What Is Tai Chi?

By: Editors of Consumer Guide

The Five Phases Theory of Tai Chi

The Five Phase Theory, also known as the Five Element Theory, is yet another important Taoist theory. It has also been incorporated into tai chi chuan.

Because of their inherent qualities, five elements -- earth, fire, water, metal, and wood -- were selected by the ancient sages to describe patterns and relationships between many variables. They relate to one another in an abstract sense and can be used to describe the relationship between the seasons.


In tai chi chuan, the five elements are used to describe five special movements, five different weapons, and five different energies. They are also a tool for tactical planning.

The Five Phase Theory applied to tai chi maintains that knowledge of the five phases will lead to an advantage since its principles can be used in either tactical advance or tactical retreat. The phases also give us insight into the intention of the opponent.

This intellectual advantage is the reason tai chi is considered an internal art: Superior reasoning, it is believed, has the advantage over superior strength. Using the five phases, we can actually "see" the other's plan before it is executed. In its essence, the information reveals an opponent's moves beforehand so they can be countered.

Such skill is often bewildering to the casual observer. Since knowledge of the phases enables us to "predict" the tactics of others, in the past the art was often considered to be some kind of Taoist "magic."

Really, however, these techniques rely on a knowledge of anatomy, on the mechanics of movements, and sophisticated insights into methods of tactical planning. There is an interesting parallel here between the martial foresight of a taichiist and the psychological intuitions achieved by study of the I Ching.

The relationships among the five phases are represented by a circle that has five points. One line is drawn around the circumference of these points. This represents one set of relationships known as the constructive cycle used in defense. In this sequence, we find water supporting wood, wood supporting fire, fire supporting earth, and earth supporting water. This suggests the sequence of moves that might be used in a tactical retreat.

Another line is drawn within the circle in the shape of a pentagram, which represents a second set of relationships known as the destructive cycle used in offensive tactics. In this sequence, we find water destroying fire, which vanquishes metal, which, in its turn, subdues wood, and so on. These two patterns of relationships are important because they suggest particular movements and form the basis of tai chi strategy in combat.

There is a third set of relationships, however, and so another unique diagram must be created. In this second diagram, four points are located on the perimeter, and one is placed in the middle. This diagram is related to the five tactical movements used in tai chi. Known as advance, retreat, step and gaze left, step and look right, and central balance, these movements are related to the Five Phase Theory.

Not all tai chi masters, though, agree about which of the five elements are related to which movements. One very common set of correspondences has fire relating to advance, water to retreat, metal to step and look left, wood to step and look right, and earth to central balance.

In this scheme, earth is accorded a very prominent position. It is recognized as the mother of all others, and so it is given the center position. In the same way that earth is considered the locus of the other elements, central balance to which earth corresponds is thought to be the fulcrum on which all other movements depend. For a practitioner, this suggests that cultivating central balance is a prerequisite to mastering the other movements.

Continuing reading for more on the martial applications of tai chi in a discussion of the five weapons.

To learn more about tai chi and Taoism, see: