The Origins of the Wu Xing – By Brian May and Takako Tomoda

Forward by Heiko Lade: This article originally appeared in the Journal of the Australian Chinese Medicine Education and Research Council, Ltd Vol 4:2, February 1999, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the ex secretariat Steve Clavey, who is currently editor in chief of The Lantern.  Brian May is now a Clinical Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne and Takako Tomoda has a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of New South Wales.

The Wu Xing 五行 or Five Phases pervade the theoretical framework of TCM but this theory did not develop as a medical concept. When the notion of the Wu Xing appeared in the Chinese cultural zone has long been a disputed issue. The aim of this article is to consider the evidence regarding the appearance of the Wu Xing and to examine its adoption into the field of medicine using material prior to 100 BC. The principal difficulty in tracing the origin of the Wu Xing lies in its nature. It is a concept rather than an object or event and as such has developed over time. The emergence of this concept and its subsequent transformations can only be traced on the basis of textual evidence and therefore any conclusions remain dependent upon the verity of the received texts. There are considerable problems with pre-Qin texts since they have undergone repeating copying and recompiling making their authorship and the dating of versions extremely problematic. Nevertheless, barring major archeological discoveries, we will have to live with this uncertainty and try to produce the most accurate and plausible account possible given the fragmentary nature of the materials available.

From an archeological perspective, the oldest textual discoveries which included references to Wu Xing were found in tomb 3 at Ma-wang-dui 馬王堆 (Major, 1978, p239). This find provides conclusive evidence that Wu Xing theory had developed by the beginning of the Han 漢 Dynasty since the burials have been dated to 168 BC. However, received history places Wu Xing theory much earlier than this. The first time the term appears in the archeological record is as part of a text engraved on a sword handle dated to soon after 400 BC (Needham & Wang, 1969, 242). This places the term in the Eastern Zhou period 東周 but fails to define its meaning. Therefore we need to turn to the received pre-Han literature in an attempt to find the origins of the Wu Xing.

The principal problem with the received literature lies in separating actual pre-Han material from later interpolations. The events surrounding the Qin 秦 unification, subsequent burning of books and the chaos which intervened between the fall of the Qin and the establishment of the Former Han 前漢 (Qian Han) dynasty under Liu Bang 劉邦, resulted in the loss of many of the historical records and literature of the pre-Qin states. The reconstruction of ancient works fell to the scholars of the Former Han and the resultant compilations contain material from differing periods and interpretations based on the ideas prevalent during the Former Han. Nevertheless, modern scholarship has had some success in sifting through these materials to produce a clearer picture of the development of ancient Chinese thought.

The locus classicus of the Wu Xing is the Great Plan 洪範 (Hong Fan) chapter of the Shu Jing 書經 (variously called the Classic of History or Book of Documents). The difficulty with this reference is that the Shu Jing is a composite of historical documents which relate to the Zhou period and earlier but were probably written much later. In the Shu Jing the document which details the Hong Fan is dated at the beginning of the Zhou just after the overthrow of the Shang 商 Dynasty by King Wu 武王 thereby placing it soon after 1122 BC (by traditional reckoning). However, Graham (1989) regards it as a much later document but still written before 400 BC while Needham and Wang (1969) consider it a product of the third century BC. Moreover, parts of this chapter are likely to be of early Han origin.

According to the Shu Jing, the Great Plan was with-held from Gun 袞 (Yu’s father) but given to Yu 禹, the controller of floods and founder of the Xia 夏 dynasty, by Heaven 天 (Tian). The plan comprises nine parts. The first deals with the Wu Xing (see table 1) while others concern the Five Personal Matters; Eight Objects of Government; Five Dividers (of time) i.e. 1. Jupiter, 2. Moon, 3. Sun, 4. Stars, planets, zodiacal spaces, & 5. calendric calculations; Royal Perfection; the Three Virtues; the Examination of Doubts; and the Five Sources of Happiness and the Six Occasions of Suffering. In the Hong Fan, the Wu Xing are presented in the order they emerged followed by their processes and the flavours they become (table 1).

Table 1: The Wu Xing correspondences of the the Hong Fan (Great Plan)

1.         water               wetting, soaking, sinking, descending                 – gives saltiness

2.         fire                   flaming, blazing, rising, ascending                        - gives bitterness

3.         wood               bending, making straight                                          - gives sourness

4.         metal               yielding to molding                                                     – produces acridity

5.         earth                seed-sowing and in-gathering (reaping)             – gives sweetness

(Graham, 1989; Waltham, 1972, p 126; Needham & Wang 1969, 242-243)

In the Zhuo Zhuan 左傳 (Tso Commentary), reference is found to Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal and Water as the Five Materials 五材 (Wu Cai) and when Grain is added to the list, as the Six Stores 六腑 (Liu Fu). However, this classification refers to the basic resources of human livelihood and not to processes or cycles. It last appears in association with events of 531 BC (Graham, 1989, p 327). The same set of six is also found in the Shu Jing in relation to the labours of Yu but there is no elaboration on the meaning (see Needham & Wang 1969, p 242;Waltham, 1972, p 53). The term Wu Xing appears in the Zuo Zhuan from 517 BC in the context of divination. In 486 BC a noble of the state of Qin 秦 is given advice not to attack the state of Song 宋 on the basis of Wu Xing associations with clan names which indicated that the noble’s clan could not overcome the rival clan since both their names were associated with water but another clan, associated with fire, could be attacked. This relationship of conquest i.e. water quenching fire, fire melting metal, metal cutting wood, wood digging soil, and soil damming water, appears a number of times in the Zuo Zhuan and this suggests that this concept was in use by the Warring States period (Major, 1991; Graham, 1989, p 325-6). However, the dating of the Zuo Zhuan is open to question since, although it refers to early events, it may have been written between the second and fifth centuries AD (see Sivin, 1995, IV p 3). Mencius 孟子 (Meng Zi), who lived from about 370 to 290 BC, used the term Wu Xing but it was in the context of moral actions and appears to have had no relation to the Five Phases as we now know them.

The principal historical figure associated with Wu Xing theory is Zuo Yan 鄒衍 (Tsou Yen). However his works have been lost and most information about him is disputed. Most of what we know about him derives from the Shi Ji 史記 (Shih Chi), Historical Records, which was completed by the historian Si Ma Qian 司馬遷 in 91 BC and has survived intact. According to the Shi Ji, Zuo Yan was from the state of Qi 齊 (Shandong山東 area) and a successor of Meng Zi but his actual dates are not known;Needhamand Wang (1969) estimate 350 to 270 BC and Sivin (1995) suggests 347 to 276 BC. Zuo Yan seems to have been famous in his time and enjoyed the patronage of a number of kings who were impressed by his teachings. However, we know little of what these teachings were. We know that he was concerned with the cycles and transformations of the Wu De 五徳 (Five Powers) and their role in determining history. He viewed the world in terms of cycles and change and recommended that as circumstances change so should customs, ceremonies and government. He proposed a theory which connected the progression of dynasties with the Wu De and the appearance of omens. These omens appeared towards the end of a dynasty and indicated that the next power was rising. The details of this scheme are found in the Lu Shi Chun Qiu 呂氏春秋 (Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals) and form a progression in which each phase is followed by the one which it cannot conquer (see table 2) (Yang & Yang, 1979; Sivin, 1995; Needham & Wang, 1969). In Zou Yan’s time any system which could explain the rise and fall of dynasties and predict the outcome of the many wars between states must have been appealing to rulers.

Table 2: Summary of Zou Yan’s theory of historical progression and Wu De

Historical Period Power                             Colour                   Season                   Omen

Yellow Emperor                    Earth                       Yellow                                                    giant earthworms and big ants

(Huang di)                                                                                                                                     appeared.

Xia Dynasty (Yu)                 Wood                     Green                      Spring                    plants and trees that did not wither in                                                                                                                                                autumn and winter.

Shang Dynasty (Tang)       Metal                      White                     Autumn                 a metal sword appeared in water.

Zhou Dynasty (Wen)          Fire                         Red                         Summer                  heaven exhibited fire and many red                                                                                                                                        birds holding documents written in  red flocked to the altar of Zhou.

Next Dynasty                        Water                     Black                      Winter                    (none predicted|)

(the names of the dynastic founders are given in brackets) (Graham, 1989, 329; Needham & Wang, 1969, 238)

Si Ma Qian informs us that Zou Yan classified the mountains, rivers and valleys of China; its plants, animals and birds; the fruitfulness of its waters and soils; and its rare products. He also extended this survey to beyond the seas to places which cannot be seen. He proposed that the nine provinces 州 (zhou) within China, which were laid out by Yu in antiquity, were not the real zhou. Rather,China was only one of 81 parts of the earth which contained nine great continents each comprising nine zhou. The continents were each surrounded by small seas and the whole lot was circled by a great ocean which met the sky (Needham & Wang, 1969, 233, 236; Sivin, 1995, IV, p11). Beyond this we know little of the teachings of Zou Yan.

The system of Wu Xing correspondences appears to have become accepted, in the state of Qin at least, towards the end of the Warring States period since it appears in the Lu Shi Chun Qiu, which was compiled under the auspices of Lu Bu Wei 呂不韋, the chief minister of Qin, around 240 BC (Graham, 1989 p 373). The system recorded in the Lu Shi Chun Qiu connected up the ten stems 天干, twelve branches 地支 and their respective animals with the Wu Xing and has persisted subject only to further elaborations (see table 3).

Table 3: Summary of the Concordance System of the Lu Shi Chun Qiu


Xing                            Wood              Fire                 Earth               Metal              Water

Number                           8                       7                          5                           9                         6

Season                         Spring              Summer            – *                    Autumn            Winter

Direction                      East                  South               Centre              West                North

Colour                          Blue-green        Red                  Yellow             White               Black

Flavour                          Sour                 Bitter                Sweet               Acrid                Salty

Note                               Jue 角              Zhi 徴              Gong 宮           Shang 商          Yu 羽

Animal type                 Scaly                Feathered         Naked              Furred              Shelled

*Earth is attached to the end of the 6th month, which is the end of summer)

(Graham, 1989, 341, Needham & Wang, 1969, 262-3)

Zou Yan’s theory of dynastic succession, along with the correspondences system, must have become widely accepted by the end of the Warring States period since the first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di 秦始皇帝 took great pains to establish rituals which conformed to the correspondences associated with Water. By adopting the colour black, the number six, and a strict legal code the founder of the Qin dynasty, in 221 BC, was attempting to harness the power (de 徳) of Water to consolidate his rule and claim legitimacy as the rightful successor of the Zhou (Yang & Yang, 1979, 167; Sivin, 1995; Needham & Wang, 1969).

Zuo Yan’s ideas seem to have had great appeal to imitators, since Si Ma Qian disdainfully informs us that the fang shi 方士 of the states of Yan 燕 and Qi (Shandongand northwards) passed down his methods without being able to understand them (Sivin, 1995, IV p 15). Nevertheless, his ideas were transmitted by more respectable followers as well, and he is regarded as the founder of the Yin Yang school of thought (Yin Yang Jia 陰陽家). One of his followers was the scholar Fu Sheng 伏勝 who was also from the state of Qi and was alive at least between 250 and 175 BC. He is reputed to have repeated much of the Shu Jing from memory thereby assisting in its reconstruction following Qin Shi Huang Di’s book burning and may well have been involved in remodeling the Hong Fan chapter (Needham & Wang, 1969, 247).

In the early Han, a king of the Huai Nan region and grandson of Liu Bang called Liu An 劉安 was renowned for his promotion of learning and esoteric arts. About 140 BC a compilation of essays called the Huai Nan Zi 淮南子 was produced by Liu An and other people associated with his court. It was presented to Emperor Wu in 139 BC. The Huai Nan Zi covers a wide range of topics and is considered the main surviving example of a stream of Daoist thought, now referred to as Huang Lao, which flowered in the early Han but declined following the invasion of Huai Nan by Emperor Wu’s forces in 122 BC and the suicide of Liu An. The world view of Liu An and his compatriots was a synthesis of pre-Han Daoist philosophy, Legalist statecraft, alchemy and Wu Xing cosmology. It appears that the central government in Chang An had been sympathetic to the Huang Lao view but began to regard Huai Nan as a possible threat once power shifted to the proponents of Confucian thought (Roth, 1992).

The Huai Nan Zi further developed the Wu Xing system and appears to be the first text which allocated an extra season at the end of summer to Earth (Graham, 1989, 343, 374). In describing the conquest cycle 相勝 it provided the following sequence: grain is born in the spring and dies in the autumn, legumes are born in the summer and die in the winter, wheat is born in the autumn and dies in the summer, herbs are born in the winter and die in midsummer (Major, 1991, p 74). It also discussed the production order 相生 (xiang sheng) and introduced the terms which labeled the generator ‘mother’ mu 母 and the product ‘child’ zi 子. Furthermore, the Huai Nan Zi proposed a system which connected both the control and production sequences. Each of the Wu Xing passed through five stages of life: birth 相, prime 旺, retiring 休, immobilisation 囚 and death 死 in each of the five seasons (see table 4). The operation of the two cycles is evident when a phase (xing) is at its prime. For example, when Water is flourishing Wood is being born and Fire is dead.

Table 4: The integration of cycles as proposed in the Huai Nan Zi

Birth, helping (xiang)                                           Wood       Fire          Earth       Metal          Water

Prime, flourishing (wang)                                   Water     Wood          Fire         Earth           Metal

Aging, retiring (xiu)                                               Metal       Water     Wood        Fire           Earth

Immobilisation, imprisonment (qiu)              Earth       Metal      Water        Wood          Fire

Dying (si)                                                                      Fire           Soil         Metal      Water          Wood

(Graham 1989, p 346, Needham & Wang 1969, p 250)

During the former Han dynasty, Wu Xing correspondences continued as part of official life with the new dynasty first adopting the correspondences of Water but changing to Earth from 165 BC (Needham & Wang, 1969, 264). It was during this time that the teaching of the scholars who followed the Confucian school 儒家 (Ru Jia) established themselves as the new philosophical and moral orthodoxy but in this process they adopted many aspects of Legalist 法家 (Fa Jia) and Yin-Yang (Yin Yang Jia) thinking. A major figure in synthesising the ideas of the Confucian School with those of the followers of Zou Yan and of establishing Confucianism as the state doctrine in 136 BC was Dong Zhong-Shu 董仲舍, who lived from 179 to 104 BC (Chan, 1963, p 271). In his commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Chun Jiu Fan Liu 春秋繁露 written about 135 BC, he links the relations of the Wu Xing to those of the proper familial relations of Confucian morality as shown in the following passage: “as a son welcomes the completion of his years of nurture, so Fire delights in Wood, and as the time comes when the son buries his father, so the time comes when Water conquers Metal. Also, the service of one’s sovereign is like the reverent service Earth renders to Heaven. Thus one can say that there are men in tune with the Wu Xing, taking advantage to the utmost of their several capacities.” (Needham & Wang, 1969, p 250). The relations between the various officials and the Wu Xing can also be found in the Chun Jiu Fan Lu: Wood with the Minister of Agriculture; Metal with the Minister of the Interior; Fire with the Minister of War; Water with the Minister of Justice; Earth with the Minister of Works. When a minister does not perform his office properly there is disorder in the state and punishment should be performed by the minister corresponding to the controlling Xing e.g. the Minister of the Interior (Metal) is punished by the Minister of War (Fire) (De Barry, 1960, p 202-3).

Dong Zhong-Shu stressed the special role of Earth as the centre. He described Earth as the thighs and arms of Heaven and said that Earth brings the Wu Xing and Four Seasons together. He said that Metal, Wood, Water and Fire each have their own offices but they rely on Earth in the centre without which they would all collapse. Similarly, the other flavours rely on sweet which is the root of the five flavours. So Earth is the controller of the Wu Xing and its qi is their unifying principle (Needham & Wang, 1969, p 250). He also stressed the importance of the origin (元, 原 yuan): “The origin means the beginning. It means that the foundation must be correct. It expresses the kingly way. The king is the beginning of man. If the king is correct, then the original qi will be harmonious, wind and rain will be timely, lucky stars will appear, and the yellow dragon will descend. If the king is not correct, then strange transformations will take place in Heaven above and bandits will appear..” (Chan, 1963, p 285).

The trinity of Heaven, Earth and Humanity was elaborated by Dong and its similarity to sections of the Su Wen 素問 warrants extended quotation: “Heaven is characterised by its power to create and spread things, Earth is characterised by its power to transform, and man is characterised by moral principles. The qi of Heaven is above, that of Earth below and that of Man between. Spring produces and summer grows, and all things flourish. Autumn destroys and winter stores, and all things are preserved. ….Of all the creatures born from the refined essence of Heaven and Earth, none is more noble thanMan…..Man has 360 joints which match the number of Heaven. His body with its bones and flesh matches the thickness of Earth. He has ears and eyes above, with their keen sense of hearing and seeing, which resemble the sun and moon. His body has orifices and veins which resemble rivers and valleys. His heart has feelings of sorrow, joy, pleasure and anger which are analogous to the spiritual feelings of Heaven. …in the body of Man, his head rises up and is round and resembles the shape of heaven. His hair resembles the stars and constellations. His ears and eyes, quick in their senses, resemble the sun and moon. The breathing of his nostrils and mouth resembles the wind. The penetrating knowledge of his mind resembles the spiritual intelligence of Heaven. His abdomen and womb, now full and now empty, resemble the myriad things. The myriad things are nearest to the Earth. Therefore the portion of the body below the waist corresponds to Earth. As the body resembles Heaven and Earth, the waist serves as a sash. What is above the neck is noble and majestic in spirit, which is to manifest the features of Heaven and its kind. What is below the neck is full and humble, comparable to the soil. The feet are spread out and square, resembling the shape of the earth. Therefore in wearing ceremonial sash and girdle, the neck must be straight to distinguish it from the heart. What is above the sash is all yang and what is below the sash is all yin, each with its own function. The yang is the qi of Heaven and yin is the qi of Earth. Therefore when yin and yang become operative and cause Man to have an ailment in the foot or numbness in the throat, the qi of the Earth rises to become clouds and rain. Thus there is resemblance in the correspondence. The agreement of Heaven and Earth and the correspondence between yin and yang are ever found complete in the human body. The body is like Heaven. Its numerical categories and those of Heaven are mutually interwoven, and therefore their lives are interlocked. Heaven completes the human body with the number of days in a full year. Consequently the body’s 366 lesser joints correspond to the number of days in a year and the twelve larger joints correspond to the number of months. Internally the body has the five viscera which correspond to the number of the Wu Xing. Externally there are the four limbs which correspond to the four seasons. The alternating of the opening and closing of the eyes corresponds to day and night. The alternating of strength and weakness corresponds to winter and summer, and the alternating of sorrow and joy corresponds to yin and yang. The mind has deliberations and calculations which correspond to those of the periods of time and number of degrees of distance. Man’s conduct follows the principles of human relations, which in fact corresponds to the relationship of Heaven and Earth. All this, whether obscure or obvious in the body is born with Man. When it is matched with Heaven and Earth and compared, it is found to be fitting. In what may be numbered, there is correspondence in number, and in what may not be numbered there is correspondence in kind. They are all identical and correspond to Heaven. Thus Heaven and Man are one (Chan, 1963, p 280-2).

Dong Zhong-Shu proposed proofs for Wu Xing relations based the notion that things which were alike attracted each other while different things rejected each other. He said that when water is poured on level ground it moves towards the parts that are wet and avoids those which are dry, and fire will ignite a dry piece of wood but not one which is damp. He argued that when a note is stuck on one lute the same note on another lute will resonate but not other notes, and when one horse whinnies another horse whinnies in answer, not a cow. So everything is attuned to other things of the same class and responds to actions of other things from the same class (Needham & Wang, 1969, p 281-2). By linking natural processes, omens, human relations and affairs of state into a unified system Dong Zhong-Shu produced a justification for the social order established by the Han and took the responsibility for conferring the Mandate of Heaven 天命 (tian ming) away from the people, where Mencius had placed it, and made it part of a natural cosmic progression.

This integration of the theories of Zou Yan, whom the Confucian scholars did not respect, into the Confucian school of thought resulted in an elaborate set of seasonal rituals which persisted until modern times. At the beginning of spring the emperor wearing blue-green leads his nobles to welcome the spring in the east suburb, rewards civil officials, issues orders to be merciful and bountiful to the people, ploughs three furrows to encourage farming and commands the superintendent of agriculture to take up residence in the east suburb. In autumn the ruler wears white and leads the nobles to welcome autumn in the west suburb, rewards the military officials, issues orders to learn the laws, repair the prisons and punish crime. The performing of rituals which did not fit the season was believed to result in disorder. For example, if the rituals of autumn were performed in spring the people would suffer plagues (Graham, 1989, p 351-2).

Once the two main sequences of conquest and generation were combined a number of other effects were discovered. It was found that the conquest cycle was itself controlled, i.e. Wood conquers Earth but Metal controls Wood, and the controller was the product of what was conquered. This was called the Mutual Control 相制 (xiang zhi) principle. Socially, it justified the son taking revenge on the enemy of the father. Also, when both cycles operate together a masking process is evident. For example Wood destroys Earth but at the same time produces Fire which in turn produces Earth, so Wood is both destroying Earth and producing it. This was called Mutual Change 相化 (xiang hua) (Needham & Wang, 1969, p 257-8).

Although Wu Xing theory became a part of orthodox Chinese thought it was not without its critics. In the treatise on warfare by Sun Zi it is asserted that the ‘the Wu Xing have no regular conquests’ (Sivin, 1995, IV p 5). Considering that the Sun Zi 孫子 dealt with events prior to 400 BC (Griffith, 1963), this may have referred to the use of Wu Xing in divining the outcome of battles as described in the Zou Zhuan. In the Mo Jing 墨經, a passage, which Needham and Wang (1969) date to about 270 BC, introduced the criticism which was most commonly leveled against Wu Xing theory. The later Mohists contended that the Wu Xing do not perpetually overcome each other and the reason was quantity. Fire naturally melts metal if there is enough fire but metal may pulverise a burning fire to cinders if there is enough metal. Metal will store water but not produce it, fire attaches itself to wood but is not produced from it (Needham & Wang, 1969, p 260).

By the time the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen took something like its present form in the second to first century BC, Wu Xing theory was well developed, so it is to be expected that it would be included (Unschuld, 1985, p 56). However, the medical manuscripts found at Ma-wang-dui, which Yamada (1991) dates to the middle of the third century BC at the latest, do not seem to have made any mention of the Wu Xing although five causes of death are mentioned and Yin Yang theory is well developed (Yamada, 1979). However, the Lu Shi Chun Qiu (chi 11, pien 2) contains a story from which the use of the conquest cycle can be inferred. Around 300 BC a doctor called Wen Zhi 文摯 (Wen Chih) was summoned to see the King of Qi who was sick. He told the heir apparent that the king had an illness called wei (a character the meaning of which is now unknown) and will recover if he gets very angry. So Wen Zhi was deliberately late, he then walked onto the sitting mat without taking off his shoes. All this made the king furious and he ordered him to be boiled to death. The heir apparent and the queen argued desperately for his life but to no avail. After being boiled for three days and nights his expression had not even changed. He said ‘if you really want to kill me, you should put on a lid to stop the circulation of yin and yang qi.’ The king then had the vessel covered and Wen Zhi died. In a later version of the story the heir and the queen convinced the king to let him go. Either way, the king got better. The explanation that can be inferred is that the disease was due to excess worry and by stimulating anger this emotion of Earth was overcome on the conquest cycle. However, it is also an allegorical story designed to make the point that faithful service maybe easy in an orderly time but it can be impossible in a chaotic one (Sivin, 1995, II p7).

In the Shi Ji of Si Ma Qian there is a story about the trial of a doctor called Chun Yu Yi 淳于意 (Shun Yu I), also called Cang Gong 倉公 (Master of the Granary). He was born in the state of Qi in 216 BC (CCEDM, 1982 says 205 BC), in what is nowShandongprovince, and studied under Gong Cheng Yang Qing 公乘陽慶 (identity unknown). He practised medicine from about 180 BC and from 177 BC had an official post as Granary Intendant and practiced amongst princes, officials and common people. In 167 BC he was accused of some form of malpractice and was summoned to appear at the imperial court sometime between 164 and 154 BC. He was acquitted and continued practice till he died about 145 BC. As a result of his trial, there are records of his explanations of medicine and discussions of twenty five cases. He used pulse diagnosis, diagnosis from appearance, seems to have been able to diagnose diseases in the early stages. In treatment, he used medicine (e.g. ku shen 古参), moxa, acupuncture and he discussed a number of cases of erroneous use of acupuncture, moxa and drugs e.g. purgatives. The book he used was the Mai Shu Shang Xia Jing 脈書上下經 (Treatise on the pulse in two manuals: one associated with Huang Di 黄帝 and the other with Bian Que 扁鵲). There does not seem to be any mention of Wu Xing in his discussions but there is mention of what appear to be chapters of a book, one of which is titled Wu Se Zhen 五色診 (Diagnosis by the Five Colours) thereby suggesting that at least the colour correspondences of Wu Xing theory were being applied in medicine (Needham 1966, 273-4; Lu & Needham, 1967, p 230-2; Lu & Needham 1980, 106-10).

On the strength of the evidence the most likely account of development of Wu Xing theory is as follows. Classification systems which listed water, wood, fire, earth and metal, together with other things, as fundamental substances and connected them to logical associates such as colours and flavours seem to have preceded cyclic systems. The notion of the conquest cycle emerged out of such classification systems around 500 BC to become the dynamic part of a correspondence system, probably calendrical, used in divining the outcomes of events such as wars. It is to this system that the Sun Zi most probably referred. Around 300 BC, Zou Yan developed this system into a theory of history and popularised it amongst the states. This brought the notions of the Wu Xing, their correspondences, and the conquest cycle into everyday court life making it a widely accepted aspect of thought by about 230 BC. Sometime during this period it began to influence thinking about medicine. The conquest cycle probably offered insights into etiology and the colour correspondence system brought more coherence to systems of visual diagnosis which were probably already in use. By this time, yin yang theory and classification systems based on six were already established in medical theory. Therefore, the adoption of Wu Xing theory was delayed and only penetrated medical texts in the latter part of the Former Han, by which time the Wu Xing theory had become more complex with the addition of the generation cycle. This may be why Wu Xing does not appear in the Ma-wang-dui texts but features prominently in the Su Wen which seems to have been compiled from material extant around 100 BC, the time when Dong Zhong-Shu was creating his Confucian synthesis.

Note: The pin yin system of romanisation has been used throughout. Names are also given in the Wade-Giles system whenever we think readers might be more familiar with this rendering.


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About Heiko Lade

Hi, I'm Heiko Lade - qualified acupuncturist at The Acupuncture Clinic in Napier, New Zealand. If you have any questions about what you’ve read or would like more details about what I can do for you, please contact me.


  1. I loved reading this article; especially from about 2/3 the way down on the interrelationship between the “trinity of Heaven, Earth and Humanity elaborated by Dong”.
    Thanks Heiko.

  2. Zara Tretyakova says:

    That’s really interesting. Thanks for posting all the great information! Had never thought of it all that way before.

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