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Five Powers Diagram

Diagram of the Five Powers

The Five Powers (Wǔxíng 五行), also known as the Five Elements, and Five Phases, are chiefly an ancient mnemonic device, in many traditional Chinese fields.

The Five Powers are:

  • Wood ( 木)
  • Fire (huǒ 火)
  • Earth ( 土)
  • Metal (jīn 金 )
  • Water (shuǐ 水)

Chinese dynasties ruled through these powers. For example the Han dynasty ruled through the Power of Fire and the Wu dynasty of Sun Quan ruled through the Power of Earth. It is, however, not very clear what it meant to have ruled through a certain Power, except for adopting it's corresponding colour as the dynasty's reign colour and using it, for example, in it's flags.

CyclesEdit

The Five Powers can succeed each other according to two cycles: by overcoming (conquest) and by natural succession. For both there exist the following memory jogs (see also the diagram):

Natural successionEdit

  • Wood feeds Fire;
  • Fire creates Earth (ash);
  • Earth bears Metal;
  • Metal carries Water (as in a bucket or tap, or water condenses on metal);
  • Water nourishes Wood.

OvercomingEdit

  • Water produces Wood, but destroys Fire;
  • Fire produces Earth, but destroys Metal;
  • Metal produces Water, but destroys Wood;
  • Wood produces Fire, but destroys Earth;
  • Earth produces Metal, but destroys Water.


When a dynasty would rule through a certain power it could thus have been inherited in two ways:

  • Through conquest.
  • Through succession.

An example of conquest is the Qin dynasty which ruled through Water, after it had conquered the Zhou dynasty which had ruled through Fire.

An example of succession would be the Wei dynasty of Cao Pi which ruled through Earth as it succeeded the Han dynasty, which had ruled through Fire.

The Five Powers and reign colours for dynastiesEdit

Every one of the Five Powers has a corresponding colour. Chinese dynasties ruled through a power of the Five Powers and their corresponding colours were used as reign colours.

  • Wood = Green
  • Fire = Red
  • Earth = Yellow
  • Metal = White (or Silver)
  • Water = Black

The Later Han dynasty ruled through the power of Fire and it reigned Red. In accordance with the cycle of natural succession, Fire would make way for Earth. Wei and Wu both saw themselves as successors of Han, thus they ruled through the power of Earth and reigned Yellow. The same can be said about Zhang Jue and his Yellow Turbans and perhaps the same can also be said about Yuan Shu's Zhong dynasty.

When Liu Bei founded Shu-Han (which was actually called just 'Han') he had no choice but to stick with Fire and Red. Giving it another colour, for example Yellow, could be interpreted as if Liu Bei's Han claimed succession from the previous Han, rather than it being a continuation of them. Such an action could be seen as an usurpation of the throne.

History of reign coloursEdit

The Warring States period text Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, ascribed to Lü Buwei 呂不韋, contains a passage which declares that when a new ruler is about to arise, Heaven, without exception, would take the preliminary step of displaying tokens of the future ruler's good fortune to mankind.[1]

For example, at the time of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, Heaven produced creatures of the earth, such as worms or crickets or larvea of insects. The presence of these creatures suggested the new ruler's association with the energy of Earth.[1] The Yellow Emperor's successors likewise were accompanied with symbols of their own particular Power. The coming of Great Yu 大禹, the founder of the Xia dynasty 夏, was accompanied with tokens representing Wood. The coming of Tang 湯, founder of the Shang dynasty 商, was accompanied with tokens representing Metal, and the coming of King Wen 文王 of the Zhou dynasty 周, was accompanied with tokens representing Fire.[1]

In pre-imperial days it was believed that the next Power in the cycle could only arise after it had conquered its preceeding Power.[1] And reign colours and powers were usually in accordance with the cycle of Overcoming. This, however, was not always the case. Before Former Han there was the Qin Dynasty 秦朝 (221 BC–206 BC), which reigned Black through the Power of Water. Qin surrendered to Liu Bang 劉邦 who founded Han. The Han, who "conquered" Qin, should've thus reigned Yellow through the Power of Earth, as Earth is the conquerer of Water, but it did not. Instead, it chose to reign Black through Water.[2] Shortly after the accession of Emperor Wen of Han in 180 BC it was proposed that Han would change its symbol from Water to Earth and reign Yellow. The idea was rejected at first, but eventually adopted in 104 BC.[2]

The idea that powers could only succeed each other through overcoming/conquest started to change during the Former Han dynasty. During Former Han it became more and more accepted that the powers succeeded each other through means of natural succession.

When Wang Mang took the throne of Former Han and founded Xin, he picked Earth and Yellow. Some documents which accompanied Wang Mang's accession insisted that the Han dynasty had not enjoyed protection from Earth, but from Fire; Red. It's logical successor would thus be Earth and Yellow. When Emperor Guangwu founded Later Han he reaffirmed Red and Fire for his dynasty.

More evidence of natural succession being the accepted theory is found in for example Zhang Jue's, Zhang Bao's and Zhang Liang's Yellow Turbans. Though they may have wished to overthrow (conquer) the Han dynasty, they chose the power of Earth (the natural successor of Fire) instead of Water (the conqueror of Fire), probably to show everyone that their time had come.

At the time of the Jin dynasty it is not known how much, or if any importance was still drawn from the Five Powers. If there was, Jin, claiming succession from Wei, would've reigned White through the Power of Metal.[3] The History of Song contains the following passage:

孫盛曰:「仍舊,非也。且晉為金行,服色尚赤,考之天道,其違甚矣。」

which claims that though Jin enjoyed protection from Metal, it did not reign White, but instead went with Red, which was seen as a violation of Heaven.

NotesEdit

  • The popular TecmoKoei games-series Dynasty Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms give Wei, Shu, Wu and Jin the colours blue (or purple), green, red and light-blue respectively. Han usually is a bit yellow-ish. These were not the official colours. As we can read above Wei, Shu, Wu, Jin and Han were Yellow, Red, Yellow, White/Red and Red respectively.

ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Loewe, Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China, page 93.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Loewe, Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China, page 94.
  3. de Crespigny, e-mail contact (read on our forums).

SourcesEdit

  • Loewe, Michael. Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China. Cambridge: UP, 1994

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