Chinese medicine was founded on a metaphorical model called the Five Elements, also referred to as the Five Phases. The Five Phases are the poetic framework of Chinese medicine. The Five Phases are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. In Chinese the Five Phases are Wu Xing. Wu means five andXing means “changes” or “transformations.”
The Five Phases are poetically healing in the deepest sense. As “elements,” Wu Xing represent the basic constituents of all creation, the essential “building blocks” of Nature. The natural world is composed of varying combinations of water, fire, earth, metal, and wood. Even more importantly, and especially to the poetics of holistic medicine, Wu Xing are metaphors. They represent the natural cycles and transformations common to all life. All of life passes through repeating phases of water, fire, earth, metal, and wood.
The liveliness and dynamism of the Five Phases are most obvious in the yearly cycle of the seasons. According to Chinese medicine, each of the Five Phases corresponds with a different season of the yearly cycle. The Fire Phase corresponds with summer. The Earth Phase corresponds with Late Summer. The Metal Phase corresponds with Autumn. The Water Phase corresponds with Winter, and the Wood Phase corresponds with Spring.
Each of the Five Phases sets the stage for and contributes essential qualities to the Phase that succeeds it. The Fire of summer creates ashes to nourish its successor element, the Earth Phase of Late Summer. Late summer’s Earth condenses to create the rich minerals and metals corresponding with its successor, the Metal Phase and autumn. These minerals of the Metal Phase nourish autumn’s successor, the life-giving waters of the Water Phase. The nutrient rich waters, embodying summer’s ashes, late summer’s rich soil, autumn’s minerals and harvest, make possible the vibrant growth of springtime and the Wood Phase. A tree’s pulling up water and nutrient’s from winter’s roots and pushing them forth in new branches and growth make possible the fruits and delicacies of summer and the Fire Phase, which are again decomposed in one way or another by fire as the cycle turns.
According to the model of the Five Phases, each Phase’s season also corresponds with a specific internal organ, emotion, “spirit,” color, flavor, sound, planet, health and disease pattern, and so on. These corresponding qualities are called the correspondences of the Five Phases. For a concise listing of the Five Phases’ correspondences, please click here. Each Phase, complete with its correspondences, represents a particular passage or slice of life. Affecting a particular correspondence of a Phase will affect the other correspondences of that Phase. For example, finding joy in life will affect our physical hearts, our minds, our bitterness, our inspiration, exuberance, passions, desires, and the fruition of our plans—all correspondences of the Fire Phase.
The Five Phases’ correspondences provide a fluid and flexible poetic window through which all of life can be interpreted and creatively experienced. They are dynamic constellations of interrelated qualities that transform into and support one another in the endless cycle of life unto death into rebirth. The Five Phases’ correspondences are unique holistic “personalities” of body, mind and spirit that reflect the interaction and interface of human nature with the natural world and the universe. They are the universal poetics through which all of life sings and dances. In the end, the Five Phases are synonymous with all of life, healing, wholeness, universal poetry and the heart of holistic medicine.