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VI. The Different Modes of Enumerating the Five Elements.

There are at least four different ways of enumerating the elements, each series having its special meaning:

a) The order in which the elements are believed to have originally been created: Water, fire, wood, metal, earth.

We found this series in the Shuking p. 433 and the Chi-chung chcu-shu p. 437. Whether it really has the meaning disclosed by the Sung philosophers, is open to doubt. According to the T`ai-chi-t`u this series refers to the substances, showing the order in which they were produced, in contradistinction to the fluids whose successive revolutions are expressed by series b):---wood, fire, earth, metal, water.1Chu Hsi speaks of the order in which the Five Elements were first created by Heaven and Earth. 2 He holds that the vague and shapeless elements water and fire came first and were followed by the solid substances wood and metal which required earth as a substratum from which they issued. But in this case earth ought to take the third place in the series and not the last.

b) The order in which the elements or their fluids follow and produce each other in the course of the seasons:---Wood, fire, earth, metal, water.

This is the order of the Liki. During each season one element predominates. The others are not completely destroyed, but they have dwindled away and have no power until their turn comes, when they are resuscitated and become preponderant. The elements thus succeeding each other are said to produce one another. Both Huai Nan Tse III, 17 v. and Tung Chung Shu XI, 2 v. expressly state that wood produces fire, fire produces earth, earth produces metal, metal water, and water wood. The former regards each element producing another as its mother, the latter as is father, and the element thus generated as the son or child. According to this terminology wood for example would be the mother or the father of fire, and metal the son of earth. This analogy has induced both authors to judge the relations of the elements by the moral and the family laws, which leads to strange consequences. As men under given circumstances act in a certain way, the elements are believed to affect each other in a similar manner. This view has been adopted by other writers as will appear from some instances given ad c).

The theory that the Five Elements produce each other in the order of this series is to a certain extent based on natural laws. One may say that wood produces fire, and fire leaves ashes or earth. In the interior of the earth metal grows, but how can metal produce water? Here is a hitch. The Chinese try to avoid it by asserting that metal may become liquefied or watery, and in this respect they are at one with Agrippa who likewise, as we saw, looks upon all metals as watery. But liquid metal is not real water, and it can never be transformed into water in the same way as wood becomes ashes or earth metal. Moreover, water alone cannot become wood, there must be earth besides---not to speak of the necessity of a germ---and to produce metal, earth and fire must co-operate. This has been pointed out in the Hsing-li h`ui-t`ung stating that, for the production of metal, fire and earth, and for that of wood, water and earth are wanted, so that in both cases earth cannot be dispensed with.

c) The order in which the elements subdue or overcome each other:---Water, fire, metal, wood, earth.

This series occurs in the Shuking and the Tso-chuan (p. 432), and the author of the latter work knows its principle, for he informs us that water overcomes fire and fire, metal, and calls the stronger element the husband, the weaker the wife. The full list of the antagonistic elements is given by Huai Nan Tse IV, 8 v. 3Tung Chung Shu XIII, 5 v. remarks that of the elements in series b) those placed together produce one another, whereas those separated by one place vanquish each other. 4 If we take the series:---wood, fire, earth, metal, water, then wood subdues earth and earth, water; fire subdues metal, and metal wood, & c. The series must be regarded as an infinite ring; from the last link one returns to the first.

How this mutual antagonism of the elements is to be understood we best learn from the Huang Ti su-wên:---"Wood brought together with metal is felled; fire brought together with water is extinguished; earth meeting with wood is pierced; metal meeting with fire is dissolved; and water meeting with earth is stopped." 5

In other words:---water extinguishes fire, fire melts metal, metal cuts wood. That growing wood perforates the surrounding soil, and that earth stops the course of water, when there is an inundation for example, seems a little far-fetched, but we must bear in mind that the Chinese reasoning is not always as strict and logical as we would like to have it. The explanation given in the Huang Ti su-wên most likely completely satisfies the Chinese mind. I would prefer the explanation of de Saussure, T`oung-pao 1909, p. 259 that earth vanquishes water by absorbing it; and the same thing may be said of the relation of wood and earth, in so far as growing plants draw from the soil all the substances necessary for their development. This may be looked upon as a destruction of earth by wood.

In connexion with this theory some writers make interesting observations on the way in which the elements affect each other. Wood, says Kuan Yin Tse, when bored, gives fire, when pressed, gives water. Metal is such a substance that, when struck, it produces fire, and when melted it becomes water. 6 The Chang-huang t`u-shu pien points out the following changes undergone by the elements, when operated upon by one another:---Earth becomes softened by water and hardened by fire. Metal becomes liquid by fire and continues unchanged by water. Wood grows by water and is consumed by fire. Fire grows by wood and dies by water. Water is cooled by metal and warmed by fire. 7 In Ch`u Yung's Ch`ü-yi shuo the action of some elements is spoken of in a way, that a tacit reproof may be read between the lines:---Fire is produced by wood, but it consumes it; metal grows in earth, but it hoes it i. e., both elements show a very unfilial behaviour towards their parents. Wood subdues earth, but earth nourishes wood; earth subdues water, but water irrigates earth 8i. e., earth and water requite the maltreatment by their inimical elements with kindness. Tai T`ing Huai is quite outspoken on this subject and sets forth the curious law that, when an element is vanquished by another, its son always will revenge the wrong inflicted upon its mother element upon the aggressor and subdue him in his turn. 9E. g., when water overcomes fire, earth, the son of fire, will subdue water, and when fire overcomes metal, water, the son of metal, will subdue fire. There really is such a relation between the various elements according to the Chinese theory of their mutual production and destruction. This destruction is considered a natural rebuff, after an element has been produced and exceeded a certain limit, or it may have been brought about by men on purpose, in order to shape or transform certain substances, or avert calamities. Thus fire is employed to melt metal and cast vessels and utensils, and earth is formed into dikes and embankments to check inundations.

In the occult arts of the middle ages the sympathies and antipathies of the elements play an important part. Agrippa (loc. cit. p. 229) contends that fire is hostile to water, and air to earth. A sympathetic action is exercised by a magnet attracting iron, an emerald procuring riches and health, a jasper influencing birth, and an agate furthering eloquence. Contrariwise, a sapphire is believed to repel plague ulcers, fever, and eye diseases, amethyst acts against drunkenness, jasper against evil spirits, emerald against wantonness, agate against poison. The panther dreads the hyena so much, that, if the skin of a panther be suspended opposite to the skin of a hyena, its hair fall out. In accordance with this doctrine of Agrippa the famous physician Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus, 1493-1541 A.D., based his cures on the sympathetic action of the elements. Since every part of the body pertained to a planet, all the substances belonging to the same star were considered to be efficacious antidotes against all ailments of the part in question. Gold e. g., passed for a specific against heart diseases, because gold and the heart both pertain to the sun (eod. p. 232). Even animals have recourse to this sort of cures. Agrippa relates that a lion suffering from fever cures itself by eating the flesh of a monkey, and that stags, when hit by an arrow, eat white dittany (Eschenwurz) which extracts the arrow.

d) The order in which the elements are usually enumerated at present:---Metal, wood, water, fire, earth. This series seems to be used for the first time by Pan Ku in his Po-hu-t`ung II, 1 r. I found only one attempt at explaining this order by Chu Hsi, which is very unsatisfactory. Metal, he says, is the mother of all fluids, and the body of Heaven is dry metal. 10 Because all things begin to grow after they have received the fluid, therefore wood follows metal, & c.

Perhaps the principle underlying this series may be that first the two substantial elements are given, secondly their two transformations, and thirdly one second transformation. Metal and wood are transmuted into water and fire, and fire again is changed into earth (embers).

Accordingly the above four orders of the elements may briefly be thus characterised:

a) series of the creation of the elements

b) series of their mutual production

c) series of their mutual destruction

d) series of their transformation.


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