What Is the Wood Element in Chinese Medicine?

by Hannah Fries |

What Is the Wood Element in Chinese Medicine?

The ancient concept of Yin-Yang has claimed its place in the common Western vernacular, but fewer folks know about another prominent Chinese philosophical approach to organizing reality (and our place in it) - the Five Elements, or Wu Xing.


The Taoist theory of Wu Xing, more aptly translated as the Five Phases, “describes the cycle of transformation inherent to all carbon-based life. … In every organic process, in every being with a soul, the round of the seasons and the cyclic intermingling of the basic Elements - Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal - metaphorically and practically describe the processes of change in life on our planet.”

Each Element/Phase embodies an innate essential energy, all of which together orchestrate to organize the flow and form of life. The Phases reflect aspects of transformative processes occurring along the continuum from conception to death, expansion to contraction, growth to decline. These are patterns of phenomena common to all life forms, and are “recapitulated at every level of organization--from the rotation of the planets to the behavior of our internal organs.” 


Humans, as a part of the whole, are a reflection and microcosmic embodiment of our known Universe, containing all Five Phases within us. As such, our health is intimately linked to the internal ratio, cadence, and coordination of the Five Phases on an ephemeral and perennial basis.

Each of the Five Phases has its own lengthy list of macro and micro-correspondences, such as: seasons, directions, climates, colors, emotions, sounds, tastes, organ systems, bodily tissues, spirits, and virtues, to name a few.


As we transition out of Winter, the season of Water, and into Spring, life is revitalized by the exuberance and determination of Wood. 

The Wood Phase is marked by the smooth process of becoming. Like the first green sprouts bursting above the soil’s grasp, or the wayward weed miraculously whirling its tender face through cracks in the sidewalk, Wood is the energy of germination, birth, arousal, creativity, imagination, passion, growth, determination, and hope. Wood is that which propels all lifeforms into the active manifestation of their authentic nature and destiny.


Wood correlates with the Liver and its paired organ, the Gallbladder. 

While the Liver is akin to a General or an architect, strategizing and initiating the equitable distribution of resources and the smooth operation of being, the Gallbladder carries the Liver’s plan into action via wise decision-making. Clear vision, in every sense of the word, is at the core of the Liver’s mission, while choice is central to the Gallbladder.

“In health, the emotion of Wood expresses as an easy unforced clarity of direction and action, a vitality of imagination and certainty of vision. Out of balance, this can manifest as outright irritability and aggression. It can also show up as timidity and an inability to speak up for one’s own individual needs or to make a clear decision about small details or large life plans.”

In the body, Wood mediates the storage, detoxification and circulation of blood; flexibility and strength of connective tissue (i.e., tendons and ligaments); vitality of the eyes; healthy digestion (of fats); and balance and coordination. It also informs our dreams and imagination, decision-making capacity, and hopeful initiative.

The Hun, or ethereal soul, is the Spirit of Wood. The Hun endows us with the capacity to imagine and intuit, to heal repressed emotions and glimpse our destiny through dreams, to plan and orient with courage and clarity, to graciously relate to others and skillfully express our desires.

"A tree that is unbending is easily broken." - Lao Tzu

Flexibility, balance, and keen awareness of Self and Other are essential in maintaining a healthy dynamic with the energy of Wood. If not gracefully kept in check, the determination and passion of Wood can easily mutate into impulsiveness and recklessness, overbearing and aggressive behavior, or rigidity and paranoia. Or, when undernourished, it can wither into aimlessness, anxiety, timidity, and ambiguity of self and purpose.

“Wood invites us to take the time to plan and vision before we act and to be willing to flow around obstacles rather than exhausting our resources in a direct assault against them. Whenever possible, the wisdom of Wood counsels flow rather than force, poetry rather than rant and benevolent vision rather than angry attack.”

In honor of Spring and the spirit of Wood, may you shed the heavy stagnations of Winter and grow in sync with the flora around you, rising with the dawn and flowing through your days like Wood’s frolicking archetype, the Free and Easy Wanderer. And should you find yourself in need of a little assistance in that endeavor, you might employ the ever popular herbal formula of the same name as your ally!

Hannah Fries is a California-based licensed acupuncturist and herbalist (L.Ac.), writer, and Integrative Body Psychotherapy allied professional. She seeks to discover & alchemize the psycho-emotional and spiritual roots of disharmony in the physical body to help her clients transform the obstacles that interfere with their innate healing capacity. Find out more about Hannah and her work on her website at https://www.friespirit.com or on Instagram @friespirit.

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