In ancient China and Korea, there are five, not four, basic elements (Japan also has five but they are slightly different). In the East, these five elements are called “oh hang (오행, 五行)” in Korean and “wu xing” in China. These are (read in Korean): hwa (火, fire), su (水, water), mok (木, wood), geum (金, metal), and toh (土, earth). When you combined with the theory of Yin and Yang, the concept is known as the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements theory (eum yang oh hang sul, 음양오행설). Wu Xing is quite different from the Four Elements of ancient Greece in that it explains the changes in life and the universe rather than being the building blocks of matter (“wu xing” translates to “five ways”). To first understand Wu Xing, one must understand that each element is more of an abstract concept than the actual object. For example, “mok” does not mean wood per se, but rather a symbol for the life force of a growing tree.
There are two relationships between the elements in Wu Xing: Creation (상생, 相生) and Destruction (상극, 相剋). Creation refers to the cyclic principle of what generates what, and Destruction refers to what overcomes and represses what. The Creation and Destruction of Wu Xing are as follows:
- 목생화(木生火): Wood creates Fire. Wood feeds Fire.
- 화생토(火生土): Fire creates Earth. Fire makes ash which becomes Earth.
- 토생금(土生金): Earth creates Metal. Earth bears Metal.
- 금생수(金生水): Metal creates Water. Metal carries Water.
- 수생목(水生木): Water creates Wood. Water nourishes Wood.
- 목극토(木剋土): Wood beats Earth. Wood takes roots in Earth.
- 토극수(土剋水): Earth beats Water. Earth absorbs Water.
- 수극화(水剋火): Water beats Fire. Water quenches Fire.
- 화극금(火剋金): Fire beats Metal. Fire melts Metal.
- 금극목(金剋木): Metal beats Wood. Metal chops Wood.
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