The 5 Elements in “The Art of War”, Knowing Yourself and the Enemy

By Joshua Neuhaus

Sunzi is a scholar and a military commander of the warring states period in China. That puts him into the same period of scholarship that also Confucius and Laozi are said to have participated in. In “The Art of War” he compiled strategies that cover in considerable detail how to be victories on any battlefield. The format he follows in doing so is to bring up a problem and then offer a method for solution. He teaches which criteria you need to analyze and how to evaluate the input you gain. Furthermore, he covers the qualities a good leader needs and many psychological components, such as how to make your troops follow your command or how to make your opponent pull back.

“Who knows himself and the enemy, does not need to fear the outcome of a hundred battles. Who knows only himself, but not the enemy will win as many times as he fails. Who knows neither himself nor the enemy, will lose without exception.” Sunzi

To know yourself or the enemy cannot be achieved without developing a holistic view. The social and emotional climate of your troops and your people might change any time. A change in this climate might, for example, be caused when the ground you are acting on is lacking in providing foods or shelter for your people. If your people are starving anger might arise in their midst. Keeping in mind that you will want the climate to be peaceful and productive and supportive of your own goals you will need to set your mission accordingly. When you know what your mission is, then you can understand what kind of commander is suited for it. The command needs to be able to establish authority and lead your troops, it needs to understand which moves are necessary to accomplish the mission. This means that the command is in charge of designing methods. The quality of your methods and the assertiveness shown in applying them will decide over loss and victory of ground resources. And that is where one complete circle is drawn, as now you might have new ground to live off, which offers foods for your previously starving people. Success has come, your people now are not angry due to starvation anymore. On the other hand, your territory might be too great and your police forces too small to keep up with suppressing criminal activity. That is when your climate will make another change and you will have your next mission.

This flow of climate -> mission -> command -> method -> ground is one possible interpretation of the 5 elements model. While Sunzi does not emphasize this terminology himself, his book does indeed apply the idea just as the above-described way. To be precise the above is not just any 5 Elements (wu xing 五行) model, it is the 5 Elements in its flow of creation and nourishment (sheng). Originally it would read as earth condenses to create metal. Metal dissolves to nourish water. Water is absorbed to nourish wood. Wood burns to strengthen fire. That which is burned by fire returns to the earth.

In the application of “The Art of War” to the 5 elements, one might go further to reverse the flow. The reversal of the above flow (Sheng -> Cheng) is called flow of information, it follows the idea, that if you know if you know the opponent’s mission, then you know the needs of his people. If you know the troubles their climate has, then you know which resources their people are lacking. This flow emphasizes the need of concealing yourself from your enemies because if you don’t, they can easily learn all about you and anticipate your moves.

The 5 Elements interpretation of “The Art of War” can help you to understand yourself and your enemy. You could try to find a few parallels in your own martial arts system. Or even go as far as to apply this method to your business or personal life. While the original texts might have been about war, it’s application is universal. It is a study in its own right.

Your ideas and thoughts are always appreciated, please share them!


2 thoughts on “The 5 Elements in “The Art of War”, Knowing Yourself and the Enemy

  1. when doing tai chi you are doing the 5 elements and bringing balance to your practice in which yin and yang are all round you;and using slow deep breathing you can get and find inner-peace.May the journey be fruitful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi David,

      First, thanks four your comment! You are right, Tai Chi also uses the 5 elements. I would love to explore the specifics of the 5 elements in Tai Chi further, but it’s really not so easy. One way of reading the 5 elements as you said is to use them to further split up all Yin and Yang changes.

      In Fajin exercises for example storing and releasing energy are one transition between Yin and Yang. If I was going to try to split it into 5 elements I could come up with something like this:

      1. receiving energy from the opponent
      2. controlling his energy
      3. storing it
      4. redirecting it
      5. releasing it

      and next receiving new energy again.

      Of course there are many more transitions of Yin and Yang that could be split up in such manner. I would be delighted to hear any examples you can come up with!

      Best regards,


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