Health and disease: the Five Movements of TCM

Each individual is born with an inherited endowment of energy – ancestral Qi. Transmitted from parent to child, it is the source of our vitality. This force is neither modifiable nor replenishable and once it is depleted, death occurs: therefore, it must be preserved.

Beside ancestral Qi there are two fundamental forms of energy that can be drawn from the outside environment: breathing energy, which is absorbed through oxygen in the air, and food energy, supplied by food.

These two forms of energy can be continuously replenished.

Therefore, to preserve health it is paramount to eat quality food, to practise medical gymnastics and to do breathing exercises.

According to ancient Chinese theory, the universe is made up of five primordial elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water.

The Five Movements theory divides most natural phenomena into five categories. During the Western Han dynasty (206 bC – 24 aD) the Yin-Yiang theory and the Five Movements theory were combined together, resulting in a single scheme – ‘Yin Yang Wu Xing Xue’. This scheme is conceived as a flow of Qi, whereby each movement corresponds to a phase in the five-step cycle of Yin Yang transformation.

Earth is at the heart of each transformation and lies at the centre of the scheme. It is associated with yellow and it favours seed-sowing, growth, and ripening; it symbolizes late summer and it expresses the balance of the Yin/Yang polarity.

Wood represents the sprouting of vegetation from the soil and spring awakening – the passage from Yin to Yang, from darkness to light. Its colour is green.

Fire includes all things burning and rising: associated with red and the summer season, it is the ultimate expression of Yang because of its mobility, brightness, and heat.

Metal, the colour white, stands both for hardness and for the ability to be pliable and to transform oneself. Its corresponding season is autumn – the passage from Yang to Yin, from light to darkness which occurs as the qi of Heaven descends on Earth.

Water corresponds to the maximum expression of Yin – when darkness, cold, winter and black reach their highest point. The Five Elements (or Movements) should not be understood as passive and static substances but rather as dynamic forces engaged in a cyclic transformation.

First of all, the five elements interact through a ‘generating cycle’. Wood feeds Fire, Fire creates Earth with its ashes. Earth bears Metal, Metal liquefies into Water. Water nourishes Wood. This ongoing cycle ensures creation and transformation in nature. In it, interaction occurs through two types of relationships – between the generating mother and her child and between the generated child and its mother.

The second way in which the five elements interact is the so-called ‘controlling’ cycle. It is necessary because any excesses in the generating cycle can cause damage to the five elements, whereas if they keep each other under control they stay in balance. Also called ‘grandparent-grandchild’ law, it establishes that every movement controls the second next element in the generation sequence and is in turn controlled by the second prior element. In other words, Wood controls Earth and Earth controls Water; Fire controls Metal and Metal controls Wood.

When there is a lack of coordination between the five elements, two imbalanced cycles occur. The first of them is the so-called ‘overacting’ cycle. Though elements interact in the same order as during the control cycle, they provide too much control. For example, an overactive Wood element cannot be controlled by Metal, thus causing Earth – the element usually controlled by Wood – to be disrupted.

Finally, there is the ‘insulting’ cycle. In this cycle, control occurs in a counterclockwise fashion. For example, the Blows of Metal naturally control Wood, but if the latter is too strong or if Metal is too weak, Wood takes a ‘revenge’ on Metal.

Each element is linked to an organ of the human body: Wood is linked to the Liver; Fire to the Heart; Earth to the Spleen-Pancreas; Metal to the Lungs; Water to the Kidneys.

A therapist should always bear in mind the interdependent relationships between organs and body functions, emotions, climate, the environment and seasons.

From this perspective, Chinese Medicine is a metaphorical science which aims at teaching us that we are part of nature. Each phenomenon corresponds to a season, a cardinal point, an energy from heaven, a natural mutation, a colour, a taste, a sound, an organ, an internal organ, a sense organ, a part of the body, an emotion, a secretion, an individual structure (see attached table).

In a psychological sense, it aims at helping individuals to recognize they are an integral part of a universal system, as well as to establish, maintain, and promote the integration of all aspects of such a system.

Elementi di Medicina Tradizionale Cinese – F.Bottalo Rosa Brotzu – Edizioni Xenia
Medicina Cinese – Ted J. Kaptchuk – Red Edizioni – Original Title The Web that Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, McGraw Hill Professional, USA, 2000
Medicina Tradizionale Cinese – M. Corradin C. Di Stanislao M. Parini Casa Editrice Ambrosiana
Elementi di Medicina Tradizionale Cinese – J.Schatz, C. Larre, E. Rochat De La Vallèe – Jaca Book, original Title Aperqus de modecine chinoise traditionelle, Maisonneuve, Paris, 1979


Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Seasons Spring Summer Late Summer
Autumn Winter
Directions East South Centre West North
Cosmic Energies Wind Heat Humidity Dryness Cold
Mutations Birth Development
Colours Green/Blue Red Yellow White Black
Tastes Sour Bitter Sweet Pungent Salt
Sounds Xu He Hu Shi Chuei
Organs (Zang) Liver Heart/MC Spleen Lung Kidneys
Viscera (Fu) Biliary vesicle Intestine Small intestine
Triple Burner
Stomach Large intestine Bladder
Sense organs Eyes Tongue Mouth Nose Ears
Body parts Muscles
Blood vessels Flesh Skin/Hairs Bones
Bone marrow
Emotions Rage Joy Reflection
Sadness Fear
Secretions Tears Sweat Saliva Mucus (nasal) Dribble
Individual structure Dry
Active and warm Sweet, firm,
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