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Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques #4: Taolu Applications

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WUSHU SPARRING (SANSHOU) TECHNIQUES #4: TAOLU APPLICATIONS

By: Matthew Lee

Written September 14th, 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 the Changquan (Long Fist) style.

Once again, having recently coming off my previous two write-ups, “Baguazhang Sparring Applications: Taolu Applications” and “Choy Li Fut Sparring Applications: Taolu Applications”, I’m back with more.  Surprisingly, it has only been over a year since I’ve directly touched on the topic of modern Wushu applications in Sanshou.  If you are a general reader that is new to my write-ups, or a Wushu practitioner that does not care about the martial or fighting side of Wushu, you probably won’t care about this.  But for those of you readers that have read my “Taolu Applications” segment, you know where I’m going with this.  Yep, I’m talking about Wushu techniques and movements being applied in sparring for Sanshou.  Although I am specifically talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, Wushu is also an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts, which can also extend to traditional Chinese martial arts styles as well in this discussion.

Modern Wushu is formally categorized into two separate disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù), the practice of forms and sequences, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  Typically, athletes that train professionally and competitively in modern Wushu specifically specialize in either Taolu or Sanda, and exclusively train in that discipline for competition.          The consequence of this specialization is a resultant dichotomy between forms and sparring in modern Wushu competition, where Taolu is trained for aesthetics and performance set to specific standards, and Sanshou is trained for competitive fighting under a certain set of rules.  Critics, namely traditional martial artists, have pointed this out as separating the skillsets of forms work and sparring, which is one of modern Wushu’s greatest flaws as a modern martial arts system.

Because the two disciplines are so separated, both in focus and in training methods for competition, there is the perception that Sanshou has no connection to Taolu, and thus Wushu.  When it comes to Wushu being applied in fighting situations, I said in a previous write-up, “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, that forms and fighting are not the same thing.  However, I also said that this doesn’t mean that there isn’t and shouldn’t be a connection between the two.  Theoretically, Sanshou exists as a method to actively apply Chinese martial arts techniques and fighting ideas.  In actuality, modern Wushu Sanshou is perceived to have none of this due to the lack of a clear connection to Taolu or Wushu.  In order to improve on this shortcoming of modern Wushu, more application of specific Wushu techniques in Sanshou should be emphasized, by bridging the gap between forms and fighting, as is done with other traditional martial arts styles such as Taekwondo and Karate.

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 during my sparring sessions, and since the first publicly released and recorded exhibit mentioned in my first edition in of “Taolu Applications”, “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”, I have continued on my never-ending quest to do exactly that.  And as I stated at the beginning of this write-up, not long after my previous write-up “Choy Li Fut Sparring Applications: Taolu Applications”, on August 31st, 2019 which is coincidentally when Zhang Weili was crowned the first UFC Champion—man, these past few weeks have been great for Sanda), I was able to capture Wushu applications during sparring on camera during one of my various attempts throughout the year (I’m on a roll).  The crucial part of this required finding the time with fellow friends and sparring partners to get together and recording a sparring session, and after multiple times, I’ve finally done just that, and got exactly the results I wanted.  This is the video of said results, but unlike the previous two write-ups, where the documented applications and results did not conform to Sanshou rules, this edition is a direct continuation of my “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications” series with the word “Sanshou” in the title, which is directly focused on specific modern Wushu Taolu techniques in the Sanshou ruleset and environment, and with this, I continue my documentation of direct Wushu Taolu applications in sparring:

Many people believe that because modern Wushu was made for sport and performance purposes, its more traditional and martial roots do not exist.  Critics counter the existence of Sanshou (Wushu sparring) by claiming that it has no connection to modern Wushu Taolu whatsoever and conclude that therefore Taolu techniques are useless in a fight.  This is not true.  The modern Sanda curriculum that is taught in both professional Wushu schools and sports universities in China contains many techniques extracted from various Wushu styles, including specific takedowns and strikes.  This video demonstrates two modern Wushu Changquan (Long Fist) techniques that can and have been applied in the Sanshou environment.

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 Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) techniques, both of which are found in modern Wushu and traditional northern Chinese martial arts styles:

  1. 压肘 yāzhǒu, pressing elbow

Also termed yaquan (压拳; yāquán, pressing fist) and xiaya (下压; xiàyā, press down), variations of this technique include the arm at a minimum of a 90° bend, rolling and rotating the forearm down, with supination of the arm, to the arm being fully bent at the elbow and travelling at a trajectory of 45° across the torso (as opposed to laterally/horizontally across the torso as in 盘肘; pánzhǒu, coiling elbow, and is not to be confused for the same technique), with the other free hand catching the elbow at the end of the movement.  The former version is more commonly seen in modern Wushu Changquan Taolu.  Ideally in forms work, the elbow should be situated down the centerline of the body.  The ending posture range from the other hand pulling back to the side in a chambering position, as demonstrated in the video, with a variation being initiated by a grab onto the shoulder (抓肩; zhuājiān, literally grabbing shoulder) of the side executing yazhou with the other hand, as is done in Zhang (张; Zhāng) Style Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), the base style of Chaquan that influenced most of modern Wushu Changquan’s standardized movements.  In Taolu, this technique is most commonly executed in mabu (马步; mǎbù, horse stance), as also demonstrated in the video.  Not to be confused with zaquan (砸拳; záquán, pounding/hammer fist), which has a very similar body mechanic, the emphasis or focus of power on this technique is on the forearm, given the aforementioned physical description of technical execution, whereas zaquan eponymously emphasizes or focuses the power on the fist, specifically the backfist.  It is also not to be confused with gezhou (格肘; gézhǒu, blocking elbow), also termed gedang (格档; gédǎng, blocking frame), both of which translate to blocks that are parallel to Karate and Taekwondo, where the arm is also at a minimum of a 90° bend, and the forearm rotates laterally/horizontally across the torso and covers the face with at least the fist, as opposed to the downwards trajectory of the forearm with yazhou.  Strangely, these class of techniques are classified as “elbow” techniques in modern Wushu, despite having the emphasis and focus of power being on the forearms.  This is a very basic movement in modern Wushu Changquan found in various Taolu, making it relatively simple, but thus practical and useful in its martial application, and given that Changquan is a standardization of various northern Chinese martial arts styles combined together, it is also found in many traditional northern Chinese martial arts styles as well.  The most common explanation and application of this technique, as with gezhou/gedang, is that of blocking straight attacks with the forearms, as is in most Karate and Taekwondo schools (although in my opinion, the understanding and explanation of “blocks” as disseminated by the CWA [Chinese Wushu Association] is not as good as that of traditional Wushu or Karate, as I will elaborate here).  As the translation of the technique’s name suggests, the application of the technique is to press down on the opponent’s elbow.  This is done by applying the forearm of the yazhou technique onto the opponent’s elbow to straighten and lock the arm, coupled with the chambering of the first variation as mentioned above, and as I mentioned in “Why I Teach Martial Applications: The Martial Content in the Sport Martial Art”, the basic chambering mechanic of a pushing and pulling to the side simultaneously, shared with Karate and Taekwondo, which can be applied in wrestling and grappling ranges, where one pulls the opponent’s arm straight with the chambering side, resulting in a standing armbar; theoretically, the effect of this would be to break the opponent’s arm.  This application is also found in traditional Karate as well.  However, the armbar in jujutsu, judo and BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) achieves this with comparatively greater leverage and superior positioning, whereas with this version of the armbar, the effect would at least hyperextend the opponent’s elbow, and does not have a high probability of actually breaking the opponent’s arm, unless one is significantly heavier and has enough physical ability to generate the force needed to break the arm (regardless, any method of locking joints is prohibited in sparring, rendering this application moot).  In sparring, the application of this technique can be adapted as a counter to an opponent’s kick, most commonly a round or roundhouse kick to one’s body, or more improbably but still possibly a push kick as shown in the video, by catching or trapping the opponent’s kick, followed by applying pressure and rolling with the forearm of the other side onto the opponent’s upper thigh, ideally right above the knee, to rotate the opponent’s leg and hip outwards, thereby unbalancing the opponent.  The effect of this technique can be maximized by using the momentum of the opponent’s kick by pulling the kicking leg to further disrupt the opponent’s balance, thus achieving a takedown, and settling into a rudimentary mabu positioning of the feet to stabilize oneself, as demonstrated in the video.  Personally, I have found this counter to be immediately effective in sparring.  This application is most effective in a standard sparring situation where the opponent has no defense to kick catches.  The benefit of this technique is that it is based on very simple coordination of chambering and rotating the arms, which can be easily conditioned into movement patterns as done in Taolu, making it easy to apply.  The disadvantage to this technique is that, as previously established, its effectiveness depends on the opponent having no immediate response or appropriate defense to a kick catch, therefore being inexperienced with Sanda techniques and environment.  However, this is just one technique of many that can be set up by kick catches, and as such is just one possibility that should be seamlessly transitioned from one takedown to the next, which is the ideal of a high-level Wushu Sanda fighter.  This is where the concept of linking or chaining multiple techniques into one continuous (连环; liánhuán, literally chained) flow or “breath” from Chinese martial arts is perhaps arguably most applicable, where transitioning from one technique to another in one continuous flow as opposed to striking where the flow can be easily interrupted and broken by an opponent with a higher level of skill.In the words of Mark Lorenzo, a former 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”) champion, and nationally and internationally certified Sanda judge under the USAWKF (United States of America Wushu Kungfu Federation) and IWuF (International Wushu Federation), respectively, from my interview with him in “From A Platform Judge’s Point of View: An Interview with Mark Lorenzo About Sanda”, “It’s trying to move, and the takedown being probably the most common in the moment, is you’re trying something, and then transitioning, and transitioning.  But as far as striking, keeping it pretty simple, precise, sharp combinations, coordinating your hands and feet.”

  1. 弓步双勾手; gōngbùshuānggōushǒu, bow stance double hook hands

The name of this technique is a very straightforward explanation of the posture; the physical technique consists of a gongbu (弓步; gōngbù, bow/front stance), with both arms pulled down and backwards into the gou (勾; gōu, hook) hand posture, at both sides of the body.  As a very standardized basic movement of modern Wushu Changquan, it is taken from Zhang Style Chaquan, but can also be found in various forms of Northern Shaolin (北少林; běishàolín) Taolu from the Nanjing Central Guoshu Institute (南京中央国术馆; Nánjīngzhōngyāngguóshùguǎn), and even basic Taolu in Shuai Jiao (摔跤; shuāijiāo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling) specifically Baoding (保定; Bǎodìng) Kuai Jiao (快跤; kuàijiāo, fast wrestling).  The traditional application of this technique is an escape from a wrist grab, where the sharp and crisp downwards motion of one’s grabbed wrist into the bent gou hand posture can be used as an opposing force to the grab, and is further accentuated by the sudden and stable drop into the gongbu (another self-defense application of this position is the implication of a headbutt as the opponent is pulled abruptly downwards towards oneself, but though this prohibited in sparring, and thus is rendered moot).  However, in terms of sparring, this technique can be utlilized in the realm of grappling, wrestling, throws and takedowns (摔; shuāi).  Many people are under the impression that Chinese martial arts are only concerned with esoteric kicking and punching.  This is a fallacious belief, as Chinese martial arts contain its own emphasis on wrestling, throwing, and takedown techniques.  The example of this technique is a clear example of this, where in a clinching situation, a hooking hand reaches across both one’s own body and the opponent’s body, to the outside of the opponent’s opposite side knee, resulting in a crossbody knee tap.  The throw is completed by a sudden turn away from the opponent into a rudimentary gongbu-like posture, where the hooking hand comes from the same side as the straightened leg, and blocks the opponent’s own leg, thereby unbalancing and throwing them.  The throw is accentuated and maximized by imposing leverage onto the opponent’s shoulder with one’s own chest downwards and away from the opponent, as well as by the shoulder of the hooking hand bumping into the opponent’s body, further disrupting the opponent’s balance twofold.  Many Chinese martial arts instructors commonly teach this from pulling onto the opponent’s collar tie.  However, I personally prefer getting a single overhook, or whizzer as it is termed in wrestling, to set up this technique, as this helps me to impose maximum leverage to unbalance the opponent, as demonstrated in the video.  Variations of this throw would be to hook across the front of the opponent’s body and blocking their lower body with the straight leg of the gongbu, which I have also personally found to be effective.  In Shuai Jiao, this technique and concept is termed shoubie (手别; shǒubié), which is translate as “hand blocking”, and is a distinguishing feature of Chinese wrestling techniques and tactics.  And as Shuai Jiao is oldest traceable and recorded martial art in Chinese history, it has influenced various Chinese martial arts and Wushu styles, including Chaquan, and by extension, modern Wushu Changquan.  This application can also be found in interpretations of Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), Yizong (易宗; yìzōng, Changes School/Sect) Gao (高; Gāo) Style Baguazhang.  Additionally, this application is very much a standard technique in the standard Sanda curriculum.  This technique depends on the opponent’s weight being forward, which is crucial for making the weight transfer of the throw effective.  As such, the flaws of this technique are that it can be countered or negated by an opponent avoiding committing weight forward, and in using it with a taller opponent, as it is extremely hard to apply pressure down on an taller opponent’s clinching arm and impose leverage on them with one’s own chest from a significantly lower height, unless the opponent has no wrestling or grappling defense.  Previously, this was a technique with a low percentage of success in Sanshou competitions of the ’90s, perhaps because of a lack of understanding of the needed weight distribution in clinching situation and proper leverage and positioning required to successfully complete the throw.  The obvious solution to these flaws would be to only reserve this technique for opponents of at least the same height, and to use this application ONLY in situations where the opponent commits weight forward in a clinch, quickly evaluating and taking advantage of the opportunity when one is in this situation.  This clearly can and has been done, as this technique has been successfully scoring frequently nowadays in Sanda competition.

As clearly observed through these examples, it is clear that 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 (which includes the original traditional Fanziquan that modern Wushu Fanziquan comes from), 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 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 Taolu and Sanshou in modern Wushu 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 modern Wushu more complete as a legitimate martial arts system.

Many who currently practice Wushu today may disagree with me and believe that this kind of idea is unnecessary, that Taolu and Sanshou 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 my examples in this write-up, which were only taken from experience in modern Wushu Changquan, 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, Hung Gar (洪家; hóngjiā), Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; Praying Mantis Fist), and Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist).  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 Emilio Alpanseque, aka Mastering WUSHU, for clarity on the technique names!

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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.