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Chinese Five Elements

The Chinese Elements and Associations
By Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D

The Chinese elements come early, and their development in Chinese philosophy cannot be followed as can the development of the Greek and Indian elements. The system of five elements and classifying things by fives is already evident in Classics like the Tao Te Ching and the Shu Ching (the Book of History), both of uncertain date and authorship.

Later such classifications are expanded almost without limit (when Buddhism arrives from India with its own five elements, it adds its own system of fives). The first individual known to have written about the five elements was Tsou Yen, of the Ying-Yang or "Cosmologist" School, who lived in the third century B.C. But even with him, the original texts are lost, and all we know is what the Han historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien (Sima Qian) says about him in the Shih Chi (Shiji, Historical Records), the first great Chinese dynasty history.

The Buddhist elements that were imported into China were never combined with the Chinese elements, but they did, of course, need to be translated. "Air" was translated as "wind," . "Aether" or the "void" was translated with a character, , that could mean "sky, "air," or "emptiness." This suits the ambiguities of the notion of aether just fine, since the Sanskrit word could mean "aether," "sky," or "emptiness," while a kind of "air" is just the original meaning of the Greek word aether.

Although these were, as I say, never combined into the system of five Chinese elements, we do find wind together with water in a very traditional Chinese context, , "wind and water," the name of Chinese geomancy, the method of siting, orienting, and arranging houses, temples, graves, etc. for best effect. This has become rather familiar elsewhere around the world, and one even hears the proper pronunciation ("fung shue"), which is a little unusual.

While the "symbols" associated with the five elements include four animals for East, West, North, and South and a "caldron" in the Center, we get a slightly different picture with the separate system of "animals" associated with the elements. There we get "scaled," which corresponds to the East and the dragon, "furred," with the West and the tiger, "shelled," with the North and the turtle, "winged," with the South and the phoenix, and finally "naked," associated with the Center. A caldron, of course, isn't an animal, and "naked" doesn't apply to it. "Naked" applies to one animal in particular, man. So the picture we get for the five animals are the four symbolic animals surrounding man in the Center.

China ends up with two systems of five elements, one from Chinese philosophy and one imported from India with Buddhism. Three elements match in each system, fire, water, and earth. The Chinese elements then include two missing from the Buddhist elements, metal and wood; and the Buddhist elements include two missing from the Chinese, air and aether (or the void).

Chinese philosophy thus has, as a matter of fact, seven elements, although these were never combined into one system. In combining them now, as a fantasy exercise, we might take a clue from Western philosophy, where the seven planets were the basis of the theory in Mediaeval alchemy that there were seven metals. As it happens, the five naked eye planets in Chinese astronomy were matched up with the five elements.

In the adoption of the seven day week from the West, Chinese usage then assigns the five planets to the days of the week apart from Sunday and Monday, which are then named, obviously enough, after the Sun and the Moon. If we want to add two extra elements, then, the Sun and the Moon provide the slots for them. Since the element air gets translated as "wind" in Chinese, the Moon, which moves the fastest of the heavenly bodies, seems the appropriate match, while the Sun, illuminating the heavens, is not inappropriate for aether/void.

This extract is published with kind permission of Dr Kelly and you can view the complete article at www.friesian.com/elements.htm

Copyright  2003. Kelly. L. Ross. Ph.D All rights reserved.