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.


About The Author

Cindy Black, L.Ac., LMT

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.


  • Khay

    Reply Reply September 4, 2010

    Great explanation; real clear.

  • diane stredny

    Reply Reply September 4, 2010

    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.

  • Rachel

    Reply Reply September 8, 2010

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

  • Fred Weiner

    Reply Reply December 28, 2011

    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.

  • Dondi Dahlin

    Reply Reply December 18, 2015

    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

      Reply Reply December 18, 2015


      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.


  • Aniiyah Klock

    Reply Reply July 19, 2016

    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

      Reply Reply July 19, 2016

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

  • Adeha

    Reply Reply May 29, 2017

    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

      Reply Reply May 29, 2017

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

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