The conceptual framework for a man's search for meaning

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Did the Chinese get the periodic table wrong?

January 25th, 2016 by dimpledbrain

The recent completion of the periodic table’s 7th row (elements 113,115,117 and 118) alongside elements 114 and 116 (discovered earlier) is no easy feat as this means we can expect greater understanding of our universe moving forward. Let us give them a couple of months to decide on the names and have some mini celebrations etc before meaningful works resume. As a baseline to compare, Mendeleev’s first periodic table in 1860s only identified 88 elements (talk about human progress!)

In contrast, the Chinese’s Wu Xing still stands at 5 elements since approx. 200 BC during the Han dynasty. And I cringe every time a ‘specialist’ mentions and talks about the Chinese’s 5 basic elements…Because the Chinese does not think these are the 5 basic elements that make up the universe. Rather, these are the 5 basic processes that can be used to explain the universe.

The five elements are:

  • Metal
  • Water
  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Earth

You might recall that there are 2 processes within the elements, one being constructive and the other destructive. Examples of the constructive flow are metal grows water, water grows wood, wood grows fire, fire grows earth and earth grows metal.

Examples of the destructive flow (which doesn’t just reverse the order above btw) are metal destroys wood, wood destroys earth, earth destroys water, water destroys fire, and fire destroys metal.

One way to understand the 5 basic processes is to look at things of higher order,e.g. any human progress.

(1) Dissemination of knowledge characterizes the water element as one property of water is to spread.

(2) When knowledge is made available to the mass, it will lead to their advancement. This is a wood process as wood is concerned with growth. And hence the term water grows wood.

(3) Advancement will lead to jealousy and conflict of interest. This is a fire process as fire is concerned with activity.

(4) Conflict will lead people with similar interests to join forces (think Lord of the Ring’s The Fellowship of the Ring). This is an earth process as earth is concerned with getting together.

(5) When people get together, they will discuss to solve the problem at hand. This is a metal process as metal is concerned with resonance.

(6) When people discuss, this will lead to spread of knowledge. This is a water process and hence metal creates water.

Using the same example above, the destructive flow can be understood as follows:

(1) Water destroys fire. Well disseminated information will prevent conflict

(2) Wood destroys earth. When people are getting very rich, they may not come together although it is beneficial for them to group together.

(3) Fire destroys metal. When there is conflict of interest, any togetherness/ discussion will not move things forward.

(4) Earth destroys water. When knowledge/information is concentrated in a few places, spread of knowledge will be hampered.

(5) Metal destroys wood. Togetherness will bring about a sense of altruism, at the expense of the group.


(1) One frustrating aspect of trying to understand Chinese wisdom is that they are usually tightly guarded. It is hard to grasp the full aspect of the knowledge unless a master explains the works to you directly. And even if he does explain, it will not be in full. The knowledge is usually only passed down to a few select disciples.

(2) A more complete process based framework is probably I Ching, which is made up of 64 hexagrams, from a primary 8 trigrams.

(3) One can observe that the periodic table and the Wu Xing are at the opposite end of a spectrum, i.e. one is concerned with depth and the other breadth.

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