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Understanding the Five Element Theory
Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water
By Simon Brown



It is most likely that the five elements theory started with the ancient Chinese calendar where five types of energies were assigned to different days, months and years. The energies were given the names of five elements - wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

These five elements were associated with the equinoxes and solstices to hep farmers plan ahead and organise their agricultural cycles. As you can imagine having a calendar was of incredible benefit to an emerging agricultural civilisation.

So the calendar was arranged by using the names - wood for the spring equinox, fire for the summer solstice, metal for the autumn equinox and water for the winter solstice. The fifth element, earth was at the centre of the calendar.

Human relationships to the cycles of the day, seasons and moon were of interest to traditional Chinese healers and the five element theory became a fundamental part of traditional healing.

Early writing on the five elements can be found in the classic Chinese text Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor commonly dated to between the first and forth centuries BC. Here in a medical context the five elements were arranged into a circle where earth was moved from the centre to being part of the circle between fire and metal.

The principles of the five elements became widespread and are fundamental in practices such as acupuncture, feng shui, shiatsu, chi gong, astrology and healing through foods.


It is helpful to remember that the elements are just names used to describe five different types of energy. They are not the energy itself. The easiest way to experience the energy itself is to go out into nature at the appropriate time of year and day. Here you can be aware of your experience of nature and how it influences you in terms of your emotions, thoughts and feelings.


Walk barefoot on the grass to feel the dew rise in March and watch the sunrise.
You may feel the energy rise around you. Note your feelings at the beginning of the day.
You might feel enthused and ready to move forward into the new day.


Relax in the midday sun in June and be aware of the flowers in bloom, colours,
radiant heat, brightness and activity. You may become aware of your own energy
moving to the surface. Perhaps you will experience feeling more expressive, outgoing and social.


Walk with the soil underfoot in the afternoon during July or August and be aware
of the sun moving down in the sky. Note the fruits ripening on the vine, nature moving
from growth to sweetness. You may feel cosy, comfortable, secure or even like having a nap.


Watch the sun set over the water in September and note the sun contracting as she dips
below the horizon. Be aware of the end of the day feelings and see if it brings sensations
of contentment or satisfaction. Is there a sense of joy or pleasure?


Go out into nature at night in December. Pick a clear night so you can see the stars and
the universe above you. You might be deeply aware of yourself and yet at the same time
conscious of the vastness of the cosmos. You may experience a stillness, peace and tranquillity.
You might find a new perspective on a problem.


If we stay with the five elements in terms of agriculture then the elements follow on from each other in the order of wood / spring, fire / summer, earth / late summer, metal / autumn, water / winter and then wood again as the cycle repeats.

This is considered a harmonious reflection of nature. However if one of the five elements is weak then the following five element or phase of an agricultural growing cycle will be disturbed.


In a person a disruption of our five element energies increases the risk of emotional disturbances and eventually a disturbed pattern of flow in our life energy. In theory this might lead to a predisposition to certain ailments.

In Chinese medicine each element is associated with a pair of organs and different kinds of emotions. The emotions in classical texts are what we would consider to be negative emotions and I have added other typical characteristics.

Each element is associated with a direction according to the movement of the sun at the time of day that an element is associated with. For example wood is associated with the sunrise and the flow of energy is upward. Here is a table putting this information together for each element.

In addition each five element is considered to have a taste that most closely
represents its energy flow.

Wood - sunrise - spring - upward - liver and gallbladder
- anger, impatience, activity, positive attitude, enthusiasm. Sour.

Fire - midday - summer - outward - heart and small intestine - hysteria, excitement, expressive, outgoing,
social. Bitter.

Earth - afternoon - late summer - downward - spleen,
pancreas and stomach - jealousy, quality of life, practicality, stability, homely. Sweet.

Metal - evening - autumn - inward - lungs and colon -
depression, playfulness, contentment, contained, inner strength. Pungent.

Water - night - winter - flowing in any direction - kidney and
bladder - fear, objective, artistic, original, flexibility. Salty.


In the macrobiotic application of the five elements we can look to see if a deficiency or excess of one of the elements could be contributing to a physical health or emotional issue and then look to resolve this by making adjustments to our diet.

To do this we need to think of foods in terms of which of the five element energy they might increase inside our body. This is open to interpretation but here are my suggestions for a few examples.

WOOD - Leafy green vegetables, raw, steamed or boiled for
thirty seconds or so. Sauerkraut, vinegars and lemon.

FIRE - Fried onions, garlic, ginger, spring onions / scallions.
Mild spices, coffee, alcohol, oils, nuts, seeds and herbs such as parsley.

EARTH - Sweet root and ground vegetables cooked into a soup,
stew or casserole. Stewed fruits, apple juice, syrups.

METAL - Baked, pressure cooked or long cooked grains such
as brown rice, wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt. Long pickles including takuan diakon pickles.

WATER - Miso soups, bean soups, stews or casseroles.
Miso, shoyu, mild use of sea salt.

So for example to increase the presence of rising wood five element energy we might eat more steamed green vegetables, to experience more fire energy we could eat more fried foods and include onions, garlic and ginger in the dish. To feel more earth energy we can experiment with more pumpkin and carrot soups and stewed apples for desert.

To increase the presence of metal energy we might try more pressure cooked brown rice, barley and wheat. When we want to experience more water energy we can eat miso soups and bean and vegetable stews.

Similarly we could reduce our exposure to a certain five element energy by eating less of the five element foods associated with that element. So if we felt too withdrawn less metal energy foods and more fire energy foods could help.


In China and Japan the five elements have been used in terms of face reading for both making a character reading and a five element health reading. The five elements can be read in the face providing clues to the type of energy inside. Someone with a fire complexion will have more fiery, midday, summer energy inside. Another person might have sunken cheeks that signify metal energy and he or she may have more of the energy of the sunset and autumn.

A study of five element face reading can help our understanding of the five elements in a human being and help us see how the five elements work in terms of human energy. Ultimately five element face reading can give us a useful means to help others identify which five element energies might be in excess or deficiency and then make appropriate recommendations.


The five elements form an important part of feng shui thinking. As each element is association with a time of year and day it is also possible to link each five element energy with a direction. So as wood energy describes the feeling of the sun rising in the east we can also add the direction of the east to wood energy. In this way fire is associated with the south and the midday sun, earth with the south-west and the afternoon sun (or in traditional thinking the centre), metal with the west and sunset, and water with the north.

Once this connection is made it becomes easy to see how different parts of a home could contain more of a certain five element energy. So for example the east side of a building will be energised by the morning, rising sun each day and therefore will often have more of a wood energy atmosphere. Sending more time there can help absorb more wood energy.

We could also increase a five element energy in a whole part of our home using colours, materials and various features. For example if we want to give a room more of a wood, spring, morning feel we could try a shade of green that reminds us new springtime shoots, lighter upward moving materials such as wood and emphasise upward movement with tall objects.


The five elements make up a strong component of two types of astrology, Four Pillar astrology and Nine Ki astrology. In four pillar astrology the hour, day, month and year of birth are looked at in terms of five element energy and used to see if there are astrological excesses or deficiencies in any of the elements. Nine ki astrology consists of nine types of energy and each of these are recognised as having more of a particular five element energy.

Both of these systems can lead to interesting insights that if correct can then be used for ideas regarding food, feng shui, shiatsu, chi gong, acupuncture and other aspects of Chinese and Japanese healing arts.


Shiatsu practitioners can use acupressure point diagnosis and meridian diagnosis to detect imbalances in energy and to then try to correct this through stimulating or calming the chi or ki flowing through each meridian.

As the five elements are essentially a reflection of the daily and seasonal cycles in nature they can be helpful in shiatsu in observing that natural energetic cycles. Pains or emotions that surface at certain times each day can be explored in terms of the five element daily cycle giving more clues as to a possible energetic disturbance.

To find out about Simon Brown and his services visit


You may also be intrested to read:

The Energetics of Foods for Health and Healing

Shiatsu Massage

The Macrobiotic Principles of Opposites



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