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Baguazhang Sparring Applications: Taolu Applications

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BAGUAZHANG SPARRING APPLICATIONS: TAOLU APPLICATIONS

By: Matthew Lee

Written August 4th, 2019

“In the future for sanda, we should put more Chinese martial arts in it…Now we really should use the scientific method on our Wushu.  If you say you have some extreme secret technique, you should examine it scientifically and find out how it works.  You cannot just have it in the mouth or on the paper.  That’s not going to be real.  What is the experimental lab of Wushu?  That is the tournament or the battlefield.” —The Late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, Kung Fu Magazine “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”

Abstract: The purpose of this write-up is to promote the awareness and serious discussion of real and active fighting applications from Wushu Taolu (forms) techniques, specifically in the Sanshou or Sanda (full-contact sparring) environment.  Form specific techniques, especially in Chinese martial arts, have always been criticized as having no actual fighting utility.  This write-up was done to prove the contrary; Wushu Taolu techniques CAN and HAVE been applied via sparring.  As examples, the write-up uses two specific techniques from traditional Yizong Gao Style Baguazhang.

Once again, it’s been a long time since I’ve last touched the topic of applying Wushu in sparring.  For those of you readers who are unfamiliar with this topic and are hearing/reading about this for the first time, this may or may not be of interest to you.  But for those of you who have read my first “Taolu Applications” segment, you know where I’m going with this.  Yup, I’m talking about directly applying Wushu or Chinese martial arts techniques and movements into sparring; although I am primarily from a background of modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, Wushu is at its core an umbrella term for all of Chinese martial arts, and as such, this focus can still extend to traditional Chinese martial arts styles in this discussion.

Chinese martial arts have historically fallen under a stigma of having no formal sparring methods, in comparison to other martial arts with sparring methods such as the more popular Karate or Taekwondo.  As I said in one of my first write-ups “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, Wushu systems were practically the laughingstock of real-world martial arts training, simply because they didn’t have any proven method of testing one’s fighting skills.  This results in the unfortunate stereotype that Chinese martial artists don’t know how to fight.  Indeed, there is a sad reality that many traditional martial artists, or traditionalists, including Chinese martial artists, stay away from and even criticize the idea of sparring as a training method for fighting, citing that it is “not real fighting.”  First, I have already written at length about a response to this flawed argument in an old write-up titled “Sparring vs. Self-Defense: A Look at ‘Real’ Fight Training”, which I will not bear repeating here.  Second, those that stick to their own systems and styles and faith in their training, without any method of testing oneself against a resisting opponent in a live environment, will result in the classic case of traditionalists who can’t fight, as we have seen with Xu Xiaodong vs. Wei Lei, and the various “Tai Chi vs. MMA” fights that would follow.  However, there are some exceptions to this stereotype.

Many who defend Wushu as it is use the commonly stated argument that “fighting is not the only/main purpose for practicing martial arts”, and that “it is not the style, but the individual.”  However, these are also arguments for those who wish to escape the whole fighting and sparring debate and is in my opinion a sorry excuse for the avoidance of real application and legitimate training of martial arts.  So, to be “immature” in this sense, I decided to conduct a rather informal experiment, where I would actively apply specific techniques from Taolu (套路; tàolù), the practice of forms and sequences, during my sparring sessions in Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  And since the first publicly released and recorded exhibit mentioned in “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”, I have continued my never-ending quest to do exactly that.

Over a year later since my last edition, I would find myself in San Jose, California, at a meetup with my current Wushu coach Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee’s traditional gongfu friends, a group of traditional Chinese martial arts stylists dubbed “East West Martial Exploration” by another member and friend, Balintawak and traditional Gao (高; Gāo) Style Baguazhang (八卦掌; bāguàzhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm) practitioner, and Shuai Jiao (摔跤; shuāijiāo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling) champion Frank Zhong, and hosted in the garage of Huy Ha of Ha Chi Wai Wing Chun (永春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”).  This meetup took place a day after my participation in the 2019 US Wushu Taolu Team Trials over the weekend, which was the main reason I was in California, but this meetup was an event that I had been hyping up in my mind for a while since I first knew about these training sessions.  It included practitioners of Wing Chun, Baguazhang, Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó) and Yiquan (意拳; yìquán, literally “will/intention fist”), also known as Dachengquan (大成拳; dàchéngquán, Big/Large/Great Accomplishment/Achievement Fist).  The parameters for this meetup was interesting; there was a mix of people simply “touching hands” for combat sensitivity drills, and sparring, which mainly consisted of mouthguards and open-fingered gloves, which are similar to and can include MMA (mixed martial arts) and grappling gloves, and unlike modern Wushu Sanda, and like Guoshu (国术; guóshù, traditional Chinese martial arts, literally “national art”) lei tai (擂台; lèitái, traditional Chinese martial arts full-contact fighting, literally “raised platform”) not only allows for grabs, but openhanded strikes as well, which I pointed out in “About Sanshou: Breaking Down Full-Contact Wushu.”  Rules were agreed upon before matchups.  For myself, “light contact” strikes were agreed upon, similar to flow sparring done in professional Muay Thai and MMA gyms, with limited wrestling to positions of setups for takedowns and throws allowed, but no following through with the full takedown or throw for safety purposes, as we were on a garage floor and had no mats.  I was fully prepared with a camera recording and capturing some active Taolu applications during sparring and was satisfied enough with my findings to share my results for this write-up.  This is one of two videos recorded of said results, but unlike the previous write-ups with the word “Sanshou” in the title, which as the name suggests, was conducted in the Sanshou environment and ruleset, this edition is simply named “sparring” due to this environment’s own constraints that did not conform to Sanshou rules, and it is with this I continue my documentation of direct Wushu Taolu applications in sparring:

Many people believe that because traditional Chinese martial arts does not have formal sparring methods, real fighting utility does not exist.  Indeed, without any method of testing, sparring or live drilling against a resisting opponent, many Chinese martial arts techniques can be deemed useless.  However, when sparring is included in Chinese martial arts training, the effectiveness of techniques can come alive again.  This video demonstrates two Yizong (易宗; yìzōng, Changes School/Sect) Gao Style Baguazhang applications that can and have been applied in sparring by Roland Quan, student of Luo Dexiu, who was in turn himself a student of Hong Yixiang.

These techniques were not simply demonstrated, but they are shown in NON-COMPLIANT SPARRING, meaning that there was no rehearsed or choreographed performance, but real, albeit controlled full-contact sparring.

DISCLAIMER: When sparring, it is important to spar with a goal of applying specific techniques or ideas.  Previously, I wrote that you should NOT specifically be looking/planning for techniques to apply, as that is a good way to set yourself up for being countered, and that these techniques came out of natural reaction, based on prior Wushu Taolu knowledge, context of the specific situation/exchange, and most importantly, comfort-ability and control in sparring.  HOWEVER, while this is the ultimate goal for fighting in Chinese martial arts and may automatically work for some who can pick things up quickly, this is no way for general practitioners to learn consistently; instead, controlled yet progressive drills, such as flow sparring, as is done in professional Muay Thai and MMA gyms, can help to effectively drill and condition specific skill to come out successfully without the risk of injury or freezing/panicking.  Sparring is NOT fighting, but rather training to allow one and one’s partner to train whatever they want to come out.  The next step is adding more pressure, and finally full-contact sparring and fighting.

As previously established, the video above contained two Yizong Gao Style Baguazhang applications, both of which can also be found in other branches or lineages of Baguazhang:

  1. 单换掌; dānhuànzhǎng, single palm change

Perhaps the most well-known technique or posture of Baguazhang, which consists of one overt or obvious hand (阳手; yángshǒu) extending out from the lead side, and one “hidden” or “implicit” hand (阴手; yīnshǒu) of the rear side compressing and forming the posture of the upper body’s structure of “hanxiong babei” (含胸拔背; hánxiōngbábèi, “hollow the chest, round the back”), but also pushing out with equal intent across the body.  The single palm change in this example a variant of the first and most basic one, and is in fact one of many single palm changes; this variation consists of pronation, or inward rotation of the arm towards the body, resulting in the fingers pointing horizontally and the elbow flaring out.  In termso f fighting, this technique can be characterized as an “entry” or “transitional” technique, which, as the name suggests, is not necessarily a “lethal” or fight-ending technique, but rather allows one to gain a position, and transition to another technique in a fight.  Specifically, this hand position can be used to trap the opponent’s lead hand with both of one’s own hands, as one of many entries to gain the “outside foot” position, where in a situation of orthodox vs. southpaw of the opponent’s lead leg is close to one’s one (mirror image), the lead foot is purposefully placed outside the opponent’s own lead foot.  In boxing, kickboxing and MMA, this can be used to achieve a superior position to execute strikes, specifically kicks and punches on the opponent, whereas the opponent has an inferior position and cannot do the same.  For Baguazhang, the lead leg can step even deeper for wrestling, takedowns and throwing applications, such as using one’s own lead leg to block and uproot (read: throw or takedown), a popular application in Chinese martial arts.  Another application is to step even deeper to the point where one is stepping all the behind the opponent, and execute kao (靠; kào, bumping with various parts of the body) with the shoulder of the same side, thereby tackling or body slamming the opponent and unbalancing them.  These applications are also parallel to takedown techniques in Muay Thai.  Other applications with the hands are to use as obvious hand as the lead hand to come across the opponent’s body, and work towards trapping the opponent’s rear hand.  From there, one can manipulate opponent’s rear side elbow, or use the obvious hand as the lead hand to swipe across the opponent’s face.  Perhaps most useful is transition into a takedown or throw, as demonstrated in the video, where Roland used the single palm change to close the distance on me and go for an inner leg reap, which he was kind enough not to follow through on for safety purposes, as established previously.  This application demonstrates the greatest potential of Chinese martial arts, because its application is not just about one single move or technique to end the fight, but rather part of a combination to use and flow continuously.  It is worth noting that Roland himself stated that the only reason why he is able to apply this specific part of single palm change, is because he trains in Shuai Jiao, specifically Baoding (保定; Bǎodìng) Kuai Jiao (快跤; kuàijiāo, fast wrestling).  This is an indication that is live drilling against a resisting opponent is crucial to applying Chinese martial arts techniques.  It is also important to understand that Baguazhang, as with most traditional Chinese martial arts styles, is a conceptual martial art at its highest level, meaning that the application of a movement or technique is not limited to the shape in the form, but rather the overarching fighting idea and principle behind it.  In a previous write-up, “Why Practice Forms?”, I mentioned that when I was participating in a seminar at the school of Robert Levin, head instructor of Yizong Bagua Pennsylvania Internal Martial and Healing Arts, and hosted by Luo Dexiu himself, Mr. Levin briefly explained to me that the single palm change was a “prototype”, to which one could add their own experience and interpretation to adapt and make work for themselves, as Luo did in his own fighting career in old school Guoshu lei tai.  The seminar also consisted of two-man drills based on such interpretations that came out of the single palm change movement, which did not necessarily match the pure “form”, but rather the idea and coordination behind the principle of the single palm change.

  1. 摆步; bǎibù, rotating outward step, literally swinging step

One of the two primary stepping movement patterns in Baguazhang, the other being koubu (扣步; kòubù, rotating inward step, literally buckling step), both of which are trained in “circle walking” or “walking the circle”, Baguazhang’s most well-known movement pattern.  The physical technique, as the name suggests, consists of rotating the leg outward, namely by pivoting on the heel when on the ground, thereby opening up the hip of the turning leg, as well as the knee and toes in one alignment to face outwards and away from the body.  This forms the basis and idea of the “stop kick” as termed by Roland, or the “oblique kick” as it is more popularly known and used by UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Light Heavyweight Champion  Jon “Bones” Jones in MMA, where the orientation of the foot is used to stomp or kick down on the opponent’s knee (although this kind of targeting is prohibited in sparring for both modern Wushu Sanda and Guoshu lei tai, thus rendering this application moot).  Thus, this is a parallel technique to cai (踩; cǎi, stamp) kicking technique in traditional Wushu, and hengcaitui (横踩腿; héngcǎituǐ, horizontal stamping kick) in modern Wushu Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), and shared across many traditional Chinese martial arts styles such as Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíngyìquán, literally “shape-will fist”), Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist) and Wing Chun, and by extension Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist), and even in non-Chinese styles such as Karate and Savate.  In training, this kind of kick can be trained against a wall or post to get basic tactile feedback.  In sparring, this application can be adapted to target the opponent’s thigh for safety purposes as demonstrated in the video, as opposed to the knee which can be hyperextended upon impact, thus causing injury to one’s training partner.  Although this movement requires a minimum prerequisite of hip flexibility and dexterity, it is a very easy and efficient technique, and can easily be fired off with little to no effort to either close or maintain distance as needed.  Another application of this leg orientation is to slide the foot down against the opponent’s shin.  In terms of takedowns (摔; shuāi) or throws, the stepping can be used to trap the opponent’s foot in-between one’s own foot and shin to unbalance or even injure the ankle of the opponent.  This implication is the same as stance and stepping patterns of zuopan (坐盘; zuòpán, sitting coil stance) in Xingyiquan dragon (龙形; lóngxíng, dragon shape), as well as in many other traditional Chinese martial arts styles that share the same leg formation as well, such as Lama Pai (喇嘛派; lǎmapài, Lama School) or Choy Li Fut, and can extend to xiebu (歇步; xiēbù, resting stance) in modern Wushu.  If this footwork entry is done on the inside of the opponent’s leg, this can also be used as transition to takedowns and throws from the inside of the opponent’s hips, such as an inner leg reap, as was done in the demonstration of the first application in the video.  The feet can also be used to hook onto the back of the opponent’s knees, though I am not familiar with what kind of follow-ups can be done off this setup.

As clearly observed through these examples, there do exist Wushu Taolu techniques which can directly be applied in sparring situations.  In order to achieve this, I have found from personal experience that the most valid way to be able to do this is to again, first get used to sparring; achieve a certain level of confidence and comfort-ability, and then begin to experiment and find what works best for you.  In other words, develop your sparring ability FIRST, and afterwards find the techniques that you feel most comfortable and confident with.  It is important to understand that the general criteria for using a technique, no matter what the style or environment, should ideally be based the efficiency and practicality of the technique.  After all, we are still talking about sparring and fighting.  The focus of this write-up is the idea that Wushu techniques, namely those that are found to be efficient and practical, can be applied, which include, but are not limited to, the examples in this write-up.  Ma Yue, the eldest son of the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, and inheritor of the traditional Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist) Wushu system, said in the Qi Magazine article “Master Ma Yue – From Tongbei to Taijiquan”, “If you are calm, no matter how fast your opponent is you can protect yourself better…When you have sorted all this out then you can use all the martial arts skill you want, any style.  You can try this style or technique, try that angle, whatever!”

Some people may find this experimentation, especially with this method of sparring at this meetup, to be questionable and even downright idiotic.  But whether the issue is with the concept or the skill level displayed within the video, my point with this experiment still stands.  The practices of forms and sparring in Chinese martial arts, modern Wushu or otherwise, do not need to be so segregated from one another.  By bridging the gap between forms and sparring, as with many other traditional martial arts, we can make Chinese martial arts, including modern Wushu, more complete as legitimate martial arts systems.

Many who currently practice Wushu or traditional Chinese martial arts today may disagree with me and believe that this kind of idea is unnecessary, that forms and sparring don’t need to be trained together in the serious study of Wushu as a martial art.  However, many actual Wushu masters state the contrary.  Zhao Changjun, Wushu legend and champion, has said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, “‘…Sanshou and Taolu are in different sections in Wushu competition, but actually they both are part of Wushu.  If you want to be a real Wushu expert, you shall practice both, that’s the way to be a good Wushu practitioner.  It is not good if you only practice Taolu and do know anything about the other method, other application or other practice.  That is like walking with one leg, not two legs.’”  Another Grandmaster, Cai Longyun, has similarly said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Big Dragon with the Magic Fists”, “If you really want to be an expert at martial arts, you must learn taolu and sanda.”  As a modern Wushu practitioner of both Taolu and Sanshou, I fully support this idea on a serious level of training and more complete understanding of Wushu.

Furthermore, what I am proposing here is not implausible or impossible by any means.  Aside from these examples in this write-up, as well my own examples in previous write-ups which were only taken from experience in modern Wushu, the Sanshou format has also been used by practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts styles, to apply various techniques and fighting ideas from their respective styles, such as modern Shaolinquan (少林拳; Shàolínquán, Shaolin Fist), traditional Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), Hung Gar (洪家; Hóngjiā, Hong Family), Choy Li Fut, Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; Praying Mantis Fist), and Bajiquan.  By sharing my experimentation and this write-up, I attempting to further extend this trend of actual martial application to modern Wushu.  As I have always previously said, while modern Wushu is not on the same level of traditional gongfu, it should still retain at least some of the depth of its traditional counterpart to have some level of legitimacy and integrity.

Again, my goal here, as with most of my write-ups, is the encouragement of putting Wushu in a serious light and discussion.  In the words of the Grandmaster Ma Xianda from the Kung Fu Magazine Article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”, “In the future for sanda, we should put more Chinese martial arts in it…Now we really should use the scientific method on our Wushu.  If you say you have some extreme secret technique, you should examine it scientifically and find out how it works.  You cannot just have it in the mouth or on the paper.  That’s not going to be real.  What is the experimental lab of Wushu?  That is the tournament or the battlefield.”

PS: Special thanks to Roland Quan for sparring, demonstration, explanation and clarity on his demonstrated techniques, and the East West Martial Exploration group for the meetup!

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.