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IV. Transformations of the Elements.

a) In Heaven:---the Celestial Bodies and the Five Planets.

The whole universe, the material as well as the intellectual world are nothing else than transformations of the Five Elements. The world has been evolved from the primary essences the Yin and the Yang, of which the elements are derivates or compounds.

We have seen that Kuan Tse (p. 450) joined the heavenly bodies to the different quarters:---the earth to the centre, the sun to the south, the moon to the north, the stars to the east, and the zodiacal signs to the west. It is natural that the earth should be regarded as the centre of the universe and the sun be connected with the south, the seat of heat and light. The moon then had to go to the opposite direction, the north, where cold and darkness reign. Then the stars had to take the two remaining quarters, the east and west. We learn from Wang Ch`ung that in his time not only the sun was regarded as fire, but that the moon also was believed to consist of water (cf. I, p. 268 and 357). Fire being the element of the south and water that of the north, the celestial bodies were believed to be formed of the element belonging to their quarter. The Earth consists of earth, the element of the centre. Then the stars must be of wood and the zodiacal constellations, of metal.

But the combination of the Five Planets with the Five Quarters or the Five Elements is much more common than that of the celestial bodies in general. Huai Nan Tse III, 3 r. seq. declares the Five Planets:---Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury1 to be the spirits ### of the Five Quarters. The Shi-chi chap. 27 says that the Five Planets are the elements of the Five Quarters ruling over the Seasons, e. g., "Mars is said to be the fire of the south and governs summer" 2 (eod. p. 18v.). Of course one may translate that Mars corresponds to the fire, but the literal translation seems to me preferable and more in accordance with the materialistic views of the Chinese to whom Mars, the Fire Star ###, is made of fire, and Jupiter, the Wood Star ###, is made of wood. These characteristic terms of the Planets are frequently used in the Shi-chi. The Chin-shih (14th cent. A.D.) distinctly states that in heaven the fluid of the essence of the Five Elements becomes the Five Planets, on earth, the Five Substances and in man the Five Virtues and the Five Business. 3 From another modern treatise we learn that looking up to the Five Planets at dusk we see their five colours quite clearly, without the least confusion, because they are the essences of the Five Elements. 4 Here again we notice quite analogous conceptions in Agrippa (loc. cit. p. 198), who likewise takes the planets for products of the elements. Mars and the Sun he pronounces to be fiery, Jupiter and Venus to be airy, Saturn and Mercury to be watery, and the Moon to be earthy.

We do not know which consideration led to the connexion of each element with each planet. Probably it was in the different colours of the planets that the Chinese imagined they recognised the five colours:---green, red, yellow, white, and black of the elements. That at dusk we see the five colours quite distinctly, without the least confusion, as the above quoted Chinese author would have us believe, is out of the question. The ancients as well as the moderns are at variance in regard to the colours of the planets (see above p. 443). There only seems to be some unanimity about the red colour of Mars and the white one of Venus.

Valens goes so far as to give the reasons why the planets logically must have the colours which he assigns to them:---Saturn, he says, is black, because it is Time or Kronos which obscures everything. Jupiter is radiant, because he cares for glory and honour. Venus shows various colours owing to the various passions which she excites, and Mercury is yellow, for he governs the gall which is yellow. 5 These arguments are very queer, but quite in the Chinese way of reasoning, and it would not be surprising to find them slightly modified, in an ancient Chinese writer.

As we have learned from Huai Nan Tse in the Chou epoch already the Five Planets were regarded as the spirits of the Five Quarters. As such they were venerated and named the "Five Emperors." They were distinguished by their colours as the Green Emperor = Jupiter, the Red Emperor = Mars, the Yellow Emperor = Saturn, the White Emperor = Venus, and the Black Emperor = Mercury. (Cf. Shi-chi chap. XXVIII, Chavannes, Mém. Hist. Vol. III, p. 449).

b) On Earth:---the Inorganic and the Organic Kingdom; Man.

The element earth embraces all kinds of earth and stones; metal, the various metals; so the entire inorganic kingdom is the outcome of these two elements. Of water different kinds are distinguished according to their origin, such as spring water, rain water, water from ditches, lakes, the sea, & c. Fire may take its origin from wood, from oil, from stones or other substances, from lightning, or it may be the glowing of insects, or a will-o'-the-wisp. The whole flora belongs to the element wood which includes trees, plants, and flowers. But here we meet with a difficulty. If all plants are produced by the element wood, how is it that in the Liki the five kinds of grain:---wheat, beans, millet, & c. are connected with the Five Elements, and not with wood alone, so that beans correspond to fire, and millet to water? A Chinese philosopher would probably reply that all these cereals issue from the element wood, but have an admixture of one of the other elements. So wheat would be wood in wood, beans fire in wood, and millet water in wood.

It would be logical, if the whole animal kingdom were classed under one chief element also, but they are distributed among the Five Elements, and it is difficult to understand the plan of this division:---The scaly creatures, fishes, and reptiles e. g., snakes and dragons belong to the element wood, the shell-covered or crustaceous animals:---turtles, crabs, oysters, & c. to the element water. The element earth embraces all naked creatures, among which are found toads, earthworms, silkworms, spiders, eels, and man. Fire is the element of all feathered animals or birds, and metal, that of all hairy ones or beasts. 6 Consequently the Five Sacrificial Animals: ---sheep, cock, ox, dog, and pig should be looked upon as transformations of the element metal save the cock corresponding to fire, but the Liki makes them correspond to all the Five Elements, and we would again have combinations of two elements:---metal and wood = sheep, metal and earth = ox, & c.

Here the views of Agrippa von Nettesheim (loc. cit. p. 198) are very instructive. He teaches us that from the Four Elements of Aristotle issue the four principal divisions of nature:---stones, metals, plants, and animals. Each of these groups consists of all the elements combined, but one predominates. Stones are earthy, metals watery, because they can be liquified and by the Alchimists are declared to be the products of living metallic water (mercury), plants depend upon air, and animals upon fire, their vital force.

Among stones which as such are earthy, the opaque ones are earthy, the pellucid ones and crystal which have been secreted from water, are watery, those swimming on water like sponges are airy, and those produced by fire like flints and asbestus are fiery. Lead and silver are earthy, mercury is watery, copper and tin are airy, and iron and gold are fiery.

As regards animals, vermin and reptiles belong to earth, fish to water, and birds to the air. All animals with great warmth or with a fiery colour such as pigeons, ostriches, lions and those breathing fire, belong to this element. But in each animal the different parts of its body belong to different elements:---the legs belong to earth, the flesh to air, the vital breath to fire, and the humours to earth.

Man is treated in the same manner by the Chinese. As the foremost among the three hundred and sixty naked creatures (cf. Vol. I, p. 528, Note 2) he belongs to the element earth, but the parts of his body and his moral qualities are connected with the different elements and produced by them. From the Liki and the Huang Ti su-wên (p. 448) we have learned the correspondencies of the Five Constituent Parts of the body:---muscles, veins, flesh, skin and hair, and bones, and of the Five Intestines with the elements. An inner reason for this classification is difficult to discover, but there has certainly been one, although it may not tally with our ideas of a scientific classification.

The transition of the Five Elements from the material into the spiritual world is by some writers believed to be a direct one, whereas others see in the parts of the human body the connecting links. Chu Yung of the Sung period informs us that the Five Elements are the Five Organs of the human body, and that the fluids correspond to the Five Intestines. 7 The Five Organs are the ear, the eye, the nose, the mouth, and the body serving to produce the five sensations. Wang Ch`ung (Vol. I, p. 194 and 381) is of opinion that the Five Virtues are closely connected with the Five Intestines which are their necessary substrata. By a destruction of these inner parts of the body the moral qualities of man are destroyed as well. According to this view the elements appear as moral qualities only after having been transmuted into parts of the human body. Other writers assume a direct process of transformation. We have seen the Chin-shih maintaining that in heaven the fluid of the Five Elements becomes the Five Planets, on earth the Five Substances, and in man the Five Virtues and the Five Businesses (above p. 462). The Taoist T`an Ch`iao (10th cent.) also merely states that the Five Virtues are the Five Elements, setting forth the following classification:---"Benevolence is equivalent to fostering and growing, therefore it rules through wood. Justice means assistance of those in need, therefore it rules through metal. Propriety is enlightenment, whence it rules through fire. Wisdom denotes pliability, whence is rules through water, and faith is the same as uprightness, wherefore it rules through earth." 8 The reasoning is rather weak, but we find the same distribution of the Five Virtues in the following list of the Sung school of thought. 9 That its classification does not quite agree with that of the Liki and the Huang Ti su-wên given above is not to be wondered at, since in reality the elements have nothing to do with moral qualities, and the supposed relations are pure imagination:

5 Elements 5 Parts of Body 5 Intestines 5 Souls10 5 Senses11 5 Impulses 5 Virtues
wood muscles liver mind smell joy benevolence
fire hair heart spirit vision gaity propriety
earth flesh spleen reason touch desire faith
metal bones lungs animal soul taste anger justice
water skin kidneys vitality hearing sorrow wisdom

We have seen above (p. 443) how Ptolemy joined the parts of the body and the senses to the seven planets, and how Proclus made the different spheres of the human mind correspond to the spheres of the stars. In this respect they were only the successors of the Chaldeans and Egyptians, who first connected the parts of the human body with the twelve signs of the zodiac. A human body was thought extended over the vault of heaven, its head resting on Aries. Then its neck lay on Taurus, its shoulders and arms on Gemini, the breast on Cancer, the flanks on Leo, the stomach and the bladder on Virgo, the buttocks on Libra, the genitals on Scorpio, the thighs on Sagittarius, the knees on Capricorn, the legs on Aquarius, and the feet on Pisces. In the Kabbala the three elements, fire, water, and air were combined with the three parts of the body:---the head, the breast, and the belly. The Seven Planets correspond to the Seven Orifices of the Head, and the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac to the Twelve Human Activities (p. 444). These ideas were taken up by Agrippa as appears from his table (p. 445). A similar scheme was in vogue among the Central American Mayas. (Cf. P. Carus, Chinese Thought, 1907, p. 87.) The Chinese do not lay much stress upon the relation between the parts of the human body and the planets, but it exists, since the planets are nothing else than manifestations of the Five Elements in the celestial sphere, the parts of the body, its sensations, feelings, and moral qualities being manifestations of the same elements in the human sphere.


1. ###

2. ###.

3. ###

4. ###

5. Bouché-Leclerq, Astrologie Grecque, p. 314.

6. See the list of living beings ### in the ###.

7. ###

8. ###

9. ###

10. ###

11. ###

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