Five-Element Generating (Sheng) & Control (Ke) Cycles

The Elemental Dance of Creation & Destruction

Sheng/Ke Cycle
Sheng/Ke Cycle. (JALEPRON/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Five Element System of Chinese Medicine and Taoist practice functions via the interplay of four interweaving cycles. Two of these cycles -- the Generating (Sheng) and Controlling (Ke) Cycles -- represent balance and harmony in the system. The other two cycles -- the Overacting (Cheng) and the Insulting (Wu) Cycles -- represent imbalance and disharmony. Together, these patterns of support and control -- and the feedback mechanisms in relation to the overacting and insulting cycles -- allow the five elements (particular movements or phases of energy) to function harmoniously, in the natural world as well as within our human bodymind.​

Generation/Sheng Cycle (a.k.a. Creation, Nourishment or Mother Cycle)

The Sheng or Generation cycle, as its name implies, is a relationship of nourishment and support of one element by another. In the same way that a mother nourishes her child, so does each of the elements nourish its “child” element. A therapeutic principle that emerges from this is that, to nourish the child element, it’s skillful also to nourish the element that is the mother of that child.

Using metaphors from the natural world is another way to illustrate the Sheng Cycle:

  • water generates wood -- as rain nourishes a tree
  • wood generates fire -- in the way that burning wood creates fire
  • fire generates earth -- as ash (which becomes part of the soil) is formed from burned wood
  • earth generates metal -- as metal ore is mined from the earth
  • metal generates water -- in the way that water condenses on a metal surface

Control/Ke Cycle (a.k.a. Destruction Cycle)

The Controlling Cycle represents relationships which prevent any given element from becoming overwhelming -- too powerful in relation to the system as a whole.

We can think of this as being akin to a legislative “checks and balances” system, or to the “tough love” of a guardian, that sets clear boundaries for a child’s own good. In terms of our family-relationships metaphor, it is the “grandmother” that exerts this healthy control over the “grandchild” element.

As mentioned above, the generating and controlling cycles together represent the balanced and healthy functioning of the Five Element System.

Overacting (Cheng) Cycle

Imbalance within the Control/Ke Cycle can create what is called the Overacting (Cheng) Cycle: an instance in which the “grandmother” element, instead of beneficially “controlling” the grandchild, damages the grandchild element by exerting an inappropriate amount of control, i.e. they “overact” upon that element.

Insulting (Wu) Cycle

The Insulting/Wu Cycle represents another instance of unbalanced Control/Ke Cycle functioning. This happens when the “grandchild” element, instead of being beneficially controlled by the “grandmother,” turns the grandmother’s force back upon itself, hence “insulting” the attempt to control it. One example from the natural world is that instead of earth beneficially controlling water -- say as the banks of a river channeling the river-water -- the water might instead “insult” this attempt at healthy control, and flood the banks, washing the earth away.

So, once again, the overacting and insulting cycles represent an imbalanced, disharmonious functioning of the Five Element System. Used diagnostically, symptoms of overacting or insulting cycles can provide important feedback, allowing an acupuncture or qigong practitioner to, then, intervene in a way that returns the system to its balanced Generation & Control Cycle functioning.