to Tai Chi and musicianship. Instead of individual processes, we employ the prime characteristics of each element as a metaphor. 

To maximize the benefits of Tai Chi, we must cultivate Water’s flowing, continuous and flexible nature by focusing Fire’s awareness on our movements. Simultaneously, we employ Metal’s discipline to refine and realign Earth’s body structure. With an aligned body and augmented ch’i flow, we nurture Wood’s life force.

To achieve Music as an organist, I must employ Fire’s awareness on each note; Metal’s discipline to practice regularly; Water’s flow to play continuously; Wood’s life force to play expressively and Earth’s containment to avoid sloppiness.

 To raise happy well-adjusted Children, parents must: pay attention to their activities – Fire; protect them from danger – Earth; encourage their natural life force – Wood; cultivate tolerance and adaptability – Water; apply Metal’s discipline to discourage excess and keep them on course.

In such a way, we can apply wu-hsing, the 5 phases, to many features of existence.

Journey to the West: Importance of the Five Phases

The combination and balance of the five phases was and is crucial to practitioners of Taoism’s Inner Alchemy. Journey to the West provides us with a novel length allegory for these relationships. The 5 members of the Quest correspond to the 5 elements. Their interactions reflect the interactions of the 5 phases. Understanding this Chinese metaphor is crucial to an understanding of the underlying meaning of the Journey.

Assembling the base and The Journey

Monkey is Metal, discipline, the hardness of pride, and is many times referred to as the Metal Squire. Piggy is Wood, unrestrained life essence, and is referred to as the Wood Mother. Tripitaka is Fire, the spiritual essence of consciousness. His mission is the light that draws the band of five together. The Horse is Water, the quality that carries us downhill, forward, inexorably, to our ultimate fate or destiny. The horse is actually a dragon, ruler of water, master of flexibility and yielding. Sha Monk is associated with Earth, the protector and container, of the five elements.

The initial chapters of the Journey are devoted to assembling these five elements as a single unit. Alchemists refer to this process as ‘the consolidation of the base’. Once all 5 characters have joined the Quest, they must work out their differences. Many of the subsequent chapters expose imbalance in the relationships between the 5 characters – the 5 phases. In this way, they learn and practice their proper roles. Alchemists refer to this process as ‘harmonizing the five phases’. Initially there are many disputes, which are eventually resolved.

As an example, Monkey is constantly getting into trouble. At one point, Tripitaka banishes Monkey from the Quest for his many transgressions. Tripitaka is then captured by a demon, who wants to eat him. Piggy and Sha Monk are not strong enough on their own to save Tripitaka from the demon. Monkey’s services must be enlisted. The episode shows Tripitaka that he needs the Monkey mind, no matter how irascible, to complete his mystic Quest. Further, Monkey becomes a little more obedient as he realizes that Tripitaka’s Quest provides meaning to his life. A significant intent of Journey to the West is to reveal the importance of and the proper relationships between the 5 phases.

In summary, the five-phase theory was formalized during the Warring States period. The theory is a powerful metaphor for spiritual transformation and the quest for mastery. Further, the theory is at the heart of The Journey. The many poems sprinkled throughout The Journey are constantly referring to the five characters as the Five Phases. The many episodes make much more sense from this perspective.

Now that we have explored these alternative philosophies, let us examine the Confucian political undercurrents that were to inform subsequent historical developments.


1According to popular modern mythology, the First Emperor’s defensive wall was the celebrated Great Wall of China. In contrast, most scholars believe that the Great Wall was constructed during the Ming Dynasty, almost 2 millennia later. The evidence indicates that the First Emperor probably built a common earthen wall according to the style of the time, which degenerated within a few generations. However the mythology of China’s Great Wall lived on and then was transformed to inspire future generations. This theme was developed thoroughly in The Great Wall by Arthur Waldron, Cambridge University Press 1990.

2 The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, p 51


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