The Five Element Theory in Internal Martial Arts
THE FIVE ELEMENT THEORY IN INTERNAL MARTIAL ARTS
Some years ago, the Chinese Naturalist School developed the theory of Wu Hsing. The five elements, water, fire, wood, metal and earth were not considered inactive matter, but dynamic processes which were basic to an understanding of the natural world. The characteristic qualities of each of the Hsing were derived from the careful observation of natural events. Thus water was derived from soaking and descending. Fire both heats and moves upward. Wood allows its forms to be shaped and straight or curved pieces. Metal can be melted, molded and then hardened. Earth’s properties include the provision of nourishment through sowing and reaping. These elements have been used as categories in the classification of many different phenomena and as image of th agents in a variety of dynamically interrelated systems. Four major principles in describing changes in and interrelationships among the five elements were also developed. Two of these are commonly applied to internal martial arts. These are the principle of mutual creation and mutual destruction.
According to the principle of mutual creation, the five elements produce each other: Wood creates fire, fire creates earth, earth creates metal, metal creates water, and water creates wood. Wood creates fire since fire results from rubbing two pieces of woods together, and woods burn easily. In leaving ashes which become part of the soil, fire becomes earth. Observation that metallic ores are found in the earth led into conclusion that earth creates metal. Metal creates water because metal mirrors exposed at night (a ritual practice) collect dew, or because metal when heated become liquid. Finally, water creates wood by nourishing the growth of plants.
On the other hand, the principle of mutual destruction describes a series of conflicts between pairs of elements. Woods weakens earth by removing nutrients to the soil. Earth limits water natural bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers and man-made dams. Water extinguishes fire. Fire conquers metal by melting it. Metal in the forms of axes and knives can cut down trees and carve wood.
Chinese martial artists have sought to apply these two principles into their practice. In Hsing-I boxing, each of the five elements is associated with one of the basic striking techniques or the five fists. For example on the most basic level, Hsing-I practitioners relate force applied in a vertical plane to the metal element. Force applied in a horizontal plane corresponds into wood and force applied on an incline plane corresponds to water, etc. In application of this model, the Hsing-I practitioner might use the metal technique to create an opportunity to use the water technique, followed by the wood technique, etc., as depicted in the creative cycle.
Similarly, if an opponent attacked with a wood technique, a practitioner might counter with a metal technique as depicted in the destructive cycle. In this manner, the Hsing-I boxer uses the destructive and creative style as research tools to build attack and defense combination.
As a system of health, Tai Chi Chuan also employs the five element theory. Each of the fundamental movements in Tai Chi Chuan represents one of the five elements. A step forward is identified with metal, withdrawal with wood, looking left is associated with water, looking right with fire and central equilibrium is connected with earth. Thus in addition to developing a healthy Yin-Yang relationship between mental activity and physical movements, Tai Chi Chuan is designed to balance the internal organs and promote a healthy harmony in the entire body. Maintaining a dynamically balanced system preserve health by preventing illness and improves the quality as well as the length of life.
Jou Tsung Hwa, the Tao of Tai Chi Chuan: Way to Rejuvenation
Park Bok Nam and Dan Miller, The Foundation of Pa Kua Chang