The Five Elements

An alternative translation for the Five Elements of Chinese philosophy, and a discussion about the absence of Five Elements in point names.

Translation discussion

The Five Elements form an important philosophy for understanding the effects of acupuncture points. It has been said elsewhere, that translating 五行 as 'Five Elements' is, however, not really correct. The character has to do with acting (walking, going, doing), not with something elemental. The translation has come into use, because of the similarity with the Four Elements of early Western philosophy.

I think this translation would be more apt:

五行 Five Behaviors

Having said that, I don't believe that the use of 'Five Elements' for this concept is going to change anytime soon. It is just too commonly used (in contrast with acupuncture point names). So, for the sake of clarity, I'm going to stick with the convention, and not use my own translation.

Similarly, I believe a better translation for is 'Tree,' rather than 'Wood.' Wood is essentially dead tree material, when it is used by people. The Five Element concept is more about growth, so, about living material. Hence 'Tree.' I don't expect this translation to get into common use either.


Discussion about the absence of Elements in point names

Some have argued that Elements turn up in certain point names. There are several reasons why that is not likely, next to the reasons mentioned in the article about the 5 categories of point names.

Lacking Element names

The Element names Earth, Wood (Tree) and Fire don't turn up at all in any point names.

The character , which is rendered as 'Earth' in other translations, and is there in 3 point names, doesn't mean so in the sense of the Element Earth, because that is .

The character is not there as the Metal Element in BL-63 金門. Similarly, the character isn't there as the Water Element in the 5 point names containing it.

Point names that indicate something of water, like a spring, marsh, sea, valley stream, trickle, are there for Water points, but also for all other Element points. 然谷 Burning Valley (KI-2) may be a Fire point, but the its name has more to do with it being an image of a dangerous place.

Other Element indications

It could be argued that other concepts that are related to Elements turn up in point names.

Some have argued that is to be seen as a note in the Chinese musical scale, that is related to the Metal Element, and thus needs to be rendered as 'Shang.' Two of the 4 point names with that character are actually Metal points (LI-1 and SP-5). The acupuncture point LU-11 is on the Lung meridian, KI-17 has a relationship to the Large Intestine meridian, and both meridians belong to Metal.

However, why is a musical note used, and not the name of the Element itself, ? And why don't other musical notes (角, 徵, 宮, 羽) turn up translated as musical notes in point names? ( and don't turn up in any names at all.)

I think that the answer to that, especially with the general absence of Elements in point names, is that is better translated as 'exchange' or 'to deliberate.' is better translated as 'angle,' and as 'palace' or 'house,' rather than as musical notes.