Yin-yang and wu hsing (five elements)

Doctrines The doctrines of Yin and Yang and five elements can be understood as the basis of the Chinese understanding of the nature of the cosmos. The Yin-Yang doctrine teaches that everything is the product of two principles: Yin, which is weak, female and destructive and Yang, which is strong, male and creative. It is the interaction of these two principles that produces the arising of the five elements and enables change to take place within the world.
Wu hsing means five movements and when we talk of five elements we have to remember that they represent a dynamic process and not the 'elements' that come together to produce things. The five elements are not physical substances, they represent cyclic movements. There are two orders of the five elements, that of production;- wood, fire, earth, metal, water; and that of overcoming:- fire is overcome by water, water by earth, earth by wood and wood by metal, producing the series, fire, water, earth, wood, metal. This idea was developed to cover all things, and many lists of correspondence were produced. These lists are generally given with the elements arranged in the order of production. Here are just a few of the major correspondences, which relate to both the natural world - in the case of the seasons and directions and the human world of 'discrimination' - in the case of tastes and emotions. However, the important point is that things that relate to human activity and the activity of nature are woven together in these lists.

SeasonsSpringSummer AutumnWinter

There are five elements and four seasons, thus the earth becomes assigned to the centre thereby aiding the other elements in the 'rule' of the seasons. This gives us a view of earth as the pivot around which the seasons revolve. However, there are some who assign mid-summer as earth's season and others who say that the mid-month of each season corresponds to earth. Tung Chung-Shu talks of earth as controlling nothing in particular but being the central authority of the four seasons. He writes "The Earth is the controller of the five elements and without the ch'i of the soil nothing can be accomplished". (Ch'un Ch'iu Fan Lu. Wu Hsing Chih Yi Chapter) The cause of the movements of the elements is the yin ch'i and the yang ch'i which alternate between flourishing and declining. Here we have the three most important concepts of Chinese thought brought together, yin-yang, wu hsing and ch'i. Ch'i has a wide variety of meaning, we can speak of yin ch'i tang ch'i, the ch'i of each of the five elements, the ch'i of social order, the ch'i of the individual. Each 'thing' is considered to have its proper ch'i and the movement of ch'i gives us the movement of yin and yang through the five elements. Each element is said to flourish when its ch'i is yang and to decline when its ch'i is yin, thus seasonal changes are caused by the flourishing and decline of Yin-Yang. This shows the cyclic nature of the perpetual motion of all changes.
This cosmological theory was developed by thinkers of all later schools. The concepts were used to correlate human actions with the actions of nature. This idea, in differing expressions, was used by both Confucian and Taoist philosophers during the Han Dynasty. The Confucians used it to develop political and ethical ideas whilst the Taoists concentrated on the direct relationship between individuals and nature. Both the public and the private areas of life were covered with these concepts. As it is the way of nature to process through periods of flourishing and decline so it is with human affairs. The patterns of nature are reflected in both the life of the individual and of the wider society.
There was one further area that was covered with these concepts, that of History. History was cyclic, as it was considered to be the counterpart in the human sphere of the cycles of the universe. It is this cyclic notion of the myriad things and the centrality of change that makes Chinese thinkers so different from those of other traditions. Unlike their Japanese, Jewish or Christian counterparts they did not assign a temporal beginning to the universe, neither did they talk of the end of the universe. In the Yin-Yang/Five Elements theory time itself is a series of cycles based upon the movement of the planets. For these thinkers time extends indefinitely into the past and the future. As long as there is motion in the universe there is time and thereby change. There is no idea of a creator, because there is no beginning and as long as the planets are in motion there can be no end. These ideas are direct developments of the cosmological theory.
It is the interdependent interaction of Yin-Yang and Wu Hsing that sustains everything. The concepts of Yin-Yang and Five Elements have a great influence in Chinese life, from the Emperor to the ordinary people all are governed by these ideas of the relations between humans and nature. Yin-Yang nurture and produce the myriad things, the Five Elements describe their natural progression through their 'life'. All things have their natural state of activity, and are connected together by the ch'i of each of the myriad things. Thus humans and nature, heaven and earth, the individual and society are bound together in a harmonious relationship. The scholars concentrated on the metaphysical and cosmological aspects of these ideas, whilst the 'ordinary people' used them to give authority to the various forms of divination that developed over the years. These ideas permeate all areas of Chinese thought and action, and form the ground of Chinese culture and civilisation for over two thousand years.

History The concepts of yin-yang and five elements are thought to have developed separately in ancient times and it is not until the Han Dynasty that we find them linked together in the school they retrospectively named Yin-Yang. Tsou Yen (-305-204?) is said to be the principle thinker of this school and he is credited with bringing the two concepts together, but the work attributed to him is lost. The ideas were developed further by Tung Chung-Shu (-179-104?). The ancients used these concepts for magic and divination although they are thought to represent different strands of these practices. In the warring states and early Han period they are used to develop a sophisticated cosmology. The Five Elements are discussed in the Great Norm chapter of the Book of History but there is no comparable discussion on Yin-Yang. These concepts appear in the later texts as 'given' ideas which are then developed as ways of 'explaining' all phenomena. Yet they are not discussed together in any of the Confucian or Taoist Classics of an early date.
Yin-Yang concepts were developed in the early Han by Tung Chung-Shu and the compilers of the appendices (wings) of the I Ching. Tung built up a body of correspondence that related the complementary principles of Yin-Yang to all phases of creation. Yin was related to the ideas of female, the moon, cold, water, earth, autumn and winter, it is also the nourisher and sustainer of the 'myriad things'. Yin and Yang continue to succeed each other and as each 'force' reaches its extreme it becomes the other, thus producing a never ending cycle. This constant progression was used to explain the process of growth and change in the natural world.
The appendices of the I Ching expanded and developed the Yin-Yang concept into a comprehensive cosmology. The first two hexagrams Ch'ien (heaven) and K'un (earth) were equated with Yang and Ying respectively. These forces then assumed a metaphysical dimension and heaven and earth, male and female become the 'creators and sustainers' of all the other hexagrams. The sixty four hexagrams come to represent all possible situations and changes in the universe. The study of the hexagrams, and their interpretations, enabled the scholar to understand the activities of the universe, which once expanded reveal the endless process of universal change. All things and all changes can be described in terms of Yin-Yang activity and this is then developed further by the concept of the five elements.

Symbols The two opposing energies or pinciples, Yin and Yang, are depicted in the form of two interlocked tadpoles, one white and one black. The white tadpole has a black spot in it and the white tadpole a black spot in it. The yin-yang symbol expresses the interaction between these two forces; the two spots denote that each principle contains the seed of its opposite which it will produce through interacting with its opposite.

Adherents It is not possible to determine the number of adherents associted with the tradition.

Main Centre
 The tradition does not have a headquarters or main centre.