China Elevator Stories

wood, fire, earth, metal and water

In China, a person’s birth element is calculated after birth.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


After my first son is born in 2014 in Austria, his Chinese grandparents spend time in Siping to calculate which of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water – 木金 and 水 in Chinese) is his dominant element, so they can then choose a Chinese name for him. They calculate that his dominant element is ‘fire’.

When my husband shows me which name his parents chose for our son a little later, he explains: “The second character of our son’s first name is made up of two radicals, the radical ‘forest’ (林) and the radical ‘rain’ (雨). Because our son’s dominant element is ‘fire’, and because according to the theory of the five elements, water regulates fire, they chose a character with the radical ‘rain’.”

A person’s birth element is calculated after birth using a person’s time and place of birth. Usually, the exact time of birth and the longitude of the geographic location a person was born at is used for calculating a person’s dominant element to then choose the correct Chinese name.

The birth element can be mistaken to be the same as the Chinese zodiac element. The zodiac element is related to the zodiac animal in a specific zodiac year. For example, the Chinese zodiac animal in 2014 was a ‘wood horse’.

But there is no correlation between the birth element and the zodiac element. This means that all of the babies that were born in the year of the ‘wood horse’ can have either one of the five elements as their dominant birth element and do not have to have ‘wood’ as their dominant birth element.

I find out later that if you’re not into maths or – if like me, you don’t fully understand how the Chinese “Four Pillars of Destiny” (生辰八字) – the method my son’s grandparents used when they calculated his dominant element works, then there is an easier way to find out which dominant element a person expresses.

The best explanations I have found for this come from Carol Tuttle, author of the book “It’s Just My Nature!”. According to her observations, every person is born with one dominant element and this element shows in their face, in the way a person communicates, in their body language, and in a person’s posture.

In comparison to the Chinese birth element classification system which uses the Chinese five elements, Carol Tuttle describes four types that relate to the ancient Greek concept of the four elements (air, water, fire and earth – 风火 and 土 in Chinese). Once I became familiar with her descriptions of the 4 Types it became easy for me to spot which dominant element a person expresses.

In the case of my younger son, his Chinese name is chosen in a different manner than that of my first son. In the words of my former in-laws, my younger son’s Chinese name should “support” his older brother. The name they therefore choose in 2016 is not chosen with the intent of specifically balancing out my younger son’s dominant element.

I learn about the 4 Types in the year before I move to Germany. My older son, who is playing in the living room while I sit on the sofa reading, is interested in what I’m reading. I explain the 4 Types to him and he easily identifies his dad’s dominant element, which is ‘earth’.

According to the 4 Types, his younger brother’s dominant element is ‘air’. Air can be either ‘metal’ or ‘wood’ when classified in accordance with the five elements. In the case of my younger son, his dominant element is ‘metal’, whereas mine, also having ‘air’ as my dominant element, is ‘wood’.

Initially, the reason that leads me to researching personality type theories such as the 4 Types is my husband’s weird behavior – since long he has changed into a person I can not recognize as the same person I once married and I therefore try to find out if this is nature or nurture.

I also get acquainted with other personality type theories during this period of time and find that many of the other theories I find that have four distinct types correlate with the four elements. Two of the other theories I find where the four personality types match the four elements are Michael Breus’ Sleep Chronotypes (dolphin, bear, lion and wolf) and Gretchen Rubin’s The 4 Tendencies (rebel, questioner, upholder and obliger).

Shortly before I leave for Germany, I research narcissism. It is the knowledge I need to decide if it would be possible for my ex to change back into “a nicer person”. I realize it is not and with this newly gained knowledge, trying to salvage our marriage becomes a thing of the past.

Have you ever heard about the Chinese birth elements?

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