This paper is a brief exploration of the concept of the model of the Five Elements and the Twelve Officials, and the interrelationships between them, as understood in traditional acupuncture theory. Having read this paper it is expected that the reader, will have an appreciation of the insights into human health and disease, which the “Five Elements” and the “Twelve Officials” offer.
Prior to the development of the concept of the Five Elements the Chinese had already developed more fundamental concepts in relation to Oriental Medicine such as the Dao and Yin/Yang. Indeed a more formal title ascribed to the Five Elements is “Five Transformations of Yin/Yang”. This is being illustrated to show, albeit very briefly, a development path to the Five Elements.
The Five Elements are a translation of the Chinese term ‘wu xing’.
Wu is the number five, and xing means “walk”, “move”, “fundamental processes”, “agents”, “interactive phases”, “transformations”, or “powers” . Wu xing has other translations associated with it including “Five Phases”, “Five Moons”, “Five Movements” and “Five Cycles”. We find can the Five Elements mentioned in various Chinese classics including the Book of History and the Book of Rites both of which are at least as old as the fifth century B.C., and the Five Elements are embedded in the very fabric of the Nei Jing, (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), the most classical of all books about acupuncture.
Irrespective of the translation of ‘wu xing’ we are attracted to there are some important points to remain aware of from a traditional acupuncture theory point of view. In ‘Classical Five-Element Acupuncture™ Volume III The Five Elements and The Officials’ professor J.R. Worsley states
“The ancient Chinese never saw the Elements as five distinct ‘things’ or ‘types of matter’ because ultimately there is only one Qi energy and one Dao.”
And also states
“When we look at the individual Elements, therefore, we always have to keep in our minds that we are looking only at parts of a much bigger picture.”
Also worth noting at this point is that when any of the Elements become distressed, it will lead to some degree of imbalance in the Qi of the body, mind or spirit. Diagnosis of the source of the energetic imbalance is made from observation of four primary correspondences linked to each Element. These will be discussed later in this paper in the section entitled ‘Correspondences’.
The Five Elements
If we observe nature, and in particular the seasons, we cannot fail to notice that there are major changes of quality and function of energy throughout the year. The Chinese observed that there were five major changes and described them as the following five seasons, Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Autumn and Winter. The Chinese associated an elemental name with each of the seasons which described the quality of the Qi for that particular season., see table 1 below.
Late Summer Earth
Table 1: Seasons and associated elements
The associated season gives us a clue to the inherent quality of the Qi during a particular season. A brief overview of the quality of Qi associated with each season is described in the following paragraphs.
Spring is a time of birth and regeneration. There is tremendous energy about as unlike any other time of year as for example seeds thrust through the earth with remarkable strength. There is a sense of possibilities and a future in the air. Words commonly associated with this season are ‘birth’, ‘growth’, ‘regeneration’, ‘future’, ‘vision’, ‘hope’, ‘activity’, ‘vitality’ and ‘exuberance’.
Summer is a time of blossoming and ripening. The energetic growth of spring slows down. It represents the zenith of the year’s energetic cycle. Days are longer and the warmth that is present spills into relationships. Love is in the air!
Late Summer is a time between the transformation of the yang cycle of energy which began in spring and peaks in summer into the yin cycle of which commences with autumn. It is a time characterised by the words ‘nourishment’ and ‘harvest’. It is a time for reflection upon the activities of the summer and an opportunity to appreciate them.
Autumn is a time of decline and death. Nature let’s go and stops hanging on to the life and the warmth of summer. Energy starts to move downward and there is an increasing stillness. The decay process serves an important role in providing nutrients for next year’s growth.
Winter is a time when life seems to have stopped. The energy of the year is at its low point. The stage is being prepared for the start of the energetic growth in spring. Life is still present but is hidden underground. It is a time of endurance and survival. There is a determination to make it through the winter.
Having looked at the quality of the Qi present in each season and it’s corresponding Element we are now prepared to look at the relationship of the Elements to each other.
The Relationship of the Elements
The movement of Qi throughout the seasons is mirrored in the Elements. If any of the seasons is too dominant or too weak, the whole annual cycle will be affected as result. The same is true of the Elements. There two primary cycles which illustrate the relationships of the Elements, the Sheng cycle and the Ke (sometimes referred to as K’o) cycle.
The Sheng cycle is a cycle of creation and nourishment. It represents the natural flow order and progression of energy flow between the Elements. This is represented in figure 1 by the circle linking each Element with arrows showing clockwise flow of energy Each Element depends for its very existence on its predecessor for its birth and nourishment. For example we use wood to nourish a fire. The Sheng cycle also illustrates for us a natural law of nature called the Law of the Mother/Child. Each Element is a mother to the child Element which follows it in the Sheng cycle. So for example, Fire is the mother of Earth and a child of Wood. If any one of the elements is out of balance we can expect that all Elements, especially the following one, will be affected in turn. It is important however to note that effects of an energetic imbalance in an Element if only a manifestation of disease and distress and not a reliable sign of its true cause!.
The Ke cycle,is a controlling cycle. Growth and change do not run unchecked in nature and the Ke cycle reflects this relationship between the elements. This is represented in figure 1 by the lines drawn between alternate Elements, arrowed to indicate a clockwise movement. For example Earth controls Water. Visualise the banks of a river, which channel and contain the flow.
The flow of Qi in the human body is along meridians, which are linked to various major organs in the body. The Chinese linked these organs to the Five Elements and called them “The Twelve Officials”. These are discussed in the next section of this paper.
The Twelve Officials
The Chinese view of the Elements at work inside the body is akin to the Officials, Ministers of an Imperial court. The titles and functions of the twelve officials are given in Su Wen 8. Each organ is known as being Yin/Zang or Yang/Fu. The internal, predominantly Yin organs are known as the Zang, (viscera), the solid, mass, blood-filled organs, also known as the “treasure organs”. These organs are principally concerned with the production, transformation and regulation of the Qi energy which the body uses. The external, predominantly Yang organs are known as the Fu (bowels) organs, which are hollow, “workshop” organs. These organs are considered to be more concerned with the storage and excretion of the raw materials and waste of the body’s processes. The name ‘hollow’ attributed to them, because at various times they are without any contents, whereas the same could never be said of the predominantly yin organs.
In ‘Classical Five-Element Acupuncture™ Volume III The Five Elements and The Officials’ professor J.R. Worsley states
“The great importance and value of the concept of the Officials lies in two simple statements: no Official can do the job of any other, and every single Official depends on the functions of the others in order to carry out its own tasks”.
The Officials also share the relationships of the Elements in the Sheng and Ke cycles. There is an inner cycle of the yin Officials and an outer circle of the yang Officials. Both type of organs are subject to the law of the Mother/Child.
For example if the Lung (Zang/Yin) official is in imbalance it could point to the Spleen as the Mother of the Lung or the Kidney as Child of the Lung, which shows the main distress. If the Large Intestine (Fu/Yang) organ is in imbalance it could point to the Stomach as the Mother of the Large Intestine or the Bladder as Child of the Large Intestine, which shows the main distress.
It is important to note that in relation to the Ke cycle only the predominantly yin Official of the two Officals of the Element exercises control over the predominantly yin Official of the Element across the Ke cycle.
So having established the relationships of the Elements and their Officials one might ask how can we use this information to diagnose ill health in a patient? This is explored in the next section entitled Correspondences.
The correspondences represent the visible aspects of the Elements. When someone’s energy is blocked, weakened, or over-active this will become apparent in the basic diagnostic signs of colour, sound odour and emotion.
These four elemental correspondences are used for establishing the Causative Factor of a patient’s imbalance. In ‘Classical Five-Element Acupuncture™ Volume III The Five Elements and The Officials’, it is stated that “The Causative Factor is the name given to the one Element whose weakness, whether congenital or caused in early childhood, is the key to all the patterns of disharmony within the body, mind and spirit.” (J.R. & J.B. Worsley 1998).
In conclusion this paper on the Five Elements and The Twelve Officials has provided the reader with a historical perspective on the origins of these two fundamental concepts of oriental medicine. The paper then went on to explore the Five Elements and the quality of Qi associated with each Element. This was followed by a look at the relationships, which exist between the Elements in particular the Sheng and Ke cycles. The Twelve Officials were introduced and linked to the relationships of the elements. The relationships and interdependence of the Twelve Elements was also examined. Finally the application of Correspondences to diagnose energetic imbalance in a patient with particular attention to the four principal correspondences used to determine the Causative Factor, the root of ill health in a patient, sound, colour, odour and emotion.
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