TCM Theory: Five-Element Doctrine



The Five Elements
The Productive Cycle of Five Element System
The Controlling Cycle of Five Element System
Controlling (Destructive) Cycle

Chinese philosophy regards the human organism as miniature version of the universe. Life processes are connected with the interplay of five creative elements of nature through the principle of yin and yang doctrine.

Man cannot therefore be divorced from nature. Thus man and nature obey the same law of the universe. In nature as well as in human body, there is a constant interaction between opposing and unifying forces---yin and yang. Harmony in balancing of the two opposing forces is accomplished by a dynamic equilibrium in the whole organism---the vita-vapor.

This harmony is cultivated and acquired by obeying the law, by fitting man into the totality of nature. This Man-Nature relationship is often represented in poetry and paintings. Man, small and insignificant, is contented and in harmony with the majestic nature of mountains, trees and rivers, and the invisible world of the infinite emptiness. Man cannot be apart from nature. He who is apart from nature cannot be truly human. The foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) is based on a natural philosophy without which practitioners cannot obtain full healing results,

The rapid expansion of the frontier of science and technology, the accelerated increase in the acquisition of knowledge, the intensity of specialization in organized research, the increasing power of destructiveness in weapons of war and the depletion of natural resource, all the above create a moral vacuum and ideological crises. Where science comes to an end, the Tao of religious ethics begins. Humankind must have an anchorage. Man has departed from nature and must return now and be in union with it. To be in harmony with the vastness of nature, is to be in communion with the Tao, which ultimately is union with the I Am.

The Five Elements
The concept of Five Elements is an outcome of yin and yang interactions. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Wood is active, capable of growth and combustion, which is yang. Fire is most active, requiring air for combustion which is most yang. Both wood and fire are above the ground level, which is considered yang. The earth is the ground level, which is neutral. Below the earth are the metal and mineral deposits, which would be regarded as yin. Also, the metal is yin because it is relatively stable compared with the combustible wood. But the most yin of all the five elements is water, which can reach far below the ground level of the earth, lower than the metal. Water is indispensable in the growth of trees so the cycle repeats with wood.

The historical records of the first century B. C. mentioned Zhou Yen who “observed the interactions of yin and yang opposites in nature, the phenomena of the increase and decrease of the yin and the yang, the separation of the Heaven and the Earth, and the movements of the Five Great virtues.” He was credited to have perceived the anatomical relationship in terms of a Five-Element System. This is the only historical evidence available. Therefore, Zhou Yen (350-270 B. C.) is considered as the first to connect yin and yang concept and the Five-Element System. Such a combined yin and yang, Five-Element System constitutes the most important concept in the Cannon of Internal Medicine compiled during the Warring Periods of third century B. C. in China. In fact, such a concept became specialized in the Cannon of Internal Medicine. Each element is associated with a set of organs or functional tissues, together with specific tastes, emotions, seasons, colors and other characteristics. As early as 6th Century B. C. Lao Tzi already mentioned some of these characteristics based on the Five-Element Concept. “The Five colors blind the eye. The five tones deafen the ear. The Five flavors clog the palate. But it was in the Cannon of Internal Medicine that the five elements were first identified with internal organs, emotions and other characteristics.

There is among all these bodily structures and associated characteristics an interdepending, interpromoting, inter-restraining relation which is in the dynamic state of homeostasis. Its application to Traditional Chinese Medicine is to correlate the natural phenomena with human body and mind. Pathology and therapy should not be a mechanical cause and effect one way street. The effect could influence the cause and there could be mutual influences of the Five-Element dynamics. The interactions of the yin and yang, Five-Element Concept should be a guide to medical practice and prevention of diseases. For such a system has been developed through thousands of years of clinical experiences in China.

The Productive Cycle of Five Element System
Each element generates another element and is therefore followed by one it cannot conquer. Wood is followed by fire. Fire is followed by the Earth. The Earth is followed by metal. The production cycle is thus in the following order: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. In other words, it is a cycle of mutual production showing the inter-relatedness of all things in nature.

The arrows indicate the direction of creativeness of one Element by the other in a cycle.

The implication of the cycle is that no element in nature can dominate forever. Each is followed by the one it cannot conquer. The secular significance of the cycle is that no emperor or dynasty can rule forever. No empire can last forever. No one can live forever, for all are mortals. Such is the Law of Nature.

The Controlling Cycle of Five Element System
In the controlling cycle, each element conquers an element that follows it, but each element is preceded by a conquering element. For instance, water can put out fire, therefore water precedes fire. Fire can melt metal, therefore fire precedes metal. Metal in the form of tool can cut down trees, therefore metal precedes wood. Tree roots can penetrate the earth, therefore wool precede the earth. The Earth can stop the flow of water as a dam, therefore the Earth precedes water---this explanation is only from the viewpoint of the existence. The cycle repeats itself with water controlling fire. This is known as the controlling cycle. Other times the controlling cycle is also known as the destructive cycle.

Vita-vapor is the life force which flows through all the yin and yang organs. Deficiency of vita-vapor in any organ means that organ is out of balance. Inter-relatedness of all organs ensures proper flow of vita-vapor throughout the body. Each element has specific meridian for the flow of vita-vapor. The Yang solid organs store the vita-vapor and the Yin hollow organs transform nutrients into vita-vapor and discharge the wastes. Acupuncture help to restore the balance for normal flow of vita-vapor, while the herbs helps to remove any excess or deficiency of vita-vapor. Imbalance of vita-vapor means imbalance between yin and yang within an organ will adversely affect the next organ in the controlling (destructive) cycle. For example, if the heart is imbalanced the heart will adversely affect the lungs, and the imbalanced vita-vapor within the small intestine will adversely affect the large intestine. Imbalance also means either too yin or too yang. Darr Moo exercises are designed for alleviation of the imbalanced function of human organs, to remove tension, stress, anger and anxiety, which can inhibit the absorption of necessary nutrients.

The arrows indicate the direction of inhibition of one Element by the other in a cycle.

The vita-vapor-vapor in all of its manifold manifestation comes into and goes out a process through the interplay of the Five Elements. The universe maintains its balance also through the yin and yang balance of the vita-vapor. Since human body is a microcosm of the universe, it achieves the mental and physical harmony in the same way. Vita-vapor flows through the body via the meridians and their respective viscera in the productive (generative) and controlling (destructive) cycles as interactions between the Five Elements. The vita-vapor has four directions, ascending and descending for transformation, entering and leaving for development. The original vita-vapor from the parents is stored-in the kidneys. The nutritional vita-vapor from the nutrients is stored in the food. Atmospheric vita-vapor is extracted from the air by the lungs. These are but some of the manifestations of the vita-vapor which comes from the motion of Tao.

Controlling (Destructive) Cycle
"Five Element" in vita-vapor language literally means Five Movements. It is translated into Five Elements principally to connote the primordial elements of the universe. What then is the “Movement”? It is the movement of the Universal Vita-vapor. Movement signifies that vita-vapor is dynamic and not static. It possesses the intrinsic ascending, descending, entering and leaving motions.

Such movements constitute the yin and yang interactions. The movements also mean mutually productive, generative, controlling, destructive or inhibitive cycles among the five elements. In the Cannon of Internal Medicine, each element is identified with a particular orifice, organs, emotions, flavors and other examples. For example, wood can be burned to produce fire. Fire can transform the earth into ashes; the earth can contain metal and other mineral; metal can be melted to become liquid or metals can catalyze the production of water from constitutive components; and water is essential for the growth of wood. In the conquering cycle the roots of the tree can penetrate the earth; the earth can replace water to become land; water can put out the fire; fire can melt the metal; and the metal as cutting tool can bring down the tree. Other examples from Cannon of Internal Medicine are wood with the eye, fire with the tongue, earth with the mouth, metal with the nose and water with the cars. Again in Cannon of Internal Medicine, the five emotions are wood for anger, fire for joy, earth for empathy or thoughtfulness (sympathy and compassion), metal for grief and water for fear.

Liver is associated with wood. Vita-vapor is passed on from liver to the heart. The heart is associated with fire. Vita-vapor is massed on from the heart to the spleen. The spleen is associated with the earth. Vita-vapor is passed on from spleen to the lungs. The lung is associated with metal. Vita-vapor is passed on from the lungs to the kidneys. Kidney is associated with water. Vita-vapor is passed on from the kidneys to liver and the generative cycle repeats itself.

In the area of nutrition, the five flavors enter through the gastro-intestinal tract, each seeks its affinity organ. That which is sour enters the liver. Bitter enters the heart. Sweet enters the spleen. Spicey or volatile substances enter the lungs. The salty enters the kidneys. The influences these flavors produce are upon each organ, yet each organ influences others in both generative and inhibitive ways. In all, the Five-Element System operates in cycles of mutual dependence, mutual generative, mutual nourishing, mutual inhibitive, mutual controlling and other mutually inter-relative mechanisms. As parts of the body are interrelated and in turn human beings are interrelated with each other and with the cosmos which is originated from the vita-vapor of the great unification. Life is an integrated process.


Please browse the following contents for further study:

  1. Introduction

  2. Mechnism of Yin Yang Operation

  3. Pathogenic Factors

  4. Concept of Qi

  5. Concept of Blood, Body Fluid and Qi

  6. Mechnism of Chinese Massage

  7. Visceral Symptom

  8. Inner Canon of Yellow Emperor

  9. Acupuncture Treatment Principle

  10. Five Element Theory

  11. Channels and Meridians

  12. Acupuncture Doctors and Works

  13. Origin of Acupuncture