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.
Human beings have believed that all matter can be divided into basic elements for a very long time. Although we now know that the basic building block of the universe is atoms, what did ancient people believe matter was made of?
In ancient Greece, the seat of Western culture, it was believed that everything was made from the four elements: earth, fire, water and air. According to Aristotle, every element has a primary and secondary characteristic, with the four characteristics being hot, cold, dry and wet. Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot, fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry, earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold and water is primarily cold and secondarily wet. He also spoke of a fifth element (quintessence) beyond the four elements. The name of the fifth element is aether and it is a pure and heavenly element that cannot be corrupted like the earthly four elements. Furthermore, it was thought that aether was the element of the sky and stars were composed of it as they were heavenly, not earthly.
The four classic elements of ancient Greece had an impact not only on physics and chemistry, but also on philosophy and culture (the concept of the four elements is popular in modern games too). The most interesting example of these is a theory by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, that states that the human body is composed of four bodily fluids (humours) and an imbalance between the humours caused diseases. The four humours are yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air) and phlegm (water). Furthermore, he believed that the four humours affected personalities too. For example, an excess of black bile (“melan chole” in Greek) would cause a person to become introspective and think negatively, leading to depression or “melancholy”. This is quite possibly the first medical records on clinical depression.
The four classic elements of ancient Greece can also be found in ancient Egypt and many other ancient civilisations. It also had a significant influence on alchemy in the Middle Ages.