The Taoist Five Elements

Diagram of the interactions between the Wu Xing.
Parnassus/Wikimedia Commons

Yin-Qi & Yang-Qi Give Birth to the Five Elements

According to Taoist cosmology, Yin-Qi and Yang-Qi – the primordial feminine and masculine energies – produce what are known as the “Five Elements.” The Five Elements, in turn, give birth to the “ten-thousand things,” i.e. all of manifest existence. The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.

The Five Elements are Fluid Categories

To understand the use of the Five Element system in Qigong, Chinese Medicine, and other Taoist practices, it’s important to know that the elements – like Yin and Yang – are fluid rather than static categories.

For this reason, they’re often referred to as the “Five Phases” or “Five Transformations” or even “Five Orbs” (of influence).

The Five Elements Support and Control Each Other

Everything we find in our external or internal terrain belongs to one of the Five Elements, each of which has supporting and controlling relationships with the other elements. When the Five Elements – within our bodies or external environments – are balanced, we experience health and prosperity. When they’re out of balance – overacting, counteracting, or failing to properly support one another – we experience dis-ease of one sort or another.

Wood Element Correspondences

Yin Organ: Liver
Yang Organ: Gallbladder
Season: Spring
Color: Green
Flavor: Sour
Sense Organ: Eyes
Tissue: Tendons
Odor: Rancid
Direction: East
Emotion: Anger
Virtue: Kindness
Planet: Jupiter
Sound: Shouting
Musical Note: mi
Heaven Stems: Jia & Yi
Environment: Wind
Domestic Animal: Goat/Sheep
Five Animal Qigong: Tiger
Developmental Stage: Birth

Fire Element Correspondences

Yin Organ: Heart/Pericardium
Yang Organ: Small Intestine/Triple Burner
Season: Summer
Color: Red
Flavor: Bitter
Sense Organ: Tongue
Tissue: Vessels
Odor: Scorched
Direction: South
Emotion: Anxiety
Virtue: Joy
Planet: Mars
Sound: Laughing
Musical Note: sol
Heaven Stems: Bing & Ding
Environment: Heat
Domestic Animal: Chicken
Five Animal Qigong: Monkey
Developmental Stage: Growth

Earth Element Correspondences

Yin Organ: Spleen
Yang Organ: Stomach
Season: Late Summer
Color: Yellow
Flavor: Sweet
Sense Organ: Mouth
Tissue: Flesh/Muscle
Odor: Fragrant
Direction: Center
Emotion: Worry/Pensiveness
Virtue: Equanimity
Planet: Saturn
Sound: Singing
Musical Note: do
Heaven Stems: Wu & Ji
Environment: Dampness
Domestic Animal: Ox
Five Animal Qigong: Bear
Developmental Stage: Transformation

Metal Element Correspondences

Yin Organ: Lung
Yang Organ: Large Intestine
Season: Autumn
Color: White
Flavor: Pungent
Sense Organ: Nose
Tissue: Skin
Odor: Rotten
Direction: West
Emotion: Grief/Sadness
Virtue: Courage
Planet: Venus
Sound: Crying
Musical Note: re
Heaven Stems: Gen & Xin
Environment: Dryness
Domestic Animal: Dog
Five Animal Qigong: Crane
Developmental Stage: Harvest

Water Element Correspondences

Yin Organ: Kidney
Yang Organ: Urinary Bladder
Season: Winter
Color: Blue/Black
Flavor: Salty
Sense Organ: Ears
Tissue: Bones
Odor: Putrid
Direction: North
Emotion: Fear
Virtue: Wisdom/Awe
Planet: Mercury
Sound: Groaning
Musical Note: la
Heaven Stems: Ren & Gui
Environment: Cold
Domestic Animal: Pig
Five Animal Qigong: Deer
Developmental Stage: Storage

Uses of the Five Element System in Chinese Medicine & Qigong

Within the practice of Chinese Medicine, Five-Element acupuncturists – as their name implies – use the Five-Element system to diagnose and treat their patients.

Chinese herbalists are more likely to make use of an Eight Principles diagnostic framework, though Chinese herbal medicine does rely heavily on the Five-Element “tastes” (sour, salty, bitter, pungent & sweet) – since it is the taste, along with the temperature, of an herb which determines its action within the body.

The Five Element system shows up in various ways within qigong practice. One simple, powerful practice is to direct our attention (using the "Inner Smile" technique) into the yin organs, in a sequence which follows the Five-Element supporting cycle: Kidney to Liver to Heart to Spleen to Lung, then back to Kidney again. Just becoming familiar with the Five Element Correspondences is a great way to enter into this terrain, and – with time – your intuition will reveal all kinds of ways to benefit from this perceptual framework.

Of Related Interest

  • EarthCalm's Nova Pendant and other excellent products offer much-needed protection -- for our delicate acupuncture meridian system (which is our bodymind's self-healing mechanism) -- from the sea of man-made EMF's produced by our various electrical and WiFi devices. By re-aligning our body's resonant field with that of the earth, these products facilitate deep healing and offer protection and support for Taoist yoga, qigong, and meditation practice. The best material supports for Taoist practice that I've come across thus far and highly recommended.
  • Meditation Now - A Beginner's Guide by Elizabeth Reninger (your Taoism guide). This book offers step-by-step guidance in a number of Inner Alchemy practices (e.g. the Inner Smile, Walking Meditation & Candle/Flower-Gazing Visualization) along with more general meditation instruction. An excellent resource for practices aimed at balancing the Five Elements of the human body-mind. 

Suggested Reading:

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Reninger, Elizabeth. "The Taoist Five Elements." ThoughtCo, May. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-taoist-five-elements-3183171. Reninger, Elizabeth. (2017, May 29). The Taoist Five Elements. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-taoist-five-elements-3183171 Reninger, Elizabeth. "The Taoist Five Elements." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-taoist-five-elements-3183171 (accessed November 19, 2017).