The “five elements” (五行) is essentially a universal concept within Chinese martial arts. Its cycles of “creation” and “destruction” are often explained as methods of technique linkage or as methods of counter attack. Students are often told that one technique is followed by another. Or, they are given formulas of counter attack; a “metal” technique overcomes or destroys a “wood” technique, just as an ax cuts down a tree.
Upon closer examination, systems like Hung Ga have five element techniques, but they do not follow the order of either the creation or destruction cycles? In fighting, believing the answer to an attack is as simplistic as a universal counter measure is both illogical and dangerous. Thus, if the entire scheme appears questionable to you, I agree fully. In fact, I have found others, notable Chinese boxers who also shared this view.
“One should know that the original ‘Xingyi’ …. It did not have the theory of the mutual promotion and restraint of the five elements, there were just the five elements representing five kinds of forces… This is the syncretism of the five elements. It has nothing to do with one technique overcoming another technique as the modern people claim”.
The above quote is Wang Xiangzhai, Xingyi teacher, noted fighter and founder of Yi Quan. Sifu Wang further noted;
I remember well the words of my late teacher about the five elements: Metal means the strength contained in the bones and the muscles, the mind being firm like iron or stone, being able to cut gold and steel. Wood has the meaning of the bending but rooted posture of a tree. Water means force like the waves of the vast sea, lively like a dragon or a snake, when used, it is able to pervade everything. Fire means strength being like gunpowder, fists being like bullets shot out, having the strength to burn the opponent’s body by the first touch. Earth means exerting strength heavy, deep, solid, and perfectly round, the qi being strong, having the force of oneness with heaven and earth.
It is somewhat extraordinary, and somewhat disconcerting, to know that for generations most students have been given false interpretations of such a fundamental theory! In my own tradition, I was rather lucky to have never believed that combat was a simple as “A beat B, B beat C, and C beats A”. I always saw the five elements as a metaphor for possibilities; creation cycles showing how one type of technique can set up another, destruction cycles as potential counters.
As I have often stated, looking through different lineages and traditions can provide us with valuable insights. We can see how the SAME techniques can counter each other; a kick counters another kick.
In reality, our methods are often contradictory. We punch against a kick…. then we kick against a punch….
We use knee strikes against throws, but we also use throws against knees.
The cycles of “creation” and “destruction,” can suggest metaphorically how techniques create opportunities or can be used to counter, but we cannot take it literally.