Japanese martial arts: The Five-Elements principle from China to Japan
The “principle of the five elements” that appears in the final scroll of the Shoninki has its origin in what is referred to in Chinese as Wu xing, an abbreviated form of Wu zhong liu xing zhi chi, meaning “the five types of chi that are dominant at different times.”
THE CYCLE OF GENERATION
The curves that make up the circle connecting the five elements represent the “cycle of generation” (In yo so sei in Japanese): wood produces fire (the log burns); fire produces earth (in the form of powdered ash); earth produces metal (mineral extracts that form the soil); metal produces water (by liquefying when it is melted); and water produces wood (by causing trees and other vegetation to grow).
THE CYCLE OF DESTRUCTION
In the same figure the straight lines forming the star connecting the five elements represent the “cycle of destruction or domination” (In yo sokuiko in Japanese): water extinguishes fire; fire melts metal; metal cuts wood; wood covers the earth (by growing in the form of trees); and the earth absorbs water.
In addition to this there is a large play of rich symbolic correspondences between the Chinese Wu xing and the five fundamental emotions, the five yang organs of the human body, the five senses, the five stages of life, the five seasons of the year (for the Chinese), the times of the day, the five animals of Shaolin Kung Fu or therapeutic QiGong, the sounds, the colors, and so on.
GOGYO AND GODAI: THE WU XING GOES TO JAPAN
Engendered by the ancient I Ching (The Book of Changes), the Wu xing was developed in China around the end of the fifth century CE. It next moved to Japan, where it took the name of gogyo. In tandem with the gogyo that emerged out of Chinese Taoism, Buddhism crafted its own version of this “five-elements principle,” the godai, with several variations and adaptations.
The Buddhist godai is slightly distinguished from the Chinese Wu xing and the Japanese gyogo by the fact that the elements of wood or metal are replaced by the void or the wind (air) depending on the variant version. Its cycle also begins with the element earth in contract to gyogo, which systematically opens with the element wood. Godai was later incorporated by the esoteric branch of Buddhism in Japan during the tenth century CE under the name of gorin (the “five wheels” or the “five rings”). From there, godai and gorin eventually moved into ninjutsu, where this principle of the five elements become an essential aspect of the esoteric ninja teaching (the ninpo-mikkyo).
Source: “Shoninki – the secret teachings of the ninja, the 17th century manual on the art of concealment” by Master Natori Masazumi with commentaries by Axel Mazuer