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Martial Arts: Strategy of Combat

Martial Arts Strategy & The Five Element Theory Of Chinese Medicine

By David Bock C.Ac.Dipl.OM, FABORM

The Asian Martial arts and Traditional Chinese medicine have much in common. Both are based in similar cultural and philosophical underpinnings that have evolved to meet the changing needs of practitioners through time. Both rely on ways of thinking that  enable the practitioners to understand changing dynamics and respond in ways that resolve disharmony or conflict. One of the systems of conflict analysis that underlies martial and medical thought is the 5 Element or 5 Phase system.

The five element theory (or five phase system) often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine is often misunderstood and misapplied. It forms a structural underpinning to organizing information and is important to Asian philosophy and strategic thought. In many ways the five element system is much like a pie chart, venn diagram or bar graph. It is a way of taking a lot of information and organizing it in a way that makes it easy to understand. Used properly it becomes a way to understand complicated relationships and see solutions to problems. A pie chart can be applied to almost any data set, likewise a 5 element chart can be used with any data set that can be fit into the structure. Unlike a pie chart which works best with numbers and percentages.  A five element analysis works best with complicated relationships and subjective descriptions.

The five element structure relies on a system of metaphorical categories that define the relationship between different types of dynamics. The five metaphorical categories are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. These are arranged in a circular or star pattern which defines the relationship between the categories. Moving clockwise around the circle we see the relationships of creation. Wood feeds Fire dynamics, Fire creates Earth dynamics, and so on. It can also be said that Fire drains Wood dynamics. The relationships across the circle are the control relationships. Water controls Fire, as Fire controls Metal. (see fig.1)

In application this system provides a template for making decisions. A simple example can be found in Traditional Chinese medicine. A patient presents with an infection, marked by fever/high temperature, redness, and inflammation. These symptoms have similarities to the dynamics of fire, heat, redness and movement in the increased blood flow in the form of inflammation. The treatment strategy would be to use acupuncture points or herbs that illicit a Water response dynamic within the body to control the infection, or Earth response dynamic to drain the energy away from the infection. Wood dynamic treatments would not be used as they would feed the fire and make matters worse. An infection with different symptoms would be similarly analyzed and may require a very different response.

Martial arts strategy is a very complex dynamic and readily lends itself to being analyzed in a five element system. The first step is to classify attacks and defenses within the five element structure. (see fig.2)

It is important to note that the five element system is about dynamics, movement and function, not structure. The weapons and martial arts given as examples are categorized on generalizations of the types of movements associated with those weapons and arts. All martial arts and weapons have a range of application. The chart is only a guide for understanding the concept. For example the classic flailing of a nunchaku (a traditional Okinawan martial art weapon) would be considered Fire, yet if they are used in a thrust they would be Metal, and if used to trap they would be Earth.

From this layout, generalizations can be made as to how to deal with a particular style of attack and what defenses would make the most sense as a tactical response. Various classic examples include the use of staff techniques to defend against the katana, or Japanese Samurai sword (Wood draining or dispersing a Water attack), or ju jutsu to take a fast kicker to the ground for submission (Earth draining Fire). From a control perspective, examples might include a spear thrust to get inside of a spinning staff (often referred to as a bo) move (Metal controlling Wood), or a counter strike that opens a grip to throw off a choke (Wood controlling Earth).

Obviously in the midst of a fight, this type of analysis is not practical. However this type of structure can be a source of innovative ideas and ways to think about a particular type of attack and the best ways to defeat it. Most modern martial arts evolved as defensive methods to counter attacks. Some defense strategies are thus logically built into the kata (choreographed patterns of movement practiced solely or in pairs) and into self defense responses of many martial arts. Putting a five element decision making structure around the conflict can illuminate why certain combinations of moves are in kata. A five element analysis could be used to help guide training and find new responses that may not have been obvious from just training in the same techniques. This could be also useful in mixed martial arts contests in preparing defenses against an opponent who relies on a particular style of attack or defense.

The five element structure provides a theory that can be translated into application. A response to an attack that follows the creation cycle is likely to drain the energy of the attack, making the attack fail. A response in a control nature is likely to defeat or break through an attack. Responses that utilize the other three dynamics are likely to end up in a clash or conflict where the strongest force or timing is likely to be the determining factor. This is easier to see by working through an example as a thought exercise.

For an example, let's look at a solid hard thrusting  punch or kick attack.. It is powerful and linear in nature- Metal. The control response is Fire- rapid blocks and counter strikes that break through the initial thrust. The draining creation cycle response is Water- a flowing deflection of the thrust with a step out of the way and avoidance of the thrust. The fire response is a counter attack, the water defense allows the thrust to fail. A Wood response, such as a rising block would create a clash and rely on whether the attack or response was stronger and faster. A standard rising block response may open the defender up to a second thrust where speed and timing become the determining factors in the contest rather than the strategy. Similarly the success of a grab or trap of the thrust - Earth, would be determined by how solid the attack was and whether the Earth response was enough to over power and take down the thrust. A trap may also provide the stability for the attacker to launch another thrust at close range. A Metal response would result in thrust against thrust, a clash where the strongest wins. (see fig.3)

Most martial arts styles have a variety of techniques with various strengths and weaknesses. They may lean heavily on a particular strategy dynamic, but they often use techniques from all dynamics. Judo players may use quick shifts; Fire, to illicit a Water type movement response which would be open to a classic Earth type takedown. A karate practitioner may use crane style blocks (soft and circular interceptions) - Wood, to disperse the defenses of a attacker using a grab attack - Earth, so that a close elbow strike- Metal counter attack will be successful.

The five element system of analysis is a tool which can bring understanding and clarity to very complicated world of martial arts strategy. It can help practitioners understand the old kata/forms and kumite/structured sparring, as well as innovate new techniques and strategies that will work in today's mixed martial arts or street self defense situations.

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About The Author:

David Bock, C.Ac. Dipl.OM,FABORM, is a teacher of Wadokai Aikido (under Roy Suenaka Sensei), a Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist, NCCAOM National Board Certified in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology. He can be reached at Bock is a frequent contributor to

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Five Element Throry and martial arts, five phase theory, martial arts strategy, traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts

Read more articles by David Bock

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