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Home > Cooking Tips > The Five Elements Theory of Chinese Cooking

The Five Elements Theory of Chinese Cooking

Yin and Yang
Yin & Yang


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"He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician."
(Chinese proverb)

Like the concept of yin and yang, the Five Elements Theory is at the cornerstone of Chinese culture. What is the Five Elements Theory? The Chinese believe that we are surrounded by five energy fields: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. However, the elements are not static: they are constantly moving and changing.   (In fact, some scientists think the term "element" is misleading, and prefer to refer to the "five phases" or "five forces.")

Once the Chinese identified the five elements, they set about categorizing all phenomena within the five categories. Everything, from a river to sounds to the organs in our bodies, can be described in terms of the five elements.  How things are characterized depends on their individual qualities.  For example, earth is associated with growth and nourishment, so the spleen, which monitors the blood - digesting debris and producing antibodies when necessary - is categorized as an earth element.

Just as an imbalance between yin and yang can produce destructive forces, keeping all elements in balance promotes harmony both in our surroundings and ourselves. Of course, balancing five elements is a little more complicated than achieving harmony between two opposing forces. According to Chinese belief, each element acts upon two others, either giving birth to it or controlling it. For example, wood gives birth to fire and controls or suppresses earth.  Similarly, fire gives birth to earth and controls metal. All the elements are constantly interacting with other elements - none stand alone. The table below outlines the relationships.

Gives Birth To Controlling
Wood - Fire Wood - Earth
Fire - Earth Earth - Water
Earth - Metal Water - Fire
Metal - Water Fire - Metal
Water - Wood Metal - Wood

To give an example from nature, a plant (wood) grows when it is given water.  When burnt, wood gives birth to fire, and the burnt ashes subsequently return to the earth.  

What role does the Five Elements Theory Play in the Chinese diet?

You'll see adherence to the five elements theory in many facets of Chinese life.  Martial arts, for example: many schools have a series of basic movements, each designed to keep the body in harmony with one the elements. And the five elements theory plays a large role in Feng Shui, the latest trend in both landscaping and interior decorating. Literally meaning "wind and water," Feng Shui is all about aligning energies in your home or work environment in a way that is most conducive with your own personal energy.

As for diet, Chinese herbalists believe that, to properly treat a patient, you must know the state of the five elements in their body. A deficiency or an excess of an element can lead to illness. In The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History, and Memories from America's Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking, Eileen Yin Fei-Lo provides some wonderful examples of how her grandmother used the principles of the five elements theory to cure common illnesses. Treating a cough with winter melon tea and fresh water chestnuts is just one example.

A detailed look at the use of five elements theory in diagnosing and treating illnesses is beyond the scope of this article.  Suffice to say that practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine rely on it to explain the relationships between the body organs and tissues, as well as between the body and the outside environment. The table below outlines the relationship between the five elements and body parts, feelings, colors, and taste. 

Element Yin Yang Feelings Colors Tastes
Wood Liver Gall Bladder Rage Green Sour
Fire Heart Small Intestine Happiness Red Bitter
Earth Spleen Stomach Thought Yellow Sweet
Metal Lungs Large Intestine Sorrow White Spicy
Water Kidneys Bladder Fear Black Salty

How would a physician use the above information to make a diagnosis? Let's say a patient suddenly developed a preference for sour food.  This could indicate liver problems.  Of course, the actual process of examining a patient and making a diagnosis is much more complex than merely consulting a chart.  It requires a thorough understanding of the interaction between all the elements. Because time and date of birth are also thought to play a role in an individual's "state of the five elements," many physicians will consult astrological charts before making a diagnosis. 



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