The beginning of Spring (春) is a timely occasion to look at the element Wood (木) in its relationship to the internal martial arts and other practice. The five elements (五行) have been extensively used as a classification tool, a metaphor and an analogy in explaining and teaching internal martial arts.

Some associations are general and are present in texts from different martial arts:

  • The association of Wood (木) with the lesser active or small yang (小陽) of the four manifestations (四象) is for example mentioned by Dǒng Yīngjié (董英傑) in the first chapters of Taiji Boxing Explained (太極拳釋義). The association with the small yang (小陽) brings with it implicitly many conotations that are astronomical.

    As Yáng Bānhóu (楊班侯) explains in the introduction of "Explaining Taichi Principles" (太極法說) attributed to him, Wood (木) is also associated with the East (東) where the sun rises, and with Spring (春) the season that starts the lunar year – and astrological. The Green or Azure Dragon (青龍) is both a mythological Dragon God and one of the Four Symbols that group the 28 Chinese Constellations.

    It is interesting to note that these more general and less actionable explanations (as for example, the associations with the body or techniques) come frequently in the beginning of the Martial Arts books, indicating that the five elements are indeed a framework for studying them.

  • The association of Internal Martial Arts and Medicine is intimate, and therefore even more frequently made. Wood (木) is recalled for:

    • It association with the Liver, as it is very directly put by Li Cunyi in his General Introduction of its Five Elements Manual (五行連環拳譜合璧), where he calls this relationship the Five Elements hidden within:

      The liver corresponds with wood

    • And he follows on in his introduction for the external functions of the five elements by further connections to the eyes (目) and by extension to the capability of sight (色):

      The eyes are connected to the liver

    • Less frequently, the link with the Gallbladder (膽) is also mentioned, for example in "Explaining Taichi Principles" (太極法說) attributed to Yáng Bānhóu (楊班侯).

  • The nature of Wood's "strength" or "power", a more actionable, and for me more interesting is also frequently recalled, the ability to bend and extend, as in for example the Correct Path of Yiquan (意拳正軌) by Wang Xiangzhai (王薌齋):

    The four limbs and hundreds of bones have everywhere the same quality of bending and extending as a tree. This is the nature of wood, and is therefore called the “strength of wood”.

    In his Study of Xingyi Boxing (形意拳學), Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) mentions the same quality in different words:

    The crashing technique (which corresponds to the element of wood) is a simultaneous extending and contracting, a principle of the fists coming and going, the posture like a continuous barrage of arrows.

    This quality is also explicit in the association in Traditional Chinese Medicine between Wood (木) and the tendons (筋).

Spring Dawn at the Cinnabar Terrace (丹台春早圖)

Wood in Xíngyìquán (形意拳)

The fundamental fists in Xíngyìquán (形意拳) being associated with the five elements (五行), there is an explicit and general association between Wood (木) and the Pounding or Crashing Fist (崩拳), and all the implications in terms of organs and meridians.

Going one level deeper, the Pounding Fist (崩拳) is said to look like an arrow (箭), an analogy that is recalled in different books – in Sūn Lùtáng's (孫祿堂) mentioned above and others. For example in the Five Elements Manual (五行連環拳譜合璧) by Lǐ Cúnyì (李存義):

Crashing is like an arrow, and so it is associated with wood.

Dragon Awakening in the Spring
Wood in Bāguàzhǎng (八卦掌)

In Bāguàzhǎng (八卦掌) the images used are those of the eight trigrams (八卦). Indirectly, we can see the associations with the five elements (五行) through the trigrams. Intentionally or not, consistency is maintained and we find the same images, like for example in the Study of Bagua Boxing (八卦拳學) by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) below. Interestingly, additional imagery is given, that of the dragon (龍), the thunder (震), the ability too transform (变化) and an element of unpredictability (不测) and surprise.

The Zhen trigram is associated with thunder. The posture in this technique is “level-propping palms”. The Zhen [“Arousing”] trigram rouses. Receiving its initial active line from the Qian trigram, this line governing growth, it is therefore placed to the east [in the square circle bagua diagram] where the element of wood flourishes. Its animal is the dragon, the king of scaly animals, having the ability to gather in its bones, the skill of transforming unpredictably, and the appearance of flying upward.

Another, even more explicit, example comes from the Study of Bagua Sword (八卦劍學) also by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂):

The Zhen trigram is associated with movement, represented by thunder. Of the five elements, it corresponds to wood, represented by the blue dragon. This technique has the methods of threading – straight, diagonally, upward, downward, to the left, to the right. It is therefore called the Zhen trigram sword technique, and has the principles of the wood element.

Wood in Taijiquan

In Taijiquan, the five elements (五行) are associated with footwork in the thirteen postures or dynamics (十三勢). In Wáng Zōngyuè's (王宗岳) Taiji Boxing Treatise (太極拳論), the most cited text about the art, Wood (木) is apparently linked associated with retreating (退步) in the Thirteen Dynamics (十三勢) based on the order that the terms appear in the text. This interpretation was maintained in many families - for example it is in Sūn Lùtáng's (孫祿堂) A Study of the Taiji Boxing (太極拳學):

"Advancing, retreating, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, and staying in the center relate to metal, wood, water, fire, and earth – the five elements."

A different interpretation, and maybe a more natural one was proposed in the Yang Familiy tradition and by other masters, where Wood (木) is associated with stepping or looking to the left (左顧). It sounds more natural as it associates with the East (東) and with stretching and flexibility. For example in Taiji Boxing Explained (太極拳講義) by Yáo fùchūn (姚馥春) and Jiāng Róngqiáo (姜容樵) in the section Five Elements Footwork (五行步法):

Stepping to the left corresponds to wood. “Wood is flexible yet resilient.” The more regular are the twigs of a tree, the stronger its root. If one branch is not swaying, none of them will be.

A different association, and an interesting one for Push Hands (推手), is proposed by Wú Gōngzǎo (吳公藻) in his Taiji Boxing Explained (太極拳講義). He associates the five elements (五行) with five energies (五行之勁) used in Push Hands. Wood (木) is associated with connecting (連):

Connecting means “linking together”. Do not interrupt the movement or come out of synch with it. Let it be continuous, without any pauses or haltings. This is the energy of connecting.

Wood in Cooking

And finally, aAssociations were also transmitted from the Chinese tradition to the Japanese one, in particular around cooking. In the kitchen, Wood (木) is associated with the Sour (酸) taste and with Steaming (蒸) as a cooking method.

Wood (木)
CosmologicalFour Manifestations (四象)Small Yang (小陽)
Five Directions (五方)East (東)
Season (季)Spring (春)
Four Symbols (四象)Green or Azure Dragon (青龍)
Five Colors (五色)Green or Azure (青)
MedicineViscera (臟)Liver (肝)
Cavities (腑)Gall Bladder (膽)
Earthly Branch / Time of day子 Zi (11pm–1am: “Conception” – picture of a baby, representing also the new day beginning at midnight)
丑 Chou (1am–3am: “Curled Up” – in sleep)
Sensory Organs (五官)Eye (目)
Senses (五覺)Sight (色)
Body Component (五體)Tendons, Muscles (筋)
Martial ArtsQualitiesBending and straightening or Flexible and Resilient (曲直)
Extending and contracting (伸缩)
Transform (变化)
Unpredictability (不测)
XingyiquanXíngyìquán (形意拳)Pounding Fist (崩拳)
WeaponArrow (箭)
BaguazhangTrigram (卦)Thunder (震)
TaijiquanFootwork (步法)Step or attend to the left (左顧)
Five Energies (五勁)Connect (連)
CookingFlavor (五味)Sour (酸)
Five Methods of Cooking (五法)Steaming (蒸)

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