What are the Five Elements?

September 27, 2018

What are the Five Elements?

In a natural system, different ways of acting and thinking will bring about different results. The powerful scientific methods of modern times treat nature with objectivity. We separate “us” and “nature” into two different things, with nature as the object, and us (human beings) as the subject. Based on this “logic”, we create machines that help us reestablish the connection between subject and object. These machines also establish a new relationship, as they serve as tools that help us (the subject) control nature (the object). Unfortunately, this powerful scientific approach is causing us to miss out on one vital aspect of being: feeling.

We totally forget how to feel and fully apprehend nature. Do you still have the ability to check the changing of clouds to help you predict the weather? Fewer and fewer people still have this ability. Instead, we check the weather forecasts on our computers or smartphones when we could just look out the window or step outdoors and lift our faces to the sky. The machines and tools we’re creating don’t bring us any closer to nature, but instead achieved the exact opposite: they open up a vast gulf between the two, and this divide is becoming ever more pronounced.

You might already know that traditional Chinese tea brewing has many different styles and methods, and the many steps before arriving at a cup of tea look a bit complicated. On the other hand, the Western style of brewing tea is apparently simple: place tea bag into hot water, get the tea liquid from it. That’s it.

But have you ever asked why the Chinese created such a complicated way of brewing tea? Nowadays, there are lots of new tea brewing apparatuses and machines available on the market that will help you brew a quick cup of tea. But what’s the exact difference between traditional Chinese tea brewing and the faster, modern methods?

Traditional Chinese tea brewing boasts many different styles, all deeply related to aspects of culture such as art, music, poetry, dance, philosophy, etc. But the less obvious idea, which is actually the key point around which traditional Chinese culture created all those brewing methods, is wellness. And I’m referring to a scientific way of feeling out wellness.

The Western scientific method is to separate between “You” and “Me”, breaking the object into parts to research each one individually. Now I’m going to explain the Five Elements and how the Eastern approach to science incorporates them.

When you think about nature and human beings as separate things that need to be explored piece by piece, you’ll likely find that you have too many projects to research. For example, when you look at nature as one project, and human beings as another project, then you’ll have to question what is nature, what does nature include, what are human beings, where do humans beings come from, what are human beings composed of...and so on. But the fact is, when you start to look at things separately, you have already started down the wrong path (or at least a very difficult one) to explore natural phenomena. That’s because, in our universe, nothing exists independently. We’re all connected. Once you take this concept as a basic premise, you’ll have to feel out how things are working as a whole, not deconstruct and analyze all the parts.

This is the key to how ancient Easterners arrived at the concepts of Yin-Yang, Five Elements theory, Qi, and meridians…none of these things can be directly observed, but they exist nonetheless. And one thing that needs to be mentioned is, the ‘feeling’ of ancient people in the East was not just a simple feeling. The feeling was combined with logic (heart with the mind) to bring comprehensive observation to bear. And this type of wholehearted logical thinking is a very powerful approach to deeply penetrate the inner workings of the universe.

So when you’re looking at trees, water, fire, soil…these things appear before your eyes, but you shouldn’t distinguish them as things separate from your body. In fact, you should use logical thought to help you feel how these things could be connected to your body.

Let’s look at an example:

We all know trees should grow in the soil and need water for nourishment, so trees absorb the nutrition and water from the soil. And we know that dry wood can be used to build a fire for warmth. Fire can also burn wood into nutrition that goes back into the soil.  

So these are things we can see in the physical world that we can also regard as being similar to our own body: when we’re thirsty, we don’t want to eat food, but rather to drink water. After drinking water, we can survive, but to grow strong, we need not only water, but also the nutrients from different foods, and all foods are grown from the earth. So, our life is in fact quite similar to that of a tree. We need the various nutrients from the soil, as well as water to keep us alive healthy. And everything is in circulation, all connected and flowing on and on.

This concept looks simple, but it’s a perfect example showing how ancient Eastern thinkers figured out how the body works. And this is why, in the various disciplines of ancient Chinese philosophy, literature, art, music, martial arts, and medical science, we keep repeating one important point: everything is connected to nature. Nature not only gives us the things we need to survive and grow, but can also inspire us to feel and find out how we work. So researching nature as a separate object basically starts from a false premise and leads to an incomplete understanding.

Not only can nature inspire us, but we can also explore ourselves in a natural way, which will lead us to understand nature more accurately, too.

From the time human society arose, we’ve been trying to create an organized system for managing society. This was to help ourselves be healthy and live peacefully with a high quality of life. No one told us we should do this, but we naturally try to establish such a system to help ourselves and others. This is our nature.

Through this concept, ancient Chinese medical science concluded that our body is actually just like a system, and we need different herbs to manage the healthy functioning of our bodies. So in ancient Chinese medical science, the key to Chinese herbal medicine is to choose a combination of plant species based on the particular symptoms and characteristics of the patient, and guided by the various theories of traditional Chinese medicine.

There are many schools of thought on the causes of disease and the best way to formulate herbal medicines to tackle them.

One of the most influential theories is the principle of junchenzuoshi (君臣佐使). The jun (君 emperor) herbs treat the main cause or primary symptoms of a disease. The chen (minister) herbs serve to augment or broaden the effects of jun, and relieve secondary symptoms. The zuo (assistant) herbs are used to modulate the effects of jun (emperor) and chen (minister) herbs, and to counteract the toxic or side effects of these herbs. The shi (使 courier) herbs are included in many formulae to ensure that all components in the prescription are well absorbed, and to help deliver or guide them to the target organs.

So based on this theory, to choose which elements serve as the emperor herbs, and which as the minister, assistant or courier herbs for different persons was a key to choosing the correct natural medicines or teas for different people to eat and drink.

Traditional Chinese medical science believes that if human beings want to live long, they need to follow the laws of nature, which means Sky (Heaven), Earth, and Man must be in alignment. In the Tao Te Ching (道德经), a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism, this key principle is described:

ren fa di (人法地) – Means man follows the ways of Earth

di fa tian (地法天) - Earth follows the ways of Heaven

tian fa dao (天法道) - Heaven follows the ways of Tao

dao fa zi ran (道法自然) - Tao follows its own ways as its inherent nature.

The only way to reach this ideal is to follow the laws of the Five Elements.

The Five Elements include Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth.

In the Five Elements system, the elements are not only connected with each other but also support or control each other. Between those Five Elements, there are also support cycles, control cycles, and weakening cycles. Only by understanding how this system works can human beings follow nature’s laws to achieve longevity and wellness. So, the Five Elements system is not just about elements; it’s actually a natural law that can help us manage our body to live in good health.

- 5 Element Tea




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