In ancient Chinese philosophy, the cyclic flow of changes as it occurs throughout nature became known as the Law of the Five Elements. This law describes the various Stages of a basic natural cycle, of which, Yin and Yang constitute the cycle in its base form. Traditionally, one learned about these five elements by following the seasons of the year.
The five elements are characteristically known as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The physical techniques came about through a desire to express the attitude of each of these elements through various postures. To merely think of the five elements in a pure physical sense is truly limiting, therefore think of the elements and how nature expresses each one of those energies.
In the diagram of the five elements above, the arrows moving clockwise show the creative cycle of the five elements. Wood grows and produces fire, fire burns to produce earth, earth transforms to produce metal, and metal melts to produce water. The destructive cycle is that cycle in which the elements destroy one another, once again thinking of the attitude. Wood destroys earth, earth destroys water, water destroys fire, fire destroys metal, and metal destroys wood…like the rising and falling of an axe, metal versus wood. The destructive in Martial Arts terms is thought of as conquering.
These elements are the basis, and mother form of, all Internal and External kung fu. They also are the key for diagnosis and treatment in Chinese medicine.
Knowing these basic five elements, one can immediately recognize each in any style and determine the weaknesses and strengths of a style by the amount of emphasis on a particular element or element combination. If the five elements are not found, then those styles and systems are undeveloped, and those practicing with less than five elements will not be internally rounded or “balanced”. Thus the organs will not be properly developed, ultimately leading to internal damage later in life.