The Five Phases Wu Xing

The theory of the five phases came into being in the 4th century BC. With its help, Tsu Yen (350-270 BC) and his students tried to demystify nature and create an intellectual, rational, self-contained theoretical system.

A Western analogy to this model is the theories shaping Greek antiquity marked by Aristotle. The Taoist model of the five phases (or elements) is an extension of the concept of yin and yang developed earlier. It relates the entire spiritual, emotional, material, and energetic phenomena of the universe to five basic phases (earth, metal, water, wood, and fire).

These five phases (or elements) represent natural phenomena that were applied to human beings by the Confucian school:

The Five Phases


Fertility, ripening, harvest, inner core (center), stability (being grounded), sweet flavor


Reflection, change, death, acrid flavor


Flow, clarity, cold, birth, salty flavor


Growth, bending, childhood, expansion, sour flavor


Heat, flare-up, upbearing, bitter flavor

These phases do not exist in isolation from each other, but influence each other in a constant, dynamic interaction.

With the engendering (or feeding) cycle (xiang sheng, "mother-child-rule") the phases can nurture each other, for example, water "feeds" wood and makes it grow. Wood nourishes fire and turns into ashes (earth).

The restraining cycle (xiang ke) keeps the phases in check when one of them grows too powerful. For example, fire controls metal, meaning it melts it. When the restraining cycle breaks down, the resulting disharmony can be viewed in terms of "rebellion" or "overwhelming." The engendering and restraining cycles reflect harmonious courses of events, whereas the overwhelming cycle (xiang cheng) and the rebellion cycle (xiang wu) represent disharmonious events. The overwhelming cycle is an abnormal exaggeration of the restraining cycle, where one of the phases is weakened, causing the phase that under normal circumstances would restrain it to invade and weaken it further. The rebellion cycle is a reversal of the restraining relationship, where one of the five phases is disproportionately strong and rebels against the phase that should normally restrain it (Wiseman).

For the TCM practitioner, the five phases, in association with their controlling cycles, provide an interesting tool for explaining tendencies and relationships of clinical processes and for finding the right treatment.

The concept of five phases plays an important role in classifying foods and Chinese medicinal herbs.

1 = Engendering (sheng) cycle

2 = Restraining (ke) cycle

3 = Rebellion (wu) cycle

1 = Engendering (sheng) cycle

2 = Restraining (ke) cycle

3 = Rebellion (wu) cycle

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine

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