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Breaking Down Full-Contact Wushu

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About Sanshou: Breaking Down Full-Contact Wushu

“…over the last 100 years, Chinese martial arts were only talked about on paper because you couldn’t physically fight.  Now we can fight again.  That is good.” — The Late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, Kung Fu Magazine “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire.” 

Chinese kickboxing.  Kickboxing with throws.  Full-contact kung fu.  A copy of Muay Thai.  Muay Thai mixed with judo.  The modern Chinese martial arts discipline of Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ), has been thrown into many different definitions and classifications.  However, it’s a shame to see that the idea and practice of Sanshou is not fully understood many people don’t fully understood, not even by those that practice it.

In this discussion, I am primarily referring to the full-contact sparring discipline that is under the umbrella of modern Wushu (武术; wǔshù, literally “martial art”), a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  Modern Wushu is standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù), the practice of choreographed forms and routines for performance and competition, and Sanshou or Sanda, which is focused on full-contact sparring under a certain set of rules.  Given the obvious focus of this write-up, I will exclusively be addressing the discipline of Sanshou.  The aim of this write-up is to establish Sanshou’s definition and history, clarify and address the misconceptions and criticisms of Sanshou, as well as suggest possible, theoretical improvements to its shortcomings.

On The History of Sanshou

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The term, or at the very least the idea of Sanshou has actually existed long before its modern sport format.  In Chinese, the term “sànshǒu” literally means “free hand.”  In traditional Chinese martial arts training, “sànshǒu” refers to the practice of applying the theories and fighting ideas of Chinese martial arts and its various techniques in a freestyle fighting context and environment, which includes sparring.  In this sense, the term Sanshou has more than one meaning.  There is even a separate discipline of San Soo, which essentially shares the same Chinese characters and literal meaning, but is more oriented towards street combat and self-defense (but this is another discussion, maybe for another time), unlike its sport counterpart, which is our main topic of discussion.

Modern Wushu Sanshou as we see it today traces its development back to its roots as a Chinese military project and fight training program.  Specifically, this program was a hand-to-hand combat training program, which was a project undertaken by the Whampoa (Huangpu) Military Academy, with the combined efforts of traditional Wushu experts and Soviet advisors.  The result was a “kickboxing-like format.”  Modern Wushu Sanshou would take years of research, experimentation and standardization before finally being officially sanctioned in the ’80s.  At the time, there was only Taolu, which was the only competition event under modern Wushu, at least until the communists were smart enough to allow sparring practice for Chinese martial arts again, which would give Sanshou the opportunity to rise and develop.  Today, as we established, Sanshou exists as one of the two competition disciplines of the sport of modern Wushu, the other being Taolu.

On The Misconceptions of Sanshou

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Perhaps the first and foremost misconception about Sanshou is the discrepancy of its name.  Again, the name Sanshou most popularly refers to the sparring discipline in modern Wushu.  In this context, Sanshou is also known as Sanda, and the two names are used interchangeably to refer the same discipline.  There are beliefs that the two names are used to distinguish between different rule sets between “amateur” Sanshou, which is seen in modern Wushu competitions and uses protective gear, and “professional” Sanshou, which has televised, and has less protection and fewer limitations; but in reality, they refer to the same basic thing.  From what I understand, the term “sàndǎ” is used within the grassroots of China, whereas “sànshǒu” is the more favored term to be used internationally by the IWuF (International Wushu Federation), as they feel the word 打 (dǎ; literally to “hit” or “strike”) in “sàndǎ” sounds too brutal.  This is confusing, as Sanshou or Sanda is a full-contact discipline; a certain degree of hitting and brutality is a given.

Many people regard Sanshou as being completely separate from modern Wushu and Taolu, as well as traditional Chinese martial arts.  This only furthers the misconception that Wushu and Chinese martial arts training is only restricted to forms and aesthetic performance.  The source of this misconception is perhaps the result of a separation between Taolu and Sanshou as competition events in modern Wushu; athletes that train in modern Wushu typically only specialize in only one or the other for competition purposes.  However, given its development and history alongside modern Wushu, Sanshou’s connection to modern Wushu is indisputable.  Furthermore, there are also many principles and practices which are shared between the disciplines of Taolu and Sanshou, making modern Wushu more of a complete modern martial arts system.  As an example, both disciplines contain the formal Wushu bow or salute, which consists of an open left palm covering a right closed fist, which is seen being demonstrated both in practice and in competition.  There are also many other parallel practices, such as standard cardio warm-ups routines.

Furthermore, Sanshou, much like its historical context, exists as a format to test the fighting ideas and martial techniques of Chinese martial arts in full-contact sparring today, at least in theory.  Techniques from forms and routines, whether from modern or traditional Wushu, can and have been applied in the Sanshou environment.  As the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”, “Sanshou should be a category of Wushu…Nowadays people who say sanshou is sanshou and Wushu is Wushu, that’s wrong.”  Modern Wushu Sanshou has even been employed by practitioners of various styles of traditional Chinese martial arts styles, from Shaolin (少林拳; Shàolínquán, Shaolin Fist), to Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), to Hung Gar (洪家; hóngjiā), to Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), to Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; Praying Mantis Fist), to Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist).  Based on the evidence that we have covered, Sanshou’s connection to modern Wushu cannot be denied.  However, there are many other criticisms, some of which seem to have no basis in logic or mature discussion, which I will address here.

Ever since its public exposure to the competitive world of full-contact combat sports and martial arts, Sanshou has drawn many comparisons, often unfavorably, to the more popular Muay Thai.  In my opinion, while the initial comparison is understandable, it is ultimately just silly.  As established before, Sanshou has a “kickboxing-like format”; kickboxing itself in turn came out of a combination of Western boxing, Japanese karate, and Muay Thai; thus, it stands to reason that there will be visual similarities between Sanshou and Muay Thai.  However, beyond this, any of the comparisons made between Sanshou and Muay Thai are superficial; both have gloves, kickboxing-like shorts, and parallel kicking and takedown techniques.  But beyond that, the similarities drawn are fewer and farther.

If one takes the time to look at the training and separate contests of Sanshou and Muay Thai, the emphases are clearly different.  Muay Thai is known as “the art of the eight limbs”, and focuses on the striking techniques of the “eight limbs”; fists, elbows, legs and knees of both sides of the body, as well as clinches that are exclusive to the style of Muay Thai.  While there are takedowns that are virtually the same in Sanshou, these techniques are very few and in-between, and are not exclusive to Sanshou and Muay Thai, but are also common in many other martial arts styles as well.  While Sanshou can still be qualified as a stand-up striking method, it draws a sometimes uncertain line between stand-up and wrestling, with its combined emphasis of striking and takedowns.  And because of the added emphasis of takedowns, Sanshou allows for many more takedown techniques such as sweeps, trips and throws, many of which are not legal in Muay Thai.  On this basis, Sanshou and Muay Thai, while having many visual similarities, are two clearly different martial arts disciplines.  In fact, there are many other styles of stand-up striking that are much closer to Muay Thai in terms of actual technique, such as Burmese Lethwei and Laotian Muay Lao.  The difference is that styles like Lethwei are potentially much more brutal, as they do not have the limitations and rules that Muay Thai has, having no gloves and allowing head-butts; it is thus much closer to Muay Thai’s ancestor, Muay Boran, but I digress.

There is also the generalization that Sanshou is “basically” Muay Thai mixed with judo throws.  The historical roots and developments behind the takedown techniques in Sanshou are debatable.  The most conventional explanation is that Sanshou takes its throwing and takedown techniques from Chinese Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), which draws many parallel techniques with judo and jujutsu, such as various trips and hip throws.  This explanation does seem valid, as many of the techniques are essentially the same, only adapted for the Sanshou environment.  However, it should also be important to note that as stated before, modern Wushu Sanshou was developed with the help of Soviet advisors.  Given that Russians had already developed their own Sambo, which has its own roots in judo, before modern Wushu Sanshou, it is possible that modern Wushu Sanshou may in fact have Sambo influences from Soviet advisors, and by extension, also have judo influences.  Whether the wrestling and takedown content with modern Wushu Sanshou comes from the indigenous Shuai Jiao, or Russian Sambo and judo, or a combination of these, is still unclear.

On Sanshou’s Shortcomings and Possible Theoretical Improvements

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While there are many criticisms that fall short under logical scrutiny as we’ve previously covered, there are many other criticisms that are still quite valid.  Ultimately, as an idea, Sanshou has a lot of great potential.  However, it’s in its application and actual implementation that the flaws of Sanshou lay.  In a way, the idea of Sanshou can be seen in the spirit of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist), where martial artists use the most efficient techniques for fighting, regardless of style.  Cung Le is perhaps the greatest example of this; despite not being a Chinese martial artist, Cung Le demonstrates that are not limited to a specific style or way of training, but rather the best of certain skill sets regardless of style, with a combination of kicks from Taekwondo and experience in collegiate wrestling, and thus embodies the best example of Sanshou can be more than just a method of sparring for Chinese stylists.

However, the truth is that modern Wushu Sanshou as we see it today can indeed be seen as a standalone style all by itself.  In the words of Bruce Lee, “style is a crystallization.”  The moment you dictate a specific way that a technique should be practiced, you also risk creating shortcomings in such techniques that are overlooked at the time.  This consequently results in many of the shortcomings that follow and will be addressed.

The fighting aspects of Chinese martial arts is divided into four general elements of fighting: : kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná)。  Modern Wushu Sanshou only covers the first three out of four, with grappling, namely the practice of joint locking and manipulation techniques, prohibited for safety reasons, though as I understand it, the Chinese military version of Sanshou does practice grappling.  However, the way that these skill sets are trained for competition is cause for concern.  In competition, takedowns are biggest point gainers, making the other skill sets secondary in the game.  This results in the various shortcomings that follow.

When comparing Sanshou to other combat sports, one area of concern is the conditioning of fighters.  As I’ve said before in “Physical Fitness and Conditioning in Wushu: The Sport in the Sport Martial Art”, solid aerobic conditioning seems to be overlooked in standard Sanshou training, at least when compared to other kickboxing styles.  Amateur Sanshou matches last a short two minutes per round, and are determined by the best two out of three rounds.  This is nothing compared to the longer and more numerous rounds of various boxing and kickboxing circuits.  Consequently, Sanshou fighters in general have a disadvantage in stamina when matched up against other kickboxing stylists, and can gas out in the long run of a fight.  A possible solution to this is to increase the duration of rounds, which, while it may seem like a radical change and a painful transition to implement, will force fighters to train their stamina more, and make them more fit as athletes.

One big questionable training aspect is the training of striking in Sanshou.  Many people, including myself, have observed a serious lack of solid boxing and kickboxing skills.  Both Sanshou training and competition judging seems to favor kicks and takedowns over punches.  This doesn’t just seem to be a problem of Sanshou, but also of many other Asian martial arts styles as well.  To be clear, just like I said in “Why Cung Le Lost: A Breakdown of Sanshou’s Golden Boy”, I am not saying that Sanshou fighters, or even Chinese Sanshou fighters lack punching power.  I have no doubt that Chinese fighters can pack a punch.  Rather, I am talking about actual skill with the hands—a combination of speed, timing and fast reactions against an opponent’s hands, as well as with one’s own, which Sanshou fighters don’t seem to have.  Even Cung Le, arguably the greatest fighter to have come out of Sanshou, seems to suffer from this weakness.  I have also called the standard Sanshou kicks to be “flicking” in previous write-ups.  The reason for the execution of the round kick in this way seems to be a strategic one; apparently, fighters are concerned with having their kicks caught, a common, and perhaps the most popular tactic in Sanshou to transition from striking to takedowns.  As a result, the training of the kicks in this way seems to favor speed over power, as points are gained based on simple contact, and not based on the actual power of the strike.  Thus, the use of strikes can be seen to be more of a point game than anything else, and are not as powerful as in other full-contact combat sports.  As I’ve said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, Sanshou needs more emphasis on boxing and kickboxing to make the skill sets more well-rounded, and allow Sanshou fighters to fare better against other stand-up strikers.  This doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem in professional Sanshou, where matches seem to take an almost entirely different tone from amateur Sanshou.  However, this generalization still stands.

One other observation that can be made about the striking in Sanshou is the prohibition of knees and elbows in competition.  Somewhat of an exception to this is professional Sanshou, which allows knees.  However, the general exclusion of elbow and knee strikes in Sanshou is questionable.  The general reason I have heard for this is that Chinese wish to separate Sanshou from Muay Thai, which is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  In “Sanshou vs. Lei Tai: A Comparison of Full-Contact Chinese Martial Arts Fighting”, I noted this shortcoming, and compared Sanshou to Guoshu (国术; guóshù, literally “national art”) lei tai (擂台; lèitái, traditional Chinese martial arts full-contact fighting, literally “raised platform”), which does allow knees and elbows, yet does not face any comparisons to Muay Thai.  Why should there be fear that Sanshou will be compared to Muay Thai?  First of all, this comparison has already been happening since Sanshou’s exposure to the public.  And secondly, why be afraid of Muay Thai?  Again, one the best things about the idea of Sanshou is that it can potentially go beyond style, as its history has demonstrated in its shift from traditional Chinese martial arts to a kickboxing-like format.  But why limit to just this format?  Why not continue to evolve and improve?  If the essence of Sanshou is all about efficient sparring and fighting, regardless of style, why restrict knees and elbows from legal competition?  This in my opinion is just a logical discretion that needs to be resolved.

Another difference between modern Wushu Sanshou and Guoshu lei tai that I previously observed in “Sanshou vs. Lei Tai: A Comparison of Full-Contact Chinese Martial Arts Fighting”, is the versatility of the open hand, which Guoshu lei tai has and Sanshou does not.  Sanshou uses boxing gloves, which restricts all hand techniques to that of a closed fist, which is very limiting in terms of the arsenal of hand techniques that can be used in fighting.  By contrast, Guoshu lei tai uses open-fingered gloves, which are similar to and can include MMA (mixed martial arts) and grappling gloves, which not only allows for grabs, but openhanded strikes as well.  The most obvious suggestion is to follow in the footsteps of Guoshu lei tai, and employ open-fingered gloves over boxing gloves for sparring competition.

Another shortcoming is the lack of Chinese martial arts content.  While we’ve already established that there is a clear connection between Sanshou and Wushu, this is not to say that its connection to modern Wushu and Chinese martial arts cannot be improved upon.  Even though there are Wushu and Chinese martial arts techniques that can and have been applied in Sanshou today, such application can be expanded upon.  Grandmaster Ma Xianda said, “In the future for sanda, we should put more Chinese martial arts in it.”  Chinese martial arts have many fighting ideas and techniques that are not simply limited to the kickboxing-like format of Sanda.  On the lack of Chinese martial arts content in modern Wushu Sanshou, Ma Xianda said, “It’s just like wearing traditional Chinese attire with a western mustache.  You look ‘in between.’  You can’t tell the difference between a sanda strike, Korean, Thai, or Japanese…The problem is that basic Wushu training is too weak.”  Personally, while I have nothing but respect for Grandmaster Ma, I do somewhat disagree with him on this; Sanshou is and has always been trained specifically for modern sparring and fighting.  Fighting is fighting, regardless of style.  The need to demonstrate the distinguished features of a style or technique simply for the sake of it seems rather unnecessary, especially if it cannot be deemed useful in the sparring or fighting environment; this is what separates Sanshou from the limiting traditions of traditional Chinese martial arts.  However, the idea of having a good, solid foundation in martial arts is a good idea; possible ideas include the cross-training in either modern Wushu Taolu basics or traditional Chinese martial arts styles, both of which can and have been done before.  This can not only give Sanshou fighters a base to work off of in specialized fight training, but also make Wushu much more complete as a modern martial arts system.  The main problem here is that the “kickboxing-like format”, compared to the various methods of Chinese martial arts, is severely limiting as far as freedom of technique goes, though theoretically, this can be changed.  This goes back to the allowing of knee and elbow techniques, as well as the implementation of open-fingered gloves, which can further open up a larger arsenal of techniques to be used in sparring and competition.  Virtually all styles of Chinese martial arts have some form of knee, elbow and openhanded strikes, and allowing these to develop and grow in Sanshou can make it a better as a method of fighting and sparring training.

Another disconcerting, but not as obvious weakness in Sanshou is a lack of sophisticated wrestling skill.  In Sanshou matches, at least in amateur ones, fighters frequently go from striking distance quickly into a clinch in order to either seek a takedown, or avoid being taken down in turn.  Compared to judo and jujutsu, the emphasis on takedowns in Sanshou can be said to be subpar.  Again, this is not as much a problem in professional Sanshou, which has been seen to have much smoother transitions from striking to takedowns.  Perhaps the big problem with Sanshou is that in terms being clearly defined as a style, it is neither here nor there, and thus is not complete in its focus of training a strong foundation in a solid skill set like other styles.  A solution to this is to adopt the same general time limit as Guoshu lei tai, which can allow for more wrestling action to take place.  Another suggestion along this trend is to adopt the same rules as Russian Sanshou, which apparently allows for limited grappling on the ground.  This can encourage more action in the clinch and wrestling, and therefore encourage better training in wrestling.  Again, as I’ve said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, Sanshou fighters also need to study and train wrestling skills properly and more completely well-rounded.

Again, as pointed out at the beginning of this write-up, the aim of this write-up is to establish Sanshou’s definition and history, clarify and address the misconceptions and criticisms of Sanshou, as well as suggest possible, theoretical improvements to its shortcomings.  It is important that better understanding of Sanshou is promoted, because Sanshou has played a pivotal role in the development of modern Chinese martial arts training today, not just modern Wushu.  Many critics, including traditionalists, claim that Sanshou has no bearing or significance in Chinese martial arts development today.  In my opinion, Sanshou is actually the best thing that has ever happened to Wushu.  Not only has it given modern Wushu a fighting aspect and much more complete spectrum of practice, it allows all Chinese martial artists to improve and evolve as fighters.  As Ma Xianda said, “…over the last 100 years, Chinese martial arts were only talked about on paper because you couldn’t physically fight.  Now we can fight again.  That is good.”  Sanshou has put Chinese martial arts back into the world full-contact sparring and serious fighting again.  Some readers may think that I am criticizing Sanshou out of a need to sound opinionated.  However, I would like to point out that as a practitioner of modern Wushu, both Taolu and Sanshou, I also like to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of what I practice, as well as how it can be improved upon, and I would encourage others to think the same.  This discussion about Sanshou was meant to do exactly that.  And the various theoretical suggestions I have made on the shortcomings of modern Wushu Sanshou are just that—theoretical.  These changes will most likely never be implemented, especially if they come from a 21-year-old Wushu kid that nobody’s ever heard.  Whether or not you agree with any of these observations, it is important that people better understand what Sanshou is, what it is capable of, and are encouraged to put it under serious discussion and critically analysis.

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  • Fede Sanchez

    Another amazing article! indeed practicing Sanda feels somewhat disconected from Taolu…I don’t like to practice so much forms to never be trained on how to use them on sanda…