The Meaning of Five Elements

The meaning of the Chinese Characters

The 5 “Elements” are called “Wu Xing” (五行) in Chinese. The Chinese character “Xing” (行) actually means “travel” or “movement”. It can also mean “to carry out” or “engage in”. “Xing” does not translate into “Element”. However, Chinese words consisting of two or more characters cannot be properly translated by trying to string the literal meanings of each individual character together. Instead, it is more meaningful for us to look at the characters in combination, something like looking at an English word rather than at its individual alphabets. “Wu Xing” can be more accurately referred to in English as the “5 Classifications” or “5 Categories”.

Ancient Chinese classification Methods

To understand the nature of the “Wu Xing” it is necessary to understand how the ancient Chinese classified or labeled things. Dr. Chong Kuang Yin in his book “The Philosphy of Qi” (1999) pointed out that the Chinese used 5 to include all beings in the Universe and believed that 5 was the figure to show completeness. The Chinese categorized many things into this system of “5 Classifications”. For example they had “5 Directions”, 5 behaviors of members in a Social System (Ren He 人和), 5 types of energy (as in Feng Shui), 5 classifications of labor in Chinese social structure (ju mang 旬芒, zhu rong 祝融, hou tu 后土, ru shou 蓐收, xuan ming 玄冥).

Classifications of the Wu Xing

Each of the 5 categories that made up the Wu Xing required a name. The Chinese labeled these as “Earth”, “Fire”, “Water”, “Metal” and “Wood”. It is a tribute to the genius of the ancient Chinese that they thought of 5 labels which could, to some extent, also describe the “cause and effect” relationship between the items in each category. For example, items categorized under “Fire” could “cause” (produce) items categorized under “Earth” and items categorized under “Metal could have an “effect on” (control) items categorized under “Wood”. Therefore the labels of these 5 categories of the Wu Xing by themselves were able to represent the complete interaction of all of the forces of nature. Because of this the ancient Chinese were able to utilize the Wu Xing to classify all natural phenomena and explain their interactions.

Yin and Yang

The interesting thing about the Wu Xing is that in Feng Shui it is the only classification method used which does not need to rely on the Yin-Yang theory to explain the interaction of the items that it is used to classify. This is because as we mentioned before, the 5 categories of the Wu Xing by themselves are able to describe the nature of their interaction with each other through the “Productive” and “Control” cycles. On the other hand, other classification methods used in Feng Shui such as the 10 Celestial Stems, 12 Terrestrial Branches and 8 Trigrams all need to rely on Yin-Yang theory to describe the relationships of the items that they are used to represent. For example when we use the 8 Trigrams to represent members of the family we need to use Yin-Yang theory to evaluate the balance of the relationships between any two Trigrams.

Nature of items classified under Wu Xing

Since “Earth”, “Fire”, “Water”, “Metal” and “Wood” are merely category labels that group items of a particular range of characteristics, it is not really correct to attempt to define the nature of the items in each of the Wu Xing categories purely by the characteristic of its label. For example, it does not mean that items classified under the “Fire” label can be purely described in terms of “fire” as we know it (i.e. hot, bright, able to burn things). In order for us to truly understand any item in any of the 5 categories of the Wu Xing it is very important for us to be able to distinguish the true characteristics of an item from the stereotype characteristics of its label. Items classified under “Fire” are not real fire, items classified under “Water” are not real water. They may have some of the “characteristics” but you must not make the mistake of assuming that that’s all there is to it.

Wu Xing across different Disciplines

In Chinese medicine the Wu Xing are used to explain the “cause and effect” relationships of the symptoms of physiological disorders and the remedies to be applied.

In Feng Shui the Wu Xing are used to explain the “cause and effect” relationships of the different types of energies that influence the occupants of a building and the remedies (if any) to be applied.

While the same Wu Xing classification method is used in both Chinese medicine and Feng Shui, it is important to be aware that they do not describe the same types of things. While the ancient Chinese used the same classification labels to categories things across different bodies of knowledge, it is important to realize that the meanings and usage of items within each categorization are consistent only within that particular body of knowledge. They were never meant to be consistent across different bodies of knowledge.

This means that items classified under Wu Xing in Chinese Medicine are not of exactly the same nature as items classified under the same Wu Xing in Feng Shui. Similar analogies can be found in the Western world. Take “Beta” for example. “Beta” refers to a Greek Letter in Literature. “Beta” refers to a type of brain wave in Medicine. “Beta” refers to a type of video tape recording system in Audio-visual Technology. It is not possible to reconcile all the three different types of “Beta” mentioned above and tie them together into some kind of relationship. The same label is used to describe completely unrelated things depending on which body of knowledge we are dealing with. In the same way you should not attempt to look for relationships between the Wu Xing across different bodies of Chinese knowledge.

Wu Xing and Feng Shui energies

As far as Feng Shui energies are concerned, until today no one really knows exactly what these energies are. Modern studies have identified radiation emitted from fault lines, positive ions, infrasound and electromagnetic radiation as some of the types of energies but the energies that we encounter in Feng Shui are not merely these. No one has yet been able to identify exactly what type of energy is associated with the Monthly and Yearly Stars of Xuan Kong Feng Shui. Furthermore, when we look at the Flying Star chart of Xuan Kong Feng Shui, exactly what type of energy is, for example, a 4-1 Star combination? Why does the 4-1 energy have an effect on romance and academic matters? You cannot expect to understand the true nature of this energy by merely trying to associate the characteristics of “real wood” and “real water” from the Wu Xing categories to these two numbers.

“5 Elements” – A wrong terminology

The translation of the Chinese characters Wu Xing (五行) into English as “5 Elements” is misleading because the English educated reader will automatically associate this with the actual “elemental” characteristic of the “Earth”, “Fire”, “Water”, “Metal” and “Wood” labels. This is very unfortunate. Chinese readers will not make this mistake because they know that the Chinese characters for Wu Xing do not refer to “Elements”. From this they know that the classification labels of the Wu Xing are insufficient to be used to describe the complete nature of the energy itself. The poisonous puffer fish is very different from a sardine but both are labeled as “fish”.

While no one has any answer as to what the Feng Shui energies classified under the Wu Xing really are, it is important that we do not narrow our thinking into the limited stereotyped meanings caused by the pitfalls of translating a concept from one language to another.