The four classical elements, each originally conceived as the unique , arché, "beginning" or "original stuff," were independently proposed by early Presocratic philosophers:  water (Thales), air (Anaximenes), earth (Xenophanes), and fire (Heraclitus). Empedocles proposed that they all existed together in fixed quantities from the beginning, mixed and unmixed by Love and Hate. This allowed him to agree with Parmenides that Being never really changed.

Plato later conceived of them as consisting of atoms with the geometrical shapes of four of the five regular geometrical solids that had been discovered by the Pythagoreans but described by Plato (in the Timaeus). We now call these the Platonic Solids. Their surfaces consist entirely of regular triangles (3, the tetrahedron; 8, the octahedron; and 20, the icosahedron), squares (6, the cube), and pentagons (12, the dodecahedron). These are, of course, not the true shapes of atoms; but it turns out that they are some of the true shapes of packed atoms and molecules, namely crystals: The mineral salt (halite, NaCl) occurs in cubic crystals; fluorite (calcium floride, CaF2) in octahedrons; and pyrite ("Fool's Gold," iron sulfide, FeS2) in dodecahedrons [note]; etc. Aristotle lost Plato's mathematical interest, discarded the geometrical treatment, and saw the elements as combinations of two sets of opposite qualities, hot & cold, wet & dry. Aristotle's view was ultimately the accepted one all through the Middle Ages. [Note:  the white text on black background appears as a link. Do not click on it unless you wish to make the text black, for the purpose of printing out the page.]

Platonic Solids with Triangles
Aristotlehot & dryhot & wetcold & wet

Solid with
Aristotlecold & dry

The fifth Platonic Solid, the dodecahedron, Plato obscurely remarks, "...the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven" (Timaeus 55). That remark led the great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) into an absurd series of speculations about how the orbits of the planets, whose nature for the first time he had accurately understood, corresponded to the Platonic solids. Kepler imagined that nesting the solids inside each other would produce the ratios that he had independently posited in his Third Law of planetary motion. That didn't work. But Plato himself didn't really know what else to do with the dodecahedron. Aristotle added a fifth element, , aithér (aether in Latin, "ether" in English). Our word "quintessence" comes from a Latin expression for this -- the "fifth essence." Aristotle thought that the heavens were made of this element. But he had no interest in matching it with Plato's fifth solid, even though it didn't fit in with his scheme of opposites for the other four.

Aristotle's theory of aether came in for criticism from some later commentators, such as John Philoponus in the 6th Century AD. The problem is that, if the opposites that define the other elements are confined, with those elements, to the Earth, and aether itself is superior and beyond the opposites, then this leaves us with the awkward question how the Sun, which is therefore not hot, can heat the Earth. The original meaning of aithér was "fiery, blazing, flashing, glittering," etc.; but Aristotle has defined the basis of those features out of the element. Yet they must be there. Even if one wanted to argue, lamely, that the Sun does not really supply the warmth that it appears to, we still have the difficulty that the Sun, planets, and stars all supply the light by which we perceive them. Of course, the Greeks were a little confused about light, thinking that it originated in the eye rather than in the illuminating object. Be that as it may, the intuitive impression that the Sun is the source of the heat we feel, which is true, would seem to falsify Aristotle's systematic theory.

It is noteworthy that Plato's theory has a very modern flavor, with mathematically defined, transmutable atoms. The theory misses its target, since Plato didn't have a clue about the modern chemical elements, and atoms do not have such geometrical structures. Nevertheless, he was not so far off the mark, and we only have to shift our aim slightly, to the crystaline packings of atoms, to find the appropriate modern applications of Plato's geometry. Aristotle, by contrast, has a completely archaic theory which looks back to the theories about opposites of Anaximander, Heraclitus, and the Pythagoreans. It is of no use whatsoever today.

We should ask why Plato's theory is so progressive, why Aristotle's is so archaic, and why Plato is usually given so little credit for his theory. The answer to all these is the same: Plato comes up with this kind of theory because of his Pythagorean faith that mathematics would reveal the structure of the world. Aristotle had no such faith, regarding mathematics only as a calculating device (the common opinion in the Middle Ages). In turn, Plato is usually overlooked by down-to-earth philosophers and historians of science because his Pythagorean number mysticism seems to them of a piece with the rest of his philosophy, which they regard as, in general, an unscientific mysticism unworthy of consideration.

Yet modern science, which is distinctively mathematical (sometimes excessively so), was set on its way by just those scientists, like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, who shared Plato's mystical faith in mathematics. That is the most conspicuous in Kepler, whose flights of fancy, which included a science fiction book about life on the Moon (the Somnium or "Dream"), are found together with the most serious, hard mathematical breakthrough in the formulation of modern astronomy short of Isaac Newton's own theory of universal gravitation:  Kepler's Three Laws of planetary motion. Philosophers of science overlook this circumstance, as they do the Platonic Realism of most practicing mathematicians. Since many Modern philosophers would rather avoid the metaphysical challenge that would result, they tend to agree with Aristotle that mathematics is a human invention that coincidentally happens to apply to Nature. With their attitude, indeed, science never would have come out of the Middle Ages.

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The Greek Elements, Note

The form of pyrite crystals is not, strictly speaking, a true Platonic dodecahedron. That is because the pentagons on the surface are actually not regular pentagons -- all the sides and interior angles are not equal. The characteristic form of pryite is thus called a "pyritohedron." The distortion occurs because the crystals can also occur in cubic form or, most interestingly, in a combination of cube and pyritohedron faces, with 6 rectangular and 12 pentagonal faces -- as shown at right. The black faces may be imagined as planes where a cube slightly truncates a pyritohedron.

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Those English and their damned British phlegm!

Álvaro de la Marca, Conde de Guadalmedina, Captain Alatriste [Arturo Pérez-Reverte, 1996, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 2005, A Plume Book, Penguin, 2006, p.102]

With a theory based on that of the four elements, by the Middle Ages health was though to depend on a balance of four fluids, or humors, in the human body:  fire corresponded to blood; air to yellow bile; water to phlegm; and earth to black bile. The notion that health depended on the balance of the four elements arose shortly after Empedocles introduced his theory. The theory of the four humors developed by the time of Hippocrates (c.460-c.377 BC). We still say that people can be in a "good humor" or a "bad humor," and terms derived from the Greek or Latin names of the humors are still sometimes used to describe moods, attitudes, or personalities:

Blood (Sanguis)
sanguine, meaning "sturdy, confident, optimistic, cheerful, happy."
Yellow Bile
(Bilis, Kholê) and its associations come:
choler, meaning "the quality or state of being irascible";choleric, meaning "angry, irate, irascible"; bile, meaning "inclination to anger, spleen"; bilious, meaning "pevish, ill-natured"; gall, meaning "bitterness, rancor, insolence"; spleen, meaning "mingled ill will & bad temper"; and jaundiced, meaning "envy, distaste, hostility."
Phlegm (Phlegma)
phlegmatic, meaning "slow, stolid, cool, impassive."
And from
Black Bile
(Melancholia) comes:
melancholic, meaning "depressed, tending to depress the spirits, irascible, sad, saddening."

Notice that the passivity of "cold" humors, Phelgm and Black Bile, contrasts with the activity of the "hot" humors, Blood and Yellow Bile. The theory of personality that begins with the four humors ultimately leads to C.G. Jung's theory of psychological types.

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The Chândogya contains the earliest Indian view of the elements. There are three: 1) fire (agni, , or anala, ), 2) water (ap, ), & 3) earth (pr.thivî, , or bhûmi, ). These emanate in sequence from each other. Fire is associated with oil, butter, and fat, while earth is associated with all other kinds of food. Each, as food, gives rise to three bodily subdivisions: Fire into bone, marrow, and speech; water into urine, blood, and prân.a (breath); and earth into feces, flesh, and mind.

The three elements of the Chândogya effectively correspond to the three () of the Sankhya School and the Bhagavad Gita, with a change in sequence. The three are the three forces of nature in Sankhya thought, which, even more, are the causes of everything that happens, of which the true Self (âtman/purus.a) is only the spectator, and the sources of attachment and bondage, the causes of rebirth in the natural or phenomenal world (prakr.ti). Water corresponds to sattva (), the desire for knowledge and goodness, associated with the color white and the Brahmin caste; fire corresponds to rajas (), the desire for action, associated with the color red and the Ks.atriya caste; and earth corresponds to tamas (), sloth, associated with the color brown (or black) and the Vaishya (or Shudra) caste (or the Untouchables). Eventually the theory of the is widely accepted in orthodox philosophy, and the association or the correspondence to the theory of the elements is lost.

1. Fireredoil, butter,
and fat
bone, marrow, & speech2. Rajas
2. Ks.atriyas
2. Waterwhitewaterurine, blood, & prân.a (breath)1. Sattva
1. Brahmins
3. Earthblackother foodsfeces, flesh, & mind3. Tamas
3. Vaishyas,
4. Shudras, &
5. Untouchables

Later other elements are added. Fire itself comes to be seen as emanating from air (vâyu, ), which is later seen to emanate from "aether" (âkâsha, , or kha, ). These are similar enough to the Greek elements, and their introduction occurs late enough, that Greek influence cannot be discounted. Despite the additions, numerical systematizations (e.g. "three kinds of food," etc.) tend to use the number three, but often with a somewhat distinct fourth element: three twice born, (brahmins, ks.atriyas, & vaishyas), with a fourth varn.a (shudras); three Vedas (R.g, Sama, & Yajur), with a fourth (Atharva).

In Buddhism, the fifth element could be interpreted differently from Hinduism. The Sanskrit word , used for "aether," could also mean "sky" or "clear space." This could be the equivalent of "emptiness" (shunyata) in Buddhism, and the fifth element in Buddhism is consequently often given as "space" or the "void." The five Buddhist elements were subsequently exported with Buddhism itself to China and countries influenced by China, viz. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The five Buddhist elements in the Far East thus should not be confused with the original five elements of Chinese philosophy. The colors associated with the Buddhist elements below are out of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Another version exists in which the white and blue are reversed. These can actually be combined, as shown, with the "body" one color but the "light" the other. I have also seen Mâmakî and Locanâ reversed (and spelled differently, e.g. Rocanî), and Âkâshadhâtu as Vajradhâteshvarî. Chinese characters and Japanese pronunciation are given for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of particular importance in East Asia.


(Dainichi Nyorai,

[-ba], Jp.)

(Hôshô, Jp.)


(Amida, Jp.)




(Kokuzô, Jp.)

(Kannon, Jp.)

(Jizô, Jp.)

(Monju, Jp.)
Buddha FunctionBuddha nature, approachwisdom to realize, raisingcondition to practice, cultivatingfruit of: Boddhisattvafruit of: Nirvâna
great perfect mirrornon-discrim-
subtle observationaccomplishing
gem/jewel, ratnalotus, padmaaction,
emblemstûpafive prong vajragem/jewellotusthree prong vajra,
bright colorswhite bodyblue bodyyellowredgreen
blue lightwhite light
soft colorswhitesmokyblueyellowred
seed wordskha (void)vaktva (word)anutpâda (unborn)raja (dust)hetva (origin)
consciousness--storedefiled mindmentalfive senses
post-mortemday 1day 2day 3day 4day 5
realms of




hungry ghosts


The Buddhist elements contribute to Buddhist architecture. The originally distinctive Buddhist structure was the stupa, which was designed to hold Relics of the Buddha. This grew into the pagoda in Chinese and East Asian architecture, which might hold Relics or other sacred objects. The structure of these, in turn, began to reflect the theory of the elements, with stacked architectural forms signifying the five elements, in the order we see at left. This becames the structure of the , "five circle [i.e. cakra] tower," or gorintô in Japanese.

The simple geometrical shapes shown, which include the "half moon" for air and the "jewel" for aether, may not always be evident in sophisticated stupa or pagoda design. However, they become especially evident in simpler structures, such as small stupas or grave monuments, which will be , "five cakra stone," gorinishi in Japanese. Where colored, the elements may sometimes reverse the white and blue colors of aether and water, as seen in the table above.

an Arhat
the Buddha
the Sangha
preceptsno killingno theftchastitysobrietyno lying
Lotus SutraMyô-hô-ren-ge-kyô

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The Indian and Buddhist Elements, Note 1;
The Buddhist Realms of Rebirth

...some fall into the Avici Hell, from which they never emerge to be reborn.

The Tathagata, in Wu Cheng'in, Journey to the West, ("Record of the Western Journey"), Volume IV, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, p.2260

It is also common to see six realms of rebirth cited for Buddhism:  gods, hells, human, hungry ghosts, demons, and animals, . In fact, where five realms are given, it is often the animal rather than the demon realm that is found.

godshellshumanhungry ghostsdemonsanimals

The demons are asuras, (the Chinese characters phonetically transcribe, imperfectly, the word in Sanskrit -- in Japanese we get ashura -- the "a" character is optional), who are contrasted with the devas, gods, who can be called , "heaven [or divine] persons." While the demons in Hinduism are always enemies of the gods, in Buddhism this does not always seem to be the case. The "Wrathful" deities look like demons, but they are actually vengeful forms of the gods and other deities themselves.

"Hell," , which can be used for either Buddhist or Christian hells, is literally, "earth prison." Canonically, there are 136 Buddhist Hells, including Hot Hells and Cold Hells. The Avici Hell is the worst. If a human being could know what the Avici Hell is like, he would exsanguinate, i.e. bleed from every orifice, and die -- like a haemorrrhagic fever (Ebola, etc.). There is also the notion around that for individuals of particularly great sins, a new Hell may be created just for them. So we could imagine such a thing for Hitler or Stalin. While in general Buddhism holds that individuials are reborn even from the Hells, we sometimes see, as in the epigraph, that the worst never leave the Hell Realm.

The Hungry Ghosts haunt the human realm and are perpetually starving. Consequently, they will eat anything and are often portrayed (in Japanese art) at latrines. It has been speculated that the disappearance of corpses or waste by the roadside, in the absence of knowledge of bacterial decay and insect scavenging, was explained by the doing of hungry ghosts; but there is no direct assertion of this in the literature. Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal, who were starving, began to see themselves as Hungry Ghosts and interpreted the first syllable of "Guadalcanal" in Japanese with the character , "starve." "Ghost," , is one of the characters otherwise used in relation the Chinese soul.

There can also be more realms that are more specific to Buddhism:  (1) the "voice hearers," shravakas, adepts at Theravâda practice; (2) the pratyeka Buddhas, who have achieved enlightenment independently, through their own insight; (3) Bodhisattvas, adepts of Mahâyâna practice; and (4) Buddhas. This can bring the number of realms to ten.

"voice hearers," shravakas
The "voice hearer" realm itself can have four parts, (1) "stream enterers," (2) once returners, (3) non-returners, and (4) Arhats, "Saints," those who have the highest Theravâda achievement, and the equivalent of Enlightenment, but who do not count as Buddhas, even by Theravâda reckoning. "Once returners" and "non-returners" are those who have achieved sufficient merit that they will only be reborn once, or not at all, respectively.

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Along the eastern face were seven blue-green flags for the eastern mansions -- Horn, Neck, Root, Room, Heart, Tail, Basket -- arrayed in the shape of the Sky-blue Dragon. Along the northern face were seven black flags for the northern mansions -- Southern Dipper, Ox, Girl, Void, Rooftop, Dwelling, Wall -- laid out in the form of the Dark Tortoise. On the western side flew seven white flags for the western mansions -- Straddling Legs, Bonds, Stomach, Bridge, Net, Turtle, Triaster -- in the menacing crouch of the White Tiger. On the soutern side flew seven red flags for the southern mansions -- Well, Ghost, Willow, Star, Drawn Bow, Wings, Axle -- making the outline of the Vermillion Bird.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms [, attributed to Luo Guanzhong; Three Kingdoms, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1995, 2007, Volume II, p.853, boldface added -- this is part of the structure of the altar built by Chu-ke Liang (Zhuge Liang) in order to perform a Taoist rite to call up the wind for the Battle of Red Cliff; the "mansions" are asterisms.]

The Chinese elements come early, and their development in Chinese philosophy cannot be followed as can the development of the Greek and Indian elements. The system of five elements and classifying things by fives is already evident in Classics like the Tao Te Ching () and the Shu Ching (, the Book of History), both of uncertain date and authorship. Later such classifications are expanded almost without limit (when Buddhism arrives from India with its own five elements, it adds its own system of fives). The first individual known to have written about the five elements was Tsou Yen, of the Yin-Yang or "Cosmologist" School (), who lived in the third century B.C. But even with him, the original texts are lost, and all we know is what the Han historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien (Sima Qian) says about him in the Shih Chi (, Historical Records), the first great Chinese dynastic history.

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mutually producing, xiangsheng [1]wood produces firefire produces earthearth produces metalmetal produces waterwater produces wood
mutually overcoming, xiangke [1]wood overcomes earthfire overcomes metalearth overcomes watermetal overcomes woodwater overcomes fire








benevolenceproprietygood faithrighteousnessknowledge
soul (hun)
soul (p'e)
finesdetentionexilelife exiledeath
Marx BrothersChico
1970-1971 UCLA Starting Basketball TeamSidney WicksCurtis RoweSteve PattersonKenny BookerHenry Bibby

The Buddhist elements that were imported into China were never combined with the Chinese elements, but they did, of course, need to be translated. "Air" was translated as "wind," . "Aether" or the "void" was translated with a character, , that could mean "sky, "air," or "emptiness." This suits the ambiguities of the notion of aether just fine, since the Sanskrit word could mean "aether," "sky," or "emptiness," while a kind of "air" is just the original meaning of the Greek word aithêr. Although these were, as I say, never combined into the system of five Chinese elements, we do find wind together with water in a very traditional Chinese context, , "wind and water," the name of Chinese geomancy, the method of siting, orienting, and arranging houses, temples, graves, etc. for best effect. This has become rather familiar elsewhere around the world, and one even hears the proper pronunciation ("fung shue"), which is a little unusual.

While the "symbols" associated with the five elements include four animals for East, West, North, and South and a "caldron" in the Center, we get a slightly different picture with the separate system of "animals" associated with the elements. There we get "scaled," which corresponds to the East and the dragon, "furred," with the West and the tiger, "shelled," with the North and the turtle, "winged," with the South and the phoenix, and finally "naked," associated with the Center. A caldron, of course, isn't an animal, and "naked" doesn't apply to it. "Naked" applies to one animal in particular, man. So the picture we get for the five animals are the four symbolic animals surrounding man in the Center (though he is not shown, of course, naked).

blue, green, black, azure

Jp. sei, shô, ao
blue, green, light green




green, azure

Jp. sô, ao
blue, pale





In the canonical names of the Chinese colors, there are not separate words for green and blue. The character can mean both. This ambiguity carries over into Japanese. There are other Chinese color characters that are more precise, though also has an interesting ambiguity. In Chinese, this first of all means green, but it can also be the azure of the sky. In Japanese, however, it only means blue, which we see in the name of the Japanese
aircraft carrier, the Sôryu, , "Blue Dragon." Another ambiguity we see with , which in Chinese means violet or purple, but in Japanese now means dark blue, navy blue, or Prussian blue. With the two characters for red, there doesn't seem to be that much difference in meaning, but now looks like the preferred character in Chinese, while in Japanese usage it is still mainly , as we see in the name of the Japanese aircraft carrier, the Akagi, , "Red Castle" (from the name of a mountain). Note that the Japanese words in italics are the kun reading of the character, i.e. the actual word from Japanese, while otherwise, given first, is the on reading, the word as it was borrowed into Japanese from Chinese.

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The Chinese Elements and Associations, Note 1;
The Chinese Ritual Order

The "mutually producing," , and "mutually overcoming," , cycles were used in the analysis of Chinese history. Each Dynasty was expected to go through Five Phases (), corresponding to the five elements. The "mutually overcoming" cycle was used first, for the Warring States Period; but then the "mutually producing" cycle becomes popular during the Han Dynasty. The use of these cycles may be one explanation of the choice of the name Ch'ing (Qing) for their Dynasty by the Manchus, since "Clear" can imply water, while Ming, "Bright" implies fire, and water overcomes fire. The Manchus will also have liked it that "fire produces earth" since they used "fire" and "red" for the Chinese, the Han people, and "yellow" and "earth" for the Manchus themselves. Yellow was also the Imperial color.

The Five Phases, , are also invoked in the discussion of the ritual order of the rites for the dead by C. Fred Blake (Burning Money, The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld, University of Hawaii Press, 2011, pp.82-90 -- a book whose value is gravely compromised by the pathetic Marxist nonsense that fills much of it, a tribute to the vicious ignorance and folly that can be found among anthropologists like Dr. Blake). However, the sequence that we get corresponds to neither the mutually producing nor the mutually overcoming cycles.

The Chinese Elements & the Ritual Order
Slow Burning, SolemnOfferingFast Burning, Playful
approaching the dead
facing the dead
leaving the dead
Old Yin
Young Yin
Yin/YangYoung Yang
Old Yang

The yin/yang associations here go with the idea that the "yin world" is that of the dead, and the "yang world" that of the living. This is the common notion, although it is inconsistent with the Tao Te Ching, which associates with life and with death (LXXVI:182). Lighting candles and incense puts one in contact with the dead or the spirits, , and thus is the yin aspect of the ritual. This part of the ritual, by inviting contact with the dead, involves some danger. Hence, it is a solemn and serious business.

The offering of food to the dead is the height of the ritual and has one facing the dead most directly. Afterwards, one retreats from that contact, establishing increasing distance to the "yin world" and returning to ordinary life in the "yang world." Burnig paper is one of the most distinctive of Chinese customs, and all by itself authenticates the account of Marco Polo, who may not mention the Great Wall, but does mention this. The basic form of the practice is to burn some kind of pseudo-paper money (sometimes identified as "Bank of Hell" notes); but the business has expanded to burning paper replicas of other necessities, including furniture and whole houses (in minature). Since this rite can produce a large bonfire and is cheerful, a more relieved and playful spirit begins to predominate.

Finally, we get another distinctively Chinese custom, based, like burning paper, on a Chinese discovery, namely, fireworks. I do not know of other religious practices that involve this kind of noise and uproar; and it is specifically to drive away spirits. While otherwise this might be thought to be a way of purifying an area of hostile spirits (which is something we may see in a Chinese cemetery), its role in offerings to the dead is clearly to finish the service by driving off the spirits of the dead themselves, protecting us from the danger that the presence of the dead may pose. It is also great fun. (Americans used to know this, until they astonishingly allowed paternalistic government to generally ban private fireworks on, of all days, the Fourth of July).

While we may gather from the Analects that Confucius was not interested in rites for the dead, another Chinese Classic, the Book of Rites, the Li Chi or , has something a little different:

Confucius said, in dealing with the dead, if we treat them as if they were entirely dead, that would show a want of affection, and should not be done; or, if we treat them as if they were entirely alive, that would show a want of wisdom, and should not be done. [Blake, op.cit., p.64]

Actually, this sounds like Confucius. "Wisdom" may be that the dead don't exist, but "affection," for the sake of the Six Relations, calls for respect and attention.

Burning Money, The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld,
by C. Fred Blake, University of Hawai'i Press, 2011

The Chinese Soul

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The Lizard-Spock Expansion

The Chinese Elements and Associations, Note 2

The seven day week is Western; and Sunday and Monday are, of course, associated with the sun () and the moon (). The Chinese would have known about the seven day week during, at the latest, the Middle Ages, through Nestorian missionaries; but full awareness of Western astronomy arrived during the Ming with the Jesuits, whose knowledge was impressive enough that they were given official posts and responsibilities with respect to the Chinese calendar.

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The Chinese Elements and Associations, Note 3

Originally a second variety of millet. Corn (called "maize" in Britain, where "corn" means any grain) did not exist in China, of course, until introduced from the New World.

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Fantasy Seven
Element Theory

China ends up with two systems of five elements, one from Chinese philosophy and one imported from India with Buddhism. Three elements match in each system, fire, water, and earth. The Chinese elements then include two missing from the Buddhist elements, metal and wood; and the Buddhist elements include two missing from the Chinese, air and aether (or the void).

Chinese philosophy thus has, as a matter of fact, seven elements, although these were never combined into one system. In combining them now, as a fantasy exercise, we might take a clue from Western philosophy, where the seven planets were the basis of the theory in Mediaeval alchemy that there were seven metals. As it happens, the five naked eye planets in Chinese astronomy were matched up with the five elements. In the adoption of the seven day week from the West, Chinese usage then assigns the five planets to the days of the week apart from Sunday and Monday, which are then named, obviously enough, after the Sun and the Moon. If we want to add two extra elements, then, the Sun and the Moon provide the slots for them. Since the element air gets translated as "wind" in Chinese, the Moon, which moves the fastest of the heavenly bodies, seems the appropriate match, while the Sun, illuminating the heavens, is not inappropriate for aether/void.

The accompanying table lists the seven elements with their Chinese characters, in the ascending order of the planets as recognized in Mediaeval Western astronomy, with the planetary symbols and the metals that Western alchemy associated with them. The toughest problem with all this are the associated colors. The Buddhist and the Chinese elements have definite color associations, which only agree for fire (red) and earth (yellow). The Greek elements do not have a traditional color scheme, but I would take red, yellow, green, and blue, from Jung's Mandala Symbolism, as appropriate for Western concepts of the four elements (with no color, i.e. white, for the often overlooked aether) -- as it happens, these are the four colors used in the 1997 Bruce Willis movie The Fifth Element. Of the five colors associated each with the Chinese and Buddhist elements, Chinese does not distinguish blue from green, which Buddhism does, and Chinese uses black, which Buddhism does not. If we distinguish blue from green and add black, that still only gives six colors, so a seventh is necessary. Meanwhile, we could do some sorting. All agree on red for fire. Chinese colors of white for metal and green for wood seem natural enough. Blue for water, instead of Buddhist white or Chinese black, seems better, as it actually occurs instead of black in the yin-yang diagram on the flag of South Korea. Buddhist green for air seems unnatural, while yellow for earth, although with Buddhist agreement, only seems the most appropriate for the floodplain of the Yellow River. Thus, yellow, the color of the air I often see in Los Angeles, is possible, while black has been thought the color of earth in many places since Ancient Egypt, the "Black Land." That only leaves one element and one color short. When I consider that purple clouds are a sign of someone entering the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida, purple may be a natural color to suggest for the element that can be used as a name of the Buddha, Kong Wang, "King of Emptiness."

An important part of Chinese five element theory is the direction represented by each element, with earth in the center. In the accompanying diagram, arranged around earth are squares containing the appropriate Chinese elements, in the right directions, if north is up and west to the left. If these five squares were to be folded up into a cube, one side would be open. If that open side were used for air, and the cube unfolded, then the arrangement would be with the square for air attached to one of the four outer elements. If air is attached as shown, then the vertical column of squares contains the original four Greek elements, which are shown with their hot/cold, wet/dry classifications by Aristotle. The folded cube is shown at left, with transparent sides for air, water, and metal and with solid colors for earth, wood, and fire, and at right with solid colors for air, water, and metal.

This leaves aether/void unaccounted for. Now earth, which was in the center for the Chinese elements, is displaced by its position on a side of the cube. The empty center of the cube thus might seem the likely place for aether/void, and it is therefore so shown at left inside a purple framework of the cube.

An alternative idea about aether could be derived from the idea of the "three kingdoms" in India, namely the Earth, the Air, and the Heavens. Earth could be the five Chinese elements. Air is then, of course, above the earth, and since we are actually in the air, the outer four elements could still be folded up as in the cubes shown above. Aether, however, as the sky or the heavens, would be even above air, and this would put it outside the cube altogether, as at right.

The use of the cube for six of the seven elements means that the Greek/Buddhist and Chinese elements can be represented, respectively, just by leaving off the appropriate sides of the cube. Thus, at far left, are the sides for the four original Greek elements, with two sides left off, while at immediate left is the cube with only one side left off for the five Chinese elements.

Finally, we might consider the relationship between the Chinese "five virtues" and how they seem to fit with the Kantian character typology considered elsewhere. None of the Chinese element associations match the Kantian typology, except one, imperfectly. However, if the idea is to map the five Chinese virtues onto the four Western humors, then some bumping and rearranging is going to happen. If "good faith," a central virtue indeed as Kantian good will, is to continue in the "center," then it would go to aether, not remain with earth. Righteousness replaces good faith; propriety goes to air; and kindness comes in to replace propriety. This leaves "knowledge" in place, but the Kantian virtue is now the closely related one of prudence.

If we regret the loss of associated virtues for metal and wood, there is going to be no difficulty supplying them from other Confucian virtues. Zhong and shù, "conscientiousness" or "loyalty" and "consideration," will do. Or xiào, "filial piety," is also available. Indeed, this more than we need. Along with the original "knowledge," two virtues at least will have no place in the seven element theory. Maybe we need eight or nine elements, not just seven.

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan

The list of virtues is reminiscent of a story about the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1623-1651), who in 1623 asked the monk Tenkei what virtues would constitute nobility. Tenkei replied that there were seven:  Longevity, fortune, popularity, candor, amiability, dignity, and magnanimity. The Shogun then supposedly told Tenkei to select seven gods that would exemplify these virtues, and Tenkei picked out the gods that would then become the shichi fukujin, the seven (shichi) lucky (fuku) gods (shin), or seven gods of good fortune, (cf. Reiko Chiba, The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1966, 1992, pp.7-8, & Ian Reader, Religion in Contemporary Japan, U. of Hawaii Press, 1991, pp.164-165).

The "virtues" listed, however, are really not moral virtues. Most are gifts or graces of fortune, and the gods themselves have much more to do with benefits than with morality. This makes it rather hard to match them with Confucian virtues. Also, the match between gifts and gods is not always precise. Chiba herself gives Hotei for both popularity and magnanimity, while Jurojin represents wisdom, not one of Tenkei's virtues. Also, the gods as described by Reader sometimes have different benefits. The table gives both sets, respectively.

fair dealing

Hotei is the most familiar of these to Westerners, though his fat, laughing figure is often called the "laughing Buddha." But Hotei is not the, or a, Buddha, but a Chinese god, Bùdài in Chinese -- he is named after the "cloth bag," , that he carries, like Santa Claus, with gifts. Reader might be thought to have made a mistake with Fukurokuju, since Chiba convincingly illustrates his gift of longevity with a specific story. But the character for "longevity," ju, actually occurs in the names of both Fukurokuju and Jurôjin, so there is nothing preventing the gift from being associated with both, as Chiba does note it used to be with Jurôjin. Fukurokuju is of particular interest since his name combines the names of three separate and very popular Chinese gods:   (fuku), (roku), and (ju). , "happiness, blessing," sometimes is shown holding a baby. , "prosperity, success, salary," is usually in the robes of a Chinese judge -- the good fortune of official pay. And Shòu, "longevity," looks like a Taoist sage, carrying a staff, gourd, or peach, and with the bulging forehead also characteristic of Fukurokuju.

The next step would be to match the seven gods with the seven elements. Since there is no real obvious basis for that match, I will leave it to further consideration. However, in the meantime it seems a shame to leave the matter entirely fallow, so I will employ a device to at least end on a colorful note. I am not aware of a canonical order for the seven gods, but a plaque I bought on Mt. Hiei has them standing in a row that I will match up with the sequence of the planets above.


The last row in the table indicates the religious origin of the gods, according to Ian Reader. The first three are from Taoism, the . Bishamonten and Daikokuten derive from Buddhism, the , where the former begins as Vaisravans and the latter as Mahakala in India. Benzaiten derives from Hinduism, and is no less than the major goddess Sarasvatî. I am not sure that there is a pre-modern word in Japanese for Hinduism, as distinct from Buddhism. Indian gods came to Japan through Buddhism, and the character , used in the name of the Indian god Brahmâ, was often used with Buddhism, as was Brahmâ himself. Nevertheless, since there is another character for Buddhism, and this one is used to mean "India," "Sanskrit," and the like, it seems reasonable that , the "doctrine of Brahmâ" could mean Hinduism. Ebisu is a native Japanese god, and thus would be part of Shintoism, the , the "Way of the gods." Bishamonten and Daikokuten, along with another Indian god, the goddess Marishiten (Mârîtchi), also used to be regarded as the three gods of war, , the Sansenjin.

The "fantasy seven element theory" is not, of course, entirely fantasy, since each element is attested in a historic philosophical tradition and the introduction of Buddhism into China brings together two different traditions in that country that, between them, involve seven different elements. I was reminded of this by the recent movie The Last Airbender, whose mythology is based on a four element theory but whose aesthetic is vaguely, or sometimes specifically, Chinese or Japanese (e.g. the original cartoon series on Nickelodeon used real Chinese characters, the movie, fake ones). Yet the four element theory is not Chinese, nor, with the loss of Aether, even Buddhist [note].

The following illustration makes this point, with each of the elements represented by a Chinese official respectfully holding his tablet of office (his commission), the , in the folds of his sleeves (for the elements represented thus as officials, see Michael Saso, Blue Dragon White Tiger, Taoist Rites of Pasage, U. of Hawaii Press, 1990, p.11). The origin or commonality of each of the elements is indicated below. Wood and Metal are unique to China, except that "plants" and metal do occur independently in Zoroastrian theology. Air and Aether look like they may originate in Greece and are then adopted in India, since the early Vedas only have three elements; but Buddhism does carry them all to China.

The representative of Aether here has a halo. In Buddhism, Aether is interpreted as the Void or Emptiness. Emptiness is a key Buddhist concept, denoting that which is neither nothing nor something (nor both nor neither). The person who properly and truly understands Emptiness is liable to be a Buddha. Hence the halo. Purple also happens to be the color of the clouds that herald the approach of the Buddha Amitâbha, although that Buddha himself is associated with the element Fire and the color red. Finally, purple was symbolic of the Roman Emperor. Christian Roman Emperors, from Constantine I to Constantine XI, characterized as "equals of the Apostles," are then always portrayed with halos, like Saints. A Roman Emperor would be in Buddhist terms a Cakravartin, , or universal monarch. Thus, we might say that Aether, or Emptiness, rules the other elements.

The character for "Air" used in the cartoon series of The Last Airbender is the simplified version (without the six stroke element under the wrapper) of , "breath, air, steam, gas, weather" [note]. Since Air is not a Chinese element, there is actually no traditional character for it. My understanding is that Buddhism uses , which now primarily tends to mean "wind" in Chinese. This translates Sanskrit vâyu, , which could mean both "wind" and "air." Such ambiguity persists into Hindî, which can borrow Persian havâ, (, from Arabic hawâ', ) to mean "wind." However, havâ itself can from its Arabic origin mean both "wind" and "air." In Persian, it tends to mean "air," with "wind" proper expressed by the Persian word bâd, -- which can also be borrowed into Hindi, as . Thus, even if Chinese now makes a clear semantic distinction between "air" and "wind," Buddhism dealt with more ambiguity in its translations from Sanskrit, which of course never used vocabulary borrowed from (Mediaeval) Persian.

We see a curious treatment of metal and wood in The Last Airbender cartoon series. When the question of the use of metal, , first arises, we are told that "earthbenders" are unable to manipulate it. Indeed, metal is used to imprison earthbenders, and the earthbenders are often nonplussed or defeated by the metal "machines" of the Fire Nation in the war. The firebenders are clearly able to use metal by melting it and fabricating objects as anyone would be able to do. This makes it sound like metal is a separate element, or somehow outside the system of four elements. However, it is later positively asserted that metal is a form of earth and that earthbenders should be able to control it. One of the earthbender characters then learns how to do so. Later we find that the very same earthbender is unable to manipulate wood, , and, again, can be imprisoned by it. This disability is never reconsidered. Again, we are left with the impression that wood could be a separate element, or outside the four element system.

Meanwhile, we have encountered a character that is able to manipulate plants. We are told that this person is a waterbender and is able to control plants through the water in them. This explanation doesn't quite work, since merely manipulating water would not cause the plants to grow at a preternatural rate, which they do. Water is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for plant growth, as it is also for animal growth. Indeed, if water is the key to manipulating plants, it would also enable the waterbender to manipulate animals in similar ways. We don't see that happen -- although we do see that "bloodbending" enables a waterbender to control the bodies of people, which is what we might expect, but nothing like the preternatural growth of the plants. None of the other waterbenders is able to control plants.

So again we are left with the impression that "wood-" or "plantbending" is a separate skill from waterbending -- and it certainly would be a formidable power, as we remember from the abilities of the "Ents" in the second volume of The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers):  What we all know that roots can actually do to stone over the course of years, the Ents, or the hypothetical "woodbender," could do in seconds; and the power of vines to seize and hold, or kill, people is amply demonstrated. Another aspect to this is that the system of elements in Zoroastrian theology, as noted above, specifies plants and metal, as well as earth, fire, and water. So in the Zoroastrian terms, "plantbending" would be the natural complement to the other powers.

Thus, The Last Airbender, by focusing on the basic four Greek elements, found itself in awkward treatments of the other elements of the Chinese tradition upon whose principles and aesthetic the series was otherwise largely based. We are given not the slightest hint in the series that there is any alternative to four element theory. Also, we might imagine that the abilities of the "Avatar" in the story to control all the elements could depend on his specific ability with just one -- aether. By the mastery of Emptiness, the "Avatar," as the "aetherbender," and whose grooming, dress, and upbringing is that of a Buddhist monk, can manipulate all "form," i.e. all of reality, all the dharmas.

The idea of "bending" elements does not seem to occur in literature old enough to be expressed with Greek or Latin terminology. However, we do have terms like "geomancy" (this is in China), from Greek manteía, "prophetic power, divination," and "necromancy," which is magic involving the dead, either their spirits or bodies, for purposes of divination or magical control. I also find "pyromancy" in the dictionary, for fire divination, and have see "aeromancy" (for air) used, without explanation. By analogy, we could also speak of "hydromancy," for water, "metallomancy," for metal, and "xylomancy" for wood.

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Fantasy Seven Element Theory, Note 1,
The Last Airbender, 2010

The Last Airbender won the Razzie (or the Golden Raspberry) Award for Worst Picture of 2010. It also received the Razzies for worst director and worst screenplay, both for M. Night Shyamalan. Nevertheless, the movie grossed $131 million in the U.S. and $319 million internationally, which by most standards is comfortably successful.

The Last Airbender undoubtedly has its weaknesses (in the "teenagers save the world" genre, and with some awkward dialogue), but I rather liked it. There are moments of great beauty and majesty, well expressed by the music. The use of martial arts forms is appealing, with a much more realistic test of the device than in the cartoons (although the cartoons seem to have been drawn from live practitioners). After subsequently watching the entire cartoon series of Avatar: The Last Airbender (which took a while), I must say that the personality of Aang (the Avatar) in the movie (Noah Ringer) is considerably less annoying than in the cartoon. He seems both more conscientious and more earnest, suitably haunted by the harm he caused by absenting himself (even if unintentionally) from the world. He is The Golden Child [1986] who doesn't need to be saved by Eddie Murphy. The cartoon Aang often seems to be out on a lark. The theme of his guilt is raised, but it is less severe and seems overshadowed by the drive to have some fun. The movie Aang is not humorless, but he is focused.

The same -- less annoying -- could be said for some of the other characters. I like the movie Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), with greater dignity and hints of great power, better than the cartoon one. The cartoon Iroh turns out to have great power also, but he is a person of little outward dignity, and he has moments of the occasional comic foolishness. Part of this seems to be a pose, which we learn about as things go on, but it is also part of his philosophy, as he engages in apparently trival pursuits just for the enjoyment of life. In the long form of the cartoon there is the luxury of working this out, but it is better in the two hour movie to bring the dignity to the surface and lose the ludic, epicurean, whimsical, and comical pastimes. Also, the respect that Iroh expresses for the Spirits early on in the movie is something that the cartoon Iroh doesn't do until the confrontation over the Moon and Ocean Spirits. His respect for the Avatar, also expressed early in the movie, is not voiced at all in the first "Book" of cartoons.

I also liked it that in the movie Aang was told he could not have a family. He was obviously being raised in a monastery (not really the place for "Nomads," as the Air Nation is described in both cartoons and movie), and the love interest in the cartoon between Aang and Katara is kind of creepy given their difference in physiological (if not chronological) age. Aang's motive for fleeing the monastery in the cartoons is less sharp. He doesn't like being left out of the other children's games and becomes alarmed that he is to be separated from Monk Gyatso. However, running away at that point also separates him from Monk Gyatso. In such stories, it is after they send you away that you run away, in order to get back to where you want to be. The movie Aang, in his monastic garb and grooming (i.e. shaved head), very reasonably is faced with monastic celibacy. In running away from that, the separation from Gyatso is an accidental feature that is only made permanent by his becoming trapped in the ice.

Speaking of monks, the actor playing Monk Gyatso, Damon Gupton (a black actor in a part with a Tibetan name), without a single spoken line, manages to convey simply with his expressiveness a full sense of the kindness, joy, and wisdom that we expect him to have had from Aang's regard for him. This is an impressive turn, leaving us to wish that we saw more of him, and driving home the horror of his murder by the Fire Nation. Gupton's Gyatso is not the personality of the cartoon Gyatso, but it is better.

While another 2010 movie, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, did better with the critics, it performed with about half the box office, $63 million domestically and $152 million internationally. I don't think it was as good a movie, and I like Nicolas Cage movies, even this one (and even Drive Angry, 2011). Similarly, Tron: Legacy has made $172 million domestically and $226 million internationally -- beating Airbender in the former but losing in the latter category. Except for the visuals and the enjoyment of Jeff Bridges, Tron was not a very good movie.

Thus, I have a little difficulty understanding some of the real vitriol and contempt directed at Airbender. In fact, Daily Variety reports on April 5, 2011, that Shyamalan has a new movie project with Will Smith and his son Jaden, despite him being a director "whose creative cachet has declined over the last decade," which is true -- The Sixth Sense [1999], one of the greatest movies of all time, is a tough act to follow; and Shyamalan's efforts have occasionally misfired (especially with Lady in the Water [2006], whose trailer was so promising but whose payoff was so silly). But I just bet that Jaden liked Airbender, and possibly Will also.

The project of Will Smith with Shyamalan and his son Jaden, After Earth [2013], didn't turn out very well. The result has been blamed on Shyamalan, but I think that the concept for the movie was the fault of Smith, whose instincts failed him in this case. Or perhaps the problem was just the script, by Shyamalan, although certainly that had to pass muster with Smith, who should have known better. The less said perhaps the better.

Two more movies will be needed to finish the story of The Last Airbender. Whether they get made will depend on whether the critical response (terrible) or the bottom line (respectable) has more weight with the studio. Usually the bottom line is what counts, but Hollywood has recently been throwing away money on some of the strangest (usually political) projects. It will be tragic if Shyamalan's vision for the story is not completed. I think he has done an excellent job of adapting the cartoons so far, with the nice twist that most of the Fire Nation parts are played by Indian actors. However, by 2015 there is not a hint that the other Airbender films will ever be made.

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Fantasy Seven Element Theory


Fantasy Seven Element Theory, Note 2

The character actually is a traditional character, but previously it only meant "breath" and was not much used, except in dictionaries as Radical 84. was the common character for "breath, air, weather," etc. In fact, is the word for the "vital energy of the body" that one often finds discussed in the martial arts, Taoism, etc.

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Fantasy Elemental Dragons

"Dragon" is a Greek word (drákôn), but the Greeks may only have been thinking of snakes. Mediaeval dragons, which give us the images of dragons typical in the European tradition, may actually have come from China, brought with steppe migrants like the Huns and Alans. Chinese dragons -- -- in popular religion tended to be associated with water, rivers, rain, etc. I don't think we get Chinese dragons breathing fire. That may be peculiar to European dragons, with the fire derived from images of Hell.

In terms of the elements, however, the archetypal Chinese dragon is associated with the East, and with the element Wood. The color that goes with this can be read as either blue or green, so we alternatively hear of the Blue or the Green Dragon. But there are also Chinese Imperial dragons, where the Imperial color is yellow.

All in all, a fan of dragons begins to yearn for dragons more systematically matched to the elements and the colors. A Blue Dragon, using the colors from the Fantasy Seven Element Theory, sounds more like water. A Red Dragon certainly goes with fire, a Green Dragon with wood, and a Yellow Dragon goes with air or wind.

Chinese river dragons lived, of course, in rivers. A Rain Dragon (the name of Judge Dee's sword), like European fire-breathing dragons, can be imagined flying in the sky, like the Yellow Dragon for air. An earth dragon is something else. In John Boorman's movie Excalibur [1981], Merlin seems to be saying that the whole world rests on a great dragon, which is responsible for creation. Merlin's "charm of making" draws out the "dragon's breath." This is very evocative. Merlin's dragon is also pretty much invisible, which we would expect for a dragon under the earth -- it is disturbed, throwing Merlin off balance, when Excalibur is thrust into the earth by Arthur. Here, I'll have a Brown Dragon go with earth.

To complete the image, fire dragons and water dragons can be imagined linking sky and earth, since volcanoes definitely contain fire, but erupt into the air, while water dragons, although a lot of water is low lying, must be in the air also, descending as rain. Air dragons can be seen in the wind.

For the Seven Elements, what we have left are metal and aether, in White and Purple. A dragon of metal would be a formidable creature, and this is rather like what we get with the dragons in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings books, though a dragon is only actually encountered in the separate book of The Hobbit. It breathes fire like a proper European dragon, but its scales seem to be made of metal, giving it a general unvulnerability to harm.

An aether dragon would be out of most worldly experience, if aether indeed is the element of space or the heavens. But we can make a connection with it. In Pure Land Buddhism, the Buddha Amitâbha (Japanese Amida) appears to the dead aproaching on purple clouds, to take them away to the Pure Land. This is an intrusion into this world of a supernatural element, in broad and narrow senses, that does not otherwise occur here. A Purple Dragon goes with that nicely.

A Red Dragon occurs in the Bible, in the Book of Revelations:

(Revelations 12:3) And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon [drákôn pyrròs mégas], having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

(12:4) And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

(12:5) And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

(12:6) And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

(12:7) And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

(12:8) And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

(12:9) And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil [Diábolos], and Satan [Satanâs], which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

This Red Dragon is Satan, and we have the account of the revolt of the angels and the casting of Satan out of Heaven, later elaborated by Milton in Paradise Lost. The modern incarnation of this, however, is not Satan, but a serial killer, the human devil of Red Dragon [1981] by Thomas Harris, now a successful movie [2002], with Anthony Hopkins again playing Hannibal Lecter, a character famous from The Silence of the Lambs but first introduced in the Red Dragon. The symbolism of Red Dragon also includes the Mah Jongg tile called the "red dragon," one of the set of red, green, and white tiles called "dragons" in the game. This name of the tiles, however, does not seem to originally be Chinese but was introduced by Western players of the game. So this doesn't involve a connection, as we might think, back to Chinese dragons.

Something more obscure but formerly quite widespread does apparently go back to Chinese dragons. According to my colleague Gunar Freibergs (in his essay, "Why Are There Two Other Dragons at the Slaying of Fafnir? Tracing the Migration of a Dragon Motif Across Eurasia"), a decorative motif of two dragons, with tails intertwined, arching down over a scene, occurs early in Chinese art and later turns up in Sythian, Sarmatian, Celtic, and even Viking art. In China, it was often an arching, two-headed dragon, which is actually found as a character on Shang oracle bones. This was often reproduced in decorative pieces in jade or bronze from the Chou all the way down to the T'ang Dynasties. Gunar quotes Victor Mair, of the University of Pennsylvania, that this character, , meant "rainbow." This apparently is character number 2299 in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972]. The dictionary definition is curious:  "Ancient ornament of jade, of a semi-circular shape; it was hung up as a tinkling pendant." Since the actual heads of the dragons can be discerned on many of the ornaments, the definition is curiously agnostic. That this was supposed to be the rainbow may be something that has dropped out even of Chinese consciousness, though that the rainbow should be dragons seems quite reasonable in the context of the tradition.

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