Lesson 3: Five Element Theory

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In Chinese Five Element Theory is referred to as Wu Xin. Wu means ‘five’ and Xin refers to the term ‘element.’ Xin can also be translated as row or street, sort of like a category or a pathway. It can also refer to working or moving. Put it together and it describes a dynamic rather than static snapshot kind of thing. These elements are walking or moving together to create stability in a dynamic state of balance.

The important thing here is to understand

  1. The characteristics of the five elements
  2. The five element correspondences
  3. The inter-relationships between them

The characteristics are the elements themselves. The correspondences are the rows, streets, or pathways, and the interrelationships are the dynamic movement together to create balance.

The Chinese, and actually many cultures in the world, have a very different view of the body when compared to Western thought.We in the West work hard to insulate ourselves from the natural world. Our whole philosophy is based on viewing ourselves as masters of the natural world rather than participants in it. JudeoChristian thought, which has influenced and driven our culture on a massive scale says we should be masters of the earth, fill the earth, and subdue it and all the creatures that live on it. (Genesis 1:28)By contrast, Eastern thought teaches that we are part of this universe/earth and are participants alongside it. And truly, the same stuff that emerged from the Big Bang (the real deal, not the TV show), which formed the stars and from which life emerged, flows in your veins. You and I are part of this earth. The elements that form us come directly from this earth we walk/bike/drive around on and we are more influenced by the forces and elements that shape the earth than we realize.

Five element theory is about those components that make up and influence our lives: the characteristics of those basic elements, how they move, how they interact, how they influence us. And like this environment we exist in and these bodies we inhabit, these components are never static, but area always changing.

Chinese medicine is not just about the snapshot of the body right now, but also about how the body is changing and what direction those changes are moving in.


The Five Elements and Their Characteristics

The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.


Five Elements - WoodWood includes trees and branches. The energy of wood when it is growing is that it expands outwards to all directions. The correspondence for wood in the TCM organ system is Liver. The energy and channel of the Liver comes up from the feet and branches out into the chest on both sides of the body making a double tree. The energy of Liver goes upwards like a tree.

The color correspondence for the element of Wood in TCM is green. A tree sprouts and grows much faster in the Spring season than in all other seasons

Characteristic of Wood: can be bent, can be straightened
Energy/Direction of Wood: goes upwards and expands outwards in all directions except downward


five element - fireFire is hot, warm and consuming. Flames rise upward and so does the element of fire. The color of the fire element is red. It corresponds to the organ of the Heart. Summer and South are both Fire related.

Characteristic of Fire: warming, flaring upwards
Energy/Direction of Fire: ascending



five element - earthEarth is stable, centering, and supportive. Earth is all about growth because that’s what this planet does for us: gives us a stable home, supports our physical lives, and provides all we need for growth and development. Humans and all other mammals get energy from the air through breath and from the earth through food. These are the only to ways to acquire energy after we are born, so says the Nei Jing. The color of Earth is yellow and it corresponds to the organ of Spleen.

Characteristic of Earth: permits sowing, growing, and reaping
Energy/Direction of Earth: neutral and stable


five element - waterWater is moistening and flows downward. Water is heavy. Water is characterized by the color black. I know it’s tempting to think of water as blue, but in TCM the color is black. Think about a very deep ocean which at the lowest level is black. The organ which corresponds to Water the element of water is Kidney.

Characteristic of Water: moistening, heavy
Energy/Direction of Water: descending downward


five element - metalMetal is hard, dense and heavy. It can be molded and hardened. Metal’s color is white. The organ corresponding to Metal is Lung.

Characteristic of Metal: hard, dense, and heavy. Can be molded and hardened.
Energy/Direction of Metal: contractile, moves downward and inward.

The Five Element Correspondence Chart

Memorize this chart. Know it cold. Not only will you need it to get through Foundations successfully, but you will also use it in a clinical setting over and over and over again.

Five Element Correspondence Chart

Some things I want to point out to you about this chart.

  • Wood
    Liver is associated with Wood. Since the Liver channel opens to the eyes, Liver and Wood are associated with this sense organ. Crying and tears are cleansing to the Liver.
  • Fire
    Fire is “bitter” like overcooked meat or charred toast…and sometimes like Starbucks coffee. I’m not hatin’, just sayin’.
  • Earth
    Earth is sweet like grains. I know we don’t often associate that with sweet, but if you cook grains and taste them without seasoning at all there is a kind of sweetness to them. Also, an awful lot of grains are used to make alcohol because there is so much sugar within grain. Processed grains are also foods that push your blood sugar up soon after you eat them. Late summer, which is associated with Earth, is also called Long Summer. It is the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Humidity is higher in most areas during this time of year, you can see more clouds and more rain. If you’ve ever spent a summer in Texas, you know exactly what I’m talking about and you are probably thinking, “Ugh! Yeah, I know, right?”
  • Water
    Kidney and Bladder are associated with the lower openings: urethra and anus. Kidneys control water balance and fluid metabolism in the body. Water is associated with the color black because when water is very deep it is black. As for the putrid smell, think about any fish market or even the fish areas at grocery stores. Kidney opens to the ears – long ear lobes are a sign of good Kidney essence and therefore a long life. Conversely, degradation of the Kidney can result in tinnitus/ear ringing and decline in the ability to hear.
  • Metal
    The pungent taste of metal is…well, metallic. As a little kid I wondered what metal might taste like, so in my 4 year old logical mind I decided to put my tongue to the stainless steel on my jungle gym slide. (Don’t judge. You know you did weird stuff as a kid too!) I still remember the taste very clearly. Decidedly metallic. Blood has that flavor and sometimes that smell too. It’s the smell and taste of iron. It is decidedly “pungent.” Cilantro can have this kind of hit too. I grew up in South Texas and we used epazote a lot. It too has a pungent quality to it’s leaves.

Really. Seriously. Memorize this chart. Be able to write it out. Fill out a blank one over and over again until you can do it in your sleep. One student had it laminated at an office store and used it like a write board to practice. Here’s one you can use:

Blank Five Element Chart 

The Generating and Control Sequences of the Five Elements
Generating Sequence

Generating and Control CyclesDefinition: one element generates another and is generated by one. The white arrows in the drawing represent this sequence. This is also known as the Generating Sequence.

The generating element is referred to as the Mother Element. The element that is generated from it is known as the Son or Child Element. Remember this Mother/Son relationship. When it is flowing correctly and naturally, energy should flow from Mother to Child/Son, from the generator to the generated.

Wood generates Fire

That’s an easy one and anyone who has ever had a fireplace, wood burning stove, had a campfire or lit a match can get this one. Can’t have a fire without fuel. The most plentiful fuel since time began has been wood.

Fire Generates Earth

You burn wood for fuel in a fire and what is the result? Ash. Ash represents earth. If you’ve ever seen the aftermath of a forest or grass fire you might notice that plants that grow after a fire get really green looking. This isn’t your imagination, nor is it just contrast with the black charred surroundings. Ash contains at least thirteen essential nutrients for plant growth including calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Ash therefore contains nutrients and minerals that are soil/earth.

Earth generates Metal

This is also fairly common sense. We dig metals out of the earth. No big mystery here.

Metal generates Water

This one is a little difficult to comprehend. Think of this in one or all of these ways to help you remember this one:

  • If you heat metal up sufficiently it becomes liquid. It can therefore convert from a solid to a liquid.
  • Metal is found underground, and usually near a creek or river or a source of underground water. Mines often have trouble with groundwater and seepage filling mining passageways.
  • Metal, like glass, collects condensation in the right humidity and temperature conditions
Controlling Sequence

Generating and Control CyclesThe black arrows in the drawing represent the Controlling or Checking Sequence. One element controls another element and is also controlled by one. This is a check and balance type system which, when it is working normally, keeps all elements in a state of dynamic balance and harmony.

While the Generating Sequence is referred to as a Mother/Son relationship, this relationship is also referred to as a Grandmother/Child relationship. In many cultures family groups are more than parent/child and include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all living under one roof or in one close area. While the parents go out and make a living the elder relatives like the grandparents relax a little more, supported by their children and also serving as childcare for the grandkids. This was my reality as a child. My grandparents were a little bit indulgent and often a lot of fun, but they were also authority figures I was expected to obey.

Fire controls Metal

Fire melts and softens the hard qualities of metal making it more malleable. If you have a background in Tarot you might remember that the element of Air is represented by swords, the ability to slice through the bullshit and cut to the heart of the matter. But Air/Swords out of balance is pretty harsh and needs the compassion of the heart to keep someone with a strong Air/Swords influence from being kind of a jackass in speaking their truth.

Metal controls Wood

I have a China berry tree growing in my backyard. Most homeowners consider them junk trees because they drop and break fairly easily and can be a lot of trouble. Indeed, one fell on my house from my neighbor’s yard a couple of years ago, but I still love them. They grow quickly and provide great shade. But they also require regular pruning to keep them from getting completely out of hand. And of course I prune them with metal shears, hacksaws, and occasionally an axe. Metal keeps wood from growing out of control.

Wood controls Earth

Ever seen a big boulder with a tree growing in it? How about pictures of the jungle trees taking over Angkor Wat? Earth and rock are long term, difficult to break down substances, but given time the wood element can and will break it down and control it. You can also think about using plants (which represent wood) to keep soil from eroding.

Earth controls Water

The oldest known flood control systems are simple earthen dams. This is an example of earth controlling the flow of water.

Water controls Fire

Also an easy one to remember since we’ve all seen firefighters putting out a fire with water.

Both the generation and control sequenced are needed to maintain balance. Unchecked growth/generation is dangerous. That’s why our cells have a built in timer (called apoptosis) which is a form of control that limits the cell’s lifespan. Imagine a cell with dangerous changes to the DNA making copies of itself with no way to shut it down. Well, actually, you don’t have to imagine that: it’s called cancer. Generation is needed for growth, but unchecked generation is dangerous. Controls are important to maintain balance, but this too needs limits (which the generating sequence can provide) or the control will become so tight that life is choked out.

The generating and control sequences above are a harmonious normal cycle. But life isn’t always harmonious or balanced. Next we will look at some pathological things that can happen in these sequences that cause imbalance, disharmony, and disease.

Pathologies in the Control Cycle

Over-controlling or Overchecking

Over-controlling or over-checking is a pathological process of the controlling sequence. The arrows flow in the same direction as in the normal and harmonious Control Cycle. The over-control follows the same sequence as the controlling cycle, so Wood could over-check Earth, Earth could over-check Water, etc.

When an element over-checks another, the one which is over-controlled becomes weak. For example, if the Wood element is too strong/too much, it will over-control the Earth element, rendering it weak. In the clinic you will see this as an excess of the Wood element (Liver – this is often referred to in clinic as Liver Qi Stagnation) which is over-controlling or beating up on the Spleen and Stomach (the Earth Element) which can cause a variety of digestive issues (acid indigestion, stress related diarrhea, loss of appetite or super-stimulation of the appetite, etc.).


Counter-checking is also a pathological process of the controlling sequence. The counterchecking sequence also refers to the control relationship between elements, but the flow of energy is reversed. For example, instead of wood affecting earth, wood insults the metal element which normally controls it. This is a backflow of energy in the wrong direction.

Bad grandchildOver-controlling is a pathology, but at least the energy is flowing in the correct and natural direction. In the counter-checking pathology the relationship is so off that the energy is flowing backwards.

I think of this one as a really mouthy kid who refuses to be disciplined. Remember the discussion of the extended family with the grandparents being the daily childcare providers and authorities to be obeyed? The counterchecking relationship represents a grandkid who kicks grandpa in the shins and steals the family car.

Pathologies in the Generating Cycle


Insulting is a pathological process of the generating sequence. It refers to a child or son element insulting the parent/mother. As an example, the mother element of fire is supposed to generate earth, but in this case the earth element insults fire. This is like a kid rebelling against his/her parent to the point that the parent becomes weak.


Celia Hodes: Over-Acting Mother of the Year

Celia Hodes: Over-Acting Mother of the Year

This pathological process of the generating sequence refers to a mother element overacting on the child/son. This is like an over controlling mother who is so extreme she raises a dysfunctional child.

This is the overbearing mother who over controls her kid so much she suppresses her/his normal growth and development. You can probably think of a million Hollywood examples: George Costanza’s and Howard Walowitz’s mothers come to mind. If you want to go old school horror movie, think about the crazy mother from the movie Carrie (and by the way, just my opinion, but I think the 1976 version was way better than the more recent one with Julianne Moore as the mom).  But my favorite example? Celia Hodes from Weeds.

Works Cited

  • Source: Wu, Qianzhi. “Foundations of Chinese Medicine.” AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, Austin Texas. Fall 2007. Lecture Series.
  • Ni, Maoshing. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Boston MA: Shambhala Publications, 1995. Print.
  • Beinfield, Harriet. Between Heaven and Earth. New York NY: Ballantine Books, 1991. Print.
  • Kaptchuk, Ted. The Web That Has No Weaver. New York NY: Congdon & Weed, 1983. Print.