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Wu Xing – the 5 “Elements”

The Wu-Tao-Di Academy is all about promoting actual scholarship and learning. To start off this series, I’d like to discuss the Chinese concept of “elements,” itself a poor choice of translation and for conveying the meaning. If I can point you to more information, I will.

Before beginning I want to briefly – very briefly – identify for the reader Legitimate sources of scholarly information in Sinology, just a few recommendations. The fact is that we cannot rely on the information provided on forums and places like TaoBums where so much bias, anger, and hatred skew the Path and reliable information. And with the advent and growth of ideological and economic cults in the 21st century and through the internet, the need is probably more dire than ever.

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[accordion-item title=”Dr. Joseph Needham”]On the Science and Civilization in China by the eminent Dr. Joseph Needham is probably going to remain the most respected work in sinology for more than a century. It is a series of volumes you can download for free; or buy the abridged versions online. It is a scholarly, PhD level tome of knowledge.[/accordion-item]
[accordion-item title=”Encyclopedia of Taoism”]Really, anything by Fabrizio Pregadio of Golden Elixir, and any of his colleagues and associates like Dr. Livia Kohn, is a blessing. but this volume is without a doubt the most epic, definitive source of Taoist information.[/accordion-item]
[accordion-item title=”Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson”]From the Chinese Medical Qigong series to his DVDs, though pricey, his works are without pier in access (from a western perspective). Word is, some of it was ill-gotten, and that proves its authenticity.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”Sino-Platonic.org”]Sino-Platonic operates outside the gatekeepers of Academia, allowing really deep, odd, and interesting sinology to take place under peer review that is open, yet strict. It is a wonderful website with over 300 articles of fascinating information.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”Joey Yap”]Although not a scholar, perse, more of a businessman, the proof of his work is proof of concept in Feng Shui, BaZi, etc…. the Mastery Academy materials are insanely detailed, and the courses/system are one of the few that can be recognized around the world.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”Ctext.org”]Ctext is also not a scholarly paper site but a repository of the actual Chinese texts. You can use it to find the actual words, rather than relying on various levels of translation.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”The Daozang”]Although completely in Chinese, portions of the Taoist Canon have been translated here and here. There is also a great database in Chinese here.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”Sacred-texts.org”]Sacred-texts is also a repository, but of free texts translated, often more than 80 years ago or even a hundred years ago. It’s a great starter’s resource, and completely free.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”List of Authors I support”]Louis Komjathy, Harold Roth, Paul Unschuld. Russel Kirkland, Ralph Sawyer, Thomas Cleary, Fabrizio Pregadio, Livia Kohn, Michael Sasso, are some of the top big names of Sinology. I cannot include them all, but often in the front introductions to their materials they will mention authors that they work with. The one name here that many will object to is Thomas Cleary, but I have reasons for supporting his name on this list. [/accordion-item]

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The Wu Xing are not “elements” in the Greek or even Indian sense (although the latter also has five substances, but which build upon one another into something). They are transitional energies which penetrate and dominate the movement of yin, yang, and Qi throughout all the Universe. Whether you’re talking about the galaxies, stars, body, or the weather itself, all of it is inter-related through this complex yet simple cosmological system that is as viable now as ever. The discovery of hundreds of chemical elements has not invalidated the Wu Xing, as a matter of fact the Chinese always viewed different things in isotopic ratios of the different elements.
The result of this system is a very diverse, resilient means of describing different types of phenomena, from blood and hormone levels to seasons, to the times of the day, enabling the sage or wizard to accurately predict (to a certain degree) the effects of various unseen or mystical forces. Forces which, believe it or not, still baffle or defy scientists to this day! The tendency of the Universe to appear ordered within its chaos is owed to the Wu (5) Xing. So what is xing?

行 – etymology:
English Senses For (英文): xing2
to walk / to go on foot / to move / to go / to travel / to act / to do / to work / to publish / to be current / to prevail / able / capable / all right / O.K. / enough / baggage for travel / a road / a path / ready to … / immediately / soon

English Senses For (英文): xing4
one’s conduct or behavior

English Senses For (英文): hang2
a row / a line / a series / a business firm / a company / a trade / a line / a profession / order of brothers ( and sisters ) according to seniority / a generation

“Originally 行 was a crossroad, sometimes indicated by the left half 彳or the right half 亍. It indicates motion, or something seen on the street or in public.” ~etymology webpage

As you can see, the idea is that something that is clearly evident of its own accord, moving. I think from this vantage we can understand that seasons and moon phases are the most objective form of data that demonstrate the wu xing.

the question is how do these become Wood, Metal, Water, Fire, and Earth? Earth, in particular is not known for “moving” at least in the classical sense. Ah but actually you just need to understand the true, deep meaning of each of the five, and avoid the trappings of seeing them as actual pieces of wood or metal.
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Wood energy is not the product “wood,” but rather is the movement of growth, conquering, organizing, and building. It is the roots, the neurons, the mycelium, and the way the galaxies string together through gravity vectors. It is the tendency to make cities, to grow into adults, and it is the very wind of spring. It is war and youth.

Fire energy is the product of the burning of wood energy, in other words, maturation. It is hot, upward flaring, and creative. It is pure spirit, light, love, and union in sex. It is knowledge, wisdom, and strife.

Earth energy is the soil, but more importantly it is the very medium or canvas of the vibrating Universe. It is the atoms, molecules, and dancing radiation received from Fire. It is mothering, nature, and farming. It is summer flaring and the brilliance of it culminating into harvest, color change, and activity with purest joy.

Metal energy is by contrast the regulation of spirit, joy, and temperance with wisdom and divine Providence. It is hard, cold, swift and blunt, righteous, truthful, and stern; as a father should be.

Water energy is crashing, moving, flowing, meandering, wears on the rigid, and tempers this with the stillness and contemplation of winter. It revitalizes all life and returns things to as they should be: in the root. Within the primordial all things are refreshed and find solace in their Return to Tao.

The movement of these things is Tao. It is not The Tao as much as simply: Tao. When one accords with this then one understands the combination of the ideas of Xing with Tao and Taoist thought (ie: wu wei) as being harmony and flow with the five energies rather than disobeying them and harming oneself thereby. By according with the Changes (yi) and seasons, one is able to subconsciously – without divination or spirits or philosophy – walk with Tao, thereby harmonizing inner dao or Te with the outer celestial design (tianyi).

One final note: it is not that the Greek or Indian ideas are “wrong” or incompatible, perse, with Wu Xing. It is that, despite whatever physics and chemistry has discovered, the Wu Xing remain as they are, and as useful as they ever were: in the science of life. I feel that there are benefits to the classical elemental systems, too, even if they are proved to be less accurate than the modern Periodic Table.  Ether, for example, from Ayurveda (Indian Medicine) has not been completely disproven, in fact, is being more and more proved everyday with concepts like “dark matter” and “dark energy” and anti-matter. How much that will be accepted is hard to say. But the Chinese Wu Xing are a viable medical system now, and can be taught to any doctor or nurse willing to spend a little time understanding it. It also still works for longevity and for the Art of War, and the fact that it works in these two extremes is perhaps the greatest proof of concept I can provide.

For more information on Wu Xing, I’d like to provide the following references/links as well:

 

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