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These Five Elements of Nature were described in the root text of Chinese medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing, written over a period of time up to 2000 years ago. This has two parts, the Su Wen (Plain Questions) and the Ling shu (Spiritual Axis).
Ling shu chapter 64 explores Five Element constitutional types, basing these mainly on a person’s character and physical shape. Later, the Nan Jing, or Classic of Difficulties, also provided source text ideas.
On the face of it, 5 Element theory consists of a group of five groupings or associations, one set for each element. When you understand how it works you can often make predictions about health and behaviour. So it is a very powerful resource.
More than that, the 5 elements of Nature (or 5 Elements of Life) are a sequence, with each having an effect on the one before and the one after, and a relationship across the circle with both the element two down the line – the grand-child, and two up the line – the grandparent. This can be transformative when you see it acting out in a patient.
There are two important sequences, the Mother-Child sequence (known as the ‘sheng’ cycle, where each element is both a child of the one before, and a mother of the one after), and the Controlling sequence (ke or ko sequence) where it is both grandparent and grandchild.
These relationships can be important. In most modern families, the parents have a direct responsibility and the grandparents offer a different influence, often stabilising. Just so with the cycle.
Although both systems were discussed in the centuries after the Nei Jing was written, the 5 Element system was particularly admired in the period from 200BC to 200AD, a period known as the Han dynasty. But admiring references to it continue through the millennia.
In the 20th century in China it seems to have been suppressed. In 1982-3 when I studied in China, there was a doctor considered ‘mad’ by his colleagues. We eventually discovered that he favoured the 5 element system but the only way we could get him to discuss it was by taking him behind the bicycle sheds and plying him and the interpreter with cigarettes. Both feared for their jobs had they been discovered.
So you could say that probably all modern practitioners of Chinese medicine have a passing knowledge of the Five Element system, but use it very little. This is also partly because, when considered at its most profound level, it addresses the deepest level of our humanity – who we are, why we are, what we should be doing with ourselves, and what’s stopping us.
In effect our spiritual level. Modern Chinese medicine has no time for that!
There are many ways to approach the theory, and a set of associations to learn, though once you understand the theory, many of the associations become obvious.
First, I’ll introduce a way of understanding it that appeals to me. I hope it helps you understand it too. See below under ‘Understanding the Sequence’.
Next I’ll list the associations.
After that I’ll try to convey how Jack Worsley’s ‘take’ on it makes it so powerful, yet – for some – so difficult to practise.
Just about every project you can conceive of has a life-cycle. Events in its life proceed along a recognisable series of phases.
Shakespeare drew attention to it in his play As You Like It (II, VII, 139-166) where he has the character Jacques give one of the most famous speeches ever written.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
The Wu xing (Five Processes, Phases or Elements) model explaining life and disease seems to have been part of Chinese thinking for possibly centuries before Zou Yan described it, mainly as a political theory. It seems to have become popular during the Warring States period 474BC to 221BC. It appears in texts from about 239BC, much later than the yin-yang theory. Later in the Han dynasty, commencing 206BC, scholar-doctors began to use it to describe how illness arose.
Eventually it combined the seasons, the movement of the Heavens, foods, emotions, climactic factors and much else and linked them to the body, its organs, tissues and acupuncture channels in a unified theory we now know as the Five Element or Five phase model.
This model has been popular on and off over the centuries. After the Han dynasty its influence waned for some 8 centuries until the Song dynasty (961AD – 1279AD) when they used it extensively. Then from the 14th century until the 20th century it waned again.
We all start as a seed. For nine months we are nourished, protected as we grow, out of sight.
Then we emerge and, if properly supported, we begin to grow in body and mind.
We start as a baby, become in turn a child, teenager, young adult, then mature gradually until, withered by old age, we are ready to return to the earth.
Each stage has its associations. The teenager and young adult is quick to anger and react, to fall in love. The ‘mature’ adult is more stable but inclining to ‘wise saws’ and so on.
Another cycle, of day and night, carries the same process.
We wake from sleep and unconsciousness, and – if we are healthy – looking forward to the new day, with our plans and hopes. At some point, often around lunch-time, we reach the zenith where we realise something of our ambition. For some this might be meeting a friend for lunch, which can only happen if the other parts of the cycle are working – for example that our occupation provides the money and time for it.
In the afternoon our energy is slowing but with luck we can see how progress has been made. In the evening we are with family, enjoying the fruits of our labours before we head to bed and new unconsciousness.
A new business goes through the same process. It starts with an idea, or a realisation of an opportunity (Water). At some point, if we go ahead, we start by making plans and gathering resources. Then comes a hectic period (Wood), fun but hard work as the business takes shape and overcomes obstacles. Eventually we realise a measure of success and public recognition (Fire).
Then we enter the period of consolidation, when our business brings a steady, reliable income (Earth). If we are careful to adapt the business to changes, not to over-reach ourselves, not to withdraw too much money from it, and to live within our means, this stage can last many years.
During that time we fill out our family wealth with better possessions and home. Most people prefer this stage to be relatively quiet, away from the public eye, very different to our earlier efforts to attract attention to expand demand for our business product.
But that’s not the end of it. At some stage our business must adapt to radical new events or die. In both cases, its ashes (Metal) – in the form of financial resources or knowledge or other assets – can provide fertiliser for the next business.
Each of these stages is symbolised by one of the five elements.
Water is the unconscious, the waiting, the winter, night, the in-between: sleep and mulling over events. Downward moving. It can be a period of convalescence, away from the public eye as we recover. But it can be a fruitful period as we consider our next moves. From this Water phase we look towards its opposite, the Fire phase where our plans have matured and we enjoy their success, often with recognition and accolade. Fire happens after we work our way through the Wood phase …
Wood represents taking the opportunity, spring, morning, growth, expansion, plans and push. Exciting! Outward, expanding moving.
Fire is the zenith, summer, noon, the recognition, the fun, what we aimed for: success! Upward.
Earth is the fruits of our success, the late summer, afternoon, steady growth, the family, the home, the ongoing income and wealth-building. Stabilising, neutralising.
Metal is the refining process, the gradual letting-go, autumn, evening, possibly advising others who are younger, providing a restraining hand, eventually handing over what we made to the next turn of the cycle. Contracting, inward moving.
Each element or phase should naturally lead on to the next in this ‘sheng’ cycle.
Notice that each phase also has a controlling effect on its grandchild (ke cycle). Too much Water can dowse Fire; too much Wood growth and expansion disturbs Earth stability. Fire melts Metal, Earthworks dam up Water, Metal cuts Wood.
In the tables below you’ll notice each phase or element has associated colours, sounds, smells, emotions, tastes and foods. For example, the Fire phase, often likes bright colours, notably red. The Fire phase often enjoy bitter foods in the shape of cola or coffee. They like laughing and may like getting high on drugs which can make them hyper or manic. Usually in this phase we like recognition, parties or events.
Even introverts in their Fire phase like going to concerts or public lectures! See and be seen.
Fire melts Metal. If we try to stay in the Fire phase, desirable because it’s where the parties are, with the adulation, recognition and applause, the being loved and loving, then we don’t move on and we certainly have no patience with the older, reflective phase of Metal people. If anything, we enjoy their gratitude for livening them up, warming their old bones and teaching them how to use the latest gadget.
From the grand-parents point of view, the grandchild is a source of warmth and enjoyment. It benefits both.
Reaching the Fire phase is a vital part of life. We should enjoy it. Except for a few of us, it doesn’t last long but remains a happy memory as life continues. If we try to stay in it, jetting from one party to the next, remaining high on the drugs, ultimately we’ll burn out, lacking the inner fibre to keep it up. That fibre comes from the process of living through the phases: it makes us what we are.
Each of the five phases relates to an organ energy, or Zangfu. That means that if the phase in question is over-emphasised, we may expect health issues from its associated organs.
Fire, for example, relates to the Heart and Small Intestine organ energies. For example, Fire is the zenith, the fulfilment of the dream we had in the Water phase so it could be the perfect marriage ceremony, the public recognition, or just meeting our friend for lunch!
To stay awake we take bitter foods like coffee and to maintain the feeling of excitement we take drugs, alcohol or worse. We get dependent on recognition: ‘celebrity’ and then we easily persuade ourselves we’re wonderful!
Many of the stronger drugs affect our heart, and this constant excitement raises our blood pressure. At the same time we explore different foods and our small intestine stops working efficiently so our Blood is more anaemic and we become hyper. So we head towards circulation problems, possibly heart problems or stroke. These would then arise from Blood and Yin deficiency, for example of Heart Blood.
Remaining stuck in a phase brings health issues, often with that element’s associated organ energies. On the other hand, if we live naturally through the phases, each element gets its stimulation before moving on to the next.
Our lives are such that we can be at different stages in the cycle all at once, but in different situations or departments of our life.
I may be enjoying the Earth phase at home with partner, children and comfortable house. At the same time I may be planning a holiday in the sun, window-shopping holiday brochures and articles, deciding where to go and buying the clothes – this is the Wood phase for that activity. But I may have realised that although my job provides me with a steady, reliable income, I want more. So I am sleeping on it, letting half-formed dreams come and go – Water phase. I’m also advising a friend how to build an extension to his house, using my own experiences of doing it – a Metal phase. To celebrate my daughter’s engagement, we’re having a party tonight – Fire!
Living this way, with multiple 5 phase processes simultaneously, can be wearing but keeps us very much alive. The ‘trick’ is to remain balanced throughout!
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Indeed, you can see people who withdraw from activity and participation in society, who don’t exercise properly, perhaps just watch television. They become uninterested in others’ opinions. Also, they may lack openness to new ideas: they become stuck, unchanging, unable or unwilling to learn tricks, like old dogs. (And not just in the elderly!)
When old people walk they often walk bent forwards, restricting deep breathing.
In due course they get constipated and because they mostly sit, they don’t breathe properly, so they get respiratory problems – they are stuck in the Metal phase (Lungs and Large Intestine), which precedes the Water phase.
In their case the succeeding Water phase may mean death.
This explanation is very simplistic but the theory can go far deeper, and explain many health problems.
Worry, sorrow, sad
Bones, head hair
Skin, body hair
One school of acupuncture has taken this 5 Element model into an almost completely different place. In the 1960s an Englishman, Jack Worsley, ‘re-discovered’ it. Undoubtedly he had a genius for it, and because its ‘deep’ level appealed to the generations of the time, his school became very successful. My first qualification came from his college in Leamington Spa. Worsley was an inspiring teacher.
Subsequently, he or his followers established similar schools all over the world.
In recent years, graduates have even lectured on it in China, where it finds new-found interest!
Worsley was influenced by others when developing his theories. One of his core teachings was that, for nearly everyone, one of the 5 Elements contained what he called the ‘causative factor’. Concentrating our treatment on this would eventually re-balance all our other Element organs.
This was like the homoeopathic concept of the ‘constitutional’ remedy. Samuel Hahnemann set out his ideas on homoeopathy in his ‘Organon of Medicine’ but in this he does not mention this ‘constitutional’ concept. However, the constitutional remedy idea grew in influence and remains important in homoeopathic treatment. It was certainly espoused by homoeopaths that Worsley knew.
From homoeopathy came also the ‘Law of Cure’ enunciated by Constantine Hering, another homoeopathic doctor in the 19th century. (There’s a brief explanation of this on our page on Suppression.) This ‘law’ can also apply to 5 Element treatment done the Leamington acupuncture way. As we improve according to this ‘law of cure’, what are called ‘aggravations‘ may be temporary discomforts on the road to recovery.
Another innovation was drawn from the Su Wen Chapter 8 where it talks about the organ energies as being ‘officials’ in charge. For example it suggests that the Liver is like the Chief of Defence staff or the General in charge of the armed forces. The Lung is like a Prime Minister. When these officials do their job correctly and in harmony with the other officials, health reigns.
Being treated the Leamington 5 Element way is transformative for many people. The difficulty is to identify the ‘causative’ factor. Also, this system is less relevant for acute disease.
Comparing the Leamington 5 Element system with Chinese medicine as currently practised in China reveals many differences both of emphasis, diagnosis and in treatment.
Five Element Leamington style
Basic underlying theory
Five Element theory
Tendency to emphasise external factors, (eg weather) or effect on channels
Emotional and internal factors
Ben (root) or Biao (manifestation)
Ben and biao but often more biao.
Ben = Causative factor, and treating the ‘officials’ as per Su Wen chapter 8
Shen, spirit, mind
Signs, symptoms, and knowledge of syndromes
Colour, odour, sound, emotion and life patterns
How many points used
Seldom less than 4
Seldom more than 6
Notice that normally Five Element (Leamington) practitioners use few needles. This is because a small or minimum treatment is usually enough to prompt the body to start changing. This concept of the ‘minimum’ dose also comes from homoeopathy.
Also, usually the Leamington practitioner would try to ignore secondary, even acute, problems, in the expectation that putting the ‘chronic’ causative factor right would automatically lead to improvement all round. The patient would report that overall he felt better. He might also discover that ailments not previously reported began to improve.
This idea of using very few needles goes back to the greatly admired Han dynasty doctor Hua Tuo (style name Yuan Hua) who lived approx. 108AD – 203AD. According to texts written 20 years after he died, he got exceptionally good results by using very few points. However, the text also says that he was incredibly good at obtaining deqi and propagating it along the channels. This is sometimes a feature of TCM treatment but not of Leamington 5 Element treatment.
Although other points are employed, the basic ones are the element points. So five element acupuncturists would nearly always use these as part of a treatment.
Hua Tuo believed in lifestyle factors like exercise to maintain health – he apparently invented a form of what we might now call calisthenics. Likewise, this form of advice is commonly given to patients, at least in the West. I didn’t notice such advice being given much when I studied in Nanjing in 1982 but I did rise very early several times and see thousands of Chinese residents in the parks practising Qi Gong and Tai Chi before dawn. Admittedly most of them were elderly, but they carried forward their culture of health, much of it derived from the ancient medical texts.
Leamington 5 Element acupuncturists believe that, before commencing the main treatment, any blocks to success must be removed.
These blocks include
Discovering the causative factor is of primary importance for Leamington style 5 Element treatment.
It is not easy. Theoretically, recognising the patient’s colour, odour, sound and emotion should provide the answer. (Well … sometimes it is easy! But often not.)
Especially since one is looking for a deep, ‘chronic‘ pattern that may have been present from birth or soon afterwards. The pattern is deeply ingrained but, still, not always obvious.
As regards the emotion, it is often what is not congruent that one must discover. This might be the emotion that is over-expressed, but is often its opposite, the emotion that the patient cannot display or displays inappropriately, such as laughing over sad things, or appearing to mourn happy things. To reveal this may require an interplay between patient and practitioner that some patients consider inappropriate.
But as the patient improves, he or she finds it easier to share emotions, no longer trapped in such limited number of ways of self-expression. The body responds more easily to events, and the patient thrives. In effect, the five phase cycle begins to work again for the patient, as energy transforms again from phase to phase.
If, from my training at Leamington I am able to recognise the causative factor, I get deeper, faster, results. However, many people consult me for acute problems for which Five element acupuncture is not always so appropriate.
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine: Roots of Modern Practice by Charles Buck (Singing Dragon 2015)
What is Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture? By Angela Hicks, John Hicks and Peter Mole (Journal of Chinese Medicine • Number 85 • October 2007)
What is Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture? by John Hicks (Journal of Chinese Medicine 25 September 1987)
Five Laws for Healthy Living by Angela Hicks (Thorsons 1998)
The Web that Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk 2000 Contemporary Books
Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia (Elsevier 1989 and 2005)
Five Elements and Ten Stems by Matsumoto and Birch (Paradigm publications)
Heart Yang Deficiency – Cold, Tired, Depleted Spirits. Signs , symptoms,, aetiology and what to do! And if you ignore it, what happens next.