The Theory of the Five Elements

The gogyō comes from the Taoist teachings of China. Unlike the godai system, where each appearance can be assigned a fixed plane, the gogyō taps into the polarity theory of yin and yang (in and in Japanese) and seeks to establish the cycles of transformation that continually take place on the material plane. Five code designations were developed for this, but they should only be regarded as a code and not as a literal classification.

  • Sui (Water) or dissolving
  • Moku (Wood) or growing
  • Ka (Fire) or evaporating
  • Do (Earth) or condensing
  • Kin (Metal) or hardening

In ancient China, everything was subject to an eternal cycle, the seasons, the days, and the processes in the body. A man was not seen as an isolated being, but as his own little universe, a microcosm in the macrocosm, so to speak. Every aspect of Chinese culture, whether it be politics, medicine, art, or martial arts, could elude this theory. Therefore, different organs, points of the compass, colors, seasons, or animals were assigned to the five elements.

Equivalents of Elements

Cardinal directionEastSouthCenterWestNorth
SeasonSpringSummerTransition from Summer/AutumnAutumnWinter
WeatherWindHeatDamp weatherDroughtCold
phase of lifeBirthGrowthMaturityDeclineDeath
Celestial BodyStarsSunEarthConstellationsMoon
Body organLiverHeartSpleenLungsKidneys
gutsGallbladderSmall intestineStomachColonUrinary bladder
other body partsMuscles and TendonsArteries and VeinsMeatSkin and hairBones, teeth and bone marrow
FeelingsAngerJoyConcern, desireSadnessFear
PropertyHarmony and CreativityStimulus and Passionbalance and stabilityHardness and determinationCommunication

Dependency of Elements

Model of the Five Elements
Model of the Five Elements

There is a hierarchy among the elements that in one possible order brings forth each other, in a different order each element destroys or subdues another. In the opposite order, one element overwhelms the other. Thus, wood produces fire, fire produces earth (as ash), the earth produces metal (ores), metal produces water (condensation on the surface), and finally, water produces wood (plants).

The wood conquers the earth like a plow, the earth tames the water like a dam, the water quenches the fire, the fire melts the metal and finally, the metal cuts down the wood like an ax or a saw.

Text: Stefan Imhoff