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 Language Polishing
Global Views
Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine: Volume 10, 2012   Issue 3
A Westerner’s question about traditional Chinese medicine: are the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept of equal philosophical and medical rank?
Hanjo Lehmann (Deutsches Institut für TCM, Cranachstr. 1, D-12157 Berlin, Germany E-mail: Lehmann@tcm.de)

Received January 27, 2012; accepted February 21, 2012; published online March 15, 2012.
Full-text LinkOut at PubMed. Journal title in PubMed: Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Xue Bao.

Correspondence: Dr. med. Hanjo Lehmann; Tel: +49-175-6449006; E-mail: Lehmann@tcm.de


     The Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept are two basic concepts of Chinese philosophy, as well as of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). When I started studying TCM in Shanghai 30 years ago, I met the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept in every book and every lesson. And there is one question that bothers me: Are the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept really of equal rank, linguistically, socially, philosophically, medically? My feeling is that many Westerners as well as many Chinese share the impression: most of the Yinyang concept seems logical and convincing; the Wuxing concept (at least concerning its claim to explain the whole universe, and especially its medical implications) seems illogical, far-fetched, unconvincing. However, a mere impression is not sufficient to judge both concepts fairly. We have to ask: Where does this impression come from? Why does the Yinyang concept seem logical, and the Wuxing concept not? Moreover, we have to consider several basic aspects:
     1) Linguistic and social aspects:
     — How deep are the two concepts rooted in everyday life and everyday language?
     — What about their impact in medical language and medical thinking?
     2) Historical aspects:
     — Are the two concepts of equal importance in the Huangdi Neijing?
     3) Philosophical aspects:
     — Is the choice of a) the two categories Yin and Yang, and b) the five Wuxing “Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water” as the basic elements to describe universe, man and society convincing?
     — What does really change within these aspects, elements or phases?
     — Do their mutual changes, influences and interactions seem logical?
     — Can those changes or influences be confirmed in nature and society?
     4) Medical aspects:
     — Does the application of a) the Yinyang concept, and b) the Wuxing concept describing body, functions and diseases seem convincing or at least helpful?


1  Linguistic and social aspects
1.1  Yinyang and Wuxing in everyday language
If we compare the general impact of the two concepts, there is one striking difference to be seen immediately: the categories Yin and Yang are deeply rooted in China’s everyday language and everyday thinking — the Wuxing concept, however, is not.
     In a broad dictionary like the “Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary” (汉英综合大辞典, Dalian 2004), we find about 300 entries beginning with the Yang character (阳) and about 700 entries beginning with the Yin character (阴). There are more than 30 entries beginning with “yinyang” (阴阳), including “yin yang ren” (阴阳人, hermaphrodite), “yin yang jiao cuo” (阴阳交错, accidental mishaps) or “yin yang dian zi chang” (阴阳电子场, electron-positron field). There are important words like “tai yang” (太阳, meaning the sun as well as “Greater Yang” in TCM) or “yin bu” (阴部, genitals). Moreover, there are many expressions with either “yin” or “yang” as part of other expressions, like “lu yin pi” (露阴癖, exhibitionism) or “zhe yang peng” (遮阳篷, awning).
     Nothing of this can be said of the Wuxing concept. In the “Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary” we find 9 entries beginning with the characters 五行, but 4 of them have a different meaning and a different pronunciation, like “wu hang ba zuo” (五行八作, “five professions and eight workshops”, meaning “all trades and professions”), or “wu hang da you shi” (五行打油诗, limerick). In a normal dictionary like “the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary” (现代汉语词典, Chinese-English edition, Beijing 2002) we just find one entry “wu xing”. And the definition is:
     “Five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Ancient Chinese thinkers tried to use these five substances to explain the origin of all things in the world. Traditional Chinese medicinal practitioners use the five elements to explain physiological and pathological phenomena. Superstitious people used the principle of the five elements producing and overcoming each other to tell the fate of a person.”
     This brings us to the remark: Apart from TCM, the only relevant application of the Wuxing concept seems to be in divination and fortune-telling — or, if you do not believe in both: in superstition.
1.2  Superstition, observation, and experience
However, we shouldn’t despise the methods and principles of fortune-telling too quickly. Often they represent a lot of observation and experience, although their explanation sounds confusing. Indeed, it is quite useful to have a look at the Wuxing system used here.
     The author Lin Yutang gives a good description in his novel “Peking”. Following, I translate the (German) text into English:
     “Mr. Fu came back to Peking, and as he was a philosopher and an amateur fortune-teller, Mulan’s mother asked him for his opinion. He answered that Mulan was ‘Gold’ and Sunya ‘Water’, and that ‘Gold was sparkling in the water’. So, the combination was auspicious ...
     There are five types of human beings corresponding to the five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, Earth. To combine them in the right way is the science of marriage. There are types complementing each other in a perfect way, and other ones which cause the partner’s decay or even his or her destruction. ‘Inbreeding’ between two young ones of the same type is considered unfavourable, because it will only intensify the original tendencies of either man or woman. Clearly enough, marriage of a lazy (‘Water’) woman with an equally lazy man will make things even worse, and the relationship between an ardent (‘Fire’) man and an equally ardent woman will ‘burn’ the couple. A person with tender composition, fine character and quick intelligence is ‘Gold’ or ‘Metal’, and one with strong bones and joints, thin and lean, is ‘Wood’. People who are fleshy, lethargic, with lines flowing downward are ‘Water’. If someone is hotheaded, lively, fickle, has a restless look and a slanting forehead, he belongs to ‘Fire’, whilst firmness, calmness, round full lines and forms stand for an ‘Earth’ type. Within these types there are subtypes and differentiations, good ones as well as bad ones, just as there is soft and hard, or even and knotty wood. For example, ‘Metal’ can cut ‘Wood’, but a strong and hard type with broad face and bony fingers can make soft ‘Metal’ blunt. In simple words: a rough, brutal husband will make a euphoric, sensitive woman unhappy.

     This is not the place to compare the methods of Chinese divination and fortune-telling, like 八字算命 (ba zi suan ming) or十二生肖 (shi er sheng xiao; 12 symbolic animals, somehow related to the 12 Western zodiacs). However, it is interesting to see how the Wuxing system (which is, concerning human phenotypes, described in detail in chapter 64 of the Lingshu as well) is used here.
     Describing human characters and phenotypes, we may state that the application of the Wuxing is thought without internal change. The different types are interacting and influencing each other, but they remain stable. Someone born as “Water” type will not change into a “Metal” but stay “Water” forever. Concerning fortune-telling, the Wuxing do neither change into a different type nor “produce” or “generate” each other. Indeed, they are thought to “promote” or “dominate” other types, or, if not strong enough, are overwhelmed by the type which they should control or dominate. But neither “promoting” nor “dominating” results in a change of the type a person originally belongs to.
     However, that the quality of something, when compared to something else, does not change, is not limited to the Wuxing system. For example, the sun and the moon: compared to each other, the moon always stays Yin when compared to the sun, and the sun stays Yang when compared to the moon. The earth stays Yin when compared to the Heaven, and the Heaven Yang when compared to Earth. The basic question will be: What is changing, when we talk of the changes within the Yinyang system and the Wuxing system: substance or quality?
1.3  Yinyang and Wuxing in medical language
Not only in everyday language there is a significant difference between the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept, but also in medical language. This can be seen in a dictionary like the “Chinese-English Classified Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology” (汉英中医药分类词典, Beijing 1994, with more than 40 000 terms, one of the broadest Chinese-English TCM dictionaries).
     Searching for Wuxing, we find 10 entries, some of them being redundant: “wu xing” (五行, five elements, five evolutive phases); “wu xing zhe, jin mu shui huo tu ye” (五行者, 金木水火土也, five elements being Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth); “wu xing de te xing” (五行的特性, characteristics of five elements); “wu xing zhi hua” (五行制化, changes due to promotion-restriction among five elements); “wu xing de sheng ke cheng wu” (五行的生克乘侮, promotion, restriction, over-restriction and reverse restriction in five elements); “wu xing xiang sheng” (五行相生, promotions among five elements); “wu xing xiang ke” (五行相克, restrictions among five elements); “wu xing xiang cheng” (五行相乘, over-restrictions among five elements); “wu xing xiang wu” (五行相侮, reverse restrictions among five elements); “wu xing zhi zhi, ge you tai guo bu ji” (五行之治, 各有太过不及, five elements having their own excesses and deficiencies respectively).
     Besides, there are about 180 entries beginning with Shui (水, water) and about 100 entries beginning with Huo (火, fire), but only part of them can be attributed to the Wuxing system. The same can be said about Jin (金, metal/gold) with about 90 entries, many of them standing for herbs like jin yin hua (金银花, Flos lonicerea) or for medical books like the Jin Gui Yao Lüe (金匮要略, Synopsis of the Golden Chamber). As to the two remaining characters usually used within the Wuxing context, the number of entries is much lower: about 45 entries each beginning with Mu (木) and Tu (土).
     The use of Yin and Yang in this TCM dictionary, measured by the number of terms, is much broader. There are more than 350 entries beginning with “yang”, and more than 420 entries beginning with “yin”, among them about 70 entries beginning with “yinyang”.
     Naturally, quantity itself is no sufficient proof for clinical relevance. For example, Wuxing is found in important concepts like the bu tu xue pai (补土学派, the “school invigorating earth”, meaning to strengthen the spleen as a basic therapeutic guideline). On the other hand, Yin and Yang are the main criteria of the ba gang (八纲, eight guiding principles for diagnosis). Although Yin Yang is one of the 4 couples themselves, the remaining 3 couples biao li (表里, exterior/interior), han re (寒热, Cold/Heat) and xu shi (虚实, deficiency/excess) are different manifestations of the Yin-Yang-polarity as well. Indeed, the categories Yin and Yang dominate TCM diagnostics.
     So, in medical thinking, as well as in everyday life, the Yinyang concept is much more important than the Wuxing concept.


2  Historical aspects
2.1  Yinyang and Wuxing in the Huangdi Neijing
Of all the many TCM books dealing with the Wuxing, the most important one is, of course, the Huangdi Neijing.
     However, even in this venerable book Yinyang concept and Wuxing concept are far from being of equal rank. At least we can say: The importance of the Yinyang concept in the Huangdi Neijing rises to a level which even the Wuxing concept does not reach.
     Once again, a simple way to check linguistic relevance is the frequency of terms mentioned in the text. In the Huangdi Neijing, the term “Yang” appears nearly 2 000 times, the term “Yin” nearly 1 400 times, including “Yinyang” (nearly 300 times), as well as the terms “Taiyang”, “Shaoyang”, “Yangming”, “Taiyin”, “Shaoyin” and “Jueyin” (the term “Jueyin” in the Lingshu significantly less than in the SuwenSuwen more than 80; Lingshu less than 30], proving once more that Suwen and Lingshu were written by different authors).
     The term Wuxing is mentioned only 25 times (Suwen 18, Lingshu 7). Additionally, the term “Shui” (水, Water) is mentioned about 390 times, the term “Huo” (火, Fire) about 210 times (Suwen about 180, Lingshu less than 30; again a striking difference in frequency between Suwen and Lingshu); but not more than half of it is meant in the sense of the Wuxing system. The three elements generally used within the Wuxing context (木 Mu, 土 Tu, 金 Jin) appear much less, and again with a striking difference between Suwen and Lingshu (which do not differ very much in total length, Suwen containing about 120 000 and Lingshu about 90 000 characters): “Mu” is mentioned about 125 times in the Huangdi Neijing (Suwen about 100, Lingshu about 25); “Jin” about 100 times (Suwen 80; Lingshu 20); “Tu” about 70 times (Suwen 60; Lingshu 10).
     Naturally, quantity alone is no proof for the importance of concepts. However, as mentioned above, there are several statements about the importance of Yin and Yang which have no counterpart in the description of the Wuxing concept.
     The first answer in the Suwen, which Qibo gives to the Yellow Emperor, states: “The ancients knew the Dao and followed the law of Yin and Yang (上古之人,其知道者,法于阴阳).” In the second chapter, this view is emphasized as a guideline for human behaviour and way of living: “Following (the law of) Yin and Yang means to live, and acting against it means to die (从阴阳则生,逆之则死).”
     And the 5th chapter explains: Yin and Yang are the eternal way of the Heaven and the Earth (阴阳者,天地之道也), the guiding principle of all things (万物之纲纪), father and mother of change (变化之父母), root and beginning of life and death (生杀之本始), residence of the deities (神明之府也), root and guiding principle of healing (治病必求于本).
     Nothing like this is ever said of the Wuxing concept. Moreover, in the whole text there is no example how one could willingly influence the Wuxing sequence, or how one might act against its laws, thus hurting himself.
2.2  Wuxing today
What, however, is the Wuxing xueshuo (五行学说) today?
     According to the dictionaries (for example, the Chinese-English Chinese Traditional Medical Word-Ocean Dictionary = 汉英中医辞海, Taiyuan 1995, the most comprehensive English-Chinese TCM dictionary ever published), the Wuxing concept basically means several sequences within a circle of 5 elements or “phases”. First, there is the “producing (or promoting) sequence” (五行相生 wu xing xiang sheng): Wood producing Fire, Fire producing Earth, Earth producing Metal, Metal producing Water, Water producing Wood. Second, a sequence of “controlling” or restricting (五行相克 wu xing xiang ke), which results out of the first sequence if one element or phase is left out: Wood restricting Earth, Earth restricting Water, Water restricting Fire, Fire restricting Metal, Metal restricting Wood. There is a third and a fourth sequence of less importance, called over-restriction (五行相乘 wu xing xiang cheng) and counter-restriction (五行相侮 wu xing xiang wu). And whilst relationships like “Metal producing Water” (金生水 jin sheng shui) or “Wood restricting Earth” (木克土 mu ke tu) can be found in most TCM dictionaries, phrases like “Metal over-restricting Wood” (金乘土 jin cheng tu) or “Wood counter-restricting Metal” (木侮金 mu wu jin) are mentioned only in the more detailed dictionaries.
     There is a very explicit circle of aspects producing each other in the Huangdi Neijing, first presented in the 5th chapter and most of it repeated in the 67th chapter. Among these aspects, the Wuxing “elements” or “phases” are only one part of many aspects, all of them said to produce something, and all of them starting with a direction.
     And we have to state a surprising fact: None of the basic relationships constituting the Wuxing system as presented today can be found in the Huangdi Neijing. 金生水 (jin sheng shui, Metal producing/promoting Water)? Not mentioned exactly in these words in the Huangdi Neijing. 木克土 (mu ke tu, Wood controlling/restricting earth)? Not in the Huangdi Neijing. And even more: the character 克 (ke, restrict) cannot be found in the whole text, neither in the Suwen nor in the Lingshu. As well, wu (侮) can be found only twice, and cheng (乘) is never used in direct combination with Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal or Water.
     Moreover, the definitions in modern TCM books give the impression that the five “elements” Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water are the center of the whole system, and the tastes, directions, developing phases, climatic influences, tissues, organs, emotions, etc. are attached as secondary qualities or relationships. But a look at the Huangdi Neijing shows something different. The decisive sequences start with a direction, and in the sequences of mutual influences the alleged “basic elements constituting the whole universe” are only of secondary importance. Let us have a look at the text:
     “The East produces the Wind (东方生风 dong fang sheng feng), the Wind produces the Wood (风生木 feng sheng mu), the Wood produces the sour taste (木生酸 mu sheng suan), the sour taste produces the Liver (酸生肝 suan sheng gan), the Liver produces the muscles and sinews (肝生筋 gan sheng jin), the muscles and sinews produce the heart (筋生心 jin sheng xin), the Liver controls the eye (肝主目 gan zhu mu)”.
     Most modern TCM authors do not discuss these statements. And if the text is translated, the basic question is: How to translate 生 (sheng)? If we translate it as “producing” or “begetting”, there could be no doubt that the whole sequence is nothing but a mystical speculation. True TCM friends, however, dislike pronouncing such a harsh judgement. The result usually is quite funny. In the text itself, there is no hint that the meaning of 生 (sheng), repeated 6 times, should be different from phrase to phrase. Nevertheless, a translation of the Suwen like in the Chinese-English “Library of Chinese Classics” (Xi’an 2005) gives 3 different translations within these few lines: “The east produces wind, the wind promotes [the growth] of trees, the trees produces sour [taste], the sour nourishes the liver, [the blood stored in the] liver nourishes the sinews, the sinews nourishes the heart and the liver controls the eyes.
     However, in which way should the wind (apart from bringing rain) “promote the growth of trees”? Why does the statement “the sinews nourishes the heart” [the grammatical mistakes “sinews nourishes” and “trees produces” being printed there] seem more logical than the statement “the sinews produce the heart”? And is there any hint in nature that indeed “the east produces wind”? (For example, in Europe there is more wind blowing from the west than from the east). Is there any hint in nature that, according to the next paragraph in the Huangdi Neijing, “the north produces cold” (北方生寒 bei fang sheng han)? No — apart from some hardcore Huangdi Neijing believers, anyone will agree that these sequences are nothing but (though beautiful) pseudo-philosophical speculations.


3  Yinyang and Wuxing as philosophical systems
3.1  Priority
Which of the two concepts came first?
     Today, most authors think that Yinyang was first and Wuxing came later. However, there is no proof to it. Zou Yan is said to have been the first philosopher to write extensively about the Wuxing concept, but all his writings are lost.
     I myself think it possible that the Wuxing concept was developed in two steps. The first step may have been a rudimentary idea of four or five basic elements forming the whole universe, comparable to the Greek system of fire, water, air and earth. There might have been, like in Greece, the idea of permanent interaction of these elements forming万物 (wan wu, the “ten thousand things”), as well as all the living beings, but without the idea of a preferred sequence resulting in a circle. Then, maybe, came the Yinyang system and its idea of mutual transformation, waning and waxing. Encouraged by the success of the Yinyang concept, the idea of a circular transformation might have been attached to the Wuxing, forming a circle of mutual production and promotion, and another circle of domination and restriction, and even a third one of counter-restriction.
     It may have been like this. But this is nothing but speculation.
3.2  Definitions, translations, and interpretations
There are several texts mentioning the two systems which survived more than 2 000 years. Of course it would be interesting to start our research there. We might follow the way how the terms Yin and Yang are used in the Book of Songs (诗经) and the Book of Changes (易经). What was their original meaning? How did the concepts develop? We might consider the question if originally they were meant as substances or as forces or both, and when they started to be mainly considered as aspects or categories.
     However, the aim of this essay is not philosophy, but application in medicine. So, I’ll limit myself to the use of the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept as presented today in recent Chinese books on TCM.
     A concise description is given in Terminology of TCM (实用中医名词术语, Changsha, 2nd edition 2005):
     YIN AND YANG. They are general terms for two opposite aspects of matters and phenomena in the Nature, which are interrelated and opposed to each other. They represent not only two different matters in opposition but two opposite aspects in the same entity. In TCM, they are used to summarize and explain the problems in the fields of anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis, treatment, etc. Generally speaking, matters and phenomena, which are dynamic, external, upward, ascending, brilliant, progressive, hyperactive, or pertaining to functional activities belong to the category of Yang. Those which are static, internal, downward, descending, dull, retrogressive, hypoactive, or pertaining to materials, belong to that of Yin.
     The English text describes Yin and Yang mainly as “aspects (of matters and phenomena)”. The Chinese text, however, is less clear: 对立双方的概括 dui li shuang fang de gai kuo). And where the English text speaks of “the category of Yang”, the Chinese text only states that anything moving or advancing “belongs to Yang” (属于阳 shu yu yang).
     The description of the Wuxing concept in the same book is less detailed, but nevertheless highly interesting:
     THE FIVE ELEMENTS (THE FIVE ACTIVITIES OF THE FIVE PRINCIPLES IN ACTION) The ancients thought that the five kinds of materials — metal, wood, water, fire, and earth — were the indispensable and most fundamental elements in constituting the Universe. There existed enhancing, inhibiting and restraining relationships among them. They were also in constant motion and change. In TCM, they are used to explain and expand a series of medical problems by comparing with and deducing from such properties and mutual relationships.
3.3  Are the Wuxing substances? Elements? Activities? Principles?
The definition above, describing the nature of the Wuxing, is quite strange. First, the decisive part of the English translation (“activities of principles in action”) is redundant (“activities ... action”). Second, it does not exist in the Chinese part, which only states: “[五行] wu xing 古人认为金,木,水,火,土五种物质,是构成世界不可缺少的最基本元素 ...” Both Chinese terms, 物质 (wu zhi) as well as 元素 (yuan su), clearly mean “matter” or “element”.
     So, the English part of the text is not a translation, but an interpretation — and a very confusing one. There are two Chinese terms物质 (wu zhi) and元素 (yuan su), basically with a material meaning. On the other hand, there are four English terms, two of them meaning substances (“elements”, “materials”), and two of them with a non-material meaning (“activities”, “principles”). So, what did the “ancients” mean? Substances or principles? Or did they originally mean 5 basic substances, and in later times the meaning changed, now indicating principles or activities?
     The text does not answer this question.
3.4  Are “producing/breeding/giving birth to” and “enhancing” really the same?
Let us forget this problem for a moment and consider another question: which kinds of relationship exist between the Wuxing?
     Again, the English text is not just a translation, but an interpretation. In Chinese, the first relationship is described as 资生 (zi sheng) — the first part (资 zi) meaning “subsidize, support, help, aid, serve”; the second part (生 sheng) meaning “give birth to, breed, create, bear, produce”. The next relationship制约 (zhi yue) is a 2-character-word meaning “restrict”. In translating资生 (zi sheng), however, the English text ignores the character 生 (sheng), and translates (or interprets) the relationship as “enhancing”.
     However, there is a vast difference between “produce/breed/give birth to” and “enhance/promote”. Let us take an apple: man can “enhance” apples by watering and fertilizing a tree. But only the apple tree can “produce” apples. Or man itself: any father is expected to “promote” or “enhance” his son, but only a mother can give birth to it. So, what does the term “produce” mean, concerning the Wuxing? And what do the terms “enhance/promote” and “restrict/dominate” mean?
     Naturally, the answer will be quite different if we talk about substances or about principles/activities. Can an activity or a principle really “produce” other principles or activities?
     Yes, it can. For example, hate produces war, and war produces hate, a very simple and common circle. The Greek philosopher Empedokles thought that the 4 basic elements were water, fire, earth and air, and that they were moved by “love” and “hate”, thus creating the whole universe. But what about the Wuxing? Which “principles” or “activities” could stand for “Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water”?
     Maybe the alleged properties of these five entities? Wood being “extending and flexing”, Fire “warming and flaring up”, Earth “growing and nourishing”, Metal being “both hard and soft”, Water being “nourishing and flowing downwards” (definitions from A Practical Chinese-English Dictionary of TCM实用汉英中医词典, Jinan 2001)?
     No, surely not. None of these properties can be said to “produce” or even “enhance” the qualities of the next “principle”. Why should “extending and flexing” (Wood) produce or enhance “warmth and flaring up” (Fire)? Why should “warmth and flaring up” (Fire) produce a principle described as “growth and nourishment” (Earth)?
     Or the “restricting” cycle? Why should “extending and flexing” (Wood) restrict or overcome “growth and nourishment” (Earth)?
     No, this makes no sense.
     However, interpreting the Wuxing as substances and their relationship as “enhancing” makes no sense either. There are only two of the five relationships which might be interpreted this way: Wood “enhancing” Fire, and Water “enhancing” Wood. But the rest? Fire “enhancing” Earth? Or Earth “enhancing” Metal? The substance Metal “enhancing” the substance Water? Hard to believe.
     Still, let us stick to the question what the Wuxing might have meant originally. How did, according to the inventors of the concept, the change from one “element” to the next really happen?
3.5  Two meanings of “producing/generating”
Strange enough, even the term “producing” is by no means clear. In fact, there are two different forms of change in the sense of producing, or bringing something from non-being into being. First, there is the way a hen produces an egg, a cow milk, an apple tree apples or a mother producing a child: hen, cow, apple tree and mother remain more or less the same before and after production, remaining able to go on producing or giving birth. The second way is the way a butterfly is generated by the caterpillar: the latter one transforming itself into a butterfly and disappearing as a caterpillar.
     Apparently, the change from “Wood” to “Fire” to ash (“Earth”) follows the caterpillar model: Wood, while producing Fire, disappears nearly completely, being reduced to ash (Earth) — and what is left over of the wood after burning is not able to generate fire again. But what about “Earth producing Metal”? Or “Metal producing Water”? Does that mean, producing like the hen produces an egg, afterwards remaining the same as before? Or is there a certain amount of “Metal” disappearing while the same amount of “Water” is produced?
     The fact that these aspects are never specified confirms my suspicion that the whole system (be it, elements producing elements, or principles enhancing principles) has never been more than a speculation from the very beginning.
3.6  Yinyang is basically a non-material concept, whilst Wuxing is basically a material concept
Above, we have seen that the Wuxing sequences like “producing/generating/enhancing/promoting” or “dominating/restricting” make no sense if the Wuxing are considered as non-material “aspects”, “qualities”, “activities” or “principles”. Why should a principle like “Wood extending and flexing” produce or promote a principle like “Fire warming and flaring up”? Why should it dominate or restrict a principle like “Earth growing and nourishing”? No, this makes no sense. If we want to maintain some logic in this system, we have to stick to the original meaning of Wood, Earth, Metal and Water as substances (and Fire as something transforming the substance Wood to the substance ash/Earth).
     So, there is an important difference between both theories: Yinyang is basically a non-material concept, whilst Wuxing is basically a material concept.
     One might say: Well, at least in the beginning the Yinyang concept had some material basis. “Yang” originally meant “north of the river and south of the hill”, or “the sunny side of the hill”. “Yin” originally meant “south of the river and north of the hill” or “the shadowy side of the hill”. “Hill” or “River” — isn’t this something material? Besides, Yin represents the moon, Yang the sun. Isn’t this something material, too?
     Yes, maybe. But even when the terms Yin and Yang were created, the substance of the hills (earth, rocks, trees) or of the river (water) was not the central aspect of the Yinyang concept. Obviously, the substance of the hills north and south of the river — mainly earth and rocks — is the same, only their qualities (warm and sunny vs. cold and shadowy) are different, though constantly changing. The same with “sun” and “moon”: the important difference is not their substance (not known to the ancient world), but their way of manifestation, their influence, their character representing day and night.
     And when the concept was further developed, the non-material nature of the concept became more and more evident: Yang being active, bright, warm, expanding, rising; Yin being passive, dark, cold, constricting, sinking.
     Of course, the changes described by the Yinyang concept usually concern substances, things as well as living beings. Often, this implies significant changes: a child growing up, becoming an adult, an old man, a dead body; water getting cold and becoming ice, or getting hot and changing into steam. But child, man and dead body are different stages of the same being, or ice and steam different states of the same substance, changing into water again if ice gets warmer or steam colder. So, substance (or the material aspect) is indeed indispensable in the Yinyang concept, too. But the permanent changes described in it are not primarily changes in substance, but basically changes in the qualities of things or beings.
     The Wuxing concept, however, does only make sense as a theory of changes within Wood, Earth, Metal and Water as substances, and a fifth thing named “Fire” which is not really a substance, but which is treated like a substance when dealing with attributes and changes. Most definitions agree that the Wuxing (like in the “Contemporary Chinese Dictionary” cited above) originally meant substances to explain the origin of all things in the world. And the changes within the Wuxing concept are either changes in substance (wood producing fire, fire producing earth, earth producing metal, metal producing water, water producing wood) or restrictions of substance vs. substance: wood restricting earth, earth restricting water, water restricting fire, fire restricting metal, metal restricting wood.
3.7  2 versus 5: Yin and Yang
At first sight, one might think that this is concerning numbers, and comparing the concepts might be a question of numerology. But in fact, it is not. The important aspect of the Yinyang dualism is not the number “2” but the observation that the basic processes in life and nature are oscillating between two poles: from birth to death, inhaling to exhaling, dark to bright and back to dark again, oscillating from day to night to day, from summer to winter to summer, from warm to cold and back to warm again. This oscillation between the extremes is perfectly described in the Yinyang concept.
3.8  Why 5? Why Metal, Wood, Fire, but not Air?
The Wuxing concept is different. Even the number is arbitrary: Why 5? Why not 4? For example, let us take the two most unconvincing sequences in the Wuxing system: “Earth producing Metal”, and even more “Metal producing Water”. What if we ignore “Metal”? The sequence might as well be: “Wood produces Fire, Fire produces Earth, Earth produces Water, Water produces Wood”. Still not really convincing, but at least without the queer statement “Metal produces Water.”
     The next doubtful aspect of the Wuxing system is the choice of “elements” forming the material base of the whole system. And when I use the term “element” and not “evolutive phases” or the like, I do it on purpose. First, because “element” means something elementary, indispensable. Second, because the so-called “elements” of similar systems (namely the Greek, consisting of the 4 elements water, air, earth and fire) were never considered as static, but creating all kinds of substances and beings in constant change and interaction.
     Why is my 4-element system “wood, fire, earth, water” still unconvincing? One reason is that an absolutely indispensable element is missing: Air. In fact, constructing a system of “elements” or “elementary changing phases” without including air is nearly incredible. Air is everywhere. Rain and snow is coming from the clouds, which the ancients had to consider as a special form of air. Men and animals will die quickly if they cannot breathe, and even a fire will soon die if you put a cooking pot over it. How could anyone think of “elements” or “elementary evolutive phases” without including air?
     The Chinese-English Chinese Traditional Medical Word-Ocean Dictionary writes about the “Five Elements”: The ancients thought that everything in the universe is constituted of these 5 elements. Without air? Everything in the universe? Impossible.
     That “air” (or, using a different word, “wind”) was forgotten in the Wuxing system is even more surprising if we remember that there is another Chinese system describing universal relationships: the ancient Fengshui (风水) — a system which in recent years has conquered Western countries, too, though thoroughly degenerated as a guide to decorate your office and your living room.
     How could they ever forget “Air” or “Wind”? Maybe the dictionaries are wrong when they declare that the aim of the Wuxing system was to describe those elements which were really indispensable to create the universe. Maybe constructing some sequence of mutual creation was the only aim. Of course, proclaiming “Metal produces Water” was ridiculous. According to nature, where water is either coming from the clouds as rain water or from the earth as springs, it should have been “Clouds produce water”, which according to the ancient understanding had to be seen as “Air produces water”. But which element could be said to produce Air?
     So, for the sake of his system, the creators ignored the all-important “air” or “wind”. Personally, I think it possible that they themselves took this circle of sequences originally as a kind of joke, so they did not really care about logic. And because it was only a joke, the absurd sequence “Metal producing Water” was good enough.
     What about “Fire”? Different from the other 4 elements of the Wuxing concept, it has no substance. And different from the rest, it does not (apart from volcanos, which very few Chinese have ever seen) exist by itself. It needs either a lightning or man starting it. In fact, fire in nature usually is a special state of wood, dying immediately if no longer nourished.
     And where in nature was a thing called “metal”? Nearly nowhere. In some places, one might find a few nuggets of pure gold. But silver, copper, iron, lead, zinc were all hidden in ore, and to get it out of the ore needed fire. Probably, the man who invented the Wuxing system was living in a surrounding of mining, maybe iron-making. He saw that in mining there is, indeed, a sequence of wood producing fire, fire producing ash (which might be considered like earth), and earth somehow producing metal (but only in certain regions, and only with the help of wood, coal and fire). At that point, the circle of sequences already had come to an end. Metal producing Wood? Total nonsense, but good enough for a joke. Joking, one might pretend that metal, when melted, somehow resembled water, so the inventor of this funny system declared: “Metal produces Water, and Water produces Wood”. A joke, to be laughed about. Then he and his friends forgot about it.
     Had he known that later generations not only took this circle serious but even used it as a system describing man and universe, maybe he would have died of laughter.
3.9  Can the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept be confirmed in nature or society?
As to Yin and Yang, there are certain opposing qualities which seem elementary. Examples are activity/tranquility, brightness/darkness or warmth/coldness. Other qualities integrated into the system seem secondary or even doubtful, like “left side is Yang/right side is Yin”, or “the front of the body is Yin and the back is Yang”. And nature teaches us that even a central aspect of the system — Yang male and Yin female — is much less evident than it seems to be. Like “back side Yang/front side Yin”, it is probably more a result of social bias than a law of nature.
     However, the basic parts of the Yinyang dualism can be observed everywhere in nature: night becoming day, and day becoming dusk and night; winter changing into spring, summer and autumn back to cold winter; the pendulum in its lowest point being pure movement or kinetic energy, and in its highest point for a moment motionless and pure potential energy; hot water changing into steam, rising and expanding, the steam later cooling down, condensing and falling back to the ground. Or in society: money (pure Yang) changing into goods (Yin), and back into money again; a philosophical or political thought (pure Yang) becoming an institution with buildings, administration and property (Yin), until in the end it gives rise to new thoughts and new social movements (Yang).
     Nothing of this can be said of the 5 elements. Not only their choice is partly illogical, but their alleged interactions are unconvincing, too.
     “Wood producing Fire”? Maybe, but only with help from outside, because this process needs either a lightning from the sky or a man who puts fire to the wood. And as mentioned above: there is no fire without air.
      “Fire producing Earth”? No, not earth, but ashes. And even the creator of the Wuxing system would never have said that all the fields, mountains and deserts originally came from burning forests (which, however, could have grown only if there had been earth before).
     “Earth producing Metal?” No, not really. Apart from some pieces of gold which might be found in some places, it is man, not nature, who produces metal. To do this, he needs some special ore very rarely found, and furthermore he needs fire. However, any child can see in any forest that one thing which earth (with the help of water) really produces is wood.
     “Metal producing Water?” No, certainly not. The most unlearned peasant would say: “The fact that metal becomes fluid at high temperatures does not change it into water, and if anyone says so he should try to drink it or to cook his soup with it! Besides, every child knows that water comes from the rain clouds, which means out of the air.”
     “Water producing Wood”? If this was true, the oceans should be full of trees and plants. But in fact, if there are plants in a lake or in the ocean, they are mostly growing from the earth on the ground of the water, not just from pure water.
     Of course, I am aware that defenders of the Wuxing system might state: “The ‘Water’ of this system is not the real water, the ‘Metal’ not real metal, and its ‘Wood’ not the real wood in the forest.” However, if this was the case — what did the inventors mean? And why did they call it wood, fire, earth, metal, water? And why did they omit the all-important air (or wind)?
     In plain words: the Yinyang concept can be observed and confirmed everywhere in nature and society — the Wuxing concept, nowhere.
3.10  Comparing Yinyang changes and Wuxing changes
There is another aspect marking a vast difference in rank and value of the two concepts: the nature of changes they describe, concerning quality as well as quantity.
     a. The basic changes described by the Yinyang concept are necessary, unavoidable changes, whilst the Wuxing changes are occasional or accidental changes. Day must change into night, and night into day. Summer must change into autumn and winter, and back into spring and summer again — there is no way to stop it and to alter it. Quite the contrary, none of the changes within the Wuxing system is necessary or unavoidable. Wood producing Fire? Only if there is a lightning, or man puts fire to the wood — if not, a tree will remain a tree for decades or centuries. Fire producing ashes? The same. Earth producing Metal? Even if there is iron ore hidden in the depth, only if man starts digging for it. Metal producing Water? Never. Clean, pure Water producing Wood? Nowhere.
     The same with the restricting or dominating sequence. Wood restricting or dominating Earth? Only if someone starts ploughing. Fire dominating Metal? Only if man puts it into a furnace and heating it with wood or coal. Earth dominating Water? Only if man works with all his strength, constructing dikes and dams. Metal dominating Wood? Only if man uses it as a saw or an axe. Water dominating Fire? Only if man puts it on the fire, or there is rain falling. Nothing of this is necessary. Nothing is unavoidable. Nothing happens because of an eternal law of nature, like is the case in the change from day and night, summer and winter.
     b. This difference in the quality of change within the Yinyang system and the Wuxing system leads to a decisive difference in quantity: The changes within the Yinyang system are universal changes, whilst the Wuxing changes (if happening at all) only concern a small amount or a small area. Night changing into day, summer into winter affect the whole nature, the whole mankind. Wood changing into Fire and into ashes, if happening somewhere, only affects a certain place. The vast majority of wood does NOT change into fire, but goes on growing and will be cut down, and if not cut down by man will eventually collapse, rot and decompose. Or “Fire dominating Metal”: comparing all the fire and all the metal existing, only a small part of all the fire in the world dominates a small part of all the metal in the world, and if it does, only for some hours. And even the strictest believer of the Wuxing system would never dare to proclaim that all the earth we are living and walking on was produced by fire, or all the water in the world was produced by metal.
     Considering this huge difference in quality and quantity of the changes described by the Yinyang concept and the Wuxing concept, it seems quite astonishing how these two systems could ever be considered as equally valid and valuable.


4  Medical aspects of Yinyang and Wuxing
Above, we mentioned that the Bagang as guiding diagnostic criteria are manifestations of the Yinyang concept. However, they can be applied to scientific medical diagnostics as well (and, in my point of view, should be applied there). And there are other aspects where the Yinyang concept can describe influences and pathologic changes: a virus (Yang) influencing the genetic information of cells which afterwards become cancer cells and form tumours (Yin); inflammation and arthritis (Yang) changing into arthrosis and deformation (Yin); acute processes like sepsis (Yang) leading either to death or to kidney failure or to lasting debility (Yin). It is my conviction that integrating the Yinyang concept into scientific medicine is not only possible, but would be useful and helpful.
     Trying to integrate the Wuxing concept into modern medicine, however, poses several fundamental problems.
     The first problem, as shown above, is that the choice of those 5 “elements” or “phases”, lacking the all-important air, is in no way logical and convincing.
     The second problem is that the mutual influences and interactions of those arbitrarily chosen elements are even less convincing.
     The third problem concerns the qualities of the Wuzang “Heart, Lung, Spleen, Liver, Kidney”. What the heart is and does in biology, I know as well as any Chinese school boy knows today. Apart from this knowledge, why should it be useful to think of a different “Heart” which is said to “produce blood” (心生血 xin sheng xue), and to “store the spirit” (心藏神 xin cang shen)? Is this really helpful or even necessary if I want to use acupuncture, qigong or Chinese herbs? Do I really need an additional “Liver” which is said to “store blood” (肝藏血 gan cang xue) and is “in charge of planning and consideration” (肝主谋虑 gan zhu mou lü)? Or a “Spleen” which “reigns blood” (脾统血 pi tong xue) and “controls transport and digestion” (脾主运化 pi zhu yun hua)? Or a “Kidney” which “stores essence” (肾藏精 shen cang jing) and “provides strength” (肾主作强 shen zhu zuo qiang)? As a scientifically trained doctor and teacher, I am not willing to believe this like some kind of religion. For the sake of my patients and my pupils, I need some proof that using these terms and concepts is necessary, or at least helpful.
     The fourth problem is if and why it should make sense to associate each of the “organs” named “Liver”, “Heart”, “Spleen”, “Lung” and “Kidney” with one of the five elements of the Wuxing concept. Why should a non-existing organ called “Liver” which in TCM is said to “store blood” and “to be in charge of planning and consideration” belong to the element “Wood”? Who found out (or why should it be useful to think so) that a non-existing organ called “Spleen” which in TCM is said to “reign blood” and “control transport and digestion” should belong to the element “Earth”? Who found out (or why should it be useful to think so) that the lung belongs to the element “Metal”? — None of my several hundred TCM books gives a satisfying answer to these questions.
     Of course, I know pretty well that modern TCM friends insist that the Wuzang did not mean anatomical organs, but functions or even functional systems. Unfortunately, this raises two new questions. The first: Is there really a “function” or a “functional system” which “produces blood and stores the spirit” (No, there isn’t), or a functional system which “stores blood and is in charge of planning and consideration” (No, there isn’t), or a functional system which “stores essence and provides strength” (No, there isn’t)? — And even if there were, there would still be the second question: Why should the organ or the functional system which “produces blood and stores the spirit” belong to the element “Fire”? Why should the functional system which “stores blood and is in charge of planning and consideration” belong to the element “Wood”?
     In conclusion, we saw that the choice of the 5 “elements” forming the Wuxing (neglecting Air!) was in no way convincing. Their way of mutual influence and interacting, culminating in the statement of “Metal producing (or promoting) Water”, is even less convincing. Associating these 5 arbitrarily chosen elements to 5 non-existing organs or “functional systems” lacks medical reason. And there is no reason at all to believe that because “Metal” in this completely speculative system is said to “promote Water”, and because in an equally speculative way the “Lung” is said to belong to “Metal”, this very lung really should promote the function of the “Kidney” which is said to belong to “Water”, and control the function of the “Liver” which is said to belong to “Wood”.
     This whole sequence of relations, promotions, controls and inhibitions described in the Wuxing concept is not only contradicting biology, but also contradicting logic and common sense.


5  Summary
There is no question that the theoretical and practical value of the Yinyang concept is by far higher than the value of the Wuxing concept. I consider Yin and Yang as one of the greatest discoveries ever made, being deep philosophy as well as deep science. Using this concept seems useful even in combination with the most advanced methods of modern pathology, diagnosis and therapy.
     The Wuxing concept, however, I consider as a purely speculative system without logic and reason. The probability that it leads to useless or even wrong conclusions seems much higher than the possibility to result in something useful.
     I know that many TCM authors and practitioners will object. However, I see good reasons to demand one thing: that they should prove in detail, why they consider the Wuxing concept not only as helpful and useful, but even as essential for the future of TCM.

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