European philosophy has long been dominated by questions of epistemology: what do we know? how do we know it? how can we justify our claims to knowledge? Chinese philosophy — perhaps because of its origins in practical political thought — has been dominated instead by questions of change: why is there change rather than stability? what is the relationship between change and human action? are there patterns of change that we can detect and use to our advantage?
The concept of the wŭxíng 五行 was proposed by the philosopher Zou Yan 鄒衍 (fl. c. 350-270 BCE) as one answer to that last question.
The character wŭ 五 is the numeral five. The folk etymology of the character xíng 行 sees it as depicting a man walking, putting first his left foot forward and then his right (Rochat, 2009, p. 76). But the character was originally a pictogram depicting a street intersection, as can be seen in some of its earlier forms (“行,” 2014, “Etymology,” para. 1):
|Oracle bone script||Bronze inscriptions||Large seal script||Small seal script|
The term xíng represents a cluster of concepts that includes go, walk, move, travel, and circulate. By extension, it means behavior, conduct, practice; as a transitive verb, it means guide, lead, conduct. The Báihǔ tōng 白虎通 — a record of debates among leading Confucian scholars at the court of the emperor Han Zhang Di 漢章帝 beginning in 79 CE — asks why the five xíng 行 are called by that name, and answers with a typical Chinese etymology: they are called 行, it says, because heaven 行s — conducts, moves, puts in motion — their qì (quoted in Rochat, 2009, p. 67).
Whatever xíng may be in this context, there are five of them, all tangible, natural materials — wood mù 木, fire huǒ 火, earth tǔ 土, metal jīn 金, and water shuǐ 水. The term xíng has been variously translated into English as element, phase, agent, movement, process, and stage. All of these are attempts to capture, in one way or another, the idea that the xíng are simultaneously substances and processes; indeed, one awkward translation calls them process-classifications (Chen, 1996, p. 200); another calls them material forces (Yao, 2000, p.82).
The Chinese were certainly not interested, as were the ancient Greeks, in discovering the ultimate constituents of the material world, or seeking to penetrate the world of appearances to some ultimate reality beyond it. Rather, as Benjamin Schwartz (1985, pp. 358-360) puts it, the Chinese were concerned with accepting the world as they found it, correlating the realities of ordinary experience, and interrelating the manifold world of experience into a meaningful and patterned whole.
Why five? Perhaps so that they can be counted on the fingers; perhaps because there are four directions and a center. We do know that the Confucian texts are full of fives — five excellences, five talents, the five qualities of the sage, five colors, five notes, five duties (Rochat, 2009, pp. 35-36).
The concept of the five xíng ranges from the concrete to the abstract. All the xíng appear in another list, that of the six treasuries or storehouses liùfǔ 六府 — water, fire, metal, wood, and soil, to which is added grain — that constitute the substantial necessities for human civilization, and for which the government is responsible. Thus, in the Shūjīng 書經, the legendary king Yü the Great 大禹 is reported to have counseled:
Virtue is seen in the goodness of the government, and the government is tested by its nourishing of the people. There are water, fire, metal, wood, soil, and grain — these must be duly regulated; there are the rectification of the people’s virtues, the conveniences of life, and the securing of abundant means of sustentation — these must be harmoniously attended to (quoted in Geiss, 1988, p. 403 n. 1; Unschuld, 2010, p. 59).
Here there is little doubt that the five xíng, along with grain, are material objects of use and consumption.
On the other hand, for Zou Yan these five xíng were primarily a conceptual tool for understanding history — specifically, the succession of dynasties. He called them by the abstract expression wŭdé 五德, meaning the five virtues or powers. The term dé 德 is here the same as that found in Laozi’s Dàodéjīng 道德經.
There is a further level of abstraction. In the Hóngfàn 洪範 “Great Plan” chapter of the Shūjīng 書經 we read: “Water is said to soak and descend; fire is said to blaze and ascend; wood is said to be curved or straight; metal is said to conform and solidify; earth is said to take seed and give harvest” (Ho, 2000, p. 170; Chen, 1996, p. 200; Wang, 2012, p. 37; Rochat, 2009, p. 27).
I think the proper reading here is not so much that water soaks and descends as that whatever soaks and descends is — in some way — water. In other words, all stream-like processes of flowing or continuity are under the sign of water, and are connected to each other in a variety of ways, most importantly by occupying the place of water in the cycles of generation and inhibition.
The same is true for the other xíng. Blazing and ascending are properties of all combustion processes, including metaphorical combustion — warmth, passion, impulse, spirit, the fire in the heart. The properties of wood that allow it to be curved or straightened align it with all the processes of shaping, cutting, and making — birth, ideation, creativity, expression. The qualities of earth that allow planting and harvest embrace stability, regularity, centeredness, nourishment, productivity. Metal poured in a mold first conforms and then hardens; so do all things that adapt, comply, and become firm (see Chen, 1996, p. 201; Tierra, 1998, p. 31; Zhu & Wang, 2010, p. 30).
Each of the five xíng has a number of such associated concepts, extending from the transparent to the puzzling. Wood, for example, is associated with the liver gān 肝 and gall bladder dǎn 胆, with springtime and the eyes, with anger and the time from 1:00 am to 3:00 am, with leeks, chickens, and plums. And there are a lot of such associations. Warren (2002, pp. 27-28) lists fourteen for each xíng; Tierra (1998, pp. 29-30) lists twenty-five.
Some of these associations are fairly clear. Wood — the character mù 木 also means “tree” — is considered to represent growth, germination, expansion, spreading out. It is therefore associated with springtime, when temperatures increase and the weather is windy, when trees and grass turn green, when fruit is sour and not yet ripe.
Thus — at least in China, situated in the northern temperate zone — wood is associated with springtime, wind, germination, growth, green, and sour tastes (Liu, 1988, p. 49). Or perhaps wood is associated with a sour taste because decaying wood has a sour taste (Ho, 2000, p. 170); or perhaps because wood opens up, clears the way, gets rid of obstacles, just as does an acid, which has a sour taste (Rochat, 2009, p. 94). Clearly there is a lot of room here for creativity.
Such associations become important in Chinese medicine. The basic features of water are coldness, downward motion, moistness, and contraction, and those of fire are heat, dryness, upward motion, and meltability. Thus, in Chinese medicine, the kidney shèn 腎 and urinary bladder pángguāng 膀胱 are associated with winter, cold, north, and water, and the heart xīn 心 is associated with summer, heat, south, and fire (Lo, 1986, p. 221).
But many medical associations are less transparent and more dependent on specifically Chinese medical concepts. For example, why is the liver associated with wood? Because, we are told, the liver prefers a moist environment, its qi likes to ascend, and, when diseased, it produces symptoms of the wind pathogen, such as tremors and convulsions (Liu, 1988, p. 49). Or again: because, we are told, just as wood can bend or straighten, and the leaves and branches of a tree are free, growing, and movable, the liver prefers free movement and dislikes being prohibited, and functions to promote the free flow of qi (Zhu & Wang, 2010, p. 38). Even more: the liver connects to the gall bladder, controls the tendons, opens into the eyes, and manifests in the nails. Therefore, since the liver is associated with wood, then the gall bladder, tendons, eyes, and nails are associated with wood as well (Zhu & Wang, 2010, p. 32).
The following table (see Warren, 2002, pp. 27-28; Tierra, 1998, pp. 29-30) lists some of the more common associations of the five xíng.
|Spleen||Lungs||Kidney||Fŭ||Gall bladder||Small intestine,
|Body part||Muscles/ tendons||Blood vessels||Flesh||Skin||Bones|
|Manifestation||Nails||Complexion||Lips||Body hair||Head hair|