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Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications

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WUSHU SPARRING (SANSHOU) TECHNIQUES: TAOLU APPLICATIONS

By: Matthew Lee

Written November 15th, 2014

“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 fist techniques from the Changquan (Long Fist) style. 

If you’ve been actively following the last few posts I’ve written, you may have noticed that the trend I’m following has been strongly Sanshou/sparring-oriented.  Ever since I have had the opportunity to become a writer for Jiayoowushu.com, the personal mission that I have taken upon myself to achieve is the encouragement of better understanding and serious discussion of Wushu.  In this case, this includes the context of sparring and fighting.  While I am primarily focusing on modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, it 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.

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.  After this had gone on for some time, and I had become confident enough in my abilities to successfully demonstrate my implicit goal, I finally decided to record one such sparring session on March 8th, 2014.  Now, I have also finally decided to share my results for this write-up.  This was simply an experimental video, one I hope to be the first of many, as part of a write-up and video series about 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) 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, you should NOT specifically be looking/planning for techniques to apply, as that is a good way to set yourself up for being countered.  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.

As previously established, the video above contained two Changquan fist techniques, both of which are found in modern Wushu and traditional northern Chinese martial arts styles:

  1. 翻拳; fānquán, “turning”/“flipping” punch 

The physical technique itself consists of a straight punch out to the side of the body, with the inward rotation of the fist, consequently resulting in the back of the fist facing towards the front of the body (thumb turned towards the inside of the body and downwards).  The power of the technique is accentuated through the complete turning of the body and hip of the punching side, with the direction of the punch.  This specific technique comes from the Wushu style of Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), as I found out from one of my past Taolu coaches, certified national Chinese Taolu judge Meng Tao.  Historically, it is a popular standout fist technique in modern Wushu Taolu Changquan forms, having been incorporated by Wushu champion and legend Zhao Changjun, and later by current Wushu champion and Beijing Wushu Team member Wang Xi, which in turn made it one of my favorite Wushu Taolu techniques.  Interpretations of this technique, both in traditional Fanziquan and modern Wushu, range from punching out and downwards, as with Zhao Changjun, punching upwards, as Wang Xi has done, or even simply punching straight forward.  Ironically, although Fanziquan is classified as a northern style, as with many Changquan styles, which emphasize long and extended movements as the name suggests, this style, and thus by extension this technique, can be classified as “duanquan” (短拳; duǎnquán, literally “short fist”), which as the name suggests, emphasizes more short-range techniques, and it is here that I have appropriately found this technique to be most effective.  In the case of direct sparring application, this technique can replace any straight punch when the range of attack is too close for a jab or cross, as the turning motion can generate enough power for a long-range straight punch over a shorter distance and time, and can arguably generate more power than simple straight punches.  It is essentially similar to a boxing overhand, which is potentially useful in hitting the head of a taller opponent.  This technique can possibly even be used as such, although I haven’t actively tested this yet.  The obvious flaw of this technique is that it requires considerably more energy and effort to properly execute, compared to standard boxing punches.  However, as established, if this technique is known, it can be useful in certain situations.  As seen in the video, one of, if not the most effective applications of this technique is its incorporation into the “catch and return” boxing drill, where one “catches” a straight punch with the hand from the same side and immediately “returns” a straight punch (this is where the technique is incorporated) in kind with the opposite hand; the opponent may not necessarily see the counter coming, and thus can be surprised and caught off guard.  Another possible concern about the practice of this technique is that put undue stress on the arm of the striking fist, namely the elbow and shoulder.  To minimize this and the likelihood of injury, it is important to make sure that the elbow does not bend too far out (forming an acute angle with arm) when executing this punch.

  1. 贯拳; guànquán, “traversal”/“lateral” punch 

Much like the previous technique, this technique involves the fist turned inwards towards the body; but whereas the previous technique was a straight punch, this technique consists of a swinging fist inwards and towards/across the body, with the arm (mostly) straight (the elbow is slightly bent).  In modern Wushu Taolu, variations of this technique include the swing of the arm by itself, to the more common interpretation of the other free hand catching the back of the striking fist at the end of the movement.  This latter version is more commonly seen in modern Wushu Changquan Taolu, as well as in other traditional northern Long Fist styles as well, such as Tien Shan Pai (天山派; Tiānshānpài, Celestial Mountain School).  Given the lateral direction of the movement, this technique travels in the same trajectory as the standard boxing hook.  Modern Wushu Sanshou uses virtually all the basic punches of boxing for hand techniques, including hooks, and it is interesting to note that one version of the Chinese translation for the boxing hook term is 贯拳; however, the more well-known Chinese translation for the boxing hook term is 摆拳 (bǎiquán).  Additionally, this interpretation of the technique’s application is already apparent in the standard Sanda curriculum, making it much more common than it may initially appear.  Essentially, while it lacks the power of the shorter boxing hook, this technique can be used as a “long-range hook”, replacing the hook at a range too far for the standard hook alone, and just like the boxing hook, power can be maximized by the prior turn of the hips.  In fact, this technique is parallel to other lateral fist strikes, such as the Sambo casting punch, and the Mexican style boxing hook.  The Sambo casting punch in particular can be used as a transition into wrestling and grappling, where the fist itself misses at close range and the arm makes contact.  While I haven’t had the opportunity to use this technique as such, it is undoubtedly possible, as it is in theory can already be used in this way.  Like the previous technique, there may exist the concern of stress on the elbow and shoulder of the striking fist’s arm.  In order to reduce the possibility of injury, a possible suggestion would be to avoid extending or locking the elbow to prevent the likelihood of elbow hyperextension, as well as avoid over rotation of the shoulder inwards to prevent the likelihood of rotator cuff injuries, when executing this technique.

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 interview “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words” by Mastering WUSHU, “‘…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 (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), 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 and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Champion, 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.