While the four elements of Western astrology began as a way of describing the building blocks of the world, the five elements (wuxing) of Chinese Philosophy are a dynamic system of inter-relationships.
Western practice grew out of the ancient near east – Egypt and Babylon and was developed by Greek philosophers. It then spread throughout the Roman Empire and the Islamic world, including Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
It uses the four classic elements: Fire, Earth, Air and Water.
Chinese Five Element Theory goes back to the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history (770–476 BC), an unstable time when the Zhou dynasty was breaking up into a number of smaller states. (It seems that times of political and social unrest can give rise to great advances in other fields.) The Spring and Autumn Period led to the chaos of the Warring States Period, followed by the consolidation of the Qin (pronounced ‘chin’) dynasty which gives China its name.
The Chinese elements are totally different from the western. The Chinese speak of 5 elements rather than 4: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Unlike the 4 elements of the west, these are not seen as the fundamental building blocks that constitute the world, rather as different types of energy that exist in a constant state of dynamic interaction with each other following cyclical patterns of generating and overcoming.
There’s a great introduction here:
And a more developed explanation here:
Chinese culture spread to other East Asian countries: Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Bringing with it its writing system and its philosophy. In these countries as well as in China, Five Element theory is still used in traditional medicine including acupuncture, as well as in fengshui, military strategy, martial arts, music and even cooking!
A brilliant online resource on Chinese history and culture can be found here: