Chinese Philosophy: Learn About “五行 (Wǔ Xíng) the Five Elements”

HSK 3 quiz

One of the unexpected benefits of studying the Mandarin Chinese language is that you also get to learn new things about Chinese culture and philosophy, which is likely much different from the beliefs that you grew up with outside of China.

One of these beliefs that I’ve learned is the five elements theory. The five elements theory is a Chinese philosophy that identifies and describes the relationships between different things on earth. There are five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These elements are believed to be the fundamental building blocks of everything in the universe, with interactions occurring between these elements constantly.

The theory of the five elements first appeared in Taoism. It is a theory that can be applied to many disciplines, such as philosophy, fortune telling, calendars, traditional Chinese medicine and so forth.

The ancients divided everything in the universe into five kinds of elements:
金 (Jīn) = metal

木 (Mù) = wood

水 (Shuǐ) = water

火 (Huǒ) = fire

土 (Tǔ) = earth

Together, these were given the name “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements.”

The two principles of “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements.”

The first principle of this belief, “相生 (xiāng shēng)”, refers to the relationship of helping and promoting each other between two kinds of things with different attributes. For example:

木生火 (Mù shēng huǒ) = wood generates fire

火生土 (Huǒ shēng tǔ) = fire generates earth

土生金 (Tǔ shēng jīn) = earth makes metal

金生水 (Jīn shēng shuǐ) = metal makes water

水生木 (Shuǐ shēng mù) = water feeds wood

Conversely, the other principle, “相克 (xiāng kè)”, refers to the relationship of overcoming and destructing one another amongst the elements. Specifically:

木克土 (Mù kè tǔ) = wood restrains earth

土克水 (Tǔ kè shuǐ) = earth absorbs water

水克火 (Shuǐ kè huǒ) = water puts out fire

火克金 (Huǒ kè jīn) = fire melts metal

金克木 (Jīn kè mù) = metal destroys wood

The “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements” in conversation:

Jīn, mù, shuǐ, huǒ, tǔ shì wǔ xíng xuéshuō zhōng de jīchǔ yuánsù.
金、木 、水、火、土是五行学说中的基础元素.
Metal, wood, water, fire and earth are the basic elements of the five elements theory.

Nǐ de wǔ xíng lǐ quē huǒ.
There is a lack of fire in your five elements.

Why are “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements” still important today?

This lesson may sound like a fantasy to you. However, this philosophy still influences Chinese society even to this day.

Nowadays, there are still a number of Chinese who believe in this theory of “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements.” They usually ask the fortune-teller about a name for their new baby based on “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements.” Fortune-tellers may speculate on the lack of elements in a baby’s life based on the date and exact time of birth. Later on, they will apply the element to a baby’s name based on their birth time. Many parents believe that a carefully-chosen name based on “五行 (wǔ xíng) five elements” will bring their baby good luck. How about that!

So remember-learning Mandarin Chinese isn’t all about language. You can also pick up some interesting philosophical and cultural lessons in the process. I hope this helps!

HSK 3 quiz
1. Which of the following elements doesn’t belong to “五行 (wǔ xíng)”?

A. 冰 (Bīng)

B. 火 (Huǒ)

C. 水 (Shuǐ)

D. 土 (Tǔ)

See Answer Analysis

―Written by Elena Trevino―
She is a Mandarin Chinese student in Beijing studying the language to get a head start in international trade. She is most interested in seeing how Mandarin is affecting the fashion industry throughout the world as Chinese shoppers are now such a large factor. She is frequently attending fashion industry events in Beijing and throughout China.
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Character Types of Chinese Traditional Operas
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