To the uninformed individual the Five Elements theory may sound like a detached ancient fairytale. Nevertheless it is the Five Elements theory that diverges Chinese medicine from Shamanism and leads it to develop a new scientific outlook on health (1)
Just as Yin and Yang are concepts, justified by nature, so are the Five Elements. Since science starts where the laws of nature are taken into account, everything grounded in nature is also scientific. Thus the Five Element theory has initiated the beginning of the scientific medicine in Ancient China.
The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Besides being nature substances the elements also own qualities - the wood ascends, the water moistens, the fire flares, the metal cuts, the earth contains growth. Within these qualities the elements form different types of relationships with one another. For example the fire needs wood to burn, the ash from the fire creates earth, the earth contains metal, etc. In this type of relationship every element generates, and is generated by an element. Thus this relationship is called a “generating relationship”. In another type of relationship, each element is controlled by and controls another element – metal cuts wood, water extinguishes fire, fire melts metal, etc. Thus this type of relationship is called a “controlling relationship”
As we can see the Five Elements are not merely material components and lifeless substances. Each element has a “character”, owns qualities and participates in relationships with other elements. Therefore besides being nature's matter the Five Elements are also essential characteristics with transformative potential participating in the cyclic arrangement of Nature.
(1) Maciocia, Giovanni (1989). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Nanjing: Harcourt Publishers Limited
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