Page 7 The Five Elements

The Wu Shing or five phases, is another basic concept of which the student must be aware before endeavoring to understand Chinese literature. As the Chinese observed events, they sought to categorize the types of forces at work in other ways, in order to gain more detailed insight into the outcome of events. They looked about themselves and saw that apart from living creatures, there appeared to be five influences acting upon life. (Parallel approaches can be found among the Greeks, Tibetans and others.) The five forces described are that of Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal. Each of these describe the interplay of energies in the cosmos. In their simplest form, they represent how one event leads to another in a creative cycle and conversely, how events are destructive in cycles also.

For Example, the Theory goes that Metal as it cools, forms moisture on its surface, (Water), which when applied to the ground causes things to grow, (Wood), which can be burned to form ash or (Earth), from which one gets minerals, (Metal). One will note that in making the cycle throughout these phases one arrives at the beginning point again. One begins from Metal and arrives at Metal, again indicating the Chinese closed universe approach.

In their destructive cycle, Fire is destroyed by Water, Water is destroyed by Earth is destroyed by Wood, Wood is destroyed by Fire. In the creative cycle, Metal creates Water, Water creates Wood, Wood creates Fire, Fire creates Earth and Earth creates Metal. Many will remember the game paper, scissors and rock and see the same idea of mutually creative/ destructive cycles and their interplay. For the Chinese the Yin Yang, Ba Qua and Wu Sing Theories are not exclusive of each other. Instead, they are different vantage points from which to view the same event, that of the process of change in the cosmos.

The result again was that all life is a cycle of creation and destruction. It is impossible to destroy any single side of the forces of the universe. In fact, in appearing to destroy any part of the cycle, the person taking the action is merely setting in motion the forces that will ensure its eventual return. (From Metal to Metal as in the first example.)

In application for the Chinese, what was seen was that a single strongest strategy or position could not exist. Every situation carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Conversely, every defeat has the opportunity to turn to ascendency if sufficient time, resources and strategy can be brought to bear. The victorious is not always the strongest, (though the Chinese give due respect to strength) instead it is the one who can adapt to the changing circumstance. The ability to utilize the forces present in any situation and thereby create or dissolve targeted outcomes indicates the pinnacle of skill for the Chinese. Ultimately though, every event will be overcome by another, every force will gain ascendency and eventually decline. It is, to the Chinese, neither good nor bad, it is simply the way the universe works. It is the person who understands the flow of change and can adapt with it has the greatest chance of winning, or at the very least, surviving.

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