Wu Xing
May 7, 2009 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Behind Chinese medicine, feng shui, acupuncture, diet, music and cosmology itself is the concept of Wu Xing.

Created by Zou Yan in the third century BCE, it is a unifying idea of the universe, often called the "five elements".

Although the term is generally translated as "five elements", this is incorrect. The word Wu does indeed mean "five". But there is no simple translation for Xing. Translations such as "five elements", "five agents", "five qualities", "five properties" "five states of change", "five courses", "five phases" and "five elementals", are all used.*

Wu Xing in diagram format.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (15 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
the Lo Shu square is quite fun, as well.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:31 PM on May 7, 2009

I'm using that diagram for my next Powerpoint report to management.
posted by hal9k at 7:34 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Metals to water? OK

Pipes sweat. So is condensation part of the equation? Otherwise, the chain is broken (or the pentagram is calling me to the dark master)
posted by Benway at 7:51 PM on May 7, 2009

There was a fantastic raging debate in China a couple of years ago where some noted scientists (like physicist He Zuoxiu) pointed out that it's load of old bollocks. Have to say I tend to agree with the sceptics as regards the theory, interesting as the whole thing is from other points of view and despite the proven clinical success of some practices in TCM.
posted by Abiezer at 8:26 PM on May 7, 2009

Metals to water? OK

I'm not qualified to speak on TCM, but it isn't meant in a literal sense like that. It's more the relationship of the perceived qualities of metal and water than anything else.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:36 PM on May 7, 2009

The "five element" aspect of acupuncture was strongly curtailed in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) when it was created in the 40s by Mao's committees of herbalists and acupuncturists. In practice it is often ignored by TCM practitioners. A Brit, J.R. Worsley, did a lot to promote the continued teaching of Five Element theory.
posted by pointilist at 10:36 PM on May 7, 2009

It's just an example of backward science. Come up with the pretty idea first and then use a sledgehammer to force everything in the universe to fit into it.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:51 PM on May 7, 2009

I'd like to be open minded about all this ancient Chinese stuff but another two syllable compound noun label springs to mind. It is harmoniously connects livestock rearing with ancient field fertilizing practices in a flat fibrous roughly circular fashion.

Seriously, what is with the fetishization of this stuff? Is it just religious impulses sliding off the hard work of empirical science and skirting the uncomfortable aspects of mainstream religious practice to find some sort of easy landing in another culture's poorly translated quackery?

We would laugh at anyone who brings up medieval medical theories like humours in the blood but for some reason ancient practices of eastern cultures are regarded as deep mystical truths.
posted by srboisvert at 6:22 AM on May 8, 2009

Well, you could try to look at it from a philosophical or poetic point of view, too. I don't think you need to "buy" it to get some enjoyment out of it or find it interesting at some level.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:40 AM on May 8, 2009

More like Wu Wu, amirite?
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:11 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've generally seen the various "mystic" elements of TCM as comparable to classical alchemy - very much 'backwards science' as described above, but also serving as a series of spiritual allegories and mental processes alongside the description of physical phenomena. With five element structure, it's centered around the concept of balance and equilibrium, both inner and outer; with alchemy it was about the concept of refinement and purification through processes of transformation to shed off the 'base' elements and ascend to a higher physical, mental and spiritual state. Looking back on either, you can see how the actual processes wobbled between "observe empirical data and try to form a prediction/deduction" and "make up a bunch of crazy shit about dragons and religious texts of the time".
posted by FatherDagon at 8:24 AM on May 8, 2009

We should bring back the Traditional European Medicine of bloodletting.
posted by the jam at 8:34 AM on May 8, 2009

"Want some of my fries?"

"I can't eat that, it has too much heat in it", she said. "I think I'm coming down with something."

I taste a french fry. They're awfully good. "What do you mean, too much heat?" I ask. "It's not hot."

My girlfriend looks at me sadly, in the way that you might look at a crippled puppy. She's highly intelligent, works in high tech, and was born in the United States, yet her Chinese immigrant parents immersed her so deeply in what appears to me as impenetratably self-reinforcing quackery that we've never been able to have a civil conversation on the topic.

I quickly change the subject, and we chat about work for a while. I finish off my burger and fries, she boxes up half her salad. As we get up, I notice my throat has gotten a little sore, but I decide to not mention it.
posted by argh at 10:40 AM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

What I always found interesting was that, despite the "four elements" so frequently mentioned in your Wicca-and-related-buddies, you've got a five-pointed star. Even if you half-heartedly put "Spirit" or "Man" in as the fifth element, it completely screws up all of the directions associated with the elements.

Something OCD in me wants to say, "Wicca, either get serious about a fifth element or just lose one of the points on that star."
posted by adipocere at 11:07 AM on May 9, 2009

I had a similar point of view on that, adipocere. Then a friend of mine said she looked at it as, the top point of the pentagram is Spirit, the two points on the right - masculine - are the masculine elements of air and fire, and the two points on the left - feminine - are the feminine elements of water and earth.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:39 AM on May 9, 2009

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