The Five elements are a subjective definition of the qualities and interactions for all defined things in the universe. As with all subjective formats, the five elements break down due to any modern measurements and definition which separates the observed from the observer. The Five Elements are not any more wrong than any other concept, just incomplete when explaining things which we cannot directly experience or affect. It should be kept in mind that the five elements are very simple. They explain interactions based on related forces. Things go up and down, expand and contract, and are continuous and discrete. When these forces are in opposition and/or balance, the result is health. When these forces are not in balance then conflict arises. From the five elements come the ten thousand things. This simple concept was used to explore the nature of existance.
One very interesting thing about the five element concept is that the elements were nearly identical in every culture that used five. Fire, wood, earth, and water existed in nearly all of the cultures. The Chinese used metal as the fifth while the Nordic countries used ice.
The tibetan five elements don't exist as they use a duality system that most people don't take the time to understand.
The definitions and concepts that the elements represented differed slightly from culture to culture but remained similiar enough for confusion to arise. It is important to remember the culture you are talking about when referencing information. Like the mathmatical fallacy where two equals one, it is easy to prove the impossible when jumping from one conceptual base to another in order to find information which supports your wishes.
The Five Elements we are going to be using are from China and were developed by the Daoists. The elements were fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. Each element was credited with creating/supporting one element while destroying/controlling another. This was refered to as the creation and destruction cycle. There are other cycles, however most of the information will stay with these two.
The Five Elements each had a direction, a color range, taste, and any other thing that can easily be classified in groups of five. It is important to remember that this system, like any philosophy, was designed by philosophers so that nearly anything, that could be experienced, could be classified and discussed by nearly anybody capable of memorizing the five element pattern. Keep in mind that most people couldn't read and did not have access to information. It is easy to discuss the ignorance of others when you can go to the library and have thousands of years of learning at your fingertips. Early cultures needed to have a simple pattern which could be passed on to others with as little foundational information as possible.These patterns can get out of hand as rock, paper, scissors, spock, and lizardman should easily show.
In Kung Fu, and specifically combative movements within Kung Fu, the Five Elements are used to guide the mind into a limited pattern of interaction as this stops the downward spiral caused by the infinite movements counter infinite techniques in all directions trap.. A movement would be defined as one element which would add power to the next movement and/or destroy/counter a movement from the opponent. Since the movements are defined based on a simple pattern, it is easy to define any movement based on whatever you choose as the first movement.
In fighting, you can have five things you can do. You can punch, kick, block, retreat, or evade. Each of these would simply be attributed to a convenient element based on how they interact. As an example we can define punches as fire since they are fast and tend to rise. Legs rise also but they are slower so they would be considered wood. Wood grows upward, is strong and requires the correct conditions or it will crash to the earth. Block would be earth since earth is simply there and things can beat themselves against it. Metal retreats or bends and gives way. Last would be water which moves out of the way. Now the creation cycle is earth creates metal, metal creates water, water creates wood, wood creates fire, and fire creates earth. This would create a simple pattern to counter a punch. The punch comes towards you, You evade the punch since water destroys fire. The water movement allows the wood movement (kick) to be more effective since you can kick nearly anywhere as opposed to where your opponent leaves open. If the kick works then the punch happens easily and if the kick is stopped then the punch will still work since the opponent is busy stopping the kick. When a student can work with this simple pattern things begin to get more complex as more refinement is introduced. Any movement can be sharp, explosive, entangling, thunderous, or overwhelming just as the five element concepts can be applied to a single limb or each limb be a single element, or all five elements exist in every movement. Stepping, timing, direction and any other tactical consideration can be applied at the same time with every movement. You are only limited be your mental capacity to focus and conceive the five element interaction.
The Five Element pattern is used in the fighting as a beginner course to understanding the interactions. The fighting was easier to learn and understand. If the fighting concepts are too much for you, then the healing applications would be beyond your ability to manipulate. The meditations on the Elements would also be withheld from those who did not understand. This was a pragmatic decision since a teacher had a limited amount of time. Over time the pattern was reinforced in all aspects of training. The Five Animals were created as a beginner Five Element pattern for those whom the Elements were too difficult to understand. As each style aspect was improved and refined, many movements were named based on mythology or history in order to encode the higher level meditations and spiritual training into the physical practice. If a student practices the movements and achieves the standard set by the instructor, knowing the names of the movements will give the higher level meditations and fighting skills of that style. Because of this codified system, it is possible for a person to reach mastery of a style even when the instructor forgets to teach something or is just wrong. It is believed that practice, knowing the names of the movements, and knowing the Five Element theory should be all that is needed.
Some people work on patterns that can't be contained by the five elements. This is okay since another branch of Daoism created the eight directions. The eight directions are also created out of the interaction of opposites. Therefore each direction can be made up of different combinations of the five elements. There are references to this in many Tai Chi books and some medical books. It takes higher level understanding to really understand the relationship. But that is for another page.