Introduction to TCM

Basics of TCM

  • Yin-Yang | Five Elements

Zang-Fu Theories

  • Zang Organs | Fu Organs

Classification of Antineoplastic Herbal Medicines

Characteristics of Herbal Medicines


  • By Auscultation & Olfaction
  • By Inspection


Theories of Channels (Meridians) and Collaterals

Reference: A Modern View of the Immune System

Differentiation of Syndromes

  • 8 Principles
  • 6 Channels 4 Stages
  • Syndromes of Zang-Fu Organs


  • Exogenous | Pestilential
  • Pathogenic Factors
  • Emotional

Materia Medica

Back to Home

Application of the Five Elements Theory to Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Five Elements theory is applied to the physiology and pathology of the human body by using the relationships of generation and subjugation to guide clinical diagnosis and treatment.

The Physiological Functions and Interrelationships of the Five Zang Organs

Physiologically the Five Elements theory explains the unity of the mutual relationships between the zang-fu organs and body tissues as well as between the human body and nature. The physiological activities of the five zang organs can be classified according to the different characteristics of the five elements. For example, the liver is said to preside over the vigorous flow of qi and also has the function of ensuring free qi circulation. Since these characteristics are similar to the properties of wood, the liver is categorized as wood in the scheme of the five elements. Heart yang has a warming action so it belongs to the category of the fire element. The spleen is the source of transformation of essential substances and is associated with the earth element's characteristics of growth and transformation. The lung has clearing and descending properties and is associated with the metal element's characteristics of clearing and astringency. The kidney has the function of controlling water metabolism and storing essence and is associated with the water element's characteristics of moistening and flowing downward.

The Five Elements theory is also used to describe the correlations of physiological functions between zang-fu organs and body tissues. There are both generating and subjugating relationships among the five zang organs. The generating relationships are: the essence of kidney (represented by the water element) nourishes the liver; the liver (represented by the wood element) stores the blood in order to support the heart; the heat of the heart (represented by the fire element) warms the spleen; the spleen (represented by the earth element) transforms and transports the essential nutrients to replenish the lung; and the clearing and descending functions of the lung (represented by the metal element) assist the flowing of kidney water.

The subjugating relationships among the same organs are as follows: the clearing and descending functions of the lung (metal element) can restrict the hyperactivity of liver yang; the unobstructed flowing of liver (wood element) qi is capable of removing the stagnation of the spleen (earth element); the transportation and transformation of spleen is able to subdue the overflowing of kidney water; and the nourishing and moistening function of kidney (water element) can prevent the strong flaring up of heart fire. The yang heat of the heart (fire element) can control the hyperactivity of the lung's clearing and descending functions.

Furthermore, the Five Elements theory is employed to express the mutual relationships between the human body with the seasons, climates, and flavors. For example, while the wood element is associated with East, spring, wind, sour, etc., it is also connected with the liver, tendons, and eyes of the human body. In this way the Five Elements theory gives expression to a holistic view of the relationship between the human body and its natural environment.

Five Elements Theory and Pathological Influences on the Zang-Fu Organs

Five Elements theory is not only used to correlate the functions of the sang-fu organs, but also to demonstrate their mutual pathological influence. To denote the mutual influence of the sang-fu organs in pathological changes the concepts of extreme subjugation and counter subjugation are used. For example, liver disease may affect the spleen because wood over-subjugates earth, while spleen illness may affect the liver as earth counter subjugates wood. Diseases of the liver and spleen interact with each other. Liver disease may also influence the heart, this is a "mother affecting son" illness. If the liver disease is transmitted to the lung, this is categorized as wood counter subjugating metal. If it is transmitted to the kidney, then it is considered a "son affecting mother" illness. The other zang organs follow suit. Thus the application of the Five Elements theory in explaining the complicated interaction between the zang organs can be summed up by these four relationships: extreme subjugation, counter subjugation, mother affecting son illness, and son affecting mother illness.

Use of the Five Elements Theory in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Disease

Abnormal changes of the internal organ's functions and interrelationships can be detected by external appearances. Thus changes in a a patient's complexion, voice, sense of taste, pulse, etc. can be used to diagnose disease. According to the Five Elements theory the five zang organs have certain connections with the "five colors," "five tones," and "five tastes" as well as changes in the pulse. Therefore, in the clinical diagnosis of a disease, the data collected by the four diagnostic methods (inspection, auscultation and olfaction, inquiring, and palpation) should be analyzed according to the properties and changing laws of mutual generation and subjugation, extreme subjugation, and counter subjugation of the Five Elements theory. For example, a blue complexion accompanied with a preference for food of a sour taste and a wiry pulse, suggests liver disease. A flushed face accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth and a forceful pulse suggests heart disease with the symptom-complex of hear-fire flaring up. A patient with insufficient spleen qi may have a blue complexion implying wood's (i.e. liver) extreme subjugation of earth (i.e. spleen). If a patient is suffering from heart trouble and has a dark complexion, it may be explained as water (i.e. kidney) subjugating fire.

The occurrence and development of a disease is sometimes related to the abnormality of the mutual generation and subjugation relationships. Therefore, clinical treatment should not only concentrate on the diseased zang organ, but also be concerned with readjusting the relationships between the particular zang or fu organs in accordance with Five Elements theory. For example, the Nanjing says, "When the liver is diseased, the liver will transmit to the spleen, and so one should replenish the qi of the spleen." This reflects the clinical application of five element's extreme subjugation theory. The laws of mutual generation and subjugation and extreme subjugation and counter subjugation have been applied by subsequent generations of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to create more methods of treatment such as "cultivating the earth in order to generate metal," "nourishing the water to conserve wood," "supporting the earth to restrict wood," etc.

The yin-yang and Five Elements theories represent the world outlook and methodology of the ancient Chinese for their understanding and explanation of nature. The application of these two theories to Chinese medicine consists of viewing the phenomena and laws of nature and applying them to the study of the physiological activities and pathological changes of the human body and its interrelationships. The theory of Yin-Yang explains the dynamics of physical objects through a consideration of their contrary, mutual depending, consuming-increasing and transforming relationships. Normal human physiological activities are understood as the relative balance and harmonization between yin and yang. When yin and yang lose their relative balance and coordination, disease occurs. The theories of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements are used together as a guide to clinical diagnosis and treatment.

Traditional Chinese Medicine pages by Raymond Cheng, PhD DPA FRSA FRSPH

  Health Related • TCM Basics   Religious • Commentary   Education and Training •

Copyright © 1995-2021 Wyith Institute™ and The Office of Dr Raymond K K Cheng.
All rights reserved.

This site is best viewed with Microsoft® Internet Explorer 6.0 or above, minimum 1024x768 resolution with 16M color-depth. The Office of Dr Raymond K K Cheng, Wyith Institute™, and the website and its associated personnel do not endorse external sites. This website is only meant solely for research and informational purpose and should never be taken as a source of medical advice. Please consult a professional physician if you are sick. All external sites will open in a new browser window.

Contact the editor at raymond {dot} cheng {at} oxford alumni {dot} org

DI63-048 (c) Image DJ Image Dictionary
Photo © Image DJ Image Dictionary

With over 3000 years of experience, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has remain one of the many fascinating areas in ancient Chinese culture. First known to be documented in the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, TCM is believed to have been practised in as early as 475 to 221 B.C. The field of working knowledge of TCM stretches from anything related to general healthcare practice to the philosophy of the mind, the logic of life, religion, and even to as far as cosmology and astronumerology. This is why in order to thoroughly understand the concepts behind TCM, one must be comprehensive in learning and embracing the Chinese culture as a whole.

Just as Douglas Hoff put it when he explained about accupuncture, "The systems of TCM uses the concepts of elements and meridians and are completely immersed in the Asian cosmology which takes shape through the religions." The meridian-brain mechanism, the fundamental working concept of acupuncture, in which the pain block from the message that the needle or burning cone of herbs gives to the point of stimulus, was only found centuries later by the West through science and technology.


Raymond Cheng, PhD DPA Thank you for visiting this TCM and acupuncture information website. If you have previously been to this website, you might have noticed that some of the pages on ancient historical ideas and holistic thinkings related to Chinese metaphysics are temporarily taken offline. This is because I will be revamping the whole website and be moving those information into a new \"Ancient Chinese Culture\" section so as to reflect a more current perspective on the interpretation of some of the fundamental concepts as well as to include some of the latest information in the area. But if you have just found this website for the very first time, I welcome you again and wish you could find what you require and, hopefully, you could also be benefitted from reading the articles I published on this website.

Please be patient and do come and check out this website frequently as it's being revamped.

Raymond Cheng, PhD DPA FRSA FRSPH

March 28, 2020.


This website is published, edited and designed by Raymond Cheng, and reflects only and only his personal views and opinions in his individual capacity. The information available at this website is not intended directly or by implication to either diagnose or treat any medical, emotional, or psychological condition or disorder. It is also not intended to create a physician-patient relationship between you and I or between you and Wyith Institute™ and The Office of Dr Raymond K K Cheng. The information here is not a substitute for advice and treatment provided by your physician or by another healthcare professional. It is always recommended that consultation with local healthcare providers be obtained for any of your specific health or medical concerns. Furthermore, any products that can be purchased (yet you can see I don't have much to sell here) through advertisers' banners or through links to other websites are not either explicitly or implicitly given any warranty or endorsement by me, my colleagues, Wyith Institute™ or any of its associated businesses.