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II. What are the Five Elements?

The designation Wu-hsing goes back to the Shuking and implies that at these remote times the elements were conceived already as ever active essences, which again supposes the existence of some sort of a theory devised to explain the phenomena of nature. In the most ancient description of the elements contained in the Shuking (cf. above p. 433) they are considered from the physical point of view as natural substances:---water has the tendency of descending and soaking other stuffs, fire that of rising and blazing; wood is characterised as crooked and straight, which seems to refer to the appearance of the branches of trees; metal is said to be yielding and changing, which is only true of metal in a liquid state; earth is not described any further, and its nature found in its generative and productive power. At all events, the authors of the Classic had not some metaphysical entities in view, but the substances usually understood by the names:--- water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.

As to the impressions produced by these elements upon our senses and resulting in the categories of colours, sounds, tastes, and smells, the Shuking concerns itself with tastes only:---Water becomes salt, fire bitter, wood sour, metal acrid, and cereals, the produce of earth, sweet. Of course pure water is not salt, but tasteless, yet, as the commentators remark, it becomes salt in the ocean, a wrong notion. Fire we would rather describe as burning than bitter, and wood as bitter instead of sour. The acrid taste of metals and the sweet one of cereals, such as rice and millet, may pass. It is difficult now to say which considerations led the ancient Chinese to attribute just these tastes to the five elements. Since the five tastes are always given in the series:---salt, bitter, sour, acrid, sweet, it is not impossible that the ancients merely coupled them with the five elements of the Shuking in the same order, without any regard to their natural relations.

In the same superficial manner the five colours:---black, red, green, white, and yellow may have been connected with the five elements, although the correspondencies have been explained:---Fire may well be described as red, though yellow would seem more appropriate. Wood appears green at least outwardly in plants and trees, whereas inwardly it is mostly white or yellow. The colours of metals are manifold, only their glittering may be said to be white. Earth is not yellow in most countries, but it was so in the loess regions in Honan and Shansi where the Chinese were first settled. How can water be called black, however, a colour it almost never shows? It seems to refer to the Yin fluid preponderating in winter, the time of the element water. Yang is light and sunshine, Yin darkness, Yang, day-time, and Yin, night. These correspondencies are universally accepted, but I met with one exception in the `Family Sayings of Confucius' ###1 chap. VI p. 1, from which we learn that the Hsia dynasty reigned by the virtue of metal and of the colours most appreciated black, the Yin dynasty reigned by water and appreciated white, the Chou by wood with the red colour. Yao's element was fire, and his colour yellow, Shun's element earth, and his colour green. These different combinations of elements and colours show the arbitrariness of the whole scheme. It is impossible to find one colour for each element, because each embraces many species with different colours:---Water may appear pellucid, white, green, blue, red, yellow, grey, black; earth may be black, brown, yellow, red, blue, white, & c.; 2 and so different substances burn with different lights. Therefore to ascribe one colour to each element cannot but be arbitrary.

The Zuñis of North America have no elements, 3 but they have attributed certain colours to their seven points of the compass. Their reasons for doing so are not very convincing either:---The North is yellow, because at sunrise and sunset the sunlight appears yellow. The West is blue, the colour of the evening light. The East is white, the colour of day, the South red, because it is the seat of summer and of the red fire. The Zenith is multicoloured like the clouds, the Nadir black, and the Centre has all colours. (Année Sociologique Vol. VI, p. 35 seq.)

Of the Five Smells only burning and fragrant seem to refer to the corresponding elements fire and earth (cereals). Goatish, rank, and rotten have nothing to do with wood, metal, and water. They probably apply to the Five Animals joined to these elements:---the sheep (goat) dog, and pig.

On the principle by which the Five Sounds have been combined with the elements I am unable to express any opinion.

Kuan Yin Tse4 has amplified the statement of the Shuking about the rising and descending of fire and water:---"That which rises, he says, is fire; that which descends, water. That which would like to rise, but cannot, is wood; and that which would like to descend, but cannot, is metal." 5 This depicts fairly well the tendency of plants of growing up and that of metals of sinking down. These tendencies, however, are restricted and less free than those of fire and water which, endowed with a greater agility as air and fluid, can follow their propensities and rise and fall.

The Chang huang t`u-shu pien makes an attempt to distinguish between the different forms of the elements:---water is level, fire is pointed, earth round, wood crooked and straight, and metal square. 6 These are indead the forms under which these substances often appear to us. Whereas water shows a level surface, a flame rises and seems pointed. Clods of earth are more or less round, and ore has often angular and square shapes. The description of wood as crooked and straight is taken from the Shuking.

It is but natural that the Chinese should have connected their Five Elements with the two principles of nature established by their old philosophers, the Yin and Yang, and derived them therefrom. Tung Shung Shu says in his Ch`un-ch`iu fan-lu XIII, 5 v. that the fluid of Heaven and Earth united is one. But it splits into Yin and Yang, becomes divided into the Four Seasons, and separated into the Five Elements. 7Yin and Yang, which we may here translate by cold and heat, are the primogenial essences from which the Five Elements are produced in the following way:---Water has its seat in the north which is governed by the Yin fluid. Wood is placed in the east which is likewise under the sway of the Yin, but the Yang begins to move already. Fire occupies the south where the Yang reaches its climax. Metal rests in the west, and is governed by the Yang, but the Yin begins to stir. Consequently "Fire is Yang, it is noble and therefore rises; water is Yin, it is mean and therefore goes down; wood is a scanty Yang, and metal a scanty Yin." 8 (Pan Ku`s Po-hu-t`ung II, 1.) The idea is quite clear, if we take into consideration the Four Seasons with which the elements are combined. In summer ruled by fire, Yang = heat prevails, in winter ruled by water, Yin = cold. In spring and autumn when wood and metal are paramount, Yin and Yang, heat and cold fight together, so that one may speak of a scanty Yang or an incomplete Yin. The element earth which does not well agree with the Four Seasons is left out by Pan Ku.

Later authors have gone more into details. Tse Hua Tse (Sung dynasty) characterises fire as an abundant Yang ###, and water as an abundant Yin ###, wood as a scanty Yang ###, metal as a scanty Yin ###, and earth as sometimes Yin and sometimes Yang.

"The Yang in the Yang is fire, he says, the Yin in the Yin is water, the Yin in the Yang is wood, the Yang in the Yin is metal. Earth keeps in the middle between the two essences and thus governs the four quarters:--- in the Yin it is Yin, and in the Yang it is Yang." 9 (Tse Hua Tse II, 11 v.)

"In the north the extreme Yin resides. It produces cold, and cold engenders water. In the south the extreme Yang resides, which produces heat, and heat produces fire. In the east the Yang is set in motion. It disperses and calls forth wind, which again produces wood. In the west the Yin stops and gathers. It thus causes dryness, which produces metal. In the centre the Yin and the Yang mix and produce moisture which engenders earth." 10

In other words fire is considered to be Yang throughout, Yang in Yang, i. e., an unalloyed Yang; water, a pure and genuine Yin. Wood is also Yang, but with an admixture of Yin; metal is Yin, but with an alloy of Yang. Earth may be both.

Chu Hsi and his school take a somewhat different view. They look upon the Five Elements as created by Heaven and Earth alternately, Heaven and Earth thus taking the place of the Yin and the Yang. "Heaven first creates water, Earth secondly creates fire, Heaven thirdly creates wood, Earth fourthly creates metal." 11 This idea seems to have originated from an obscure passage of the Yiking believed to refer to the Five Elements. 12Chu Hsi quotes the famous Su Tung P`o (1036-1101 A.D.) as his authority, who says that water is the extreme Yin, but it requires Heaven to co-operate before it can be produced. Yin alone without Yang cannot produce it. Fire is the extreme Yang, but it likewise requires the co-operation of Earth to come into existence. And so it is with all the Five Elements, they all cannot be created, unless the Yin and the Yang are both at work. When the Yang is added to the Yin, water, wood, and earth come forth, and when the Yin is added to the Yang, fire and metal are produced. 13

About the creation of the elements and their nature Chu Hsi further asserts that by the joint action of Yin and Yang water and fire are first produced. Both are fluids flowing, moving, flashing, and burning. Their bodies are still vague and empty, and they have no fixed shape. Wood and metal come afterwards. They have a solid body. Water and fire are produced independently, wood and metal need earth as a substratum from which they issue. 14 Heaven and Earth first generate the light and pure essences, water and fire, afterwards the heavy and turbid ones, wood, metal and earth. The last is the heaviest of all. As to their density, water and fire are shapeless and unsubstantial fluids, fire, hot air in the atmosphere, wood is a soft substance, metal a hard one.

Chou Tse, a predecessor of Chu Hsi, gives still another formula for the elements:---water is the moist fluid in the Yang, fire, the dry fluid in the Yin, wood, the moist fluid in the Yang, but expanded, metal, the dry fluid in the Yin contracted, earth the Yin and the Yang blended and condensed, so as to become a substance. Yang and Yin, heat and cold are allotted to the Five Elements in the same manner as by Chu Hsi, but as a secondary constituent we have moisture and dryness. These are the same principles from which Aristotle has evolved his Four Elements:---earth, water, fire, and air. The Chinese have become acquainted with his theory by the geographical work K`un-yü t`u-shuo ### written by the Jesuit father Verbiest about the end of the 17th century and cited by the T`u-shu chi-ch`êng. According to the Aristotelian theory dryness and cold produce earth, moisture and cold produce water, moisture and heat give air, and dryness and heat give fire. 15 The result arrived at by Chou Tse is different, he only composes earth similarly namely by heat and cold (Yin and Yang). His water consists of moisture and heat (Yang) instead of cold, and his fire, of dryness and cold (Yin) instead of heat. The Aristotelian view appears more natural than that of Chou Tse who is under the spell of the Yiking. Perhaps Tse Hua Tse agrees with the Greek philosopher, for his above mentioned dictum that fire is the Yang in the Yang, and water the Yin in the Yin may be understood to mean that fire is dryness in heat, and water, moisture in the cold, Yang denoting heat as well as dryness and Yin cold and moisture.


1. A work dating from the 3rd cent. A.D. I doubt whether this chapter ### treating of the Five Elements really goes back to Confucius, since he is made to say that he was informed about the elements by Lao Tse.

2. If we speak of the green earth we regard its coat, the green vegetation, as part of it.

3. That is to say, they have not conceived the idea of the elements, but ascribe the single ones to the four quarters like the Chinese:---Wind belongs to the North, water to the West, fire to the South, and earth to the East.

4. ###, a Taoist author, but the work bearing his name, is believed to be a production of the T`ang or the following minor dynasties, 618-960 A.D.

5. ###

6. ### In another chapter the same author gives ### as the shapes of the elements. ### "straight" seems to stand for "level," and ### "crooked" alone for "straight and crooked," the shape of wood.

7. ### (Han-Wei t`sung-shu).

8. ###

9. ###

10. ### (Tse-shu po-chia).

11. ### (T`u-shu chi-ch`êng).

12. ###

13. ###

14. ###

15. ###

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia