While the Western world today thinks of Taoism as a quiet semi-mystical philosophy of going with the flow, traditional Taoism also comes in a hands-on format. Just as the Western esoteric tradition has its alchemy, so does Taoism, although the numbers are a bit different. Western alchemy uses four traditional elements of fire, water, air, and earth; Taoist alchemy, on the other hand, uses five: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood.

The Taoist elements can fall into two cycles -- one creative and one destructive -- as follows:

The creative or nurturing cycle:

  • Fire nurtures earth because it produces ash.
  • Earth nurtures metal because metal is mined from the earth.
  • Metal nurtures water because water condenses upon metal.
  • Water nurtures wood because plants require water to grow.
  • Wood nurtures fire, which should be obvious!

The destructive cycle:

  • Fire melts metal.
  • Metal chops down wood.
  • Wood depletes the earth.
  • Earth soaks up water.
  • Water puts out fire.

The Taoist elements give rise to a good deal of that Traditional Chinese Medicine we've heard so much about lately, including feng shui. This "medicine" is now rightly regarded as a pseudoscience. However, as with Western alchemy, at the time it was formulated it was an attempt at science, at finding regularities or laws of the universe.