Yin-Yang and The Five Phases Theory

Five colorful leafes laying on a wooden basis.

The Five Phases theory, a.k.a. wu xing, as well as the yin-yang formulation are imprinted in the works of all the most prominent thinkers of Chinese antiquity. Personalities like Lao Tzu, Confucius and Mencius, as well as many emperors and outstanding politicians have been inspired by the ideas and way of thinking expressed by the School of Yin Yang.

The adepts of this school believed in a universal principle in which all existing phenomena fit. They were named the Naturalists, and their domains of interest ranged from astronomy and astrology, to alchemy, healing and even philosophy and geomancy.

The wisdom gathered by the School of Naturalists, or the School of Yin Yang, was determinant in the construction of one of the most important cosmological models from antique China. For the adepts of this school, the material world is a momentary manifestation of a deeper reality.

Table of Contents

Yin Yang Theory Basics

The Chinese School of Yin Yang is based on a cosmologic model where yin and yang represent the two extremes of the basic polarity present in all manifest phenomena. This first binary classification is connotative of the fundamental dualism in which the physical world manifests itself.

Yin and yang can be compared to the two faces of a coin, in that they always relate to the two extremes of a unit. Hence, there’s no possible absolute yin, nor absolute yang. One is always inseparably flowing to and from the other, in a dance whose dynamics dictate the flow of life force.

The Tao existed before its name, and from its name, the opposites evolved, giving rise to three divisions, and then to names abundant. These things embrace receptively, achieving inner harmony, and by their unity create the inner world of man.

The Tao Te Ching, translation by Stan Rosenthal, chapter 42

In the simplified Chinese language, yin translates as “moon” and yang translates as “sun”, nonetheless, these two concepts are best represented by the female and male genders, and their most essential definition is activity (yang), and passivity (yin).

Four Images

In the I Ching, a Chinese text from approximately 1000–750 BC, yin and yang are presented as a binary, arithmetic, and geometric system. According to the I Ching, change is the only existing permanent truth, and it is cyclic. The way to predict how change is going to unfold starts with yin and yang.

This taijitu model is a symbol from around the XII century that represents knowledge about the fabric of reality. It illustrates the cyclic dynamics of yin-yang.


Yin is at its peak, and yang is reduced to its minimal possible expression. Corresponds to midnight, or to the winter solstice.


Yin is growing inside of yang, while yang is gradually decreasing. It corresponds to the moment where yin and yang are evenly balanced, as in the evenings or at the autumnal equinox.


Yang is at its peak, and yin is reduced to its minimal possible expression. Corresponds to midday, or to the summer solstice.


Yang is growing inside of yin, while yin is gradually decreasing. It corresponds to the exact moment when yin and yang are evenly balanced, such as in the mornings or at the spring equinox.

In Chinese references, the taijitu appears as a 2D symbol, however, some claim that in reality it encodes non-linear 3D information.

The Laws of  Yin & Yang 

In the yin yang theory, the two extremes operate in nature in ways determined by nature itself. The modus operandi of these two energies is established in the Laws of Yin and Yang, which can differ in number according to the source text, but are mainly four.

    • Yin and yang are opposites and mutually inhibiting.

Since yin and yang represent the two extremes of a unit they will always be opposites, and the increase of one always implies the decrease of the other. The classic example of what this law is referring to are the two extremes of light and shade.

    • Yin and yang have the same origins and mutually generate one another.

As in the previous example, light and shade have the same origin. In a fundamental sense yin is the absence of something, be it light, heat, activity, etc. Since yin and yang are the extremes of a given quality that has multiple “hues”, their origin is one with that of the quality of reference. The bigger the potential for the expression of one extreme, to that same measure the potential for the expression of the other extreme will be.

    • Their increase and diminution are in equilibrium.

The further into one extreme something is, be it yin or yang, that much further away from the other extreme it will be. Like in the seasons, the closer we get to summer and the peak or yang, this much further winter, the yin season, will be.

    • Yin and yang can transform into one another.

In the same way that night becomes day and the plants that grow during the warm days of spring dry and die in the winter, what is yin becomes yang, and what was once yang becomes yin, in an unending cycle.

Yin and Yang in TCM

In the Chinese system, Heat and its absence i.e. Cold, represent the most essential qualities of the human body. Heat is related to qiyang energy, and the male gender. Heat also distinguishes life from death in a sense, and at an atomic level, heat distinguishes movement from inactivity.

In TCM, yin and yang have clear designations. Starting from the energetic quality of gender; males are yang and with a tendency to suffer from excess conditions, while females are yin and with a tendency to suffer from insufficiency conditions.

All the constituents of the boy, including organs, fluids, and other body parts have a yin/yang classification in the Chinese system. Symptoms are also classified using the same criteria. This classification is the basis of diagnosis and treatment in TCM, since Chinese herbs and acupuncture points have their functions of regulation, enhancement, and dispersion based on the same yin/yang classification system.

The Five Phases

The yang-yang tool is further elaborated in the Five Phases theory, a mechanistic model superimposed upon the anatomical, physiological, and psychological aspects of the body in Chinese medicine.

There developed also the ideas of mutual production and mutual overcoming among the Five Agents, as well as the correspondence of them with five colors, five tones, five tastes, and the like. When this interest in correspondence was extended to the realm of political affairs, there emerged a cyclical philosophy of history on the one hand and the mutual influence between man and Nature on the other. Just as the seasons rotate, so does history; since man and Nature correspond to each other, they are expressions of the same force and therefore can influence each other.

A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy

The Five Agents theory, a.k.a. Five Phases refers to five elements, the wu hsing; namely Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. While the yin-yang are a pair of opposites, the Five Phases are five elements that generate one another in an ever-cyclic rotation.

Water hydrates and descends, Fire flames and ascends, Wood is allowed to twist and straighten, Metal is allowed to be shaped and hardened, and the Earth allows sowing, growth, and harvest. These are the fundamental qualities of the elements that are reflected by inner organs, the zangfu of TCM.

The Five Correspondences of TCM

This basic system reflects the mechanistic dynamics present in nature. The Five Phases Theory coalesces elements from different domains, from the elements of the seasons, and the organs in the body, to the sense organs, as well as diagnostic elements, in a system of correspondence between the pairs of zangfu and the other elements.

In the Five Phases, each one of the five main elements are composed of one zang, or yin organ, and one fuyang organ. These correspondences are the simplified scheme of classic Chinese medicine physiology. It is interesting to observe how Chinese medicine integrates elements of the seasons, times of the day and even colors into one unified system. All these seemingly unrelated aspects of nature are shown to be connected in an organized manner.

The color of the element refers to the color of the foods that benefit the zangfu of this element, and in some cases it coincides with the color of the crops harvested in the season of correspondence, like in the Fire phase. The same applies to taste. The sound is related to the five emotions of TCM, and the latter are tied to the psychological aspects that each organ carries. The smell refers to signs of pathology. Stage and direction have correspondences that are more subtle and conceptual. The condition is related to the seasons and the weather that is most harmful to the zangfu of correspondence. The opening and the tissues are physiologically connected to the zangfu.

Generation, Opposition, Control and Inhibition

By User:Manonastreet – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalance.jpg#file, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15187602

This version of the classic Five Phases diagram simplifies the interactions between the elements. The appropriate direction of each interaction has determinant consequences for health and homeostatic equilibrium in Chinese medicine.

According to the cycle of generation (a.k.a. cycle of creation):

    • wood feeds the fire;
    • fire, with its ashes, produces earth;
    • earth houses the minerals;
    • minerals feed the water;
    • water gives life to wood.

According to the cycle of control (a.k.a cycle of domination):

    • the wood is nourished by the earth;
    • the earth retains water;
    • water puts out the fire;
    • fire melts metal;
    • metal cuts wood.

The Five Phases are applied in Chinese medicine along with the yin-yang formulation. When an organ is in “excess” we can use the five phases to determine what organ will be affected next. The same logic is applied in the prediction of the etiologic evolution of a determined pathology. This theory constitutes the foundation of physiology and diagnosis in the Chinese system of medicine.

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