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The Five Elements by Cecilia Yankelevich

reprinted with permission from

Classification According to the Five Elements

In the five-element theory, an analogy between the features and actions of something, and the characteristics of the five elements is made so that the properties of things similar to those of wood are classified into wood; those things similar to fire, into fire, etc.

For instance, in classifying according to the five elements, the east is classified as wood because the sun rises from it, which is similar to the ascending and flourishing characteristics of wood; the hot south is classified as fire because it is similar to the flaring-up characteristics of fire; the sun sets in the west, and represents metal because it is similar to the clearing and descending characteristics of metal; the cold north, represents water because it is similar to water in nature.

In the attribution of the five yin viscera to the five elements, the liver corresponds to wood because it is concerned with ascendance; heart yang corresponds to fire because it is warming in action; the spleen corresponds to earth because it is concerned with nourishment; the lung corresponds to metal because it is concerned with descending; the kidney corresponds to water because it governs water.

In addition, the five-element theory also holds that things corresponding to the same element are related. For instance, the east, wind, wood and sour taste are all related to the liver. Therefore it is thought that the five-element theory is the basis for man’s relationship to the natural environment, shown in the following tables:

Tissues and functions can also be categorized into the five physiological and pathological systems which centre upon five yin viscera:

The five-element theory does not attribute things to the five elements mechanically and in isolation, but shows the integrity and harmony of things according to the interrelationship of the five elements, and shows what happens to the five elements after they have lost their balance.

a - Interpromoting and interacting

“Interpromoting” implies that a thing has an encouraging and generating influence upon another; “interacting” implies that a thing restricts and restrains the growth and function of another. In the five-element theory, both are thought as normal activities.

The interrelationships in the environment determine the ecological balance in nature and the physiological balance of the body.

The interpromotion of the five elements is as follows:wood promotes fire, fire promotes earth, earth promotes metal, metal promotes water, and water, in turn, promotes wood.

The sequence of the interaction of the five elements is: wood acts upon earth, earth acts upon water, water acts upon fire, fire acts upon metal and metal, in turn, acts upon wood.

The cyclic interaction among the five elements are: “promotes, promoting, acted upon, and acting upon.”

In the Classic on Difficult Medical Problems, the relation between “promoted” and “promoting” is compared to the maternal and offspring relation. The one that promotes the other is the “mother” while the one that is promoted, the “son”. Take fire as an example. As wood promotes fire, the wood is a promoting element; as fire promotes earth, the earth is the promoted element. Thus, wood is the mother of fire and earth is the son of fire. The promoted and promoting elements interact and other elements restrain them. For instance, water is promoted by wood, but water restrains fire. The five-element theory explains that everything is regulated to prevent any excess or deficiency and keep a dynamic ecological balance in the environment and a physiological balance in the body.

b - Counteraction

The concept of counteraction of the five elements was first seen in the Internal Classic and refers to the abnormal interaction of the five elements after their balance is upset.

Overaction of the five elements is when one of the five elements acts upon another excessively, resulting in an abnormal reaction.

The reasons why the overacting relation occurs are:

First of all, one of the five elements is so strong that it acts excessively upon and weakens another, resulting in abnormal interaction of the five elements. For example, wood is so strong that earth is overacted upon by it, causing a deficiency of the latter.

Secondly, one of the five elements is so weak that overacting of one by another appears to be stronger, resulting in one getting weaker, e.g., wood is originally not so strong, and when it overacts upon earth it is still within a normal range, but, owing to the deficiency of earth, the wood overacting upon earth becomes relatively strong, causing earth to become deficient.

The counteracting relation of the five elements implies that one of the five elements is so strong that it counteracts another element which then becomes overacted upon. For instance, on the one hand, wood is normally acted upon by metal. When it is particularly strong, it is not acted upon by metal but instead counteracts metal. On the other hand, metal may be too weak to act upon wood, but is counteracted upon by wood.

Both overacting and counteracting relations of the five elements are abnormal interactions. For instance, when wood is extremely strong, it can not only overact upon earth, but counteract metal; when metal is extremely weak, it can not only be counteracted by wood but overacted upon by fire. Hence, there is a connection between overaction and counteraction.


This article is presented by Cecilia Yankelevich, of

She is currently directing research projects of clinical investigation in Nutrition, Psychiatry, Neurology and Stress Management, integrating Western medicine with Chinese medicine.




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