In the west we generally refer to 4 elements and treat a fifth element as some kind of mystical force. But in traditional Chinese thought there are actually five elements. Let’s take a look at them.
The Chinese five elements are 金木水火土 , 金 is metal, 木 is wood, 水 is water, 火 is fire, and 土 mean earth, like earth as in soil and rock.
People normally say the names of the five elements in that order. 金木水火土. But this order doesn’t have much of a connection to the philosophy of the five elements, it’s really that it just rolls off the tongue better that way.
But there are two orders that if you want to learn the theory of the five element you really should know. The generating cycle and the overcoming cycle. Let’s look at the generating cycle first.
So everyone knows that wood can be burned to produce fire, 木生火 sheng means to give birth to, we can just translate this as wood can produce fire, fires produces earth, 火生土, how does fire produce earth you may ask? Well after wood or other materials have been burned by fire, ash remains, which slowly gets absorbed back into the earth. 土生金 earth produces metal. Metal ores are all mines from the ground and then refined into metal, so metal comes from the earth. Metal produces water, 金生水, this one may be harder to understand for modern people, but when metal gets cold it does attract condensation which is water. And water produces wood, 水生土, water is a fundamental ingredient for life, trees need it to grow, thus water produces wood.
So that is the generating cycle, what about the overcoming or destructive cycle?
Well, 水剋火 water overcomes fire, ke can be translated as overcomes, so basically water can be used to put out a fire. 火剋金 fire overcomes metal, fire can burn so hot it can melt metal. 金剋木 metal in the form of an axe can cut through wood. 木剋土 wood overcomes earth, trees roots can grow down into the earth and also use up the nutrients in the soil. 土剋水 earth overcomes water, the earth can be used to channel water where you want it to go or even dam rivers to create lakes.
So those are the two cycles, and they are heavily used in many aspects of Chinese culture. For example if you have a health condition that is considered the fire element, a Chinese medical doctor may prescribe a treatment method that equates with water, water overcomes fire. A feng shui master will arrange your furniture to balance out the five elements and a master of Xing Yi Quan or Xing Yi Boxing will train attacks that correspond with the five elements, for example if the opponent uses an attack that corresponds with the wood element, they will use a metal element technique to defend.