Traditional Chinese Medicine

金木水火土- The 5 Elements

The 5 elements theory, like Yin and Yang, were developed based on observation of the natural phenomenons. Similar to Yin and Yang, the 5 elements have their own continuous  cycle, fluctuating, enhancing and inhibiting each other. This cyclic pattern is used to characterize a person/animal’s constitution, body parts, as well as diagnose diseases and its treatment.

I find it easy to associate the 5 elements with seasonal changes, but the characteristics and corresponding anatomical body parts are a little difficult to make sense of.


木 (wood)

Wood corresponds to spring, as spring is the time when trees grow. Therefore it also corresponds to the colour green. The anatomical organ that is associated with wood is liver. The explanation is that liver produces bile, which is green. Because wood supports the structure of a tree, the limbs, tendons, ligaments, nails are also considered to be of the wood elements.

It is considered a Yang phase of the year, as everything is renewed and expanding outwards as seeds germinate.


火 (Fire)

This is a no brainer. Fire is associated with summer, heat, and the colour red. It comes as no surprise that it is associated with the organ heart, pericardium, blood vessels. For some reason, small intestine and the triple burner are also considered to be of the fire elements. In TCVM, small intestine and triple burners are said to be in partnership with the heart.

While both spring and summer see life grow, wood is more associated with the germination while as fire (summer) sees rapid growth of organisms.


土 (Earth)

Earth is said to be associated with the late summer, when the farmers are about to harvest the crops. A bountiful earth is damp and produces food. The colour of the earth is considered to be of yellow toned. Since food is to be ingested by mouth, earth is associated with the digestive system, which, in TCVM, is related to the stomach, spleen and the pancreas, etc.

In terms of the life cycle, it is considered to be a transformation part of life, where crop is harvested and eaten by animals, transforming them into nutrients and energy.  Various organisms start to wind down their activities to prepare for the coming Yin cycle of the year.


金 (Metal)

The metal element is associated with autumn. It is said that this is because metal is used to forge plows and various equipment for harvesting. Because metal is also useful in constructing walls to protect the dwellers, the skin, hair and coat, being the primary barrier of the body, is categorized under metal. The lung also is considered a metal element because it has direct contact with external element (air), as well as the large intestines.

Coloration of metal is white, I suppose this is the literal colour of the metal.


水 (Water)

The element of water is cold. Ice, the solid form of water that forms in the winter, is also used to describe the sensation of heaviness. Not surprisingly, the main corresponding organs for water is kidney and bladder.

I would have thought that the colour for water element would be blue or white (snow), but I was wrong. It is actually of any dark colour like grey and black. I suppose this derived from the depth of water.

Confused yet?

I have to keep reminding myself that learning TCVM is like learning a different set of languages. It is a system rooted in a totally different linguistic system. Just like when I first studied veterinary medicine, all the big words were foreign to me.

First of all, the 5 elements are not used in any literal sense. They are supposed to express certain characteristics with the season, emotion, organs, physiological functions, etc.

It is also important that I keep reminding myself that in TCVM, when the word “heart” is used, it doesn’t always mean just the anatomical structure. It refers to an entire organ system that represents the characteristics of its element, namely, the fire. It is also interesting to note that for each Zang organ there is a corresponding Fu organ and they are considered partners.

Liver Wood Heart Fire Spleen Earth Lung Metal Kidney Water
Zang Organ Liver Heart (Pericardium) Spleen Lung Kidney
Fu Organ Gall Bladder Small Intestine and the Triple Burners Stomach Large Intestine Bladder
Orifice Eyes Tongue Mouth Nose Ears
Sense Vision Speech Taste Smell Hearing
Tissue Tendons, Ligaments Circulatory system Muscles Skin, Hair, Coat Bones, Bone marrows




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