Today there are many books on feng shui written in English. If you are like me and the subject interests you, you’ve probably read a dozen or so books on the subject. What is quite noticeable is the different approaches and the variety of practices. Because of this, feng shui can be quite confusing to the new student.
One important feng shui theory you will come across in these books is the Five Element Theory. In Chinese, the Five Element theory is the Wu-Xing Theory or 五行 . The first character Wu means five and the second Xing means passages or phases, not elements. In Japanese, the second character, pronounced “iku”, is the verb “to go” or could mean “path”. So, it is most unfortunate that the translation for Wu Xing was Five Element. Even if they translated it to Five Passages, I would still be rather confused because it doesn’t really resonate with the theory’s meaning. I wish it was more similar to something like the Relationships Between Five Elements. Maybe this could have helped reduce the confusion, misunderstanding and unusual practices.
So, what is the theory? The Five Element Theory consist of five elements: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. As the name of the theory itself implies, it is the “passages” of the elements that is the basis of the theory. In other words, how these elements interact with each other. Look at the diagram below. It has the five elements with two sets of arrows, one black and one white.
Let’s look at the black arrows that create a circle moving in a clockwise direction. This can be called the Generating , Productive or Enhancing Cycle: wood enhances fire, fire becomes earth, earth enhances metal, metal enhances water, water enhances wood. It’s hard to understand how metal enhances water, but we do need magnesium and a few metals for our metabolism. However, today’s levels of heavy metals in our water is not healthy. So, we have to remember that these theories are based on during the time when water was not contaminated by man.
The white arrows creates a star shape and can be referred to as the Overcoming, Restraining, Destructive or Controlling cycle. Every school has their own translation so you get a variety of terms. At form school, we like to use the term, Restraining Cycle: fire melts metal, metal chops wood, wood restrains earth with her roots, earth restrains water and water can put our a fire.
Now, every element corresponds with an energy as well as other things such as directions, seasons, colors, tastes, forms, emotions and organs. Here is the the relationship between the elements and energy:
- wood represents an upward energy
- fire represents a radiating energy
- earth represents an inward energy
- metal represents a contracting energy
- water represents a expanding, penetrating energy
Next, let’s take another example: colors.
- wood represents blue/green
- fire represents red
- earth represents yellow
- metal represents white
- water represents black
The theory is to help one balance and harmonize the energies. Therefore, it is not only used in feng shui, but is used in many Chinese practices such as medicine, acupuncture, diet, martial arts, culture and much more. How is the theory used? For example, when your energies are feeling a little low, your energies are going inward and may be contracting. There could be too much earth and metal, which means you need more fire energy. So, you would add what relates to fire energies that expand and radiate to your life or situation.
In many American feng shui books, they recommend having these 5 elements in some physical form to be present in a room to balance the energies of the space: for example, fire could be represented with a red vase, a piece of pottery would represent earth, a brass bowl could represent metal, a small water fountain would represent water and a plant would represent wood. According to my master, this is a complete misunderstanding of the theory. A room does not need all five elements to balance the energies of a room.
Some feng shui schools suggest you can balance a room by placing decor with colors that represent the elements. For example, they say if you have too much wood in your home in terms of wood floors and wood furniture, you would need more white to balance the room. Again, this method uses the element’s physical qualities, not their energy qualities and therefore is misguided. In balancing materials it is best to use basic principles of interior design instead of feng shui.
Feng shui is living in harmony with nature. We try to adapt some of the ancient laws to suit our way of life but sometimes we get carried away and stray too far off the original concept and distort the concepts way too much. I guess sometimes we have to stop and think if what we read in books really make sense. Just because it’s in print does not make it true. Until I met my master, I was very gullible and knew very little about Chinese culture even though I lived in Singapore. If a feng shui book was written by a Chinese person, I thought it had to be legitimate – right? But, since then I have read many, many books and articles and learned much from my master. What he always says is “be true to yourself.” If it resonates with you, makes you feel happy, good or even at peace, that’s wonderful, so do it. If it looks or feels awkward, don’t do it. It’s such simple advice, but one we should use more often. So remember to always ask your heart.