THE FIVE TAOIST ELEMENTS: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood
Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood
The four elements of fire, water, air, and earth are the basis of many magical and spiritual systems: the native American medicine wheel, the four corners of pagan European ritual, the four elements of alchemical schools of ancient Egypt, and the four elements of astrology. Even the tarot deck and playing cards are based on these four elements whereby fire is wands (clubs), water is cups (hearts), air is words (spades), and earth is pentacles (diamonds).
Another way of dividing the cosmos into elemental energies is the ancient east Indian vedic system of the three doshas: vata (air/space), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth and water). Theses three doshas are used in Ayurvedic medicine in a system as fully developed as traditional Chinese medicine. But Chinese Taoist cosmology is structured on five, not four elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. These five elements are the basis of Chinese metaphysics and philosophy and have practical applications including feng shui, astrology/astronomy, and traditional Chinese medicine.
Each element possesses distinct characteristics. The first element, fire, is the most masculine of the five elements. Therefore, it is considered very yang. Fire’s planet is Mars, the intense red planet. Fire’s season is summer, the time of heat, growth, warmth, and increased light. Fire corresponds to the three earthly branches of summertime: Serpent (May), Horse (June) and Sheep Fire’s direction is south. Fire’s position on the feng shui ba-gua represents fame and illumination. Fire’s trigram is two solid lines above and below a broken line. Fire’s symbol is a red Phoenix. Although fire is considered a very yang element in general, it can exist in either a yang or a yin state because in Taoism all things have both a yin and a yang expression to create balance. When fire expresses masculine yang energy, its color is red and is symbolized by burning wood. When fire expresses feminine yin energy, its color is purple and is symbolized by the flame of a lamp, small and contained, yet helpful.
Fire personality traits are love, passion, leadership, spirituality, insight, dynamism, aggression, intuition, reason, and expressiveness. The fire personality is direct-right out front. A fire type succeeds by becoming warm- hearted and generous. Experiences of love, compassion, fun, joy, and pleasure are healing for fire individuals. The challenge for a fire type is to share joy and laughter without thought of reward.
The emotion associated with fire is happiness. Other heart emotions include joy, vanity, jealousy, frustration, regret, grief from loss of love, and disappointment in relationships.
In traditional Chinese medicine, fire’s body organs are the heart and small intestines. Therefore a fire personality may have a disposition for heart problems, such as heart attacks, or may experience minor digestive problems in the small intestines. The element wood nurtures the element fire; wood’s body organ is the liver. Fire types must avoid alcoholic beverages that heat (over stimulate) the liver. Liver excess is a false way to empower the heart and causes imbalance between fire and wood. Heart illness and fire imbalance can often be read in the face: a cleft in the nose or a too red complexion.
Colors: red (yang) and purple (yin)
Earthly branches and months: Serpent(May), Horse (June), Sheep (July)
Body organs: heart (yin) and small intestines (yang)
The element earth is yin, feminine, like Mother Earth in the West. Earth’s planet is Saturn. Earth corresponds to all twelve earthly branches, and its “season” is the last eighteen days of each of the four seasons, the time of seasonal transition. Earth’s location (direction) is the center.
Earth’s postion on the feng shui ba-gua represents unity and balance. Earth’s tri-gram is three broken lines because the earth is open and receptive to rain, sun, and other natural forces.
Earth’s symbol is the black and white yin/yang. Although earth is a yin element, it can exist in either a yang or a yin state. When earth expresses masculine yang energy, its color is yellow and is symbolized by a hill. When earth expresses feminine yin energy, its color is gold and is symbolized by a valley. Earth personality traits are stable, practical, reliable, industrious, empathetic, honest, kind, prudent. Earth types value friendship. Earth individuals do well to meditate and nourish themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
They must learn to develop clear boundaries and take care of themselves. The challenge for earth types is to honor their sympathetic nature and show great kindness to others.
The emotion associated with earth is sympathy. Other earth qualities are pensiveness, thoughtfulness, and reflection. Just as one assimilates nutrients through the stomach, one assimilates life experiences through the element earth. A strong earth element helps to digest and accept fate and expand one’s circle of knowledge.
In traditional Chinese medicine, earth’s body organs are the stomach and spleen (and pancreas). Earth types should avoid foods that antagonize the stomach because they may have a disposition for stomach disorders, such as ulcers or indigestion. A weak spleen can cause immune system problems due to poor assimilation of nutrients. Since the sweet taste is associated with the element earth, earth types can develop a sweet tooth. They must avoid the tendency to indulge in too many sweets and rich desserts. Stomach illness and earth imbalance are indicated as deep sagging facial lines from the base of the nose to the outer corners of the lip.
Colors: yellow (yang) and gold (yin)
Earthly branches and months: All twelve branches are earthly. No months are
Season: seasonal transition-the last eighteen days of the four seasons
Body organs: stomach (yang) and spleen (yin)
This element is feminine because metal is extracted from the feminine earth, although metal is considered less feminine than earth or water. Metal’s planet is Venus. Metal’s season is autumn, the time of harvest (with a metal scythe), completion, and the beginning of rest. Metal corresponds to the three earthly branches of fall: Monkey (August), Phoenix (September), and Dog (October). Metal’s direction is west. On the feng shui ba-gua metal correlates to children and creativity. Metal’s symbol is a white Tiger.
Although metal is a lesser yin element, it can exist in either a yang or a yin state. When metal expresses masculine yang energy, its color is white and is symbolized by a weapon. When metal expresses feminine yin energy, its color is silver and is symbolized by a kettle. Metal qualities include strength, independence, focus, intensity, righteousness, and fluency in speech. The metal personality is very determined and powerful. Metal types succeed by being less opinionated, accepting change, and gracefully releasing the past.
The emotion associated with metal is grief. Other metal emotions are insecurity, inability to achieve parental or spousal expectations, and lack of confidence. The challenge for a metal type is to learn how to express grief and find healing.
In traditional Chinese medicine, metal’s body organs are the lungs and large intestines (and colon). Metal types must take care of their lungs for they may be susceptible to colds, cough, flu, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other respiratory problems. Cigarette smoking is extremely harmful for metal types who could also develop intestinal problems that result in constipation or poor bowel function. Intestinal and bowel cleansings are helpful maintaining proper balance.
A sunken chest or labored breathing are signs of weak metal. Also, lung illness and metal imbalance may result in a pale, sickly complexion.
Colors: white (yang) and silver (yin)
Earthly branches and months: Monkey (August), Phoenix (September), Dog (October)
Body organs: lungs (yin) and large intestines (yang)
Water is the most feminine of the five elements and therefore is considered very yin. In Taoist cosmology, femininity is not considered weak. On the contrary, water is the most powerful element for it can move around any obstacle in its path without losing its essential nature. Water can, in time, dissolve the hardest mountains.
Water’s planet is Mercury. The metal Mercury exists in a liquid form, like water. Water’s season is winter and therefore corresponds to the three earthly branches of wintertime: Boar (November), Rat (December), and Ox (January). Water’s direction is north. Water’s postion on the feng shui ba-gua represents career adn the life journey. Water’s tri-gram is two broken lines with a solid line in the center. Water’s symbol is a black Tortoise.
Although water is a very yin element, it can exist in either a yang or a yin state. When water expresses masculine yang energy, its color is black and is symbolized by a wave. When water expresses feminine yin energy, it color is gray and is symbolized by a brook.
Water qualities are creativity, sensitivity, reflection, persuasion, effectiveness, and desire for life and sex. Water types value family and social contacts and possess the ability to attract (being receptive, water can attract, rather than pursue). The emotion associated with water is fear. Other water emotions are indecisiveness, vacillation, and uncertainty. Those born in a water year succeed by not allowing fear to block the fullest expression of creativity. The challenge for water types is to overcome their fears and become active participants in life.
In traditional Chinese medicine, water’s body organs are the kidneys and bladder. Water types may have a disposition for urinary problems, bladder infections in women, or prostate difficulties in men. Coffee drinking weakens the kidneys, and cocaine and marijuana abuse causes irreversible kidney damage. These toxic substances, including alcohol and other drugs, must be avoided.
Kidney illness and water imbalance are indicated as dark circles or swollen bags under the eyes. Baldness is often another sign of weak water.
Colors: black (yang) and gray (yin)
Earthly branches and months: Boar (November), Rat (December), Ox (January)
Body organs: kidneys (yin) and bladder (yang)
The element wood is masculine and considered less yang than fire. Wood’s planet is Jupiter, the largest planet, symbolic of wood’s growth in springtime. Wood’s season is spring, the time of planting seeds, beginnings, and new growth. Wood corresponds to the three earthly branches of springtime: Tiger (February), Hare (March), and Dragon (April). Wood’s direction is east. Wood’s position on the feng shui ba-gua represents ancestors and family relationships. Wood’s symbol is an azure Dragon. Although wood is a less yang element, it can exist in either a yang or a yin state. When wood expresses masculine yang energy, its color is green and is symbolized by a pine tree-sturdy, upright, and enduring. When wood expresses feminine yin energy, its color is blue and is symbolized by the flexible bamboo that gently bends with the wind.
Wood qualities are bold actions, planning, initiating new projects, idealism, imagination, compassion, and competition. Wood types possess decision-making skills and the ability to create change. From an Asian perspective, the go-getter, do-or-die, pioneering spirit of American culture is very wood. The challenge for a wood type is to learn to control anger and channel it into positive work that benefits all people.
The emotion associated with wood is anger. Other wood emotions are tension, criticism, discouragement, regret, excitement, dislike of self and others, negative judgment, and repressed anger related to thwarted affection.
In traditional Chinese medicine, wood’s body organs are the liver and gallbladder. Drinking alcohol is like drinking poison for green and blue signs because alcoholic beverages heat (overstimulate) the liver and cause severe wood imbalance. Avoid greasy, fatty foods that antagonize the gallbladder.
Liver illness and wood imbalance are indicated as furrowed lines at the brow. A single deep furrow between the brows indicates spleen imbalance and correlates to the element earth.
Colors: green (yang) and blue (yin)
Earthly branches and months: Tiger (February), Hare (March), Dragon (April)
Body organs: liver (yin) and gallbladder (yang)