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The ‘Yīn-yáng’ and ‘Five Movements’ Theories, and their Application in Chinese Medicine

The ‘Yīn-yáng’ and ‘Five Movements’ Theories, and their Application in Chinese Medicine

By Chad Ryan


Yīn and Yáng

Yīn and yáng are the two parts of a summarisation of universal opposing aspects of phenomena. Yáng is the aspect to which notions such as above, outside, daytime, spring and summer, warm, dry, light, bright, uplifting, moving, exciting, and hyper-function have been classified. Yīn is the aspect to which notions such as below, interior, autumn and winter, cool, heavy, dark, descending, tranquil, suppressing and declining have been classified. Yáng is function, and is the mental, while yīn is matter, and is the physical. Yáng is heaven, and yīn is earth, and life is the complex interaction between yīn and yáng. When yīn separates from yáng in the sky, there is thunder and lightning, though when yīn is destroyed and yáng is extinguished altogether, movement and change cease to exist.

In the crude subdivision of phenomena into two groups that is classification according to yīn and yáng, those things classified yīn are relatively relatable to each other, and those things yáng are relatively relatable to one another, according to shared characteristics, foremost among which are the aforementioned most fundamental characteristics.

Water, portending yīn, and fire, portending yáng, could be considered materials which quite purely embody the nature of yīn and yáng, although the earliest proposition of the yīn-yáng concept, very simply concerns the sun shining only on the back and not the front.

There is no limit to which any aspect can be furthermore subdivided into its own yīn and yáng aspects. The recognition of yīn and yáng is a cognitive process, that being differentiation according to the smallest and most simple whole number which is more than the number one, the number one representing a single entity as it exists in its own right. That number being referred to here is the number two, and dividing things by two an unlimited number of times allows the division, or differentiation, of an entity into as many components as desired.

Though yīn and yáng are antithetically restraining to one another, such that the more light fades, the more that darkness prevails, they are also defined by their very existence in relation to one another, such that there is darkness only because there is light. Yīn and yáng coexist in balance, which is not to suggest that they are perfectly equal, but rather that an increase or decrease in the magnitude of either one, will propagate a respondent alteration, positive or negative, in the magnitude of the other.

Under certain circumstances, yīn and yáng can also transform into one another. The precedence for transformation between yīn and yáng is a climax in one or the other, because once something reaches its zenith, it can then only move in the opposite direction. This is followed by a movement in condition that does not cease until change can be defined. For instance, since the time when you were most nervous, you only continually became less nervous, until you ceased to be able to consider yourself as being nervous.


The Five Movements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water

Wood bends and straightens; fire flares upwards; earth sows and reaps; metal heeds and transforms; and water descends and moistens.

Wood burns to create fire; fire burns, and leaves behind earth; buried in the earth, metal can be found; metal can be used to dig to find water; and water nurtures the growth of wood. As such, the five movements engender each other in a cyclical pattern known as the generating cycle.

Metal chops and carves wood; wood, through the roots of the trees, entrenches earth in a fixed position; earth directs the flow of water; water douses fire; and fire melts and moulds metal. As such, the five movements also control each other in a cyclical pattern known as the controlling cycle.

The five movements of circulation are broader in meaning than the inter-relationship between wood, fire, earth, metal and water; because the same use of classification that is prevalent in yīn-yáng theory has been applied in Chinese thought to create links of association between the five movements and other groups of phenomena. For instance, spring is associated with the wood movement, summer with the fire movement, late-summer with the earth movement, autumn with the metal movement and winter with the water movement.

It is clear that each of the five movements in this circulatory arrangement has a direct connection to each of the other four movements. In simple terms, each connection which a single movement shares with any other movement is of its own unique significance to the movement concerned. The unique relevance of these four connections are based on two sets of binary variables: those of supporting or inhibiting, plus those of giving and receiving. One movement of the other four is representative of that to which support is given, one movement of the other four is representative of that to which inhibition is transmitted, one movement of the other four is representative of that from which inhibition is received, and one movement of the other four is representative of that from which support is received.

To further expound the significance of this arrangement from the point of view of an individual movement, six assertions might be made. That which receives your support, supports that which receives your inhibition. That which receives your support, inhibits that which inhibits you. That which receives your inhibition, supports that which inhibits you. That which receives your inhibition, inhibits that which supports you. That which inhibits you, supports that which supports you. Finally, that which supports you, inhibits that which you support.

The movements in this model have an intuitive capacity to maintain the regularity of their circumstances. Fire is controlled by the influence of water, however by generating earth, fire is indirectly able to keep water in check and preserve itself against excessive influence of water, because earth is the controlling movement of water.

Fire is furthermore generated by wood, however by generating earth, fire can indirectly control water, and by doing so moderate the generation of wood through its source.

These two models of five movements are known as ‘adjustment by partition in two or three stages’.

There is also a slightly more longwinded and passive route by which a movement can prevent itself from becoming subject to an oppressive capacity by its controlling influence, and that is by following all steps of the natural controlling cycle. For instance, if water is so strong that fire should become diminished, a loss of control by fire on metal will allow metal to develop exuberance, and that exuberance in metal in turn will oppress wood, and by its descent of wood will an influx in the capacity of earth eventuate, and finally according to the controlling action of that increased capacity of earth will a counteractive mechanism be exerted on water.

Irregular states of affair on a systemic level between the five movements can be in fact be initiated in one of two ways. The first is the overbearing phenomenon, whereby the controlling relationship is excessive, and the second is the “insulting” or “rebelling” phenomenon, whereby the movement which is normally controlled asserts dominance over the movement that normally controls it, thus weakening that controlling movement. Often overbearing or insulting take place simultaneously, as one movement is excessively strong and stamps its influence in both directions, or as one influence is excessively weak, and both the grandmother and grandchild movements besiege its frailty. Should the corrective capacity of the five movements have failed to overcome an irregularity in one of its members via the aforementioned intuitive or passive regulation, the system will then break down and lead to severe chaos. For instance, if water overacts on fire without a corrective adjustment, not only will fire be weakened, but fire will also have a decreased ability to generate earth which will weaken earth as well, and fire will have a decreased ability to control metal, which will cause the capacity of metal to become abundant. Metal becoming abundant will then only further generate water, which was already excessive, and this will have the effect of perpetuating the whole imbalanced cycle. As water has become stronger and earth weaker, water may likely rebel on earth as well, exacerbating the imbalance.


The Relevance of the Yīn-yáng & Five Movements Theories towards Chinese Medicine

Differentiation according to yīn and yáng is fundamental to physiology, diagnosis, pathology and treatment in Chinese medicine. Parts of the body that incarnate yáng qualities for instance, like the exterior, the back, the upper body, the outer aspects of the limbs, the hair, and the digestive tract tend to behave in a more yáng in manner, and are often areas tasked with a more protective, combative role against environment pathogens, also being strategically located where external pathology may more likely try to assault the body. The energy of each of the internal organs has both yīn and yáng aspects that are individually recognised and understood. Take the spleen as a case in point. Spleen yáng is the epitome of the spleen’s uplifting capacity to access pure nutrients from the digestive tract and put them into productive use. It ensures the appetite is strong, that the abdomen does not become oedematous, that the limbs are warms, that there is good colour in the face, and that the stools are well formed. Spleen yīn meanwhile, as the more nourishing aspect of the transforming and transporting action of digestion, when insufficient can also cause a person not to be inclined to think about eating. Spleen yīn helps ensures that the stools are not dry and hard to pass, that the throat and lips do not become dry, and that the complexion does not become sallow. Characteristics in a person’s appearance, tongue and pulse are indeed imbued with affiliation to either yīn or yáng, and so can all therefore count towards the formation of an overall diagnostic picture of the individual. An acknowledgement of importance of the mutual integration of yīn and yáng in life comes into effect through the common practice of using yīn-type treatments to treat yáng-type illnesses, and yáng-type treatments to treat yīn-type illnesses.

Yīn and yáng are indeed net entities that can take alternative forms and shapes, which are accountable to loss and damage, and which should therefore be preserved and used by the individual in a prudent and timely manner. The state of our internal yīn and yáng allow us to perform yīn and yáng type respective activities in our lives. That is to say that the ability to jump out of bed in the morning and be active into the day is generally a reflection on the state of our yáng energy, while the ability to effortlessly enter into slumber and be peaceful during the night is generally a reflection of the state of our yīn energy. Pathological factors of yīn nature and of yáng nature are implicated in disease, so maintaining good health is also as much about utilisation, such as by exercising, as in is about conservation, for instance by resting.

Yáng life energy and yīn essence are vital substances in Chinese medicine theory, and are mutually transformable entities, while in the interest of maintaining a healthy degree of balance between the two, they should be used simultaneously. When a person is continually active and yáng in their state of being, always on the go, and never slowing down or taking the time to get some proper rest, they will inevitably crash, and be forced to behave in a very yīn type manner as they proceed on the path to recuperation. Alternatively, a person who is introverted, and holding on the their issues without allowing for any avenue of release, just allowing their worries to accumulate and perpetuate, will eventually go wild or have a nervous breakdown. These scenarios represent plausible synopses for the transformation of yáng into yīn, or for that of yīn into yáng.

Just as yīn and yáng alter their balance simultaneously in the body, the presentation of disease as it is understood in Chinese medicine, often arises in association with an underlying or secondary reason. These two aspects, if we may call them the ‘principle complaint itself’ and a ‘secondary issue’, will commonly coexist, and it is not fabulous to say that one of these aspects is likely to be of relation to yīn and the other to yáng. By targeting and then rectifying the causal factor between the two, both issues should also be simultaneously alleviated.

Good health practices according to Chinese medicine are informed by central tenets in yīn-yáng theory. To be yīn during yīn, and yáng during yáng; that is to be calm and still during the night, to live in a state of relative hibernation during winter, and to periodically get out to join in with enthusiasm in exciting occasions, letting your feelings flow freely during the fun, are all ideas thought to be good for the health in Chinese medicine. To challenge oneself by engaging in a restraining interaction, that is, by undertaking an endeavour that is tests one’s capacity, is an unavoidable fact of life for many, but actually something which is in tune with the nature of yīn and yáng. Recognising how changes in one’s circumstances will create changes in one’s self, as does occur in the interaction between yīn and yáng, will allow for appropriate reactionary choices and adjustments. Making changes occasionally, is necessary for realising the full extent of the dynamic interplay between oneself and one’s environment in line with the interaction between yīn and yáng.

All of the four types of reactionary rebalancing involved in the wax and wane of yīn and yáng exist within Chinese medicine pathophysiology. When raw foods are consumed in the diet, the digestive fire may diminish, and the person concerned may experience cold fluid retention in the abdomen. This first case is one of an increase in yīn through the introduction of cold foods, and a decrease in yáng because the spleen yáng has been damaged by the cold foods. When liver fluids are depleted in a young person through their staying up late playing computer games while exposing their eyes to a lot of screen time, they may find themselves also experiencing anger problems when things are not going so well in the game. This is because physiologically, they have depleted the nourishing aspect of their liver energy, and liver fire has been allowed to flare in the absence of anchoring aspect of the same organ. The second case is thus an instance of yīn depletion and subsequent increase in yáng. A middle-aged lady going through menopause could experience hot flushes as her kidney yīn experiences a natural decline at this time. Eventually however, this is likely to improve, as her kidney yáng energy gradually compensates to restore balance. This third case is thus one of a decline in yīn and a subsequent decline in yáng. In acute colds, there may often be a stage of fever despite the origin of the pathogen clearly coming from cold influence, should a wintery environment be the setting of the illness. This is a temporary incidence of the defensive yáng energy mounting a defence against the cold pathogen, and this situation may continue until either the pathogen or the defensive energy establishes an upper hand. This fourth case represents an instance of an increase in yīn, and a subsequent increase in yáng. These are examples of changes in yīn as the causal effect, although a reactionary rebalance between yīn and yáng may also be initiated by a change in yáng.

The internal organs of the body have been assigned association to the five movements, with the liver being associated with the wood movement, the heart with the fire movement, the spleen with the earth movement, the lungs with the metal movement, and the kidneys with the water movement. Through the categorisation of correspondence into groups of five: the liver is regarded as being associated with the gall bladder, the sinews, the eyes, the nails, and the emotion of anger; the heart with the small intestine, blood, the tongue and the emotion of joy; the spleen with the stomach, the muscles, the lips, and the contemplative metal state; the lungs with the large intestine, the skin, the nose, and the emotion of sadness; and the kidneys with the bladder, the bones and teeth, the ears, the hair, and the emotion of fear. These associations, for which but a curtailed outline is here mentioned, through their correspondence, provide diagnostic indications for problems from other body systems, and are also liable to being simultaneously implicated in pathology as it is diagnosed in Chinese medicine.

In herbal medicine and diet therapy: the sour flavour is considered to be associated with the wood movement, and so in moderation can benefit the liver and its ailments; the bitter flavour is considered to be associated with the fire movement, and so in moderation can benefit the heart and its ailments; the sweet flavour is considered to be associated with the earth movement, and so in moderation can benefit the spleen and its ailments; the pungent flavour is considered to be associated with the metal movement, and so in moderation can benefit the lungs and their ailments; while the salty flavour is considered to be associated with the water movement, and so in moderation can benefit the kidneys and their ailments.

Chinese medicine organ theory pertains to the influence of the theory of the five movements. In Chinese medicine theory the liver stores the blood, and so the effect of the heart as master of the blood is generated by the influence of the liver. The spleen, as the master of transportation, the generator of blood and holder of blood within the vessels, is warmed by the yáng of the heart and nourished by the supply of blood from the heart, so therefore generated by the influence of the heart. The lungs being the distributer and descender of fluids and life energy over the rest of the organs are delivered life energy and blood from the diet via the uplifting energy of the spleen, and so, are the beneficiary of generation via the spleens action. The descent of life energy by the lungs is grasped by the root energy of the kidneys, while as the organ that is the master of water and storage the kidneys manage fluids dispersed by the lung as well; and so via this routine the lung function generates the kidney function. The kidneys as the storehouse of essence nourish the liver as the storehouse of blood, and so are generative of the function of the liver.

The sequence of controlling actions between the organs as they are viewed by Chinese medicine also stands to reason according to their classification with respect to the five movements. The life energy of the liver can become so elongated that it can drain stagnation of energy from the spleen, thereby controlling the action of the spleen. The spleen as the organ of transport, can prevent the inundation of water and dampness, thus controlling the kidney, which is the organ that manages water. The moistening effect of water from the kidney extends upward to the heart to control the flaring of heart fire. The yáng warmth of the heart ensures the solemn cleansing, descending and cleaning-up function of the lung does not exceed its requirements, and so the lung is controlled by the heart. The life-energy mechanism is regulated and unimpeded by the descending action of the lung, and this ensures suppression of uprising rebellion of the yáng of the liver. In other words the lung controls the liver.

Looking at the emotions as a fluid and spontaneous realm of physiology, the circulatory nature of their association with each other via correspondence to each of the five movements is especially apparent as anger begets joy, joy begets contemplation, contemplation begets sorrow, and sorrow begets fear. Intervention of excessive emotional states with the view of preventing progression into pathology can utilise induction of alternative emotions according to the five movements controlling cycle, so inducing anger to overcome excessive contemplation, contemplation to overcome excessive fear, fear to overcome excessive joy, joy to overcome excessive sadness, or sadness to overcome excessive anger.

The theories of yīn and yáng and of the five movements are the lens through which the transpiration of bodily occurrences are commonly interpreted in traditional Chinese medicine. Yīn, yáng and the five movements are the medium through which everything in the body is interrelated when adopting the traditional Chinese medical perspective, and it is owing to these systems of interpretation, that Chinese medicine owns an integrated understanding of reason and cause, and is not just a collection of remedies for a collection of associated complaints that have proven to be effective through experience. This being said, these two comprehensive theoretical models to not form the extent of traditional Chinese medicine theory. Traditional Chinese medicine does indeed possesses many of its own theories which, despite often being adaptions of the yīn and yáng and of the five movements theories, are nevertheless often not applicable outside the scope of Chinese medicine.


Liú, Y.C. (1997) Chinese Medicine Foundational Science; Distant Aspirations Publishing House (志遠書局): Taipei, Táiwān.

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