Culture Corner

The Five Elements and the Chinese Zodiac

Many people have heard of the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals, but did you know that each lunar year is also associated with one of five elements?

In Chinese philosophy, the five elements (五行 wŭ xíng) -- wood (木 mù), fire (火 huŏ), earth (土 tŭ), metal (金 jīn),  and water (水 shuĭ) -- are key concepts used to describe the interactions and relationships between entities in the natural world. This Five Elements Theory first became popular during the Spring and Autumn Period 770-476 B.C.E., and is applied to a wide range of fields including Chinese medicine, fēngshuĭ (风水) , divination, and even martial arts. Each element is associated with specific characteristics such as season, color, direction, etc.

The five elements also have specific relationships with each other that can broadly be described as "Generating" (相生 xiāng shēng) and "Overcoming" (相 xiāng kè) interactions. "Generating" actions describe ways that one element increases the presence and potency of another element. "Overcoming" interactions describe the way that one element destroys or negates another element.

The Five Elements' Generating Interactions are:

  • Wood fuels fire.
  • Fire forms earth (volcanoes, ash, etc.).
  • Earth contains metal.
  • Metal carries water (buckets, pipes, etc.).
  • Water feeds wood (trees, plants, etc.).

The Five Elements' Overcoming Interactions are:

  • Fire melts metal
  • Metal penetrates wood (chopping, sawing, drilling, nailing, screwing).
  • Wood separates earth (tree roots breaking up soil/rock).
  • Earth absorbs water.
  • Water quenches fire.

Everybody belongs to one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs as well as one of the five elements, calculated by birth year. While the zodiac animal changes each year (so that the cycle repeats every 12 years), the elements change every 12 years, so that it takes 60 years to complete one cycle of the five elements. Chinese astrology asserts that personality and luck are determined by both zodiac sign (element) and 12-year cycle element, while life force (气 qì) is determined by birth date and time. Aligning your lifestyle choices with the characteristics of your Zodiac sign, element, and qì will help you attract good luck and smooth obstacles in your path. For example, a person born in 2017 would be a Fire Rooster. They should be sure to keep wood materials and plants (preferably gladiola or cockscomb, as they are lucky for roosters) close at hand in order to "fuel fire", as well as keep their work station facing South or Southeast in order to increase energy and good luck. 


Source: China Highlights, "China's Five Elements Philosophy - Wood, Fire, earth, Metal, and Water"

Source: The Nation, "Chicken Saves Family from House Fire"