Along with the law of Yin and Yang , ancient Taoists observed a pattern of expression in nature that they interpreted as, and called, the Five Elements. These elements, or energies, were described as fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. As such, they were felt to be the prime energetic building blocks from which all material substance in the phenomenal world is composed.
The basic idea is that everything is made up of some combination of these elements, and therefore expresses the traits or tendencies implied. If one were to look in traditional Chinese medical texts, one finds long lists of categories ascribed to each of these elements. The breakdown into these categories includes the seasons, foods, personality and body types, colors, sounds, smells, and just about anything else that you can think of. For example, in color, fire is red, earth is golden-brown, metal is white, water is blue-black, and wood is green. In the body, fire is the heart-small intestine, earth is the spleen-stomach, metal is the lungs-large intestine, water is the kidneys-urinary bladder, and wood is the liver-gall bladder.
The ancient Taoists felt that we, as humans, were unique in that
our need and potential was to create a balance of all five elements in
order to achieve maximal health. Through diet, attunement to our environment,
and movement practice, one has the opportunity to access these energies.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine a doctor both diagnoses and treats a patient
in respect to the model of the Five Elements. Through listening to the
pulses, determining one's constitutional elemental type (one is understood
to be predominately either fire, earth, metal, water, or wood), and observing
pysiogomy (facial diagnosis), a doctor determines if there are imbalances
within the patient in respect to the Five Elements; too much fire, too
little water, and so on. The treatment, either through acupuncture, herbs,
or movement practice is intended to support a process of allowing the individual
to return to a state of energetic elemental balance.
Fire is the primary creative force of life. The positive movement
between the Five Elements, what is called the Creative Cycle begins with
fire. It is dominant Yang and represents warmth, light, and the initial
spark of life. It in turn leads to earth. Earth represents all that we
think of as substantial, enduring, and persevering. Next comes metal. People
often ask "Where's the air element?" In the Taoist view, the metal element
is very similar to air. It includes the lungs as its organ, but ingeneral
represents the process of transforming something that is base and impure into something that is pure and strong. An example is that of forging iron into steel. The next element is water which is archetypal Yin . It is all that is soft, fluid, and continuous. Last is wood who's image is that of the blade of grass or the bamboo shoot. It represents suppleness and the ability to yield well in the face of force or aggression. It completes the elemental cycle and in turn reconnects back to the point of origin, fire.
The five elements provide guiding principles for physiology, pathology, diagnosis, and therapy in traditional Chinese medicine. Other relationships of the five elements and what they represent is illustrated below.