Personality Types, Chinese Style
What we do as human beings is to try to make sense of the world we inhabit. Perhaps the hardest bit of that world to make sense of is that part of it occupied by other people (although some of us also have a hard time trying to make sense of ourselves too!). People, after all, are complex things. One way in which we try to make sense of the people we come in into contact with is by comparing – for example, one person we meet may remind us of someone else we know, and this may help us to understand the new person. Taking this further, we start to categorise the personalities of the people we know. Over the years there have been many ways of doing this. For example, relatively recently the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung developed a way of categorising people according to the relative strength of their faculties of thinking, intuiting, feeling and sensing; and furthermore according to whether they were predominantly introverted or extroverted. Thus I might be an introverted feeling type, whereas you might be an extroverted thinking type. An older system of categorisation was based on the four humours of classical medicine: phlegm, black bile, yellow bile and blood; according to which of the humours predominated, a person might be phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic or sanguine (words we still, on occasion, use today to describe people).
One of the advantages of such categorisation is that it begins to help make things like medical or spiritual advice more specific – a melancholic person may need a different kind of medical treatment to a choleric one, even if they have similar symptoms; an introverted thinking type may need to do a different kind of meditation practice to an extroverted sensation type.
In the classical Chinese tradition, one way of classifying people is in terms of the ‘Wu Xing’, the five Elements of Chinese thought: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. As in the western ‘humoural’ system, each person may be thought of as dominated or governed by a particular element; but each element is present in each person to some extent, in a one-off blend that makes that person the unique individual they are. This way of making sense of people is particularly useful for Traditional Chinese Medicine in helping us to decide what kind of treatment a person needs, even what kind of life they need to live to maximise their health and well being.
The Wood element represents solidity and pliability, as symbolised by a tree which bends a little in the wind so as to maintain its form. Furthermore, just as a tree grows upwards and outwards, Wood connotes expansion, and is particularly associated with the springtime and new growth. Fire, of course, stands for heat and combustion, and upward movement. Summer is the time of Fire. The Earth (as in mother Earth) represents nutrition and stability, and is sometimes represented as lying at the centre, with the other elements around it at the points of the compass; Earth is the centre. Metal is something that can be worked and moulded; it is dense and represents contraction as opposed to expansion. Autumn is the time of Metal, when nature begins to turn back inwards to prepare for winter. Finally, Water means fluidity and flow, and downward movement – water always flows down. Water is associated with winter.
Applying the Wu Xing to human personalities gives us five different types of people. Because Wood is associated with expansion, the Wood type likes action, movement and adventure, seeks challenges and enjoying pushing his or her limits. Wood types can easily be intolerant and impatient, and can become inflexible, not knowing when to yield a bit. This can be associated with physiological problems such as migraine, irritable bowel syndrome and hypertension – inflexibility on a mental level leading to tightness and tension on a more physical one. Of course, just because you are this type of person does not mean that you are bound to have these problems; it means that, if you don’t look after yourself, these are the likely consequences.
Someone whose governing element is Fire looks for excitement and intimacy; they are intuitive and passionate, and desire is often strong within them. If things go badly, they can become anxious, neurotic and agitated. Insomnia and palpitations can also follow, and Fire types may get into trouble with addictive substances which give them the excitement they crave, but at a heavy cost.
People ruled by Earth, the central element, want to be involved and needed. The link between Earth and the digestive system shows itself in Earth types’ desire to nourish and nurture. However, sometimes they forget that they too have needs and become the person who looks after everyone else (whether they want looking after or not!), but fails to look after themselves. Typically they suffer from digestive complaints, failing to nourish themselves properly, and may develop eating disorders or become overweight.
Those under the influence of Metal like things like definition, structure and discipline. They are often rational and self-controlled, but can lack spontaneity and become isolated. This isolation often shows in respiratory problems, as the breathing process is the most basic way in which we interact with our environment.
Water and metal are often confused, but Water types are typically articulate and clever, their minds running smoothly like water flowing over pebbles. They can develop problems in the genitourinary system, and suffer from chilliness, loss of libido, infertility – too much water putting out their fire.
To get more of a sense of these, consider the following classroom scenario. Wood probably sits towards the back of the class, and at his worse can be a bit of a bully. He likes to push boundaries a bit and needs fairly firm control by the teacher. If he gets frustrated, he can explode into anger, and he can be obstinate too. But he has plenty of outgoing energy which, if it is channelled well, can make him a high achiever. Fire is also a bit explosive at times, but if her enthusiasm is engaged she can be very creative. She has a circle of close friends who vie a bit for her attention, and some people think she is a bit full of herself. She needs good communication, including from the teacher. Earth is the person who looks after everyone else in the class; if someone is in trouble she will be there to offer her help. Part of this is because she wants to be liked, but also she is naturally caring. Sometimes she is put upon, especially by Wood, but often she is the peacemaker. Metal sits at the front of the class and does not get involved with all the goings on further back. He is conscientious in his school work, and always gets good marks (but not brilliant ones). The teacher may be in danger of not giving Metal enough attention, because whilst in some ways he is a model pupil, he needs some gentle encouragement to explore beyond his boundaries and engage with the other kids more. Water is one of the brightest of the kids; she can turn in really good work at times, and is thoughtful and questioning, in a way that makes her quietly popular with her class-mates. Sometimes she is the one who can articulate what is going on for the whole group. The teacher needs to meet Water’s intelligence and help nurture it, even when she is asking difficult questions.
The way that, in nature, the different elements interact with each other in a dynamic and harmonious balance, can provide a model for human harmony. Just as in the classroom above, in a work situation each element needs to find its own place and play its own role. For example, a Fire type may provide the inspiration, and a Water type will be good at articulating and clarifying that inspiration, whilst a Metal type will provide the structure and discipline to harness that inspiration. A Wood type may bring ambition and drive to the party, whilst an Earth type will make sure everyone is involved and looked after. Knowing what type you are, and what type your colleagues are, helps you understand each other and work together more effectively, and more enjoyably.
This same kind of synergy takes place within the individual between the main organ systems; indeed the organs can be viewed as a team working together. When they work well together, there is health, when that harmony is lost, there is illness. For example, there is an important relationship between Wood and Earth, which correspond within the individual to the Liver and the Spleen/Stomach. If the Liver starts to lose the pliability and flexibility that is essential for the Wood element, it starts to ‘invade’ the Earth element, causing disruption in the digestive system such as nausea, abdominal pain and loose stools or constipation (or both). This is also more likely to happen if the Earth element has been weakened, perhaps by poor digestive habits or a general lack of self-care. Similar important relationships exist between other organs; for example there needs to be a dynamic balance between Fire (the Heart) and Water (the Kidneys); too much Water douses the Fire. These ideas form part of the complex web that practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine use to understand why someone is not as well as they could be, and to get at the root of the problem, restoring the dynamic balance between the elements that is health
If you are, by now, wondering which of the elements is your element, you can try following this link to a click questionnaire which might throw some light on the question.
Written by Vimalaprabha