The Tai Chi Classics mention that their are “Five Elements in the feet,” and are referred to as the “Five Steps.” What does that mean? Let’s first examine the Taoist five elements, and then we’ll discuss how they are used to symbolize the five steps, or “wu bu,” in Chinese.
The five elements are an important concept of Taoist philosophy and serve as a paradigm for everything from feng shui, to cooking, Chinese medicine, martial arts and a lot more. These elements have been at the heart of Chinese culture for millennia, and were once the everyday things of an old agricultural society. The five elements are: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. They are depicted around a pentacle – the circle part represents the cycle of creation, and the inside star design represents the cycle of neutralization. For example, on the outer circle, water is situated after metal because metal “creates” conditions that allow water to manifest. If you left a hot rice pot cooling overnight, in the morning you would find water droplets on the inside and possibly on the outside wall of the metal pot. This is condensation of water on the metal’s surface. Remember that this was during a time of no central heat or A/C and was therefore a common occurrence.
Wood follows after water, as water rains down upon the earth and feeds plant life. Fire follows after wood, because a fuel like wood is needed to help manifest fire. Earth follows after fire, as there are ashes left behind from a fire. Finally, metal follows after earth, as metal is obtained by refining the earth.
The inside star shape of the five elements pentacle shows the action of neutralization. For example, water is linked to fire by a line, as water extinguishes a fire. Earth connects with a line to water, as earth absorbs water and restricts its flow. Metal is connected to wood, as metal tools, like axes, can cut down wood and break it into smaller pieces. Fire connects to metal, as heat can soften and liquefy metal, and wood connects to earth, as wood takes the nutrients out of the earth, and its roots break up the earth’s solidity.
In tai chi, there are only a few things your footwork can allow your body to do. You can go forward, backward, turn leftward, turn rightward and move up & down. Any other footwork is just some combination of these directions. Even if you jump or kick, you are doing it by way of these five directions. And so the first author of the Tai Chi Classics related these five basic directions of tai chi footwork to the five elements. The author is reputed to have been Zhang San Feng. Zhang San Feng is also credited as being the founding father of the art of tai chi chuan as he was the first to “systematize” its principles by writing them down and showing their relationship to Taoist philosophy.
The correspondences of the five elements to the five steps in the feet, which he wrote are as follows: metal = advancing, wood = retreating, water = facing the body left, fire = facing the body right, and earth represents either moving up & down, or pausing at an equilibrium point. Note that you must maintain your structure, peng and root while moving between the “five steps.” Very few people can understand that tai chi principles of structure are so easily lost the moment that movement begins! This is why Zhang San Feng placed so much importance on the footwork – so much so that he associated each direction with a core concept from Taoist philosophy (the five elements). If he didn’t think that tai chi footwork was important, he certainly would not have associated it with the five elements!
Reflect: How much awareness do you place on your footwork?