Fire, earth, metal, water, and wood; the five elements of traditional Chinese thought. They are the make up of the world, the phases of energy, a system of balance and order, and a never ending cycle. The Five Element Theory or Wu Xing is originally from Daoist beliefs and is one way of describing and categorizing the world in which we live. For the Five Element Theory it all begins with the cycle of the elements in which fire gives birth to the earth in which metal is found which in turn produces water that feeds the element of wood.
Every culture has ways of describing the world to make sense of chaos and find order. These systems might be science or another set of elements. For instance through much of the medieval ages Europe used a system known as the Four Humors to explain parts of the world including the maladies of the body. Just like the Four Humors were used to treat medical issues so too can the Five Element Theory. How useful one of these systems is can be found by looking at how much it is used in all aspects of society and life.
The Chinese used the Five Element Theory in many parts of their lives. The theory can be used in astrology with the Chinese Zodiac to make a sixty year cycle used to predict personality types and relationships between different people. Throughout much of China’s history the theory has been used in conjunction with the Mandate of Heaven to prove legitimate succession for dynasties. This was a way for a new dynasty to prove to the people of China that they were the true heirs of the empire, because the element of their dynasty directly follows from their predecessor’s element. The theory even effects the way we talk about emotions. The classification of anger as part of the fire element has caused fire related terminology to be used when expressing anger. This it may come in the form of expressing a burning fire within the body, the potential bursting of blood veins, or just the face turning red; yet all of these expressions are representations of things classified as fire.
The importance of the Five Element Theory comes in the form of what we can learn about China through it. There are three main parts of this system: first it is cyclical in nature, second it is all about balance, and third it reflects the world in which we live. The cyclical nature of the Five Element Theory tells us that the Chinese believes in the repetition of ideas and events. This is found to be accurate when we learn that they view time as a downward spiral repeating similar events and never being able to attain former glory. The system is also about balance and like the theory of yin and yang this is on both an internal and external level. Because of this the Chinese often view bad events and maladies of the body as an imbalance in the five elements. If you view the world in this way you are always trying to fix the world and yet can never bring it back to the perfect balance, at least not forever. The Five Element Theory also reflects our world; this means that we can classify things under the different elements allowing us to better understand our world. Through the interaction of the elements in our world we can find that the nature of the elements is to conquer or give way to another element. From this we learn that there is structure and control built into the world which we can use to our advantage.
I am compiling my research into a website which explores the Five Element Theory. It looks at the origins of the theory, what makes up the theory, and how the theory is used in different aspects of Chinese life. In this way we can find out more about how the Chinese viewed the world through the lens of the Five Element Theory and see how our views differ. Sometimes the best way to understand a system of looking at the world is to look at it from the outside. Whether we use the Five Element Theory to learn more about how the West views the world or use Western views to see how the Five Element Theory views the world, we can begin to understand more about the culture and people that use the system.