Wu Xing, the Five Elements in Chinese Culture

Throughout COR 330 Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors we looked at Chinese culture from the ancient starts of religion and god worship to the way the way that government and economy have affected these religions and the way that people worship their ancestors in the modern day. Many of the traditions of these ancient cultures have survived to the modern world but have changed along with the rest of the world. For my common assignment, I researched the concept of Wu Xing or the Five Elements and how it applied to ancient and modern life in China. The Five Elements are broken up into 5 parts: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. These specific elements are combined into two different cycles that show how each element interacts with the one before and after it in each cycle. These two cycles are referred to as the “generating” cycle which involves creation and the “overcoming” cycle which involves destruction. These five elements are representative of several different aspects of the natural world and helps to explain the phenomenon of states in nature and the cycles above help to explain how these seasons change.

There are some ways that the Five Elements are no longer used in modern China. Although geomancy, or Feng Shui, is still a popular practice in China the way Wu Xing is used in combination with these practices are no longer in practice. This form of geomancy used the Five Elements to explain the way that energy flows through a space. The Five Elements are also used in in a form of Tai Chi and another martial art called Xingyiquan. This form of Tai Chi uses each of the five elements to represent different movements that correspond to each technique. Xingyiquan uses the five elements in a very similar way but instead of movements it is more about stances. Each of the five elements represent a specific stance and the way that you would attack from that stance. There is also some music that uses Wu Xing and the way it helps to divide the world into five categories. Different pitches along with symbolic meanings are given a label that corresponds to each of the five elements.

The five elements have also found root in modern China by using its labels for different parts of the body and how they correspond to the natural world. These labels when combined with the concepts of the Five Elements and the cycles above help to allow doctors to figure out what ways to help you feel both spiritually and physically better. One common traditional Chinese medicinal practice that incorporates the Five Elements is Five Element acupuncture. This form of acupuncture uses the labels to show how different parts of the body may be causing an imbalance in one of the Wu Xing cycles and uses these cycles to correct it. These labels also correspond to specific planets, moods, organs, and animals along with many more aspects of the natural world.

For this project we were able to choose the way that we would present our information to a wider audience and were encouraged to do something that was creative and interesting for people to look at and go through. For my project I decided to combine aspects of my computer science degree and what I have learned from this core class to build a website filled with information about Wu Xing and the ways that it has affected ancient and modern China. Each of the pages are focused around a single aspect of Wu Xing and includes various images to help reinforce the ideas presented on that particular page.


2 thoughts on “Wu Xing, the Five Elements in Chinese Culture

  1. Tanner Ormsby

    Tanner Ormsby

    This abstract was an extremely informative post, giving me an insight on the traditions of Chinese Culture as well as how this ancient form of thinking is still affecting the modern world. One of the most interesting ideas from this piece was the idea of how martial arts around China use the Five Elements in them in creative ways. “The Five Elements are also used in in a form of Tai Chi and another martial art called Xingyiquan. This form of Tai Chi uses each of the five elements to represent different movements that correspond to each technique. Xingyiquan uses the five elements in a very similar way but instead of movements it is more about stances.”
    This makes me think about my Yemen class and how an idea can be so ingrained in the culture. The one that we discussed the most was about child marriage. This is a practice that has been going on for many generations and still in modern days. Girls anywhere from the ages of 9 to 14 are being sold off to elder men to be their brides. This is a practice that is widely used in Yemen, selling girls to become more economically stable. There are many other reasons that people in Yemen still do this and one is that Muhammad the Prophet took a 9-year-old wife. The people of Yemen also say that the Prophet did not touch this bride until she was much older and more mature. So, when fathers are selling their daughter they assume that the husband will wait until she is of age, yet this is not the fact girls are badly hurt after their “wedding night” and some are even killed from the injury.
    The ideas a practice that you described in this post are much more positive than the one I used as an example. Taking the ancient idea of the Five Elements and incorporating it into martial arts and music is a way to preserve the past in a beneficial and unharmful. Yemen also has some wonderful traditions as well not just harmful one. One such trading is the act of exchanging poetry. In arguments or disputes, people in Yemen use poetry instead of violence.
    In this course, perhaps one of the most important ideas that I was able to gain over the semester was that even though every culture has traditions that seem outdated and wrong they also have beautiful cultural traditions that preserve their history and heritage. So even though one thing that they do is awful does not mean we should forget about all the beauty and fascinating traditions that these cultures also have.

  2. Justin Fernandez

    It is interesting that across cultures, natural phenomenon are attributed to specific people and meaning. The five elements here is the Chinese methodology of what many cultures tend to do when it comes to symbols and meaning making about the natural world. These five aspects, due to their specific use cases in what they symbolize, tend to favor being included in depiction of specific kinds of spirits. This idea is also seen in vodou in the concept of petwo and rada lwa, being the dichotomy of hot and cold. Because these categories of spirits do different things for the people who come to them, different aspects of the natural world will be used in their depictions or rituals.


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