Understanding Five Element Theory: a Brief Introduction

Five Element theory (Wu Xing) is one of the founding principles of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, and dates back as early as the Yin and Zhou Dynasties (16th century B.C.E.- 221 B.C.E.). The five elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, are used to describe the relationship between organs in the body and to guide clinical diagnosis and treatment. While it may sound strange to our modern ear, the ancient Chinese used analogies from nature and their own family structure to describe what they observed in the body.

To appreciate how different systems operate in the body, we first need to understand two cycles of the Five Elements, the Sheng Cycle and the Ke Cycle.

The Sheng cycle is a creation cycle. It illustrates how each element generates and nurtures the next, similar to the relationship between mother and child.

Wood creates Fire: Wood is burned to make fire.
Fire creates Earth: When fire burns, it leaves ash which creates earth.
Earth creates Metal: The earth produces the ore from which we create metal tools.
Metal creates Water: Water condenses on a metal surface.
Water creates Wood:Water is vital to a tree's ability to grow and provide wood.

The Ke Cycle is one of control, and describes how each element acts to restrain another.


Wood controls Earth: Wood is used to mold the earth into a dam.
Earth controls Water: A dam restrains the flow of water.
Water controls Fire: Water is used to extinguish a fire.
Fire controls Metal: Fire melts metal ore and allows it to be shaped.
Metal controls Wood: A metal saw is used to harvest trees for wood.


In Five Element Theory, each element is linked with certain organs and physiologic systems:

Wood is associated with the liver and gall bladder. The wood element also governs tendons/ligaments, hooves/nails, and eyes.
Fire is associated with the heart, pericardium, small intestine and triple heater. Fire governs circulation, complexion and the mind (or Shen).
Earth is associated with stomach and spleen. Earth is in charge of digestion and muscles.
Metal is associated with the large intestine and lung. Metal is responsible for skin/hair coat and respiration.
Water is associated with the urinary bladder and kidney. Water is responsible for elimination, reproduction, and the bones.

By understanding how each of these systems relates to the others, we can develop treatment plans to address imbalances between them. Individual animals often have personalities or “constitutions” that align more with one element than others. Their dominant element may give clues to which conditions they are most likely to suffer. Please stay tuned for the next blog post where we will help you determine which element is most characteristic of your animal's personality!