5 "Elements" vs. the 4 Elements

I realized this was something that I have a fair amount of practical knowledge that I should share with the group, at least within the domains in which I'm familiar with applying the concepts, so here goes.

While it is common to refer to the five elements of traditional Chinese philosophy, I'm going to avoid doing so, and will refer to them as energies for the rest of this (hopefully, haha) brief essay. The Five energies are applied to many if not all aspects of traditional Chinese philosophy, but I will be focusing on their application to matters of conflict. I stumbled upon this while training in an eclectic art that encouraged practitioners to learn about other systems. It was in the early 00's when talk of asymmetric warfare was common, which primed my mind to the ideas. I'd begun to notice parts of the system in sparring, but didn't have a picture of the system as a whole to provided a template so I could work out the other parts of the system. This doesn't just apply to martial arts though, as it was a brief description of how the system applied to large scale war (in a book on Ninjitsu by Stephen Hayes) that tipped me off to the relationships.

Contrary to the 4 elements in Western thought, the 5 energies don't refer to concrete things. The 4 elements refer to states of matter at a most mundane level, for example. The 5 energies by contrast refer to phases in a system of transforming interactions. From a more rationalist perspective, they are a way to divide the entire tactical or strategic solution space of a situation into a finite number of discrete categories in a way that allows one to play 5-way rock-paper-scissors with the different parts.

The five elements are fire (representing defusing, evasive energy such as guerilla warfare), earth (representing solidifying or grinding energy such as fortifications or a slow-but-stead advance), metal (representing direct, thrusting, or counter-attacking energy such as blitzkrieg), water (representing smothering tactics (such as counterinsurgency tactics), and wood (representing building up forces or undermining the enemy such as siege warfare or sapping). Guerilla warfare or defense in depth neutralizes the advantages of blitzkrieg tactics by denying the enemy a target to mass against while doing hit-and-run against their supply lines. So the conventional military breaks up their army into smaller but still overpowering counter-insurgency forces or engineers to destroy the defenses. So the guerillas dig in to entrenchments or fortified cities too strong for small teams to overcome. So the other side lays siege. And a enemy building up forces for a siege is vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike.

The five elements have two interacting cycles. The cycle of creation is fire creates earth, which creates metal, which creates water, which creates wood, which creates fire. The cycle of destruction is metal is destroyed by fire, which is destroyed by water, which is destroyed by earth, which is destroyed by wood, which is destroyed by metal. The cycles interact as follows: fire destroys metal, which creates water, which destroys fire, which creates earth, which destroys water, which creates wood, which destroys earth, which creates metal, which destroys wood, which creates fire. As a mnemonic one can think of fire melting metal into a liquid (water), which quenches the fire into ash (earth), which dams the water, which grows wood, the roots of which break up the earth, which is refined into metal, which cuts the wood, which is burned. It is just a way to remember it, but is only somewhat useful in understanding the dynamics between the energies.

Two example, using the interactions of metal, fire, water, and earth from my martial arts days. I was never a particularly aggressive fighter, but when I started training I had good endurance from a background in long distance running. The school I started with had a line of instructors and advanced students who gravitated toward being tall and athletic, and used their reach and athleticism to spar in a style that emphasized fast, long range attacks. I naturally gravitated toward those elements of our curriculum that focused on evasion, using my endurance to allow me to keep moving, which was disproportionately effective against the tactics used by most of the advanced students even though they were actually much better than I was in general with 2-3x the experience (fire beats metal).

Another student who was about my rank in the school and who was a bit more talented than myself with an 8-year background in wrestling from middle school through junior college gravitated toward those portions of our curriculum that emphasized control in the standing range, especially trapping hands and sweeping legs. He could always kick my hind end however, and while he was better than me, he wasn't so much better than me that he should have been able to just wipe the floor with me. I sensed that there was a similar dynamic at work between us to what was going on between me and the advanced student, but didn't have a way to analyze that relationship, much less figure out a way to counter him (water beats fire).

Then I stumbled upon the principle of the 5 energies, and the description of how they applied in war. I saw that what I could do was root my stance so he couldn't sweep me, stiffen my guard so he couldn't manipulate my hands, and when he opened himself trying to overcome my hardened defenses, I'd let him break against me like a wave over a rock. It was almost embarrassingly effective.

A similar thing happened a few years later when I was an advanced student. A very muscular, extremely tall, and highly athletic student who was distressingly intelligent (I swear, the dude rolled all 18s in character creation. Wtf, game balance??? Please nerf, haha) joined the school. He learned enough fast enough that by the time he started sparring he could already give me a run for my money. Unlike the other tall athletic advanced students I'd once been so successful against he didn't use explosive long range attacks, but waded in using his reach to just pummel me since his cross was longer than my jab. This continued for years. Then one day I realized he was using water tactics, but just with a totally different set of techniques compared to the other guy. I had to use a different set of techniques to implement earth tactics against him, putting up a long range guard to deflect his punches and sticking my lead foot right in his stomach or even face to keep him away, but he was never challenging again.

This has been sparse on examples of using wood against earth, since I didn't have many examples of folks using earth tactics to practice against. Our system frowned on fixed defensive tactics. Also, the simplest method of applying earth to sparring is inflicting physical attrition such as repeated roundhouse kicks to the legs to wear the other fighter down (look up the end of Paul Varelens vs Marco Ruas on YT), which isn't very nice when sparring against friends. The more sophisticated and kinder way is that since by taking a defensive posture the earth fighter has surrendered the initiative, one then has time to start working fakes and other forms of trickery to get them to give up their strong defensive position. Significantly, if one focuses too much on either method, one can leave oneself vulnerable to a sudden attack (metal beats wood). A concrete example of that in real-world full contact fighting is a fighter accepting a roundhouse kick to the thigh to punch an opponent in the face.

This applies to any form of contest. I've noticed the dynamic in arguments, where I tend to try to zero in on an issue and find a fix (metal) while I find people who constantly change the subject (fire) excruciatingly frustrating to argue with.

A great thing about the five energies in a fantasy setting is that a spell or power can have both an energy and an element to provide for more complex interactions. Some suggestions for types of magic that use the different energies, regardless of what element they use are. (The energies could easily be given different names to avoid confusion with the elements):
Fire (evasion/harassment) : blink, invisibility, being able to bounce away from an attack
Earth (resisting/crushing): walls, especially those that do elemental damage so they can either defend or attack
Metal (focusing/counter-attacking): lightning bolt-like spells, D&D fireball, ray of death
Water (smothering/affixing): chain lightning, D&D fairy fire, slow
Wood (growing/sabotaging): engorgement, DoTs - especially those that can be stacked, crippling attacks
 
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skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Thanks for the essay. I don't think it was too long because I read it all! And thank you for adding an explicit section on how all that might be used in a fantasy setting.

It's curious that air doesn't make it into those elements. If I were making up an element list, I would certainly include plants or maybe even living matter generally. At least the five elements list has wood for that. Metal seems odd, though, because it's clearly man-made. That doesn't feel "elemental" to me. But hey, it ain't my system!

I do suggest, though, that the traditional Western (Greco-Roman, really) system is similar in that the elements are physical representations of abstract, elemental forces. So, for example, elemental earth isn't literal earth, it's a term used to represent certain basic forces in the universe, in much the same way that modern physics speaks of electro-magnetism or gravity. And, also similarly, the elements can be combined in different ways and to differing degrees to produce the whole panoply of physical existence. Or, in many times and places, magical results. Which, for many practitioners, wasn't really magic but was manipulating the secret forces of the universe that only *looked* like magic to the uninitiated.
 
The cycle of destruction is metal is destroyed by fire, which is destroyed by water, which is destroyed by earth, which is destroyed by wood, which is destroyed by metal.
Not quite correct. Each element is depleted by the one it creates or strengthens. Fire creates earth, and earth smothers fire. Earth creates metal, and metal depletes earth (think mining). Metal collects water, and water depletes metal (think rust). Water creates wood and wood depletes water. Wood, obviously, is depleted by fire.
 
It's curious that air doesn't make it into those elements. If I were making up an element list, I would certainly include plants or maybe even living matter generally. At least the five elements list has wood for that. Metal seems odd, though, because it's clearly man-made. That doesn't feel "elemental" to me. But hey, it ain't my system!
Metal is naturally occurring. What's man-made is metal objects.

That's like saying wood is man-made. Wooden artifacts are, but the wood itself comes from nature.

In Chinese medicine, the qualities that air has in Galenic medicine are mostly assigned to metal, interestingly. Metal is the element of the lungs. Wood is a little like air and a little like fire but not a perfect match for either.

Or, in many times and places, magical results. Which, for many practitioners, wasn't really magic but was manipulating the secret forces of the universe that only *looked* like magic to the uninitiated.
How is manipulating the secret forces of the universe not magic?

I'd say that's magic by definition.
 
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Queshire

Auror
Not quite correct. Each element is depleted by the one it creates or strengthens. Fire creates earth, and earth smothers fire. Earth creates metal, and metal depletes earth (think mining). Metal collects water, and water depletes metal (think rust). Water creates wood and wood depletes water. Wood, obviously, is depleted by fire.

Eh? Where'd you hear that. I'm more familiar with what But said regarding destruction.
 
Eh? Where'd you hear that. I'm more familiar with what But said regarding destruction.

Initially, in a lecture on feng shui and Chinese astrology. I knew ButlerianHeretic's description didn't look quite right, so I refreshed my memory here. See #3, Cycles, at that link.
 

Queshire

Auror
Hm? Looks like But described the Overacting relationship between the elements on that page and it does give destroy as a common verb associated with.
 

pmmg

Istar
It's curious that air doesn't make it into those elements.

Just make a system with six instead of five and air.

I've always been bothered by the overlap of the word element for these. Cause really there are a lot o elements and limiting them to four or five seems like over simplification. But...it does make for good spiritual consideration and story elements.
 
Just make a system with six instead of five and air.

I've always been bothered by the overlap of the word element for these. Cause really there are a lot o elements and limiting them to four or five seems like over simplification. But...it does make for good spiritual consideration and story elements.
There's more than one definition of element.

Element means the most basic building block of everything. In the ancient ways of understanding things, these various energies, as they've been described in this thread, were those basic building blocks.

Modern science breaks everything down to chemical composition and, even further, to atoms, and subatomic particles. That gives us a scientific definition of element very different from the ancient one.

The use of the Chinese elemental system, and the Galenic elemental system (the more familiar earth, air, fire, and water) is mainly for describing the quality of things. It has a lot of use in medicine: this condition has the quality of these elements, these herbs are associated with those elements, you want a water herb to reduce a condition caused by an excess of fire, etc.

I hadn't heard of its use in martial arts before, as the OP described, but it makes a lot of sense.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>There's more than one definition of element.
Indeed. The origins of the word are obscure, but in general it means first principles or rudiments (a lovely word in its own right, which in turn is an interesting phrase, and oh where was I?)

By the time we see it applied to something along the lines of basic buildling blocks of reality or the physical world, it's already associated with the Greek ideas about the principles of fire, water, earth, and air. The Wikipedia article is brief and clear, and there are some interesting rabbit holes there.
Classical element - Wikipedia

There's a discussion of the origins of the word here
Element, O, P? The elements of “element”
written by the editor of dictionary.com
 
I'm sure one could do something similar with seven energies for the purpose of making a system rock-paper-scissors, but it leaves more pieces out of any given interaction. In a 5-way system, every energy has some relatively simple relationship to every other, whether as the energy that creates it, the energy it becomes, the energy that destroys it, or the energy it destroys. With 7, there are parts of the system which are in-between. If one's narrative needs 7 elements (maybe 7 gods, and each god represents one, then the followers of each god can be overcome in turn by mastering how to fight using the energy that destroys them).

As added food for though, in my world there are a series of five legends about an elf king's battles to save his people from five armies of goblins. They are thought of as just stories for children but each hides a metaphor for one of the elemental interactions. Then when the hero realizes how they line up with the fights they've experienced, it gives them a way to punch above their weight.
 

Hybris

Dreamer
About galenic (did not know this word) elements, my favourite, the number five : Aether, or Quintessence (Empedocle, Aristotle, amongst many), the purest above all the others - in fact, you can say that it is almost anything, because they gived this name to countless concepts since antiquity. Useful
 
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