Diagram of the interactions between the wuxing. The "generative" cycle is illustrated by grey arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the "destructive" or "conquering" cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle.
Tablet in the Temple of Heaven of Beijing, written in Chinese and Manchu, dedicated to the gods of the Five Movements. The Manchu word usiha, meaning "star", explains that this tablet is dedicated to the five planets: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury and the movements which they govern.

Wuxing (Chinese: 五行; pinyin: wǔxíng),[a] usually translated as Five Phases or Five Agents,[2] is a fivefold conceptual scheme used in many traditional Chinese fields of study to explain a wide array of phenomena, including cosmic cycles, the interactions between internal organs, the succession of political regimes, and the properties of herbal medicines.

The agents are Fire, Water, Wood, Metal, and Earth.[b] The wuxing system has been in use since it was formulated in the second or first century BCE during the Han dynasty. It appears in many seemingly disparate fields of early Chinese thought, including music, feng shui, alchemy, astrology, martial arts, military strategy, I Ching divination, and traditional medicine, serving as a metaphysics based on cosmic analogy.


Taijitu diagram featuring the wuxing in the center (from the Complete Classics Collection of Ancient China by Chen Menglei)

Wuxing originally referred to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Venus), which were with the combination of the Sun and the Moon, conceived as creating five forces of earthly life. This is why the word is composed of Chinese characters meaning "five" (; ) and "moving" (; xíng). "Moving" is shorthand for "planets", since the word for planets in Chinese literally translates as "moving stars" (行星; xíngxīng).[6] Some of the Mawangdui Silk Texts (before 168 BC) also connect the wuxing to the wude (五德; wǔdé), the Five Virtues and Five Emotions.[7][8] Scholars believe that various predecessors to the concept of wuxing were merged into one system with many interpretations during the Han dynasty.[9]

Wuxing was first translated into English as "the Five Elements", drawing deliberate parallels with the Greek arrangement of the four elements.[10][8] This translation is still in common use among practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine, such as in the name of Five Element acupuncture.[11] However, this analogy is misleading. The four elements are concerned with form, substance and quantity, whereas wuxing are "primarily concerned with process, change, and quality".[12] For example, the wuxing element "Wood" is more accurately thought of as the "vital essence" of trees rather than the physical substance wood.[13] This led sinologist Nathan Sivin to propose the alternative translation "five phases" in 1987.[14] But "phase" also fails to capture the full meaning of wuxing. In some contexts, the wuxing are indeed associated with physical substances.[15] Historian of Chinese medicine Manfred Porkert proposed the (somewhat unwieldy) term "Evolutive Phase".[15] Perhaps the most widely accepted translation among modern scholars is "the five agents", proposed by Marc Kalinowski.[16]


In traditional doctrine, the five phases are connected in two cycles of interactions: a generating or creation ( shēng) cycle, also known as "mother-son"; and an overcoming or destructive ( ) cycle, also known as "grandfather-grandson" (see diagram). Each of the two cycles can be analyzed going forward or reversed. There is also an "overacting" or excessive version of the destructive cycle.[citation needed]


The generating cycle ( xiāngshēng) is:


The reverse generating cycle (/ xiāngxiè) is:


The destructive cycle ( xiāngkè) is:


The excessive destructive cycle ( xiāngchéng) is:


A reverse or deficient destructive cycle ( xiāngwǔ or xiānghào) is:

Celestial stem

Main article: Heavenly Stems

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Heavenly Stems Jia
Year ends with 4, 5 6, 7 8, 9 0, 1 2, 3

Ming neiyin

In Ziwei divination, neiyin (納音) further classifies the Five Elements into 60 ming (), or life orders, based on the ganzhi. Similar to the astrology zodiac, the ming is used by fortune-tellers to analyse individual personality and destiny.

Order Ganzhi Ming Order Ganzhi Ming Element
1 Jia Zi 甲子 Sea metal 海中金 31 Jia Wu 甲午 Sand metal 沙中金 Metal
2 Yi Chou 乙丑 32 Yi Wei 乙未
3 Bing Yin 丙寅 Furnace fire 爐中火 33 Bing Shen 丙申 Forest fire 山下火 Fire
4 Ding Mao 丁卯 34 Ding You 丁酉
5 Wu Chen 戊辰 Forest wood 大林木 35 Wu Xu 戊戌 Meadow wood 平地木 Wood
6 Ji Si 己巳 36 Ji Hai 己亥
7 Geng Wu 庚午 Road earth 路旁土 37 Geng Zi 庚子 Adobe earth 壁上土 Earth
8 Xin Wei 辛未 38 Xin Chou 辛丑
9 Ren Shen 壬申 Sword metal 劍鋒金 39 Ren Yin 壬寅 Precious metal 金白金 Metal
10 Gui You 癸酉 40 Gui Mao 癸卯
11 Jia Xu 甲戌 Volcanic fire 山頭火 41 Jia Chen 甲辰 Lamp fire 佛燈火 Fire
12 Yi Hai 乙亥 42 Yi Si 乙巳
13 Bing Zi 丙子 Cave water 洞下水 43 Bing Wu 丙午 Sky water 天河水 Water
14 Ding Chou 丁丑 44 Ding Wei 丁未
15 Wu Yin 戊寅 Fortress earth 城頭土 45 Wu Shen 戊申 Highway earth 大驛土 Earth
16 Ji Mao 己卯 46 Ji You 己酉
17 Geng Chen 庚辰 Wax metal 白腊金 47 Geng Xu 庚戌 Jewellery metal 釵釧金 Metal
18 Xin Si 辛巳 48 Xin Hai 辛亥
19 Ren Wu 壬午 Willow wood 楊柳木 49 Ren Zi 壬子 Mulberry wood 桑柘木 Wood
20 Gui Wei 癸未 50 Gui Chou 癸丑
21 Jia Shen 甲申 Stream water 泉中水 51 Jia Yin 甲寅 Rapids water 大溪水 Water
22 Yi You 乙酉 52 Yi Mao 乙卯
23 Bing Xu 丙戌 Roof tiles earth 屋上土 53 Bing Chen 丙辰 Desert earth 沙中土 Earth
24 Ding Hai 丁亥 54 Ding Si 丁巳
25 Wu Zi 戊子 Lightning fire 霹靂火 55 Wu Wu 戊午 Sun fire 天上火 Fire
26 Ji Chou 己丑 56 Ji Wei 己未
27 Geng Yin 庚寅 Conifer wood 松柏木 57 Geng Shen 庚申 Pomegranate wood 石榴木 Wood
28 Xin Mao 辛卯 58 Xin You 辛酉
29 Ren Chen 壬辰 River water 長流水 59 Ren Xu 壬戌 Ocean water 大海水 Water
30 Gui Si 癸巳 60 Gui Hai 癸亥


The wuxing schema is applied to explain phenomena in various fields.

Phases of the Year

The five phases are around 73 days each and are usually used to describe the transformations of nature rather than their formative states.

Cosmology and feng shui

Main article: Feng shui

Another illustration of the cycle

The art of feng shui (Chinese geomancy) is based on wuxing, with the structure of the cosmos mirroring the five phases, as well as the eight trigrams. Each phase has a complex network of associations with different aspects of nature (see table): colors, seasons and shapes all interact according to the cycles.[17]

An interaction or energy flow can be expansive, destructive, or exhaustive, depending on the cycle to which it belongs. By understanding these energy flows, a feng shui practitioner attempts to rearrange energy to benefit the client.

Movement Metal Fire Wood Water Earth
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qián duì zhèn xùn kǎn gèn kūn
I Ching Heaven Lake Fire Thunder Wind Water Mountain Field
Planet (Celestial Body) Venus Mars Jupiter Mercury Saturn
Color White Red Green Black Yellow
Day Friday Tuesday Thursday Wednesday Saturday
Season Autumn Summer Spring Winter Intermediate
Cardinal direction West South East North Center

Dynastic transitions

According to the Warring States period political philosopher Zou Yan (c. 305–240 BCE), each of the five elements possesses a personified virtue (; ), which indicates the foreordained destiny (; yùn) of a dynasty; hence the cyclic succession of the elements also indicates dynastic transitions. Zou Yan claims that the Mandate of Heaven sanctions the legitimacy of a dynasty by sending self-manifesting auspicious signs in the ritual color (yellow, blue, white, red, and black) that matches the element of the new dynasty (Earth, Wood, Metal, Fire, and Water). From the Qin dynasty onward, most Chinese dynasties invoked the theory of the Five Elements to legitimize their reign.[18]

Chinese medicine

Main article: Traditional Chinese medicine

Five Elements – diurnal cycle[citation needed]

The interdependence of zangfu networks in the body was said to be a circle of five things, and so mapped by the Chinese doctors onto the five phases.[19][20]

In order to explain the integrity and complexity of the human body, Chinese medical scientists and physicians use the Five Elements theory to classify the human body's endogenous influences on organs, physiological activities, pathological reactions, and environmental or exogenous (external, environmental) influences. This diagnostic capacity is extensively used in traditional five phase acupuncture today, as opposed to the modern Confucian styled eight principles based Traditional Chinese medicine. Furthermore, in combination the two systems are a formative and functional study of postnatal and prenatal influencing on genetics, psychology, sociology and ecology.[21][22][23]

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Mental Quality idealism, spontaneity, curiosity passion, intensity agreeableness, honesty intuition, rationality, mind erudition, resourcefulness, wit
Emotion anger, motivation frenzy, joy anxiety, planning grief, compassion fear, caution
Virtue Benevolence Propriety Fidelity Righteousness Wisdom
Zang (yin organs) liver heart/pericardium spleen/pancreas lung kidney
Fu (yang organs) gall bladder small intestine/San Jiao stomach large intestine urinary bladder
Sensory Organ eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Body Part tendons vessels muscles skin bones
Body Fluid tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Finger ring finger middle finger thumb index finger pinky finger
Sense sight taste touch smell hearing
Taste[24] sour bitter sweet pungent, umami salty
Smell rancid scorched fragrant rotten putrid
Life early childhood youth adulthood senior age old age, conception
Covering scaly feathered naked human furred shelled
Hour 3–9 9–15 change 15–21 21–3
Year Spring Equinox Summer Solstice Summer Final Fall Equinox Winter Solstice
360° 45–135° 135–225° Change 225–315° 315–45°


Main articles: Chinese music and Chinese musicology

The Huainanzi and the Yueling chapter (月令; Yuèlìng) of the Book of Rites make the following correlations:

Movement Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Color Qing (green and blue) Red Yellow White Black
Arctic Direction east south center west north
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch
Basic Pentatonic Scale pitch pinyin jué zhǐ gōng shāng
solfege mi or E sol or G do or C re or D la or A

Martial arts

Tai chi uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns: forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).[18]

The Five Steps (五步; wǔ bù):

The martial art of xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over
Water Drilling / Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking
Earth Crossing 橫 / 横 Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over

Wuxing heqidao, Gogyo Aikido (五行合气道) is a life art with roots in Confucian, Taoists and Buddhist theory. It centers around applied peace and health studies rather than defence or physical action. It emphasizes the unification of mind, body and environment using the physiological theory of yin, yang and five-element Traditional Chinese medicine. Its movements, exercises, and teachings cultivate, direct, and harmonise the qi.[18]


The Japanese term is gogyo (Japanese:五行, romanized: gogyō). During the 5th and 6th centuries (Kofun period),[27] Japan adopted various philosophical disciplines such as Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism through monks and physicians from China. As opposed to theory of Godai that is form based and was introduced to Japan through India and Tibetan Buddhism[28] evolving the Onmyōdō system. In particular, wuxing was adapted into gogyo. These theories have been extensively practiced in Japanese acupuncture and traditional Kampo medicine.[29][30]

See also


  1. ^ Japanese: gogyō (五行);[1] Korean: ohaeng (오행); Vietnamese: ngũ hành (五行)
  2. ^ This order of presentation is known as the "Days of the Week" sequence. In the order of "mutual generation" (相生; xiāngshēng), they are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. In the order of "mutual overcoming" (相克; xiāngkè), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[3][4][5]


  1. ^ Hayashi, Makoto; Hayek, Matthias (2013). "Editors' Introduction: Onmyodo in Japanese History". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies: 3. doi:10.18874/jjrs.40.1.2013.1-18. ISSN 0304-1042.
  2. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2011) "Yin-Yang and Five Agents Theory, Correlative Thinking" in ChinaKnowledge.de - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art
  3. ^ Deng Yu; Zhu Shuanli; Xu Peng; Deng Hai (2000). "五行阴阳的特征与新英译" [Characteristics and a New English Translation of Wu Xing and Yin-Yang]. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 20 (12): 937. Archived from the original on 2015-07-16.
  4. ^ Deng Yu et al; Fresh Translator of Zang Xiang Fractal five System,Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine; 1999
  5. ^ Deng Yu et al,TCM Fractal Sets 中医分形集,Journal of Mathematical Medicine ,1999,12(3),264-265
  6. ^ Dr Zai, J. Taoism and Science: Cosmology, Evolution, Morality, Health and more. Ultravisum, 2015.
  7. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 72.
  8. ^ a b Dechar, Lorie (2006). Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing. New York: Lantern Books. pp. 20–360. ISBN 1590560922.
  9. ^ Littlejohn, Ronnie. "Wuxing (Wu-hsing)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  10. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, p. 73.
  11. ^ Hicks, Angela; Hicks, John; Mole, Peter (2010). Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture (Second ed.). Elsevier Health Sciences. ISBN 978-0-7020-4448-9. Retrieved 4 August 2023.
  12. ^ Nathan Sivin (1995), "Science and Medicine in Chinese History", in his Science in Ancient China (Aldershot, England: Variorum), text VI, p. 179.
  13. ^ 千古中医之张仲景 [Wood and Metal were often replaced with air]. Lecture Room, CCTV-10.
  14. ^ Nathan Sivin (1987), Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan) p. 73.
  15. ^ a b Nappi, Carla (2009). The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-674-03529-4. Retrieved 4 August 2023.
  16. ^ Unschuld, Paul N. (2003). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, and Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-520-23322-5. Retrieved 4 August 2023.
  17. ^ Chinese Five Elements Chart Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine Information on the Chinese Five Elements from Northern Shaolin Academy in Microsoft Excel 2003 Format
  18. ^ a b c Chen, Yuan (2014). "Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China". Journal of Song-Yuan Studies. 44 (1): 325–364. doi:10.1353/sys.2014.0000. S2CID 147099574.
  19. ^ "Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth". National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Archived from the original on 4 April 2017. Retrieved 20 March 2017.
  20. ^ Hafner, Christopher. "The TCM Organ Systems (Zang Fu)". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 6 April 2017. Retrieved 5 April 2017.
  21. ^ "Five Elements Theory (Wu Xing)". Chinese Herbs Info. 2019-10-27. Archived from the original on 2019-12-17. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  22. ^ "five element acupuncture". www.cancer.gov. 2011-02-02. Retrieved 2020-12-27.
  23. ^ Penoyer, Justin. The Roots of Accordance On the Unity of Biological, Ecological, and Sociopolitical Systems in the Huangdi Neijing. Rainbow Toad Publishing House. ISBN 9781735666419.
  24. ^ Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey. 5 (12). University of California Press: 596–608. doi:10.2307/2642652. JSTOR 2642652.
  25. ^ Mair, Victor (4 October 2019). "Grue and bleen: the blue-green distinction and its implications". Language Log. Retrieved 4 August 2023.
  26. ^ Joseph C.Y. Chen (1996). Early Chinese Work in Natural Science: A Re-examination of the Physics of Motion, Acoustics, Astronomy and Scientific Thoughts, pp.96-97. ISBN 962-209-385-X.
  27. ^ Watanabe, Kenji; Matsuura, Keiko; Gao, Pengfei; Hottenbacher, Lydia; Tokunaga, Hideaki; Nishimura, Ko; Imazu, Yoshihiro; Reissenweber, Heidrun; Witt, Claudia M. (2011). "Traditional Japanese Kampo Medicine: Clinical Research between Modernity and Traditional Medicine—The State of Research and Methodological Suggestions for the Future". Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2011: 513842. doi:10.1093/ecam/neq067. ISSN 1741-427X. PMC 3114407. PMID 21687585.
  28. ^ "Origins of the Godai Myо̄о̄". Buddhistdoor Global. Retrieved 2024-06-17.
  29. ^ Baracco, Luciano (2011-01-01). National Integration and Contested Autonomy: The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Algora Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87586-823-3.
  30. ^ "《赵城金藏》研究" (in Chinese).[permanent dead link]

Further reading