Qi and The Five Elements
The Yellow Emperor (2497 – 2398 BCE) is the legendary inventor of Chinese medicine. In his classic work the Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon) various principles, such as yin and yang, qi, and the wuxing, compose the Universe. The work was one of the first medical treatise to stress the integration of both spiritual and physical treatments as a holistic approach to medical treatment.
The Huangdi Neijing is actually two texts. The first text is the Suwen, (Basic Questions) and covers the theoretical foundation of Chinese medicine and its diagnostic methods. The Suwen includes topics on feng shui, qigong, acupuncture, herbal medicine, fortune telling, meteorology, and astrology. Because of this vast amount of information, it is a major text of Daoism. The second text named Lingshu (Spiritual Pivot) shares the practical elements of acupuncture therapy.
The Huangdi Neijing is the earliest reference detailing the five phases, or five elements theory. The five phases are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These phases are not elements, but relationships, and interactions between phenomena, especially qi. These phases create, destroy, and oppose one another. It affiliates each phase with various aspects in nature and the human body. (See Five Phases Associations and Five Phases Diagram for these relationships and interactions.)
In the Suwen qi is part of everything that exists, as a life force or spiritual energy that pervades the natural world. The Universe does not exist as a series of discrete entities but as a relationship between yin and yang and the five phases. When yin and yang or the five phases transform, they do so through the emotive force of qi.
Note that this cosmology addresses the question of change in both the outer world of the cosmos and the inner world of the human body, without regard to a creator. The cosmos is an interconnected whole, where everything and every being moves and acts in a certain way that can either agree or contend with the greater flow, or Dao.
The Suwen asserts that qi circulates through channels in the human body known as meridians. In this context, air qi combines with grain qi (or food) to produce gathering qi. When gathering qi combines again with original qi (or essence) it produces normal qi. Normal qi divides again into two components: nutritive and defensive. When the body becomes ill, it describes qi as deficient, sinking, stagnant or rebellious. The symptoms of illness are the products of this bad qi. You can restore balance by adjusting the qi flow with a variety of therapeutic techniques, including acupuncture, moving to a different location, changing your diet, or the physical practice of qigong.
When Jou the Terrible ascended to the throne of the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1122 BCE), his behavior was so horrific that his name is synonymous with “a debauched tyrant.” Meanwhile, the nearby state of Zhou was gaining influence and the neighboring states would bring their disputes before King Wen of Zhou (1099 – 1050 BCE) to be settled since they knew King Wen provided a wise and fair arbitration.
On one of King Wen’s visits to the Shang court, Jou the Terrible threw him in prison for seven years. While in prison, King Wen reflected on yin and yang, the five phases, and the trigrams of the bagua. He stacked one trigram upon another trigram to form a hexagram that symbolized a higher level of diversification. He attached a name and a description to each of the sixty-four hexagrams. He also rearranged the trigrams on the bagua circle to reflect the complexity of the natural world, including the change of seasons and the interaction of the five phases. This arrangement is the post-heaven bagua circle.
King Wen died before Jou was overthrown, but his legacy would live on as the Zhou dynasty. The next eight-hundred years would be known as the Golden Age of Philosophers.