wǔdé zhōngshǐ 五德终始
The Cycle of Five Elements
The cycle of five elements that repeatedly follow each other in fixed succession is a belief that interpreted the rise and fall of dynasties and political changes. It was propounded by Zou Yan (324?-250 BC), a thinker of the Warring States Period. The five elements are metal, wood, water, fire and earth; they are also known as the five virtues that appear in cyclical repetition. Zou Yan believed changes in human history were similar to those of the natural world and were controlled by these five physical elements. The birth of each new dynasty represented the rise of a certain “virtue.” What drove dynastic transitions and political changes was the recurrence of the five elements as they generated or overcame each other. This view of political virtue and cyclical history with its roots in yin and yang and the five elements has, from its inception, had a very strong influence on traditional Chinese culture.
The First Emperor of Qin believed in the widespread notion of the cyclical sequence of the five elements of virtue. He regarded the Zhou Dynasty as having the virtue of fire. When the Qin Dynasty replaced the Zhou, he believed this began the virtue of water which prevailed over the virtue of fire. (Records of the Historian)