5 Transformations or 5 Elements

Lost in translation – the 5 Elements, or is it the 5 Transformations?

Chinese Medical Theory incorporates 5 principles of change, of transformation that are recognized as 5 different aspects of the natural world:

    1. Water
    2. Wood
    3. Fire
    4. Earth
    5. Metal

These 5 are often translated into English as “5 Elements.”

However, many authors go to great pains to explain that a better translation would be “5 Transformations.” I have been wondering about this debate for years. What significance could it possibly have for an average human like myself, sifting through a myriad of opinions about how to be healthy and happy?
My western mind likes to hammer out the details, pin everything down, and declare it “known.” I first encountered the Chinese 5 Elements as the static diagram below:

5 Elements

5 Elements

I thought of each item as an element, a thing, an object. I memorized this chart, and I could reproduce it any time, any place. However, I still didn’t “get it.”
Recently, I tried out the notion of “5 Transformations”.  Now, I  have been able to go a little deeper. “Everything changes” is a popular saying all over the world. Yet, how do we know the process of how things will change, or transform?
I looked at my “5 Elements” chart again, and wondered what it would be like if it kept moving and changing. I lightened up my stubborn left brain, and let the 5 keep transforming. And I came up with the following diagram:
5 Transformations

5 Transformations

Everything changes.

I’m using the term 5 Transformations now to remind myself of that reality.
My mind was stuck on elements as stagnant “things.”
Thinking in terms of transformations, I can see more easily how one thing transforms into another. Just like the environment around me changes every few months, as the earth moves around the sun, the seasons transform one into the next. I know what Summer is, and I also know that things will keep changing into Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, etc.
Everything changes, everything transforms.

Classical Chinese Medicine

Classical Chinese Medicine has always considered the human to be a reflection of Nature. This notion is one of the things that draws me so deeply to this form of medicine. We are more than just a “part” of Nature, we are Nature itself. Within us are the 5 transformations, Yin and Yang, Night and Day, sunshine, humidity, rain, hurricanes, and gentle breezes.
With Nature and the 5 Transformations as guides, we can know ourselves more deeply. With self-knowledge and a connection to the wisdom of our inner Nature, we can find our way to a long and happy life.

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Cindy Black

Cindy Black is the Founder of Big Tree School of Natural Healing and the author of Meridian Massage, Pathways to Vitality. She is appreciated for her ability to make the complex accessible, fun, and practical.


  1. Melanie Oxley on July 4, 2018 at 1:46 am

    I love this! Like a beautiful mosaic or mandala spiraling, thank you for sharing your vision/adventures with 5 Elements. I see this idea of five elements everywhere and am filled with a quiet sense of wonder. For example, in Tibetan Buddhist Prayer flags, platonic solids, some meditations/dances/movement that involve visualizing dissolution of the shapes/colors/elements… in artwork, in nature – ahhhhh…

    • Cindy Black on July 4, 2018 at 7:07 am

      Dear Melanie,

      There is much to wonder about.
      Thanks for sharing your curiosity and a bit of your inspiring journey with the Elements here…you have given me more to explore!
      – Cindy

  2. Adeha on May 29, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Thank you for this, Cindy!
    Your spiral image is a great way to jog me out of thinking about these 5 transformations as being static elements. “Transformations” is a big word for thinking, so I try to at least use the term “Five Phases” instead of “Five Elements”. “Phases” keeps me more in touch with the movement aspect.
    I got a wonderful Five Element wall chart to hang in my office, hoping it will keep jogging me to look through the five phases “window”, and also give me something concrete to point to in introducing the concept. It also lists the points for many point categories organized by element/phase… so all I have to do is remember why to use that point and… uh… where it is! LOL!
    Thank you so much for bringing all this forward!

    • Cindy Black on May 29, 2017 at 7:15 pm

      I enjoy sharing in the “Adventures of 5 Elements” with you, Adeha. Thanks for writing – happy transforming!

  3. Aniiyah Klock on July 19, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    This understanding has helped me through many tough life experiences. When I feel myself struggling I remind myself, like nature this too Will change, its the only given. And this understanding has helped me to appreciate deeply when life is lovely and to be present with those around me, listening, soaking in every nuances of our togetherness, because I know in any moment things will change 🙂

    • Cindy Black, L.Ac., LMT on July 19, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks for adding your experience Aniiyah. Your work with the 5 Elements continues to inspire me personally and professionally.

  4. Dondi Dahlin on December 18, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    I agree with Rachel – thank you for reminding us that the “elements” are not fixed. When trying to explain them to people who have never heard of them, I often speak of them as fixed “things” – especially with people in the west. The elements ARE transformative and I appreciate your words of wisdom. Thank you!

    • Cindy Black, L.Ac., LMT on December 18, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      You are welcome.
      Feeling into the transformations of the elements is an on-going contemplation for me. I enjoy connecting with others like you who are on the same path.

  5. […] Water Element is associated with Winter. Each of the Five Elements is associated with a […]

  6. Connecting Water and Fire on July 23, 2015 at 5:04 am

    […] Yang are reflected in the elements of Water (Yin) and Fire (Yang). Water and Fire are two of the 5 Elements of Chinese Medicine. Every Element is associated with a pair of organs, one Yin and the other […]

  7. […] Kidneys are the Yin Organ of the Water Element. Every Element is associated with a season, winter is the season of the Water Element.  Because of these […]

  8. Fred Weiner on December 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    All these years looking at the 5 elements from a distance, appreciation, sure, but not getting it either. You’ve opened a door. Thank you.

  9. Rachel on September 8, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Fantastic explanation! Thinking of the elements as stagnant is limiting us, thank you for the reminder of change as a blessing!

  10. diane stredny on September 4, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Change is a constant and the sooner we accept it and embrace it the easier it becomes to move thru life with grace and ease.

  11. Khay on September 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Great explanation; real clear.

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