The 5 elements and martial arts

When I first began studying xingyiquan it seemed somewhat strange to me that it should have 5 core defence/counter movements and that these should be described (albeit metaphorically) by reference to the traditional 5 element theory, namely:*
    Wood (Crushing) 崩 Bēng
    Fire (Pounding) 炮 Pào
    Earth (Crossing) 橫 Héng
    Metal (Splitting) 劈 Pī
    Water (Drilling) 鑽 Zuān

Even more perplexing was the description of these elements as functioning in 2 different cycles, a constructive cycle (生 or shēng) and a destructive cylce (克/剋 or kè).

The constructive cycle can be described as follows:*

    * Wood feeds Fire;
    * Fire creates Earth (ash);
    * Earth bears Metal;
    * Metal carries Water (as in a bucket or tap);
    * Water nourishes Wood.

On the other hand the destructive cycle can be described in this way:*

    * Wood parts Earth;
    * Earth absorbs Water;
    * Water quenches Fire;
    * Fire melts Metal;
    * Metal chops Wood.

I remember coming back to Perth after a visit to my internal arts teacher Chen Yun Ching and going over my notes. I suddenly had a blinding flash of realisation about the 5 element theory with its constructive and destructive cycles:

If you examine any "circular" 2 person form such as an shen pao in xingyi or the 16 count jo drill or many arnis drills for example, you'll note that the form is capable of single and 2 person practise. With a 2 person performance, both sides do the same form; it's just that one side starts in the middle of the sequence.

I believe that the 5 element theory is actually partly descriptive of this; a series of 5 "elements" each comprising a defence and a counter. The "constructive cycle" can be seen as the sequence of the single person performance while the "destructive cycle" can be seen as the sequence followed in the 2 person form (what you do, what I do, what you do, what I do - etc.).

Note however that the arrows in the destructive cycle are reversed.

This corresponds with any arnis drills that comprise 3 "defend/attack elements" (the simplest example).

Consider "de cadena" - an arnis hand trapping drill:

De cadena - a hand trapping drill from arnis

It can be depicted in the following way using the same xingyi "element" diagram (note that there are only 3 points to the "star").

Ditto with the "13 count" jo form (which has 7 points to its star) - note the video below.

Juroku jo kata - a form that doubles as a 2 person drill

I have used this analysis and gone back to xingyi's 5 elements - with surprising results; you guessed it, a very effective 2 person fighting drill that logically drops into place just by going through the elements (and yet very different from the 2 person 5 element forms you see around - including the effective Wang Shujin version demonstrated below by my friend James Sumarac and senior martial arts teacher Andy Chung - which do not follow the strict order of the elements in the destructive cycle).

A 5 element "destructive cycle" form as demonstrated by James Sumarac and Andy Chung

When I get the chance I'll make a video of my 2 person xingyi form and post it up!

I must thank Jim Prouty whose post on the Traditonal Fighting Arts Forum I used at the indicated places in this blog entry, and acknowledge Wikipedia for some of the source material.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic