The five-element [phases] theory

This is complementary to the yin-yang idea. It usually attracts a lot of attention in Western books on TCM, perhaps because it is complicated and allows plenty of opportunity for mystification. Modern Chinese books on TCM, at least in Western languages, usually say little or nothing about it. “The European adoption of this method stems partly for a desire for an exotic scheme and partly from lack of adequate information.” [Kaptchuk, op.cit., 357.]

`Elements’ is a misleading translation of the Chinese term, which as usual has a dynamic implication. ‘Five phases’ would be better, because the so-called elements change into one another. Their names are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, and they are related to the various organs and to one another in a complicated manner. The interplay of the phases or elements has implications for treatment in the traditional system.

Disease causation in TCM

Disease is held to be produced by three kinds of influence: environment, emotions, and way of life. Environmental influences are wind, cold, heat and dampness; way of life includes diet, physical activity and sexual activity. The modern concepts of altered physiology and pathology do not enter into the picture. It is therefore difficult to make a correspondence between TCM and modern views of disease, and this bedevils attempts to interpret TCM in the modern context.


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