Chinese 5 Elements Theory

Everything, including the human body, is made of 5 cosmic forces or energies (also referred to as elements) interacting with each other. Life is about all five energies and the expressions of these energies being in flow!

To understand Chinese Five Element Theory one must recognize the importance of energy. Energy is movement that comes in many expressions and energy changes from one expression to another as it cycles. In the Chinese five elements view, energy is regarded as “five elemental or cosmic forces” or “movements.” Each of the five forces depends on the four other forces, and life depends on the intricate balance and interdependence of all five.

One also must be aware of two core beliefs traditionally held by the Chinese. First is that human beings are viewed to be reproductions of nature. That is, humans are microcosms of the macrocosm of nature. The human microcosm is created by the interplay of five cosmic forces, also referred to as elements. These elements are called Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, and they interact through the passage of energy between them. The energy – Chi – is a life force energy. In Chinese medicine Chi is seen as a fluid that flows through the body. Chi and blood follow alongside each other with the Chi running superficial to (skin surface side) of blood vessels. Where one can detect blood pulsing in arteries, one can generally detect Chi on the skin side of the vessel. Humans have twelve distinct Chinese pulses and each pulse reflects the health or functioning of the yin or yan aspects of each element. Second is that life is what takes place as long as one’s life force – Chi – flows. Life is about all five energies and the expressions of these energies being in flow! Cessation of the flow of Chi is the state of death.

In Chinese Five Element Theory health is viewed as the state of well-being, balance and harmony when Chi is flowing freely and naturally through the human being. Energy flow in balance leads to joyous life. Energy flow out of balance leads to problems. Since the human being is body, mind and spirit in form, Chi flow through the elements takes place through the planes of body, mind and spirit.

  1. Body - the physical reflection of the quality and health of one’s mind
  2. Mind - one’s intellect and intellectual capacities, thoughts, language, dreams about goals and aspirations
  3. Spirit – the invisible and subtle dimension hidden within the mind and guiding the mind; it produces words but is not the actual words

Body, mind, and spirit are made of the five elemental forces - Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood – and the way these interact is unique for each human. In fact, the Chinese believe that each person’s unique responses to the world are determined by their affinity to these basic energy forces. The interaction between these five elemental forces determine the risks a person takes or avoids, goals set, fears and doubts that trouble, situations causing stress or conflict, talents used or ignored, values that motivate, and dreams that inspire. When the five elemental forces interact appropriately in the way unique for the individual, health and well-being on the body-mind-spirit planes happen. When interaction goes out of balance, problems develop. Though problems can manifest on physical, mental or spiritual levels, we notice more what manifests on a physical plane.

According to Chinese Five Element Theory many of an individual’s problems come from trying to be something or someone that the individual is not. For example, finding oneself in situations or relationships in which one struggles to fit into someone else’s conception of whom one should be can lead to stress. Over time, the stress from the struggle with a sense of not fitting in or of not belonging increases a person’s vulnerability to disease and disorder.

As the ancient philosophers who wrote The I Ching reassure us, “If the individual acts consistently and is true to himself, he will find the way that is appropriate for him. This way is right for him and without blame.” (J. Elias & K. Ketcham, The Five Elements of Self-Healing. Using Chinese Medicine for Maximum Immunity, Wellness, and Health)


The five energies, or elements, are:

  1. Fire – the energy of movement creating heat and action, exchange, relationship, and transformation
  2. Earth – the energy of nourishment – physically in the form of food, as well as emotional in the form of security and identity
  3. Metal – the energy of gestation, the energy of self-worth, dignity, and respect; the essence and unique qualities of each person
  4. Water – the energy of gestation and ancestral wisdom; the vital force
  5. Wood – the energy of birth and growth; vision and structure as well as support

Each energy, or element, has multiple expressions (such as, association with certain parts of the body, a basic emotion, voice quality, affinity for taste, foundational colour, and preference for season). For example, with respect to basic emotion, each element has a different emotional expression. Sympathy is the basic emotional expression of Earth elemental energy. Sympathy can be appropriately expressed (reflection of balance), not be expressed at times when it would be appropriate to express sympathy or gush over in excess (reflections of imbalance). Grief is the emotional expression of Metal; fear is the emotional expression of Water; anger as a propellant for action is the emotional expression of Wood; and, happiness is the emotional expression of Fire.

Health is the state of well-being, balance, and harmony when the five interdependent elements are appropriately working and interacting together in the unique way they should for the individual.


  1. Traditional Chinese Medicine Basics: The Five Elements Theory (web article by Raymond Cheng, Ph.D DPA)
  2. Taoism. The Five Elements (web article at the Taichido website, a resource looking at a wider view of tai chi and related subjects) The Five Elements of Self-Healing. Using Chinese Medicine for Maximum Immunity, Wellness, and Health (by Jason Elias, L.Ac. and Katherine Ketcham, 1998)

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