Have you ever seen that ‘mystical’ star emblem that in modern culture is frequently found elusively hidden as a tattoo or hung around the neck of some purple haired ‘alternate’ youth? Have you then seen this same star symbol in your TCM clinic and wondered, ‘what does TCM have to do with purple haired punksters?’
The pentagram, as it is commonly known in western culture, has existed since ancient times with quite different and separate cultural connotations.
Previously, in Christian churches it was a used to portray the 5 wounds of Christ on the cross, in mathematics it is used in trigonometry and geometry, in the renaissance it helped depict the golden ratio and was used extensively in architecture and art, turned upside down with 2 points of the star on top was believed to be the devil and portrayed evil, in pagan religion, the upside down star connoted disharmony in nature, the star was also used in Greek philosophy and it is not uncommon to see the mysterious pentagram in Chinese temples. Today, modern culture has turned the star into a symbol to represent the modern pagan religion of Wicca and witchcraft.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the meaning of this star is completely different and very distinct from the above meanings. The above diagram, all connotations aside, simply shows a map for understanding the human body and cycles of nature. It can also be used as a diagnostic tool.
In Chinese, the commonly known ‘five elements’ is a translation of the ‘wu xing’. A more correct translation however is ‘the five phases’. This distinguishes it from the Greek understanding of the 5 elements. Greek philosophy is about material, fixed elements of the natural world. The five phases in contrast is related to the cyclic nature of all things and is a way of viewing change, relationships and transformation in the world and the human body. The elements used are simply a way to represent this constant movement and cycle of growth and decline.
The five elements in TCM, in addition to acting in a broad sense and describing environmental change are used in medicine as a structural system to understand human physiology and pathology. This method of medical theory differs from western science as it has a holistic interconnected approach whilst western philosophy tends to be more linear and less cyclic.
The 5 elements include Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each organ in the body is assigned to a particular element. Seasons, directions, objects, body liquids, body parts, tastes, senses and colours among other things are also ascribed an element.
The 5 elements in nature are more easily understood to the layman as opposed to the organ relationship system understood in TCM. For example, if we observe nature we can clearly see that wood gives rise to fire. When fire burns up wood it creates ash and returns to the earth. From the earth we draw out precious stones, minerals and metals. We then heat and melt these resources into liquid, represented as ‘water’, or soften them to make them malleable to create tools. Using these tools we can chop down a tree to again make wood and then fire.
Regarding the bodily organs; wood is related to the liver, fire to the heart, earth to the spleen, metal to the lungs and water to the kidney.
The above picture demonstrates 2 types of relationships between the organs and their elements; one is the mother-son relationship, this creates the outer circle. The other is the controlling relationship; this line progression in the cycle creates the star shape.
For an easy example of the organ system, let us think of wood (liver) and fire (heart) in the mother-son cycle. Like a mother will care for and nourish her son to make him grow strong, so must there be enough wood for a fire to grow. If there is not enough wood, the fire will go out. This means if the liver (wood element) in TCM in deficient, the heart (fire) will also be drained. Vice versa, if the son is being troublesome and out of control the mother will feel drained. If the fire is too strong it will eventually use all the woods fuel and disintegrate into ash. This means if the heart is out of control the liver may become drained.
For a different example using the controlling (star) cycle. By looking at the 5 element diagram it is seen, if wood loses balance it can not only affect fire but can also attack across ways to the earth. Think of a riverbank. Wood and the tree roots stabilize and anchor the earth. If wood loses its control on earth erosion will result.
Finally, it is interesting to note some correlations between this ancient theory and modern western medicine. For example, wood and the liver in Chinese medicine are related to expansiveness and growth; the movement and spreading dynamic of the body. In western medicine the liver is in fact the only organ that has the ability to grow and regenerate by itself. This is why it is possible for one person to donate just part of their liver to another person. It is because it has the capacity to ‘grow’ just like wood. In the respiratory system the lungs bring oxygen into out bodies, this oxygen is carried by haemoglobin in the blood. The oxygen carrying part of this is iron and the lung is the metal organ. As for the kidney, perhaps this is the most straightforward correlation, it is the water organ and responsible for urination.
In conclusion, the ‘pentagram’ symbol has been used throughout history in many different contexts. In Chinese Medicine it has a distinct meaning and is known as the ‘5 elements’ or ‘5 phases’ and represents the constant transformations in both nature and the human body. It provides a logical and systematic approach to a holistic diagnosis of human health.
Understanding the 5 elements is fundamental for developing knowledge on TCM, and later, essential for applying practical healthcare to your life. So now you know about that elusive star symbol. What will you think next time you run into that purple haired and tattooed youth. Will you think wiccan witch or Chinese Sage?