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Five Elements

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The Formation of the Theory of Five Elements

Although the Chinese theory of the five elements and Greek theory of the four elements are different in history of formation, yet both of them belong to the earliest atomic theory in essence. At first, the Chinese only knew that the five kinds of substances (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) were indispensable things in the daily life of mankind. Subsequently they made a generalization and deduction of the respective proper-ties of the five kinds of substances and their relationship, so as to explain the whole material world. According to the theory of the five elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water are five basic substances that constitute the material world. These substances are not only of the relations with generation and restriction but set in a state of constant motion and change. That is why it is known as the theory of the five elements or tile doctrine of five evolutive phases.

The Content of the Theory of Five Elements

1) Attribution of Thing in Light of the Theory of Five Elements

In light of the theory of five elements, TCM has made a comprehensive comparison and study of all kinds of things and phenomena in nature as well as in the viscera, bowels, tissues, functions and forms, thus expounding the physiology, pathology of the human body and the correlation between man and his natural surroundings. The following is a table showing the classification of things according to the theory of the five elements.

The Classification of Things According to the Theory of the Five Elements

Human Body

Five elements Viscera Bowels Five sense organs Five tissues Emotional activity
Wood Liver Gall bladder Eye Tendon Anger
Fire Heart Small intestine Tongue Vessel Joy
Earth Spleen Stomach Mouth Muscle Overthinking
Metal Lung Large intestine Nose Skin & hair Grief
Water Kidney Urinary bladder Ear Bone Fear

 

Nature

Five elements Season Environmental factor Growth & development Color Taste Orientation
Wood Spring Wind Germination Blue Sour East
Fire Summer Heat Growth Red Bitter South
Earth Late summer Dampness Transformation Yellow Sweet Middle
Metal Autumn Dryness Reaping White Pungent West
Water Winter Cold Storing Black Salty North

2) Generation, Restriction, Subjugation and Reverse Restriction among the Five Elements

Among the five elements, there exist the relations of generation, restriction, subjugation and reverse restriction. Generation implies production and promotion. The order of generation is as follows: wood generates fire, fire generates earth, earth generates metal, metal generates water, and water, in its turn, generates wood. As far as the relationship of generation of each of the five elements is concerned, it is composed of two aspects - generating and being generated. The element that generates is called the mother, while the element that is generated is called the son. Hence, the relation of generating and being generated among the five elements is also known as that of mother and son. Take wood for example. Because wood produces fire, it is called the mother of fire. On the other hand it is produced by water, so it is called the son of water.

Restriction connotes bringing under control or restraint. So far as the relationship of restriction that the five elements possess is concerned, it works in the following order: wood restricts earth, earth water, water fire, fire metal, and metal wood. Each of the five elements has the chance of restricting and being restricted. Take wood for example. The element restricting wood is metal, and the element that is restricted by wood is earth.

In view of the correlations among things, neither generation nor restriction is dispensable. Without generation, there would be no birth and development; without restriction, excessive growth would result in harm. For instance, on one hand, wood generates fire, and on the other, it restricts earth; while earth, in its turn, generates metal and restricts water. Thus in generation there resides restriction, and in restriction there exists generation. They oppose each other and at the same time cooperate with each other, thus a relative balance is maintained between generation and restriction, and the normal growth and development of things is ensured.

Should one of the five elements be excessive or insufficient, there would appear the phenomena of abnormal restrictions, known as subjugation and reverse restriction. By subjugation is meant that one element subdues the other when the latter is weak. It is the manifestation of abnormal coordination among things. For instance, if wood is in excess and metal can not exercise normal restriction on it, then the excessive wood will subjugate earth in such a way that earth will become weaker.

Reverse restriction means preying upon others. That is, when any one of the five elements is in excess, the one originally restricting it will be restricted by it instead. That is why we call it reverses restriction. For instance, the normal order of restriction is that metal restricts wood; but if wood is in excess or metal is insufficient, wood will restricts metal in the reverse direction.

It is clear that the order of reverse restriction is just opposite to that of restriction and that reverse restriction is undoubtedly a harmful one.

The Application of the Theory of Five Elements in TCM

In the science of TCM, the theory of five elements is used, in the main, to explain the physiology and pathology of the human body and to guide the clinical diagnosis and treatment.

1) Explaining the Correlations between the Five Viscera

The generation of the five elements can be used to expound the interdepending relations between the five viscera. For instance, the vital essence of the kidney (water) nourishes the liver (wood), which is known as water generating wood. The liver (wood) stores blood to nourish the heart (fire), which is termed wood generating fire. The heat of the heart (fire) warms the spleen (earth), which is called fire generating earth. The spleen (earth) transforms and distributes feed essence to replenish the lung (metal), which is referred to as earth generating metal. The lung (metal) dredges the water passages to help the kidney (water), which is taken as metal generating water.

The restriction of the five elements can be used to explain the inter-restraining relations between the five viscera. For instance, the lung (metal) disperses and descends so as to restrain the exuberance of the liver (wood), which is known as metal restricting wood. The liver (wood) that functions well smoothes and regulates the stagnation of the qi of the spleen (earth), which is called as wood restricting earth. The function of the spleen (earth) plays in transporting, distributing and

transforming nutrients and promoting water metabolism and may prevent the overflow of the water of the kidney (water), which is referred to as earth restricting water. The ascending 6f the kidney (water) can p~ event the heart (fire) from hyperactivity. Which is explained as water restricting fire.

2) Expounding Pathological Influences between the Five Viscera

As is known, the theories of sudjugation, reverse restriction, "illness of mother-organ involving son-organ", and "ill-ness of son-organ involving mother-organ" concerning the five elements may be used to expound the pathological influences between the five viscera. Take lung trouble for example. If it results from heart trouble, that is regarded as "fire subjugating metal". If it is caused by liver (wood) trouble, that is refer-red to as "wood reversely restricting metal". If it is led by spleen (earth) trouble, that is looked upon as "illness of mother-organ involving son-organ". And if it is due to kidney (water) trouble, that is taken as "illness of s6n-orga~ involving mother-organ".

3) Diagnosing and Treating Diseases

Because, in accordance with the attribution of things to the five elements, the five viscera have specific connections with the five colors (blue, red, yellow, white and black), the five voices (shouting, laughing, singing, crying and moaning), the five kinds of flavors (sour, bitter, sweet, acrid and salty) as well as the relevant pulse conditions, one, when diagnosing, should do like this first, synthesize the materials obtained through the four methods of diagnosis (observation, listening and smelling, inquiring, pulse feeling and palpation), and then, deduce what the disease is according to the theory of five elements. For instance, a blue face, preference for food with sour flavor and bowstring pulse condition may indicate liver disease; a red face, bitter taste in the mouth and overflowing pulse condition may suggest the hyperactivity of heart fire; the patient whose qi of the spleen is deficient looks blue because of "wood having subjugated earth"; the patient who has heart trouble looks dark because of "water having restricted fire", to mention but a few.

In treatment, the theory of five elements, on the one hand, is used to prevent the transmission of diseases. As the 77th Problem, a chapter of Classic On Medical Problems, says, 'When liver disease occurs, it will spread to the Spleen, 80 the qi of the spleen should be reinforced before it is affected." On the other hand, the theory of five elements may be used to help work out the principle and method of treatment. For instance, The 69th Problem, a chapter of Classic On Medical Problem, points out that "if hypofunction is found in the son-organ, the mother-organ should be tonified; if hyperfunction is found in the mother-organ, the son-organ should be treated with purgation", to mention but a few. Physicians of later generations have applied the law of generation, restriction, subjugation and reverse restriction of the five elements to work out many effective and specific treating methods such as reinforcing earth to generate metal (strengthening the function of the spleen to benefit the lung), replenishing water to nourish wood (nourishing the essence of the kidney to benefit the liver), supporting earth to restrict wood (supplementing the function of the spleen to treat hyperactivity of the liver), and strengthening water to control fire (replenishing the essence of the kidney to treat hyperactivity of the heart), and so on In the science of acupuncture and moxibustion, the five kinds of points of the 12 channels distributed at the ends of the extremities, i.e.,the Jing (well) Points, the Ying (spring) Points, the Shu (stream) Points, the 7?ng (river) Points and the He (sea) Points, are - respectively included in the five elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water. In clinical treatment, these points may be chosen according to the specific state of certain that is being treated and in accordance with the law of generation, restriction, subjugation and reverse restriction of the five elements. Prom above, it has been known that the theory of yin and yang is used to state the two components of one thing, or the relations of opposition, interdependence, waxing and waning and the transformation between two opposite things; while the theory of five elements is used mainly to explain the property and correlation among things according to the attribution of things to the five elements as well as the law of generation, restriction, subjugation and reverse restriction of the five elements. But do remember that both theories are often combined when used.

Extracted from "Basic Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine"

 
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