The 5 Elements and the Passing of the Seasons

Day 7

by Gene Chuah

Five Elements Theory (Wu Xing) is another important model in TCM, alongside the Yin-Yang Model, for understanding observable phenomena in the universe. I think of it as the “rise and fall model” where everything goes through 5 phases, and repeats the process, perhaps after a “rebirth”. Each phase corresponds to one of the 5 Elements, and each has a unique set of characteristics different from the others. Five Elements Theory has deep wisdom that can be applied to many things, including the lifecycle of stars (astronomy), organ interactions, and the rise and fall of empires.

The name Five Elements is somewhat of a misnomer, as “element” implies something that is static. The truth is that this model has both static and dynamic aspects. Some other names that have been suggested are: Five Phases, Five Movements, Five Activities, and Five Agents. In any case, each phase is represented by an element, and they are : Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ).

Taken from another angle, the Five Elements can be translated as follows (Needham):
Wood : solidity, workability
Fire : heat, combustion
Earth : nutrition
Metal : solidity, congelation, moldability
Water : liquidity, fluidity, solution

In another variation (Cosmological Sequence), the Earth element is placed in the center.

The 5 Elements can be traversed in 4 Sequences:
A. Generating Sequence (Promotion/Creation/Supporting) [node+1, node-1 if insulting]
B.1. Controlling Sequence (keeps in check, but also gives benefit to) [node+2]
B.2. Overcontrolling/Overacting Sequence (grandparent abusing grandchild) [node+2]
C. Insulting Sequence (grandchild disrespecting grandparent) [node-2]

Generating (Sheng) Sequence (and yes it goes by other names) :

Diagram from showing Generating, Controlling, Overacting, and Insulting Sequences :

Some of the main correspondences of the Five Elements :






Yang Organ Gall Bladder Small Intestine Stomach Large Intestine Bladder


Yin-Yang Lesser Yang Utmost Yang Balanced Lesser Yin Utmost Yin


Seasons Spring Summer End of season, or
Fall Winter


Climate (pathogenic) Wind Heat Dampness Dryness Cold


Time First half of day;
Second half of day; Noon/afternoon Afternoon/evening,
or Transition
First half of night Second half of night


Compass Directions East South Center West North


Movement Outward (expansion) Upward
Center/neutral Inward (contraction) Downward


Nature Birth;
focus on roots/bulbs


Human Development Birth Growth Maturity,


Color Green Red Yellow White Black


Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent/spicy Salty


Sounds Shouting Laughter Singing Weeping/crying Groaning/


Sense Organ Eyes (sight) Tongue (speech) Mouth (taste) Nose (smell) Ears (hearing)


Body Tissue Sinews, tendons, ligaments Blood vessels Muscles, flesh Skin, body hair Bones


Emotion Anger Joy Worry/pensiveness Grief/sadness Fear


Tongue Location (diagnosis) Sides Tip Center Posterior of tip Root

Descriptions of the Five Elements

Keywords: birth, baby, crying, fighting the world, adolescence, seed bursting through shell, growth, change (rapid), impulsive, excitement, unaware, violence, exploration, aggression, raw, rebellious, impressionable, excess, new beginnings, development, curiosity, resilience, innocence, learning, freshness, feistiness, adaptability, idealism, freedom (new breaking from old), revolution.
The Liver is quick to respond, has the qualities of Wood.
Spring cleansing for the body happens in Spring, detoxifying the Liver is important during this time. Many plants that sprout in spring like Dandelion and Stinging Nettle are good for the Liver.

Generally age 30-40. Keywords: achievements, aspirations, creativity, productivity, joy, laughter, unity, understanding, passion, brightness, desire, excitement (with awareness), awareness.
Coffee (Bitter) roasted (Fire) –> goes to Heart. Too much also hurts the Heart (palpitations, high blood pressure, murmurs).
Bitter foods in general affect the Heart (whether positively or negatively).

“Blessed routine” element; generally age 40-60. Time to enjoy fruits of the harvest/labor. Midlife crisis tends to happen here because Earth is at equilibrium in both Yin and Yang components. In this case Yin represents the routine of being settled, while Yang is still present to drive the energy of change (perhaps a career change?).
An apt picture is that of a monastery with Singing/chanting and Sweet incense.
Keywords: grounded, stable, settled, centered, maturity, family-oriented, responsibility, accountability, serving the community.

Remaining Elements to be covered in next class (I don’t write these subtopics in the same order they were presented in class). We ran out of time.

Examples of the Overacting Sequence (from textbook) :

The Liver overacts on the Stomach and Spleen: if Liver Qi stagnates, it “invades” both the Stomach, impairing its function of rotting and ripening, and the Spleen, impairing its function of transforming and transporting. In particular, when Liver Qi invades the Stomach, it prevents Stomach Qi from descending, which causes nausea, and it prevents Spleen Qi from ascending, which causes diarrhea (see Day 6 for Organ Qi directions).

The Heart overacts on the Lungs: Heart Fire can dry up the Lung fluids and cause Lung Yin Deficiency.

The Spleen overacts on the Kidneys: when the Spleen holds Dampness, this can obstruct the Kidneys’ function of transformation and excretion of fluids.

The Lungs overact on the Liver: Lung Heat or Phlegm Heat may be transmitted to the Liver.

The Kidneys overact on the Heart: if Kidney Yin is deficient, Empty Heat forms and this can be transmitted to the Heart.

Examples of the Insulting Sequence (from textbook) :

The Liver insults the Lungs: Liver Qi can stagnate upwards and obstruct the chest and breathing. Liver Fire may also obstruct the descending of Lung Qi and cause asthma.

The Heart insults the Kidneys: Heart Fire can infuse downwards to the Kidneys and cause Kidney Yin Deficiency.

The Spleen insults the Liver: if the Spleen retains Dampness, this can overflow and impair the free flow of Liver Qi.

The Lungs insult the Heart: if the Lungs are obstructed by Phlegm, they can impair the circulation of Heart Qi.

The Kidneys insult the Spleen: if the Kidneys fail to transform fluids, the Spleen will suffer and become obstructed by Dampness.

Examples of Pathology in Generating Sequence (from textbook, with some “improvements”) :

These can be summed up into 4 categories:
1. Mother not nourishing Child element (Deficiency)
2. Mother over-nourishing Child element (Excess)
3. Child taking too much from Mother element (Deficiency)
4. Child taking too little from Mother element (Excess)

The Liver (mother) affecting the Heart (child): this happens when the Liver fails to nourish the Heart. Specifically, when Liver Blood is deficient, it often affects Heart Blood, which becomes deficient; palpitations and insomnia ensue.

The Heart (child) affecting the Liver (mother): if Heart Blood is deficient, it can lead to general deficiency of Blood, which will affect the Liver storage of Blood. This causes scanty periods or amenorrhoea.

The Heart (mother) affecting the Spleen (child): the Mind of the Heart needs to support the mental faculties and capacity for concentration, which belong to the Spleen. Another aspect of this relationship is in Heart Fire deficient being unable to warm Spleen Yang and leading to cold feeling and diarrhea. Ultimately however, the physiological Fire of the Heart is itself derived from Kidney Yang.

The Spleen (child) affecting the Heart (mother): the Spleen makes Qi and Blood and the Heart needs a strong supply of Blood. If the Spleen does not make enough Blood, the Heart will suffer, and palpitations, insomnia, poor memory and slight depression will ensue.

The Spleen (mother) affecting the Lungs (child): if the Spleen’s function of transformation and transportation of fluids is impaired, Phlegm will be formed. Phlegm often settles in the Lungs and causes breathlessness and asthma.

The Lungs (child) affecting the Spleen (mother): the Lungs govern Qi and, if Lung Qi is deficient, Spleen Qi will be affected causing tiredness, no appetite and loose stools. In practice, Spleen Qi and Lung Qi deficiency often occur together.

The Lungs (mother) affecting the Kidneys (child): Lung Qi normally descends toward the Kidneys, which “hold” it down. Also, the Lungs send fluids down to the Kidneys. If Lung Qi is deficient, Qi and fluids cannot descend to the Kidneys, causing breathlessness (Kidneys unable to receive Qi) and dryness of the Kidneys.

The Kidneys (child) affecting the Lungs (mother): if Kidney Qi is deficient it will fail to hold Qi down; Qi will rebel upwards and obstruct the Lungs causing breathlessness.

The Kidneys (mother) affecting the Liver (child): Kidney Yin nourishes Liver Yin and Liver Blood. If Kidney Yin is deficient, Liver Yin and/or Liver Blood will be come deficient and give rise to tinnitus, dizziness, headaches and irritability. This particular relationships is one of the most important and common in clinical practice.

The Liver (child) affecting the Kidneys (mother): Liver Blood nourishes and replenishes the Kidney Essence. If Liver Blood is deficient over a long period of time, it can contribute to deficiency of Kidney Essence, causing dizziness, tinnitus, poor bone development and sexual weakness.

Summing Up The Cycles :

Each Element can be out of balance in one of 6 ways :
1. it is deficient and fails to nourish its Child (GIVES TOO LITTLE)
2. it is in excess and over-nourishes its Child (GIVES TOO MUCH)
3. it is deficient and is insulted by another (Insulting Sequence)
4. it draws insufficiently from its Mother causing her excess (TAKES TOO LITTLE)
5. it draws excessively from its Mother element causing her deficiency (TAKES TOO MUCH)
6. it is in excess and overacts on another (Overacting Sequence)

On another topic… Body Fluids :

The Spleen is a crucial originator of Body Fluids which include nasal mucus, sweat, tears, saliva, gastric fluids and bile.

The Kidneys regulate the “mist” in the Upper Jiao (Heart + Lungs) (remember that the Kidneys are the source of Water and Fire).

Predominant Yang can be caused by external factors like stress, which burns Yin and thus depletes Body Fluids (Yin Deficiency). On the other hand, Body Fluids can be in excess (e.g. due to Kidney Yang Deficiency), causing excessive mucus/phlegm. This in turn can affect the mind/Shen, e.g. mental fogginess.

Sweat is actually considered a “pure” Body Fluid and should not be wasted (sweating is a necessary evil). Excessive sweating (e.g. from too many Hot Yoga or sauna sessions back-to-back) will burn up valuable Sweat which ultimately will burn up Kidney Yin. Another way of saying this is: if you already have a Kidney Yin Deficiency, avoid excessive sweating!

The quality of Sweat is different during the Day vs. at Night. Day Sweat is more Yang (more diluted), whereas Night Sweat is more Yin (thicker, cooler). However Night Sweats are not the norm, and are indicative of Yin Deficiency (insufficient Yin to keep the Yang in check, which opens pores an expels Sweat). This is destructive to health in the long term.

Body Fluids have 2 subtypes :
1. Jin : more Yang, thinner, clear, nourishes, moistens, skin, muscles (exterior), Day Sweat
2. Ye : more Yin, thicker, lubricates organs, nourishes bones, brain, Night Sweat


Overall, Body Fluids are considered Yin (e.g. relative to Qi, and because they’re wet/cooling). In Yin Deficiency, all Body Fluids can be in shortage. Dehydration happens from the outside->in. For example, excessive sweating will start to pull Yin from Blood, causing Blood Yin Deficiency, which in turn will deplete Jing. Insufficient water intake can cause this (starting with Jin-Ye depletion). Night Sweats are called “thief sweats” because they steal from the Blood, then from Jing.

Recap: difference between Yang Excess and Yin Deficiency :
Yang Excess: Day & Night Sweats
Yin Deficiency: Night Sweats, hot flashes

Disharmonies of Body Fluids

1. Deficiency: dryness of tissues: mouth, eyes, etc.
2. Accumulation (excess): edema, phlegm, etc.



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