Chinese people believe that we are surrounded by five energy fields or five different kinds of “Qì” (气). These are also called the “five elements” and they play an important role in all aspects of Chinese culture, including the way people eat. This theory states that if these five elements are changed or moved, this could seriously affect a person’s fate.
The “five elements” (五行) are also known as the five agents, five phases, five movements, five forces, five processes, and five planets.
If the concept of yīn and yáng is the center of the Chinese culture, then the theory of the “five elements” should be treated as its cornerstone.
The five elements are metal (金), wood (木), water (水), fire (火), and earth (土). Chinese people use this five elements theory for a lot of things, from the interaction between internal organs to politics, and Chinese medicine to cooking and food.
It’s just like finding the perfect balance yīn and yáng, it’s about trying to find the perfect balance between the five elements. There are two main relationships between these five elements. One is called “mutual generation (相生)” and the other one is called “mutual overcoming (相克).”
Examples of mutual generating:
- Wood made Fire stronger.
- Fire made Earth (ash).
- Earth contained and bore Metal.
- Metal improved the quality of the Water.
- Water helps the Wood grow.
Example of mutual overcoming:
- Earth can stop Water.
- Water can stop a Fire.
- Fire can melt Metal.
- Metal can cut Wood.
- Wood can consume Earth.
To give an example from nature, a plant (wood) grows when it is given water. When burnt, wood gives birth to fire, and the burnt ashes subsequently return to the earth.