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The Wu Xing, (五行 wŭ xíng) also known as the Five Elements, Five Phases, the Five Agents, the Five Movements, Five Processes, and the Five Steps/Stages, is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs, and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs.

The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena. After it came to maturity in the second or first century BCE during the Han dynasty, this device was employed in many fields of early Chinese thought, including seemingly disparate fields such as geomancy or Feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, military strategy and martial arts. The system is still used as a reference in some forms of complementary and alternative medicine and martial arts.

Five Elements or Phases Edit

The "Five Phases" are Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ). This order of presentation is known as the "mutual generation" (xiāngshēng 相生) sequence. In the order of "mutual overcoming" (xiāngkè 相克), they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal. "Wu Xing" is often translated as Five Elements and this is used extensively by many including practitioners of Five Element acupuncture. This translation arose by false analogy with the Western system of the four elements. Whereas the classical Greek elements were concerned with substances or natural qualities, the Chinese xíng are "primarily concerned with process and change," hence the common translation as "phases" or "agents." By the same token, Mù is thought of as "Tree" rather than "Wood". The word 'element' is thus used within the context of Chinese medicine with a different meaning to its usual meaning. Evolution of language in this way is not without precedent. It should be recognized that the word 'phase', although commonly preferred, is not perfect. 'Phase' is a better translation for the five 'seasons' (五運 wŭ yùn) mentioned below, and so 'agents' or 'processes' might be preferred for the primary term xíng. Manfred Porkert attempts to resolve this by using 'Evolutive Phase' for 五行 wŭ xíng and 'Circuit Phase' for 五運 wŭ yùn, but these terms are unwieldy. In some ways arguing for one term over another is pointless because any single word is probably inadequate for translation of what is a concept.

The Phases Edit

The five phases are usually used to describe the state in nature:

  • Wood/Spring=(72 days) a period of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality
  • Fire/Summer=(72 days) a period of swelling, flowering, brimming with fire and energy
  • Earth=(72 days=4x18days (4 transitional seasons x 18days each) the in-between transitional seasonal periods, or a separate 'season' known as Late Summer or Long Summer - in the latter case associated with leveling and dampening (moderation) and fruition
  • Metal/Autumn=(72 days) a period of harvesting and collecting
  • Water/Winter=(72 days) a period of retreat, where stillness and storage pervades

Generating Edit

The common memory jogs, which help to remind in what order the phases are:

  • Wood feeds Fire
  • Fire creates Earth (ash)
  • Earth bears Metal
  • Metal enriches Water (as in water with minerals is more beneficial to the body than pure water)
  • Water nourishes Wood

Other common words for this cycle include "begets", "engenders" and "mothers".

Overcoming Edit

  • Wood parts Earth (such as roots; or, Trees can prevent soil erosion)
  • Earth dams (or muddles or absorbs) Water
  • Water extinguishes Fire
  • Fire melts Metal
  • Metal chops Wood

This cycle might also be called "controls", "restrains" or "fathers".

Insulting Edit

  • Fire evaporates Water
  • Water washes away (or penetrates) Earth
  • Earth (rocks) breaks Wood
  • Wood dulls Metal
  • Metal shields against Fire

This cycle runs in the opposite direction of the "overcoming" cycle.

Bagua Edit

Main Article: Bagua (Taoism)

The movements have also been correlated to the eight trigrams of the I Ching:

Movement Metal Earth Wood Wood Water Fire Earth Metal
I Ching Heaven Earth Thunder Wind Water Fire Mountain Lake
Trigrams
Trigram hanzi
Trigram pinyin qiánkūnzhènxùnkǎngènduì

Martial artsEdit

T'ai chi ch'uan uses the five elements to designate different directions, positions or footwork patterns. Either forward, backward, left, right and centre, or three steps forward (attack) and two steps back (retreat).

The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):

  • Jìn bù (進步) Forward step
  • Tùi bù (退步) Backward step
  • Zǔo gù (左顧, in simplified characters 左顾) Left step
  • Yòu pàn (右盼 ) Right step
  • Zhōng dìng (中定) Central position, balance, equilibrium.

Xingyiquan uses the five elements metaphorically to represent five different states of combat.

Movement Fist Chinese Pinyin Description
Metal Splitting To split like an axe chopping up and over.
Water Drilling Zuān Drilling forward horizontally like a geyser.
Wood Crushing Bēng To collapse, as a building collapsing in on itself.
Fire Pounding Pào Exploding outward like a cannon while blocking.
Earth Crossing Héng Crossing across the line of attack while turning over.

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