Water – Water phase or Water Element

green leaf with water drops

The place of Water in the 5 Element cycle gives a good indication of its purpose. Between the end of one cycle and the start of the next, this is the quiescent stage, to which all life must regularly return to renew its strength.

The Water phase is Winter, between Autumn (Fall) and Spring

In autumn, the life of the trees appears to go out of them, to be returned to the source, the ground of matter. This makes way for the next cycle of the plant. On many trees one can see that the next cycle is already advanced when the leaves drop because the buds for the next year are revealed underneath.

But instead of going straight on into the spring, there is a period of waiting, of drawing breath, of resting and preparing for the next spring.

Nothing seems outwardly to be happening, but internally it is as if the life force of the tree sinks down under the earth to its roots, there to gather strength.

So, as winter approaches, we should ensure that waterways (including our gutters!) are clear of the rubbish of the previous season. Then new water can be collected, untarnished by the waste of the summer.

If we don’t do this our reservoirs will fill with the wrong kind of water and, because of the rubbish, may overflow their banks. The winter is a time for teplenishing sources of water. In the same way that life began in the oceans, the Water phase is a time for renewing one’s strength, for resting and reconsidering, integrating the experiences of the previous cycle.

people walking on grey concrete floor during daytime

This is not necessarily just on the mental level. It is often more on the emotional level, where new responses can develop that will be important in the coming Spring – Wood – season. Then you will need their renewed – so youthful – energy to take decisions leading to quick actions in the hurly-burly of life.

Unconscious Renewal

Consider the vital unconscious functions that are usually performed by the body automatically. Water represents that stage of existence when nothing seems to happen, yet it brings closer the basic unity of life. Then through growth (Wood), splendour (Fire), fruit (Earth) and quality (Metal), the cycle of life has the energy to proceed.

In winter then, life turns inward to increase reserves for the next lifetime.

In treating patients, failure to appreciate the importance of this phase may mean that the patient needs another year to get better. It is as if the patient is given the opportunity to remind himself of his purpose.

Emphasis of Water

The power of Water is to emphasise, arising from this self-reminding. It re-establishes purpose, re-setting the life force in the right direction.

Currently most scientists believe that our universe began from a minute, expanding burst of fluidity in which everything was merged, with no separate identity, moving from potential to reality with almost infinite force.

silhouette of person between grass under black sky: Water and the Big Bang!

Yang Deficiency and Water phase

Yang reaches it maximum in summer when the sun is high in the sky. In winter, like midnight, the sun is below us so yang is most deficient. (Of course, yang is deficient only in the sense that it does not show until dawn, but it is still there: yang within yin.)

Conversely, The Wate Element is the time of maximum Yin (though this is not the same as Excess yin!)

Water and Fluidity

Life presupposes movement, and movement requires fluidity and reserves of energy.

Those who cannot move, such as arthritics, and those who have exhausted themselves (so, equally, cannot move) often have water imbalance. The lack of fluidity can extend to the mental level also, and no doubt to the spiritual one too.

The spirit can move mountains, it has strength beyond the ordinary. Its strength comes from humility, from giving up, from letting go, from handing over to the stronger, from taking the shape of the container, learned during the Water phase.

All these similes point to the function of water, to lubricate, to allow movement, and to store energy.

Water  cleans, and for some it washes away our sins, and refreshing us. Unless we wash, we become polluted and stagnant.

We make use of fluidity when we harness water for power sources, and when we travel on it. Over threequarters of each of us is made of water! Life flows along inside us in the form of blood, lymph and electrical current.

To eat, we masticate and turn the food into a fluid from which we can extract its goodness. Wherever there is a lack of fluid, or an overabundance, there will life break down, as in dryness, thirst, thoughts that cannot flow or adapt.

Water’s Emotion – Fear

Loss of contact with the root cause of life promotes a sense of foreboding and of fear about the future; we forget who we are.

This selfforgetfulness is not just mental. It is a forgetting who we are and why we are here, a loss of contact with the root of all being. 

So for no clear reason we may be anxious about life. There may of course be special fears or phobias, but all are connected with losing sight of our mutual interrelatedness. This is a separating out of ourselves from the rest and an inability to see where we fit in. The fear seems to overcome us and to engulf us.

When healthy our Water phase equips us with the drive and resources to look calmly to the future. This means the life of the next cycle, but of course, when people approach death, if their Water is steady, they are calm, aware that their share of the Life is ending, to be taken up by someone else.

Winter and Water

A tree in Winter surrounded by snow, frozen water.

The Season when life seems to slow down, often to hibernate, and in which reserves are built up through accumulation of water, and the earth is broken down through frost and rain.

People with water imbalance suffer more in winter very often, but occasionally one sees them working harder than at other times of the year, as if the energy gives them more go at that time but of course what is happening is that they are using up their reserves as they are created, leaving nothing for the coming year. Winter is the time when, Chinese traditions assert, we should be conserving our energies by sleeping for longer and by resting more often.

In the daily (diurnal) cycle, Water represents Night, especially the darkest part of night when all is most quiet and still. Ideally we are asleep then!

The Colour associated with Water

gray and blue planet: Blue-Black, the colour of the Water Element.

Blue is the colour associated with water, and a sort fof blueblack is often seen around the eyes of those with Water imbalances.


Find out more about Taste in Chinese medicine!

Salt is always associated with water, and in human metabolism it governs the amount of water that is retained. A diet too salty may lead to thirst and overdrinking, placing a strain on the kidneys. That may lead to oedema and stress on the heart.  

Click here to read more about foods labelled as having the salty taste.

Sound of Water

The sound of people in a state of fear is that of groaning; they moan and sound unhappy. They take little interest in themselves, giving up everything to irresolution and anxiety.

In extreme cases they do not wash, so smell foul and putrid.

Whether they are emotionally cool or not, they are often hard to reach with warmth. They seem cold, and act cold, shivering against their fears. The emotional cold seems to go to their bones, inside which is the marrow, a fruitful source of bloodcells.

Our bones themselves emphasise this state of being; they arise out of the fluid of life and help us to establish ourselves and to stand. They are the landmass around which we wrap ourselves.

Water times in the Chinese medicine clock

  • Bladder: 1500 – 1700
  • Kidney: 1700 – 1900


For more on what this means, click on Chinese medicine clock.

Water Channels

The Water Element has two channels

  • Bladder – Leg Tai Yang channel
  • Kidney – Leg Shao Yin channel


They balance each other, front and back. The Bladder channel runs alongside the spine at the back – the Governor channel, Du Mai. The Kidney channel runs parallel with the central line at the front, the Conception vessel – Ren Mai.

The Other Elements

Other Useful pages after reading this Water element page

Jonathan Brand colours

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