Chinese Customs and Wisdoms 1.2

1.2 Five Elements of the Chinese Universe


 The Chinese notion best known to the West is that of yin and yang, opposite but coexisting principles forming the whole Universe. The words themselves originally meant respectively shady and sunny mountain slopes but in philosophical sense they include wide range of opposing pairs – dark and light, wet and dry, female and male, weak and strong, dead and alive etc. By the way, bad and good doesn’t necessarily include in such pairing and doesn’t directly oppose to each other.

At about the same time that the notion of yin and yang started to include not only two mountain slopes but was being extended to include all beings, another principle that would have even greater implications for the Chinese worldview appeared.

For a long time the Chinese believed that the world divided into four parts: Azure Dragon, White Tiger, Red Bird and Black Turtle; east, west, south, north; spring, autumn, summer and winter. By the early 3rd century BC this idea had been transformed into a conception of five elements – and since those distant days this idea governed people’s minds in the Kingdom of Heaven. This transformation was very likely originally achieved by the addition of the “center” as the fifth basic element. This is how conception of wu xing – five elements, namely wood, fire, earth, metal and water, composing the Universe – came into being.


Taoists thought that the world was divided into yin and yang that gave birth to five elements. From those five elements ten thousand things – wan wu – appear. “Ten thousand” for the ancient Chinese was the infinite aggregate, i.e., everything existing under Heaven.

Five elements are not to be understood as real substances but rather as sorts of constantly evolving energy, in some sense symbols for certain basic characteristics of matter. Nature of water is to moisten and to flow downward; of fire – to heat and to rise; of wood – to bend and straighten again; of metal – to be cast or hammered into various forms; of earth – to fertile. At the time of Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC), the notion arose that the elements not only give rise to each other but also may destroy each other. Wood can give rise to fire, fire to earth, earth to metal, metal to water and water to wood. In accordance with another conception, water could conquer fire, fire vanquish metal, metal destroy wood, wood conquer earth and earth overcome water.

With time every aspect of life was interpreted within the five elements theory. All five elements became related to the seasons of the year, colors, cardinal points, flavors, numbers, internal organs, etc.


The succession of the seasons of the year is reflected by the interdependence of the five elements: in spring, wood is dominant and gives rise to fire which is the element of summer. Fire gives rise to earth, which is characteristic of the center – the third month of summer. Earth, in turn, gives rise to metal which dominates autumn, and metal – to the water of winter.

Each element has its corresponding color, flavor and cardinal point. The north, black color and salty flavor correspond to water; the south, red and bitter taste to fire; the east, green and sour taste to wood. Metal corresponds to the west, white color and hot flavor; earth is the centre, yellow color and sweet taste.

As applied to humans the five elements are connected with various organs of the body and certain emotions which are of great importance for the traditional Chinese medicine. Wood is related to the eyes, the sinews, the gall bladder, the liver and anger; fire to the tongue, the blood vessels, the small intestine, the heart and the feeling of joy; earth to the mouth, the muscles, the stomach, the pancreas and worrying; metal to the nose, the hairs of the body, the large intestine, the lungs and sadness; and water to the ears, the bones, the bladder, the kidneys and fear.

The Yin-Yang School allocated numbers to each of the five elements: 1 and 6 to water, 2 and 7 to fire, 3 and 8 to wood, 4 and 9 to metal, 5 and 10 to earth. Even numbers are regarded to be Earth numbers and odd numbers are Heaven’s. Odd numbers give rise to the element and the even numbers bring it to perfection and fruition. These relationships reflected in the famous Book of Changes (I Ching).


The five elements theory was also applied to history. The most famous representative of the Yin-Yang School was philosopher Zhou Yen who lived in the 3rd century BC. He thought that the succession of the various dynasties imitates that of the elements. Earth under which sign the legendary ancestor of the Chinese nation Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) ruled, was conquered by wood, sign of the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC). This in turn was vanquished by the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) whose sign was metal. Zhou Yen thought that fire of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), during which he lived, would be conquered by water of a next dynasty thus starting a new historical cycle. Every dynasty adopted the color of patronizing sign, changed ideals and even adapted the calendar – everything in accordance with one of the five basic elements. 

In Taoist philosophy, the term zhen wu means not only the five elements but also their ability to drive away evil spirits. That is why the five elements were often used in fengshui as protection. Even in present-day Beijing, it is possible to see how emperors of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties used zhen wu for defending their capital from evil spirits and enemies.


At the east of Beijing – which is corresponding direction of the element of wood – zhen wu was represented by the Royal Timber Mill outside the city wall of Guangqumen. It was here that timber was prepared for building the royal palaces. It was widely believed that the timber was imbued with supernatural powers hence the place has got the name the Sacred Timber Mill. The section of nanmu wood measured more than 23 meters in length and more than 2 meters in diameter was kept here. In 1758, the emperor Qianlong wrote the “Song of the Sacred Timber” detailing the history of the wood. He also ordered a pavilion to be built to house a stone tablet on which the words of the “Song” were carved.

At the south which equates to fire, outside the city wall near Yongdingmen the Yan Dun, or Smoke Mound stood. It was a beacon tower, in which fire was lit as an alarm during wars. The tower was built first at the times when modern Beijing was known as Dadu (1271–1368) and was rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty in the shape of a pyramid. During Qing Dynasty the tower was reconstructed once again, a pavilion was added housing a stone pillar with two articles by Emperor Qianlong. In those articles he described customs of the vicinity and the construction survey of the capital, and now this pillar recognized as an important historical monument. Up to 1900 the Qing emperors held ceremonies here to offer sacrifices to the gods of fire and water. 

The element of metal corresponds to the west, thus local zhen wu is the Big Bell of the Jueshen Temple, often referred to as the King of Ancient Bells.

The bell was cast during the rule of the emperor Zhu Di (reign name is Yongle, 1403–1424) from Ming Dynasty. It was seen as a symbol of courage and intelligence of the emperor who transferred the capital from the southern Nanjing to the northern Beijing as well as a mark of respect to his soldiers. The bell measures 6.95 meters in height, 4 meters in diameter and weights 26.5 tons. Both the interior and exterior inscribed with around 100 Buddhist sutras containing more than 230,000 characters.

The Big Bell was originally kept in Beihai Park, then it was moved to the Wanshou Temple and finally during the Qing Dynasty to the Juesheng Temple, which now is the Museum of Ancient Bells. 

Many believe that the zhen wu of the north which corresponds to the element of water is Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace. Long ago the lake had a name of Weng after the name of the man-made hill. The emperor Qianlong renamed it as Wanshou Hill, as one of his birthday presents to his mother. The lake was named Kunming after a story about Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) emperor Liu Che, who dug a lake to train his navy. Thanks to the training the imperial forces conquered Kunming State in today’s Yunnan Province. By renaming it Kunming Lake, Qianlong expressed confidence that his reign would be as strong as that of the Han Dynasty emperors.


Earth equates to the centre, and the corresponding zhen wu is Jingshan, the hill behind the Forbidden City. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) it was a small hill with Yanchun Tower on its top. When the Forbidden City was constructed the earth excavated to create the canals and lakes around it was used to form Wansui (Longevity) hill which was in full accordance with the local fengshui. Heaping the earth over the old tower of the Yuan Dynasty was seen by the Ming rulers as symbolically burying the previous dynasty. However, in 1644 this hill with deep symbolical meaning became the death place for the last Ming emperor – Chongzheng hanged himself on a tree at the foot of the hill. The circle locked.

Eleven years later, the Qing emperor renamed the hill Jingshan and Emperor Qianlong built five pavilions on the hill – in fair weather from here, the Forbidden City lies spread before the eyes in all its grandeur.



Book “Chinese Customs and Wisdoms” (translated into English by the author) was published in Beijing in 2007 by the Foreign Language Press

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  • Menn Parajumpers Kodiak

    Menn Parajumpers Kodiak

    28 Сентябрь 2013 at 10:58 |
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