Wuxing, the Five Elements, or the Five Processes.

The Five Precepts, the Five Constant Virtues, & the Five Elements. 

The Five Precepts, the Five Constant Virtues, & the Five Elements. 


The Five Elements in Chinese thinking are metaphors for phases of transforming energy that interpenetrates all phenomena. The Five Elements (Wuxing— “the five processes”) has its origins in Bronze Age China (possibly earlier). Eventually it was further developed as a concept of process phenomena, contrasted to the static “building block” of Greek Elements. Wuxing is applied to everything in Chinese thought, from medicine to astrology.

The Five Constant Virtues are Confucian doctrines about the intrinsic inter-related qualities that all human beings possesses.

The Five Precepts are Buddhist “training rules” that a serious practitioner upholds— however it is deeper than the simple list of restriction it appears to be.


1. Do Not Kill (Buddhism)

Benevolence* (Confucianism)

Wood Element [Jupiter]

Love all so you do not wish to kill— this is the true meaning of Ahimsa. It is not do no harm. It is love all so you wish harm on none. It is sustained by faith (Earth), it generates propriety (Fire) and it is overcome by Righteousness (Metal). *Benevolence in Confucianism is Ren, quite literally “two-peopleness” or “Mutuality”. It is the inner quality of a sage, and cognate to the Christian Agape.


2. Do Not Commit Sexual Misconduct (Buddhism)

Propriety (Confucianism)

Fire Element [Mars]

Propriety* means to respect rituals and social boundaries so you do not transgress against others. It is sustained by Benevolence (Wood), it generates Sincerity/Faith/Trust (Earth), and it is overcome by Wisdom (Water). *Propriety is Li (禮), meaning ritual-etiquette.


3. Do Not Lie (Buddhism)

Sincerity/FaithTrust (Confucianism)

Earth Element [Saturn]

Sincerity/faith/trust* is the ground of spiritual practice and of living. Without it you cannot be genuine in your motivations, and others cannot trust you. It is sustained by Propriety (Fire), it generates Righteousness (Metal), and it is overcome by Benevolence (Wood). *Sincerity, faith, and trust are the same Word in Chinese (信), also meaning Trustworthiness. 


4. Do Not Steal (Buddhism)

Righteousness (Confucianism)

Metal Element [Venus]

To do good and to do so correctly. It is is sustained by Sincerity/Faith/Trust (Earth), it generates Wisdom (Water), and it is overcome by Propriety (Fire).


5. Do Not Ingest Intoxicants (Buddhism)

Wisdom (Confucianism)

Water Element [Mercury]

To be clear minded and to have insight into matters and events. It is sustained by Righteousness (Metal), it generates Benevolence (Wood), and it is overcome by Sincerity/Faith/Trust (Earth).

Sustaining, Generating, and Overcoming.
Each element is sustained/generated by another, but if there is “too much” of an element, it becomes too strong (which leads to problems). Each element is also overcomed (“destroyed”) by another Element— the overcoming element helps constrain excesses of an element that is too strong (but the overcoming element might itself end up eroding an element too much). Apply this logic to the virtues implied here, and you can see all of them can be problematic if too strong or too weak, and how it can impact the entire ecosystem. It must be in balance.

Wuxing, the Five Elements, or the Five Processes.



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Justin C. Hsu

Designer, Artist, and Consumer of Pop Culture.

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