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Theory of the Chinese 5 elements

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Remedy Description

Source: Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity by Daniel Reid, Firestone book, New York, 1989, pp 25-30.


The five elemental activities

The theory of the Five Elemental Activities (wu-hsing) further explains the

cosmological associations between man and universe. Unlike the five

elements in traditional Western philosophy, the Five Elemental Activities

of Taoism refer to active forces, not inert elements, although they use

similar symbols. The Yellow Emperor's Classic states, 'The Five Elemental

Activities of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water encompass all phe-

nomena of nature. It is a symbolism that applies equally to man.'

These five primordial cosmic forces function according to patterned

relationships based on their relative characteristics. Each force is gener-

ated ('given birth') by one of the other forces and suppressed ('con-

quered') by a different one, as follows:

chinese chart

A literal look at the symbols explains their relationships. Wood burns

to generate fire. Fire produces ash, which generates Earth. Earth gen-

erates and yields forth Metal. When heated. Metal becomes molten,

generating the Water element. Water promotes plant growth, thereby

generating Wood. Following the suppressive cycle. Wood depletes soil of

nutrients, thereby suppressing Earth. Earth soils and channels Water,

thereby 'conquering' it. Water suppresses fire by extinguishing it. Fire

suppresses Metal by melting it, and Metal suppresses Wood by cutting it.

The generative cycle is called the 'Mother/Son' relationship, and the

suppressive cycle is the 'Victor/Vanquished' relationship. Their constant

interactions produce the myriad phenomena of the universe.

The Five Elemental Activities manifest themselves in the human body

through their association with the five sets of paired organs, primarily the

solid Yin organs. The heart is ruled by Fire, the liver by Wood, the kidneys

by Water, the pancreas by Earth, and the lungs by Metal. For example,

there exists a generative Mother/Son relationship between the Wood-

energy of the liver and the Fire-energy of the heart, but a suppressive

Victor/Vanquished relation between the Wood of the liver and the Earth

of the pancreas. Excess Water-energy in the kidneys suppresses the

Fire-energy of the heart, sufficient Earth-energy must be generated by the

pancreas/stomach organs in order to sustain the Metal-energy of lungs/

large intestine, and so forth.

The Five Elemental Activities have other primal associations as well.

There are the Five Elemental Flavors, the Five Seasons, Five Sounds, Five

Climates, and others. The charts opposite illustrate the important cosmic

associations and systematic relationships of the Five Elemental Activities

in convenient form.

chinese chart

Chinese physicians use a combination of Yin/Yang and the Five

Elemental Activities to diagnose the cause and chart the course of disease

and debility, as well as to prescribe appropriate remedies. It is a basic

tenet of Taoism that the same primordial principles that govern the

universe at large also run through each and every part of it according to

the same patterns. This is also the conclusion of modern quantum

physics, which regards the entire universe as a giant macrocosmic atom,

and the atom as a mini-universe. Chinese doctors view the human body

as a microcosm of the universe, and they make no distinctions between

'nature' and 'human nature', as in Western dualism, which isolates man

from his roots in nature. Following are a few simple examples of how the

Five Elemental Activities come into play in traditional Chinese diagnosis

and treatment:

A person with a volatile temper who suffers from blurry vision

and frequently shouts at people would be diagnosed as suffering

from liver inflammation because, according to our chart, liver

conditions are reflected in the eyes and associated with the

emotion of anger and the sound of shouting. When the Wood-

energy of an inflamed liver burns out of control, it causes

over-excitation of Fire-energy in the heart, according to the

generative relation of Wood to Fire. The doctor might take one or

two approaches to re-balance the affected energies: either sedate

the liver in order to suppress its inflammatory effects on the

heart; or else tonify the kidneys to enhance their Water-energy,

which is doubly effective because Water-energy nourishes the

Wood of the agitated liver while at the same time suppressing

the excess Fire fanned in the heart by the over-active Wood-

energy of the liver.

A child who suffers from chronic fear (Water emotion) tends

to wet his bed (a Water function), and therefore he probably

suffers from a deficiency of kidney-energy (a Water organ).

Comforting words and stern warnings can never 'talk' a child

out of this condition. Instead, the Chinese approach would be to

tonify the child's kidneys with appropriate diet, herbs, and

acupuncture therapy, thereby enhancing kidney-energy to the

point that the emotion of fear associated with kidney deficiency

disappears along with the associated symptom of incontinence.

A person with a very red complexion (Fire color), who tends

to laught a lot (Fire sound) and is exceedingly jovial (Fire

emotion) probably has an over-active heart (Fire organ). Here

again there are two avenues of approach to quelling the Fire: one

is to sedate heart energy with cooling Yin herbs; the other is to

tonify the kidneys, as in the first example, thereby enhancing

Water-energy sufficiently to suppress excess Fire-energy in the

heart through the Victor/Vanquished relation of Water to Fire.

[Reid, Chinese Herbal Medicine]

The permutations and combinations of this system are complex and

infinite, and the Chinese physician must learn to juggle all factors,

internal and external, in making his diagnosis. Then he applies the same

system of complementary forces in reverse to effect a cure. This requires a

lot of practical clinical experience, what the Chinese call Un-chuang or

bedside experience'. As in all the Taoist arts, the key to success in

medicine is practice, not theory, and the measure of that success lies in

practical results, not abstract deductions.

The Chinese medical system takes into account many vital health

factors that are largely ignored or misunderstood in Western medicine.

For example, when certain climatic conditions become extreme, such as

wind or heat or dampness, specific internal organs are directly affected

through the system of associated energies. Therefore, the Chinese always

adjust their diets according to the weather and the season, in order to

balance internal and external energy conditions. In highly humid climates

and seasons, Chinese menus strongly favor ginger, garlic, peppers and

other pungent Fire-energy flavors because they balance and 'dry out'

excess dampness accumulated in the body from the climate and expel it in

the form of perspiration. In winter, 'warming' foods and herbs are used to

combat external cold, and in summer 'cooling' foods protect the vital

organs from damage by external heat. Today, modern refrigeration and

rapid transport systems have made all types of foods available all year

round in most Western countries, which has only served to drive Western

diets even further from the seasonal patterns intended by nature.

Sudden shifts in emotion and mood can trigger a chain-reaction of

energy imbalance throughout the body, and these reactions are just as

strong as those caused by wind and heat, diet and drugs. It is a well-

known fact even in Western medicine that a person suffering from

extreme personal grief, such as the death of a spouse, becomes highly

vulnerable to all sorts of disease and debility, and if the grief is prolonged

the damage can become irreversible. Fear, as we have seen, is a symptom

of temporary kidney dysfunction, but prolonged chronic fear can cause

permanent kidney damage. Frequent fits of anger reflect liver problems,

but a person who is by nature angry all the time will damage an otherwise

healthy liver, which then generates even more anger in a vicious psycho-

somatic circle. In Chinese medicine, physiological and psychological

factors are as inseparable as Yin and Yang. The idea of treating patients

suffering from serious mental and emotional disturbances by lying them

down on a psychiatrist's couch and talking about it strikes Chinese

physicians as a method more appropriate for spiritual exorcism in temple

ceremonies but entirely useless from a medical viewpoint. As we shall

see, recent research in nutritional therapy has confirmed the invisible

links between physical and mental health, a fact of life known and

recorded by Taoists thousands of years ago

This remedy can also be used for: