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Sanshou vs. Lei Tai

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Sanshou vs. Lei Tai: A Comparison of Full-Contact Chinese Martial Arts Fighting

Written August 4th, 2014

 “…Equally intriguing when discussing various full-contact rules is sanshou’s connection to kuoshu, often seen as the Taiwanese counterpart to the Chinese based sanshou.  Differing mainly in regulations, such as kuoshu’s allowing competitors to strike to the same place twice, kuoshu and sanshou are examples of how popular the overall concept of full-contact kung fu has become.” — Kung Fu Magazine “Full-Contact Kung Fu” by Marian K. Castinado

Great news; for the rest of the foreseeable week, I am virtually housebound, due to a very swollen ankle sprain (that’s what I get for attempting an aerial without proper warm-up).  Recently, I’ve developed a fixation on sparring of all things, when I should be thinking about forms training (actually, I should be thinking about recovering at present, but my priorities are rarely straight if ever at all).  And when it comes to sparring practice, namely full-contact sparring, competitive fighting is what many serious practitioners look at.  Last month, I visited the 2014 US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament, where I observed the lei tai (擂台; lèitái) full-contact fights among other things.  And while I enjoy watching this kind of competition in person, its validity as a form of full-contact fighting has been brought into question multiple times by my sparring partners and friends.  But what appeals to me most about these lei tai fights is that they are similar to modern Wushu (武术; wǔshù, literally “martial art”) Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand).  However, there are also quite a few differences, which distinguish the way that they are managed and trained.  This write-up is meant to compare, contrast, and evaluate the strengths and shortcomings that each of these full-contact fighting circuits of Chinese martial arts have to offer.

Before I begin, let’s establish the background of both “traditional” lei tai and modern Wushu Sanshou.  First, is modern Wushu, which I am most familiar with.  Modern Wushu is a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, and is formally classified into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanshou, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  Because this write-up is solely focused on the discussion of full-contact sparring competition, we will be exclusively restricting our mention of modern Wushu to Sanshou.  The term “Sanshou” has traditionally referred to practice of applying the fighting theories and ideas of Chinese martial arts in something of a freestyle, and even sparring environment.  Nowadays, both the terms of “Sanshou” and “Sanda” specifically refers to the sport Sanshou/Sanda under the modern Wushu umbrella.  Modern Wushu Sanshou is essentially a standard full-contact sparring program with a standard curriculum.  Today, sport Sanshou takes its historical roots from the Whampoa (Huangpu) MilitaryAcademy’s hand-to-hand combat training methods, which in turn was developed from a combination of efforts by traditional Wushu experts and Soviet advisors, with a kickboxing-like format.

sanda001

Then there’s the lei tai competition under the “Kuoshu” umbrella, also spelled “Guoshu” (国术; guóshù, literally “national art”).  “Guóshù”, and is considered an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts, just like Wushu.  However, today, “guóshù” is usually used to refer to the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts, whereas “wǔshù” refers specifically to modern Wushu.  “Lei tai” literally means “raised platform” in Chinese, which was historically used between fighters who challenged each other, most notably between Chinese martial artists, sometimes to the death.  For Guoshu competition, “lei tai” simply refers to full-contact fighting competition on the eponymous raised platform.  Before contemporary Guoshu competition, lei tai matches also included weapons, besides bare hands and feet between fighters.  But much like modern Wushu Sanshou, contemporary lei tai competition is exclusively restricted to hand-to-hand combat.  Unlike standardized modern Wushu Sanshou, Guoshu lei tai does not restrict its fighters to a uniform curriculum.  Rather, the skills and techniques of a fighter depend on the individual’s own training and martial arts background, which usually and appropriately are traditional Chinese martial arts.

Now, that we’ve established the background of both modern Wushu Sanshou and Guoshu lei tai, let’s look at and compare the two styles of full-contact Chinese martial arts fighting.  We will start by formally analyzing the rules of both competition regulations, and observe the strengths and weaknesses that both methods have.  For the sake of conciseness, certain points will be omitted, namely the scoring criteria for strikes.

First we have modern Wushu Sanshou rules (Extracted from Chapter 4 of the “Rules of Sanshou” document.  From what I understand, there is a new set of rules that is either currently, or will soon be used for modern Wushu competition.  However, due to my lack of access to these new sets of rules, I will be referring to the 2005 Edition of rules for modern Wushu Sanshou.  This document can be found at the International Wushu Federation’s official website, www.iwuf.org.):

  • Legal Techniques: All classes of punches, kicks, and takedowns
  • Illegal Techniques: Head strikes, elbow strikes, knee strikes, or joint manipulations.  HOWEVER, professional Sanda, which is televised in China, does allow knee strikes.
  • Legal (Scoring) Areas of Attack: Head, trunk (torso), and thighs
  • Illegal Areas of Attack: Back of the head, neck, and crotch

sanda002

Next, we have Guoshu lei tai rules (Extracted from the program I purchased at the 2014 US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament.):

  • Legal Techniques: All classes of punches/hand strikes, kicks, elbow strikes, knee strikes, and takedowns
  • Illegal Techniques: Head strikes, strikes while holding/clinching, and joint manipulations
  • Legal (Scoring) Areas of Attack: (Not explicitly stated)
  • Illegal Areas of Attack: Eyes, throat, back of the head, and groin (and chest for female competitors)

leitai01

I will first be pointing out the obvious similarities and differences of both methods of full-contact, and then analyzing what their implications are.  Theoretically, the fighting aspects of Chinese martial arts are divided into four general elements of fighting: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná)。  However, both methods of full-contact Chinese martial arts fighting only allows for the first three out of four areas, with grappling, specifically joint locks and manipulations, illegal in competition.  As a result, both methods of full-contact sparring allow for stand-up strikes in general, as well as takedowns and a limited degree of stand-up wrestling.  In terms of stand-up wrestling and takedowns, both methods of full-contact fighting have the same criteria:

  • If one fighter remains standing while the other falls/is taken down, the standing fighter is awarded 2 points
  • If one person lands on top of the other, the person on top is awarded 1 point
  • If both fighters fall to the ground/off the lei tai, no points are awarded
  • No points are awarded for striking in the clinch

Like almost every other known combat sport, fights in both Sanshou and Guoshu lei tai are divided into rounds.  Each round is two minutes for modern Wushu Sanshou.  However, at the 2014 US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament, the first elimination rounds only lasted a minute and thirty seconds per round, whereas the finals lasted two minutes per round.  For both methods, matches are determined by the best two out of three rounds, by knockout, by knockdown for ten seconds, or by incidental injury that renders a fighter unable to continue fighting.  However, oddly enough, Guoshu lei tai has a three knockdown rule, where a fighter loses if knocked down consecutively three times.

It is also interesting to note that competition protocols, including bowing and refereeing, are almost identical.  As an example, the signals and gestures made by the referee, denoting each specific case of a bout, under both methods are identical (see Chapter 7 of the 2005 Edition of “Rules of Sanshou” document for illustrations).  Sanshou also shares a lei tai, which, for both methods of Chinese full-contact fighting, sets the competition apart from other styles of stand-up fighting.  Unlike boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai fights, the lei tai is a platform has no ropes or restrictions, so fighters can either fall or be pushed off the platform, which is legal in both methods of Chinese full-contact.  Therefore, strategies like Muhammad Ali’s classic rope-a-dope or the cornering of an opponent in the ring are rendered moot.  In modern Wushu Sanshou, if a fighter pushes off his or her opponent off the lei tai twice in one round (while still standing on the lei tai), they win the round (if this happens again in the second round, the bout is won).  In Guoshu lei tai, if a fighter forces his or her opponent off the lei tai three times within one round (again, while still standing on the lei tai), they win the match.  An exception to this is professional Sanshou, which is held in a ring with ropes.

Then there are the differences between each method.  This is where the strengths and shortcomings of each method are highlighted.  The most obvious difference is that modern Wushu Sanshou generally lacks the combination of elbow and knee strikes that Guoshu lei tai allows.  Theoretically, Guoshu lei tai has the advantage here, because of the more free arsenal of weapons allowed in competition.  Personally, I have yet to see elbows being thrown at the US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament, however, I have seen quite a few knees there, which is a very interesting and refreshing element in fighting to see.  Because of this, Sanshou essentially has the same limitations as kickboxing.

leitai02

The two methods’ difference in time limits for a standing clinch between two fighters also highlights another limitation in modern Wushu Sanshou that does not hinder Guoshu lei tai as much.  The time limit for a clinch in modern Wushu Sanshou is only a mere two seconds, leaving little to no time for a fighter to execute any viable throw or effective technique within the clinch.  In Guoshu lei tai, the time limit for a clinch is five seconds.  While still relatively short compared to Muay Thai and sport MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), this comparatively longer time limit theoretically can, and has, allowed for more stand-up wrestling action to occur in Guoshu lei tai matches.

Another thing that Guoshu lei tai has that modern Wushu Sanshou does not is the versatility of the hand.  Sanshou requires boxing gloves, which consequently limits all hand techniques in competitive Sanshou to a closed fist.  By contrast, Guoshu lei tai regulations require open-fingered gloves between 4 and 6 ounces, which must to allow for an open hand, similar to and including, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and grappling gloves.  Thus, Guoshu lei tai also allows for openhanded strikes, whereas modern Wushu Sanshou cannot, due to the restriction of a closed fist in a boxing glove.  Another comparative note to make is that Sanshou regulations also require chest protectors in competition, whereas Guoshu lei tai does not.  Therefore, at least theoretically, one can make the observation that because Guoshu lei tai has less protection, there is a lot more intensity and risk involved.  Both Sanshou and Guoshu lei tai require distinct forms of headgear, and both require a mouthpiece and a cup.  But once again, professional Sanshou is an exception to this, and does not have either of these requirements.

However, believe it or not, Guoshu lei tai competition also lacks certain freedoms that modern Wushu Sanshou has.  As stated previously, strikes while holding/in a clinch are strictly prohibited and penalized in Guoshu lei tai, which, from a Muay Thai perspective, defeats the purpose of allowing close range elbow and knee strikes in the first place.  Guoshu lei tai also prohibits any manner of strikes to the inside of the leg, which is very restrictive compared to Sanshou and other kickboxing styles.  This also brings up an issue of safety; exclusively allowing kicks on the outside of the leg puts more internal stress on the knee, leaving athletes and fighters with a greater risk of injuries like an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear, as a senior of my former Wushu school pointed out, and should seriously be addressed.  On the other hand, Sanshou rules technically do allow strikes in the clinch, although they are not awarded points (still, it’s nice to know they’re there).

Another safety issue, which has also been put into question by sparring partners and friends, is the standard issue ProForce headgear with face cage.  This piece of equipment has raised many complaints from fighters with firsthand experience with it, ranging from fighters’ hands being injured when striking the face cage with open-handed gloves, to face cuts and bloody noses for the wearer.  I had a brief online conversation with a former champion of US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament lei tai circuit, who mentioned these very issues (he claimed to have frequent bloody noses, and one technical knockout from a cut over one eye that required stitches).  Solutions to face injuries for the wearer, as this person and another senior of my former Wushu school have given, is to tape the inside of the mask.  This person also stated that the big reason this specific headgear part of the regulation in the US International Kuo Shu Championship tournament lei tai fights, to prevent the boxing commission from becoming involved.  However, having purchased and used this product, in addition to the testimony of other seniors of my former Wushu school who have used it, I have observed that this headgear seems to do the job of protecting the head and face just fine for sparring.

Perhaps one of the biggest shortcomings that both methods of Chinese full-contact fighting have, especially in the eyes of most grappling stylists like wrestling, jujutsu or judo, or even an MMA perspective, is that ground fighting is not considered in either method.  All action stops as soon as either or both of the fighters fall or reach the ground.  Thus, ground fighting is eliminated in both these methods.  An exception to this is Russian Sanshou, which, from what I understand, allows a limited amount of ground fighting.

Finally, whereas all of the previous information established here was based purely on the rules of each method of competition, I will close with my opinion of each method, which will be based on my personal observations and opinion.  In almost all the Sanshou matches I’ve seen, takedowns seemed to be strongly emphasized over strong stand-up striking, due to takedowns being one of the biggest point gainers in competition.  Thus, it seems that competitive Sanshou, or at least its judges, seems to favor takedowns over other technique.  As a result, this leads to training and competition that prevents ideal well-roundedness in fighters, and rather turns Sanshou fighters into amateur wrestlers with sloppy stand-up skills, as I said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training.”  Based on what I’ve personally witnessed, Guoshu lei tai judges seem to prefer more stand-up exchanges between fighters, and seem to favor the more aggressive fighter.  This kind of trend not only yields a better quality fight, but it also makes it more entertaining from a spectator’s perspective, something that Sanshou, and the rest of modern Wushu for that matter, could use.

In review, it is clear that both have their fair share of strengths and shortcomings.  Each method of full-contact has something to offer that the other does not, but also lacks qualities that the other has.  Compared to other full-contact circuits, both modern Wushu Sanshou and Guoshu lei tai have their inconsistencies.  It should be understood that this write-up was not written to determine which was better, modern Wushu Sanshou or Guoshu lei tai.  Rather, it was meant to shed some light on the structures and limitations of both methods, and take the discussion of full-contact Chinese martial arts fighting to a more serious level.  Whatever your opinion may be, I hope you have at least been encouraged to seriously discuss full-contact fighting in Chinese martial arts.

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