Wu Hsing: The Five Material Agents

Chinese Philosophy
Yin and Yang

   The thinkers of the early Han dynasty attempted to fuse many of the strains of Chinese thought to come up with a syncretic and systematic explanation of the universe, the changes that occur in the universe, and the relation of the human world to the physical and divine worlds. Their thought focused on two inventions, both designed to explain the changing world in much the same way Aristotle's four causes were designed as a universal explanatory framework for explaining change. The first of these inventions, the principles of yin and yang, opposite forces of change which complement and cyclically give rise to one another, operated through the physical mechanism of "the five material agents," or wu-hsing .

   These five material agents are wood-fire-earth-metal-water and are grouped either in the order by which they produce one another (wood gives rise to fire, fire gives rise to earth, earth gives rise to metal, metal gives rise to water, water gives rise to earth, etc.) or the order by which they are conquered by one another: fire is conquered by water, water is conquered by earth, earth is conquered by wood, wood is conquered by metal, and metal is conquered by fire, etc. Each of these orders can be used to explain the progression of change in just about everything. When the modern western physicist talks about the unification of the five forces (electromagnetic force, strong force, weak force, gravity, color force), that person is not conceiving these five forces as spilling into or conquering one another; this physicist would consider it absurd to apply any of these forces to anything other than mechanical or atomic physics. The five agents, however, is a metaphysical explanation of the progression of change that is meant to be applied to every phenomenon one encounters in this changing universe: politics, ethics, music, biology, time, seasons, history, etc.

   Associated with the agent wood is the season spring, fire is summer, metal is autumn, and water is winter. The color green is the color of the wood agent, red the color of fire, yellow the color of earth, white the color of metal, and black the color of water. In human anatomy, the spleen is ruled by wood, the lungs by fire, the heart by earth, the liver by metal, and the kidneys by water. If one has a disease of the liver, it is because the liver is being overcome by a fire agent or pathogen—since fire is overcome by water, one would treat the liver pathogen with a water agent. See how the system works?

   One could endlessly list how the various categories of phenomenon fit into this schema. What is important to understand is that the five agents explain everything including the progress of change in the universe. And the progress that interests most human beings is history since human history paradoxically appears to be both in human control and out of human control. The Han thinkers began to reinterpret Chinese history and dynastic successions by reverting to this model of the five agents; dynastic successions could be explained by using either the order by which the agents produce one another or the order by which they are overcome by one another. In the early Han the latter model was adopted, which aligned the Han dynasty with the agent earth. Since the color associated with earth as yellow, the Han emperors adopted yellow as their imperial color. With the overthrow of the Han by Wang Mang, the former model was adopted and lasted as the standard model to this day. Every dynasty associated itself with a particular agent according to this model and adopted the colors appropriate to that agent. What this system did was make history a coherent whole; it also made the future predictable.

Richard Hooker


World Cultures