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The Element Earth and its Importance in the Five Elements Alchemical and Esoteric Acupuncture

by Richard Bertschinger

In the alchemical tradition occurs the rhyme…the Cycle of Five coiled entirely together as Dragon and Tiger, at their Origin relying on the Soil. In my first article, I discussed the Five Elements in general, then followed Fire and Water, followed by Wood and Metal. In this last article, I discuss the element Earth – and its indications for alchemical or ‘esoteric’ acupuncture.

The Cycle of Five (or Five Elements) describes the elements in the most active form: it summarises the alchemical task, bounded by qian (the name of trigram heaven) and settled by kun (the trigram earth) and our primal Mother. ‘At their Origin relying on the Soil’ – this articulates the two materials of fire and water (in their wood-dragon and metal-tiger incarnations), which depend upon the Soil-earth beneath them for establishing communication – for giving them a stamped down earthen area to confront each other and interact.

From the first article in this series we read the usual rigmarole of the Five Elements (wu xing) as we know them:

………tree becomes flame, which becomes flower, ripens in the fruit, which yields the stone, falls back to the seas and rivers, which deposit again…making the conditions for rebirth and renewal. This all needs careful pondering: and in doing so, especially so, seeing through the mind’s eye, we understand the importance of flow and form in all nature.

The ground for this streaming process– fundamental to any understanding of internal acupuncture – is the earth. Not for nothing was earth often placed centrally among wood, fire, metal and water.

In the article on water and fire we learnt about the crucial dialogue between these two, as heat (fire) and cold (water) permeate the activities of all the elements.

Once we considered wood and metal-gold, we saw this dialogue enhanced and reinforced… wood out of which fire is born… the gold taken out of the water…this explained the movement out of form and into form – as all plants break forth in springtime and ores are extracted from the earth. Furthermore we learnt that as you still the water, you find the gold.

Yet all this activity depends on the earth, the central base and elemental mother.

Let me quote now several passages from my translation of the Candong Q (see end note 1).

This book was written in the 2nd Cent .CE – the oldest surviving text on alchemical transformation. I have explained earlier (see end note 2) the ideas which underpin this transformative art: to begin with, the search by the Chinese into the properties of the natural world, the actions of herbs, habits of animals and workings of the heavens; secondly to continue with the use of all and every material for therapy and the betterment of the body; and thirdly to reach a climax with the tradition of making or faking gold, often prevalent early metal-based cultures. Now it is a small but important single step from this position to match the purification of metals with the purification of the soul. And the addition of a health-restoring Elixir was natural to the inquisitive native Chinese mind.

The opening text of this alchemical tractstates:

Heaven (qian) and earth (kun) are the door and gateway to Change,

Father and mother to the various hexagrams;

Thus water (kan) and fire (li) greatly assist

Turning the hub on its proper axis.

Male and female, four in number (heaven, earth, fire, water),

They are the bellows which revive the fire.

Travelling the path of Yin and Yang is like driving a team of horses:

Adjust the dark reins,

Seize bit and bridle, (see end note 3)

Here the alchemy of heaven and earth is described as ‘travelling the path of Yin and Yang’, as ‘driving a team of horses’ - pulling the great carriage of Change. Earth cannot be described on its own. Earth and heaven, sky and soil, fire and water all blend in a splendid smorgasbord of life.

Heaven and earth are the ‘door and gateway to Change’, the skies above and the earth beneath our feet.; water and fire assist between. Metal and wood act as counsellors. Thus we are counselled to ‘adjust the dark reins’ – they are not plain to our everyday human eyes; and to ‘seize bit and bridle’, to make an effort, in order to control the passage of Change. As our carriage trundles over solid ground, we adjust our position according. This is the way to achieve harmony between the elements!

Further on the Candong Qi states:

The sages guessed at an approximation,

Decided upon an order as foundation:

These four (heaven, earth, fire, water) in make shift chaos

Directly enter back on into the void.

While the sixty hexagrams are about them

Spread out, expanded like a carriage:

Being yoked up with mare and dragon,

The enlightened ruler manages the times.

When at peace, he follows ahead

Travelling a level path without turning:

But if he strays off course he is gone,

Overturning the family and state! (see end note 4)

It is the smooth blending of Yin and Yang into harmony that enables the carriage to travel…..again the appendix to the Yi Jing, or ‘essay on the trigram’ (the Shuogua) states: Heaven and Earth settled in position; the mountain and marsh interpenetrate their breaths. Thunder and wind stir each other; Water and fire pass easily through. This is the easy passage of qi between the elements which is central to the idea of healthy functioning in classical Chinese acupuncture, and behind all their traditional health arts.

Master Shangyang (who ‘honoured the Yang’), properly titled Chen Zhiyu (fl.c.1330) muses on the ‘harmonious five’ in his poem:

The cycling-five gone along with,

The whole world ablaze as a fiery pit!

The cycling-five turned on their heads,

The great earth produces seven jewels

And the centrality of the earth/soil/mother is again told in Zhang Boduan’s scriptural seven-word poem:

If you want the True Lead to regulate the Mercury

For friendship do not desert your own Kin.

Wood and Gold are set apart without cause to meet

And must trust to a Match-Maker to entice them in.

Wood naturally loves Gold - as is Right,

Gold's feeling is to dote on Wood through kindness;

Totally absorbed in each other, together as Special Friends,

They start to notice a Baby Boy growing in the Womb (see end note 5).

The Baby Boy growing in the Mother’s Womb shows to us all the first beginnings of life. How many of us are treating now in pregnancy – and to aid conception. Small wonder – since to honour the Yang is central to our practice.

At the beginning of Zhang Boduan’s earlier Four Hundred Word Essay on the Golden Elixir we read the following:

true earth clutching true lead

true lead governing true mercury;

lead and mercury revert to true earth

the heart still and unbowed,

This is a seminal verse, occurring as the opening stanza of this early work – penned long before his more famous Wuzhen Bian (Awakening to Reality). But being a young man’s work it clearly lays out all for us to follow….’true earth clutching true lead’…this is the single line within trigram Kan () – the true Yang, and seed of life, sometimes called Kidney Yang.

The words of this single verse contain the essence of the Five Elements as they are applied, esoterically, to Chinese Medicine. Earth, lead and mercury are the alchemical names for earth, water and fire. The control and regulation of the fire (mercury) of the passions (as ‘true lead controls true mercury’) enables us to find peace within. That is the stuff of Chinese Yoga. The inner joy of ‘esoteric acupuncture’ commands the same high ground – ‘true earth clutching true lead’ signifies our solid mind (or heart - xin) picking out the inner essence (jing); ‘ true lead governing true mercury’ is our inner essence restraining and controlling the fire (or qi-mercury of desire) – ‘lead and mercury revert to true earth’, that is water and fire (lead and mercury) return to their origin, our nature settled, ‘the heart still and unbowed’.

This is but a partial explanation. Please do not quote it as gospel. Yet it indicates how trigrams and elements interact – with the Earth as basis.

Dear earth – Kun-trigram, sweet mother…centre of all. How like a Chinese mother who is described in the proverb as ‘anxious before any are anxious – happy after all are happy’. Holding the family together is her traditional role. In the hexagram The Family (Hexagram 37in the Yi Jing) we read: ‘a woman’s devotion – favourable’. This can of course also apply to men - as we all have a feminine side.

Devotion permeates the activities of the Five Elements. Each element considers its neighbours. With wood and metal-gold, we see this dialogue enhanced and reinforced…wood out of which, fire is born…gold smelted out of earth, the gold taken out of the water…again, this it a typical rigmarole.

Thus, through human restraint, Husband and Wife (Yin and Yang) find peace together. And we await the Task’s completion….at the Northern Gate (aka. the Kidney-palace, ming-men Du 4) – until the transformation happens…and we ride our Luan (fabulous animals which mounted the heavens) and ascend into the sky. Then we reach the greatest heights of humanity. This is all legendary, orthodox Taoist stuff – a greater soul-life has been bread-and-butter to all hermetic traditions.

In the opening verses to the Wuzhen Bian (Awakening to Reality) the author Zhang Boduan eloquently states his case:


A Study of natural Fairyhood

Since the Golden Elixir itself

Is quite evidently real.

When the Two Materials assemble,

What you feel and what you are unite -

The Cycle of Five coiled entirely

Together as Dragon and Tiger:

At their Origin relying on the Soil,

There as Go-between,

Enabling the Husband and Wife

To protect their happy home together,

Awaiting only the Task's completion -

Dawn at the Northern Gate,

Nine Times the clouds layered with Red Rays of light,

We hold back our fabulous Luan…

Throughout these articles I have been considering the Five Elements from the point of view of alchemical acupuncture and medicine. This is the most important aspect of these ‘agents’…being part of a transformative process or path (dao), essentially….

Later on in the alchemical texts, you find talk of the Three Fives. I would like finally to pick apart this concept– it will help to outline the importance of Kun-earth.

What are the Three Fives? Master Shangyang comments (see end note 6): They are water and gold (4+1), fire and wood (2+3), and the soil (5): only if you have water and fire joining together in an 'earthenware pot' can you form a ‘holy babe'. () and the Three Fives join together as one,



This section illustrates how, if the 'true lead' (water) and 'true mercury' (fire) are to be used, they need each other. And even more so - their very natures depend on one another. The essay on the Yi Jing says: 'One Yin and one Yang are what are meant by the Dao' (Great Appendix, I.5). This is the underlying message of the whole of the book. Later we read:

The Three Fives together as One

Are the very seed of heaven and earth.

This idea can be told in secret,

It is difficult to transmit in writing.

At midnight, to the right they turn,

At midday, then revolving to the east,

While dawn and dusk act as limits between,

And as host and guest divide up the two. (see end note 7)

The dragon blows out at the tiger,

The tiger sucks in the dragon's seed,

Both drink and devour each other,

Totally greedy to succeed -

Each bites and gulps the other down,

Each bolts and sucks the other down.

Shimmering Mars guards the west,

Constant Venus is clear in the sky;

When baleful forces strike

Who may not be overthrown!

The dog will catch the rat,

Small birds fear the hawk,

Each of them acts as it can,

How dare they lay claim to greatness!

If you cannot see this pattern,

Then difficulties create wild ideas,

You squander your family's possessions,

And impoverish your wife and children.

From olden times to the present

Many, many have been devoted;

But they have ended their lives unfulfilled,

For very few may complete this work,

Searching wide outside for the famous medicine

They have turned from the path and gone astray.

So the Three Five represent the balanced mix of the Five Elements – mixed into a single potion, which can restore life. It is a ‘courtesy name’ for Taiyi (Great Unity), one of the Gods of folk Taoism.

The art of playing the Five Elements, central to ‘alchemical’ or ‘esoteric’ acupuncture is concerned with reviving life within – and taking us into a fuller state of being. The Chinese saw this as returning our physical bodies to a transcendent state, the state of the xian, the immortal or super-natural being. Xian can even be translated as ‘fairies’. In the Occident, the land of immortals (cf. the Christian angels) has even been identified as the ‘faeryland’, a land of small folk – which inhabit the earth. But in the Orient they are made of sterner stuff. All are attempts at describing a higher stage of human development.

This article on the Earth element – the last and most fundamental of them has blended together all I have discussed so far – water and fire in check, wood and gold extracted from the furnace and the deeps… Hopefully this simple rubric will keep our feet on the ground. I hope these few ideas will enhance your practice.

End notes

1. My translation of this work with commentaries has just been published by Singing Dragon 2011

2. In my earlier article on Fire and Water.

3. Ch.19

4. The Secret of Everlasting Life Ch.1

5. From my forthcoming translation of his Awakening to Reality.

6. Ch.13

7. Ch.14


Bertschinger, R The Book of Changes: The Chinese Shamanic Teachings Tao Booklets 2009

Bertschinger, R The Secret of Everlasting Life Singing Dragon 2011.

Bertschinger, R Treasuries of the Tao (The Tao-te Ching with Heshang Gong’s commentary) Tao Booklets 2009 (ebook, on Chinese Medicine Times website)

Bertschinger, R The Single Idea in the Mind of the Yellow Emperor (Selections from the Neijing Suwen)

The Daode Jing Tao Booklets 2009 (ebook, translated on Chinese Medicine Times website)

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