The Wuxing / Five Phases or Elements…

…of China are superficially similar to the familiar four elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water – of medieval European culture. However the Wuxing describe, not only essences, but also stages of transformation, causation and opposition. They are conceived of in terms of cycles of creation and destruction.

They constitute a pervasive paradigm in Chinese culture and it is therefore natural that they play a part in the traditional Chinese martial arts including Tai Chi.

There is a strong feeling in the modern west against this sort of learning and training. This feeling in fact has more to do with the impact of modernity than with any kind of East vs. West cultural tension. In China there was a rejection of cultural ‘superstition’ after the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 which greatly influenced the practice of the martial arts in China. It was in many ways a precursor of the various ‘anti-feudalism’ policies pursued by the Chinese Communist government in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Paradigms such as the Wuxing and Bagwa (Eight Trigrams) in many parts came to be seen as useless esotericisms which were feudal anachronisms and not socially productive. This feeling is shared by many Westerners who also see them as ‘New Agey’.

But these methods are very traditional and must be shared if they are not to be lost. If we in any way value the writings known as The Taijiquan Classics, then we should have some familiarity with the traditions and methods upon which these writings are based.

In Tai Chi the Wuxing can be applied to (1) patterns of movement, (2) the shaping of energy for strikes and (3) the stages found within a combative encounter.

1. The Wuxing are descriptive of the Five Steps of Taijiquan which are part of the traditional Thirteen Energies. It is helpful to think of the Five Steps from the point of view of someone facing south. This structure is therefore directional and descriptive of movement and stances.

  • Step Forward is executed with the right foot carrying us out into Gongbu / Bow Stance . We are moving forward / south into the direction of fire and heat, the region of the colour red and the heart. This is the direction of the vermillion bird or phoenix.

  • When we Step Back into Pubu / Back Stance with our rear or left foot, we are retreating to the watery north which gives rise to the monsoon and to the threatening forces which reside behind the Great Wall. This is the territory of the Dark Lord Zengwu, Lord of Wudang Mountain, who is represented by the black serpent and tortoise. In Tai Chi when we do this we generally do not remain upright nor do we lean back. Rather, we lead with our kidneys and sink back.

  • Gazing Left from a right foot-forward stance implies the natural and effortless turn of the torso that occurs when we shift our weight back toward our ‘open’ side. If we are standing with our left foot forward, then the gaze action causes us to turn naturally to our right. Assuming that the right foot is forward and the turn is to our left, then we are without effort gazing east into the coastal green lands of wood, forests, and Longwang, the Dragon King, who rules the coastal zones. The colour is blue, green or turquoise and the associated organ is the liver.

  • However, if instead we twist our torso and turn in the opposite direction, we Look Right. This looking action requires focus and some effort since it turns counter to the more effortless gazing action. The direction we are looking to, assuming that we started facing south and our right foot is advanced, is the west. (If the other foot is forward then the direction is reversed and we are Looking to the east.) The west is the zone of the white, snow-capped Kunlun Mountains which are the realm of the Metal Mother, Xuan Wo, the White Tiger of the west. The lungs are the associated organ.

  • The fifth direction is Centre. This movement is when we greatly sink our Qi so as to exert stable power in the entire zone surrounding us. We do this when we strongly establish our Zongding / Central Equilibrium by moving into Wujibu / Primordial Stance or Mabu / Horse Stance. This is the realm of the Golden Dragon which regulates and rules the five directions. Its colour is the yellow of the Earth, the yellow of the Huang He River which was the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization. The associated organ is the spleen.

2. The Wuxing are also descriptive of five different kinds of striking or attacking energy. This method, which was taught by Dr. Shen Zaiwen in the Old Yang tradition and Master Jou Tsung-hua in relation to Paochui / Cannon Fist, involves the utterance of certain sounds and shouts which are not taught openly.

  • Fire governs the strike straight out to front from the heart. Good examples would be the double forward strike of the Chen’s tradition or the explosive forward use of palms or JI.

  • Water is the element for rotary hits and moves, like coiling punches and water tearing holes in an earthen dike. This can apply to rotary clawing movements like a coiling dragon.

  • Wood shapes heavy, pounding, sinking strikes to the front, like a battering ram.

  • Metal is seen in the various applications of Cutting Frame, such as Raise Hands and Step Up. The energy rises and falls like a sword or axe. The action can also be straightforward clawing down like a tiger.

  • Earth governs simultaneous strikes to both sides as these require strong adherence to a central position for power, examples being double elbows or back-fists. They are reciprocal like the lashing movements of the Golden Dragon’s head and tail.

As you can see, this method of applying force is related to the directional paradigm's totemic deities, but not exactly. One might expect the Turquoise Dragon to be associated only with watery movements, but this is not necessarily the case as in this paradigm not only coiling and clawing movements are evoked, but also sinking and pounding applications. A degree of subtlety and circumspection is therefore called for when dealing with archetypes and paradigms of this kind. Inconsistencies are to be expected.

3. Finally, the Five Elements can be applied to the five phases of a fight.

The idea that a fight has five stages is found in combative traditions as distant from those of China as Irish stick-fighting! In fact the Doyle clan’s "Dance of the Whiskey-stick" shillelagh system almost exactly parallels the five phases of Tai Chi.

They are, according to the Creative Cycle:

  • Metal: making initial contact with the opponent.

  • Water: bridging the gap and penetrating his space; achieving proximity.

  • Wood: encountering his defences; also applies to the act of obstructing and blocking.

  • Fire: pivoting past the obstruction to take over his inner space; getting right in.

  • Earth: striking him down.

This idea is deeply embedded in Tai Chi, whether empty hand or employing weapons such as sword and sabre. It is hard to illustrate at the empty hand level because of the effects of proximity and the rapid succession of clashing techniques. With a weapon, as illustrated in the video below, the idea is more visible because the length of the weapon spaces the combatants further apart so that what is happening can be seen more clearly. In empty hand, in receiving a punch or push we pivot around it and close on the opponent, taking over his space and enabling us to throw him down. If our hand is parried, we pivot in and attack with the elbow. If the elbow is parried, we continue the attack with the shoulder and so forth. We do not seek to evade or avoid. Instead we welcome the physical contact and connection which will lead to the opponent's overthrow.

See for a brief demonstration in which I am assisted by Barb Bryce, chief assistant of sifu Linda Kearns in Guelph.

This is not a protracted process but should ideally require only seconds as demonstrated here.

The sequence is shown in the diagram at top by the outside cycle of arrows in which each element supports another. Thus a metal pail holds water to water a tree (wood) which can feed fire and produce ash (earth). Earth when heated (smelted) in turn can produce metal…and so the cycle goes.

Defense against this process is also taught by the Wuxing and is seen in the diagram by the inner pentangle which shows a Destructive Cycle of oppositional or antidote powers. In this way a cut in the earth proximity-zone can be prevented by a blocking (wood) action, as seen when Barb employs a wood / block to obstruct my earth / cut to her knee. The classical image is that of tree roots tearing apart an earthen dam or canal-dike. But wood can be destroyed by fire, as when I circumvent her block in the second demonstration by delivering a high cut to her throat.

Thinking is this way should not be technically confining, but should inspire creativity in studying the play of attack and response in Tai Chi. It is also a window into the inner structure of Tai Chi forms. This is the kind of enriching technical analysis to which the old classical paradigms can lead.

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