Choy Li Fut Sparring Applications: Taolu Applications

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By: Matthew Lee

Written August 11th, 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 Hung Sing Choy Li Fut.

Coming off of my previous write-up, “Baguazhang Sparring Applications: Taolu Applications”, I’m back with more.  For those of you readers who are unfamiliar with this topic, this probably won’t be interested in this.  But for those of you who have read my first “Taolu Applications” segment, you know where I’m going with this.  That’s right, 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.

As I mentioned in 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 a 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 Hung Sing (鸿胜; hóngshèng, Vast Victory) Choy Li Fut applications that can and have been applied in sparring by Ben Ji Liu, student of Sifu Frank McCarthy, who was in turn himself a student of Grandmaster Dino Salvatera.

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 Hung Sing Choy Li Fut applications:

  1. 插捶; chāchuí, piercing hammer

Pronounced and spelled “chap”/“chaap” or “charp choi” from Cantonese, this fist technique consists of a straight punch and can be done with a regular fist or a panther fist, like the “E” hand posture in American Sign Language.  This can be aimed at various targets of the opponent’s body, from the softer and more vulnerable areas such as the throat, to the torso, as demonstrated in the video with the rear hand to the body, while angling off with footwork diagonally to flank the opponent.  This is like the “dart” in boxing, as done by Muhammad Ali, arguably known as the “the greatest” boxer of all time, and by former WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) Bantamweight Champion and former UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz in MMA.  The reason for this angling footwork to overcome the disadvantage of having difficulty using the rear hand when in a bladed, or one-sided stance that is typically used in Choy Li Fut when fighting.  This angling footwork also opens up the body and waist to use the rear side for more powerful attacks, taking full advantage of the distance and momentum that can be generated, as is done most modern combat sports specializing striking, including boxing, kickboxing and MMA, where practitioners typically fight with one side forward and one side back for this very reason.  Follow-ups to this technique can be a “pak” (拍; pāi, slap) with the same rear hand, or a “chuen” (穿; chuān, spear/threading) hand movement, which is similar to a “fan sau” (分手; fēnshǒu, splitting hand) in Wing Chun, to trap or clear the opponent’s guard.  But perhaps most agreeable and well-known to Chinese martial arts enthusiasts and educated spectators’ image and impression of southern “Long Fist” styles, which have comparatively larger movements and long-range arm swings,  and which Choy Li Fut categorically falls under, as opposed to southern “short hand” styles, such as Wing Chun and Wuzuquan (五祖拳; wǔzǔquán, Five Ancestors Fist) which have comparatively smaller movements, is the follow-up of “gwa” (掛; guà, downwards backfist strike) to crush the guard of the opponent, as demonstrated in the video; the “gwa” would not only aim to crush the guard of the opponent, but to also extend to the face of the opponent, so if the opponent’s guard happens to be weak, the strike would then clock the opponent in the chin.  Further follow-ups to the “gwa” include “kap” (盖; gài, swinging overhead fist) as demonstrated in the video, a combination practiced in virtually all southern “Long Fist” styles, or a straight hand strike.  The power of these follow-ups comes from conservation of momentum, a primary concept in Choy Li Fut, meaning that the movements are not done in separate beats, but in one continuous (连环; liánhuán, literally chained) flow or “breath.”  Another contributing factor to the power of these hand strikes and long arm swings is forearm and hand conditioning practiced in Choy Li Fut, which reflects Choy Li Fut’s practice as a complete style of traditional Chinese martial arts.  This is parallel to training in Muay Thai, which is renowned for its vicious “Thai (roundhouse) kick”, due to having tough and powerful shins attributed to hard conditioning.  The implications of the physical conditioning are the same, where even if the opponent has a strong guard or can protect themselves from the strikes, it still causes damage to and wears out an opponent that lacks the same conditioning, and thus serve as a deterrent to directly blocking or meeting the strikes head-on, thereby weakening the opponent, and leaving them more open for further strikes.

  1. 掛; guà, vertical swinging fist, literally hang

Also pronounced and spelled “gwa”, traditionally this fist technique is with the back of the fist, dropping downwards from flexion to extension of the elbow, hence the literal translation of “hang.”  This is also present in many other southern styles of Chinese martial arts, including Hung Gar (洪家; Hóngjiā, Hong Family) and modern Wushu Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist).  However, the variation demonstrated in the video is the exact opposite of this expression, instead going upwards with the arm extended.  It is worth noting that Ben Ji himself said that one can pretty much “gwa” from any direction.  This is in line with his explanation in the video of Choy Li Fut’s long arm swings, where he says “So play with the angles, at the end of the day, uh, it’s all the same thing, but in different angles.  You’re either “gwa-ing” [or “kap-ing”]…45°, or 90° (does a horizontal long arm swing, parallel to the floor), or reverse, or reverse the other way (swings downwards as in the traditional gwa motion), up, or pao (抛; pāo, swinging uppercut fist, literally throw [away]), um…you just play with the angles, adjust it little by little, play with the opponent’s head.”  Because the sudden upwards direction of the strike is coming from an origin below the opponent’s normal eyesight, it is similar to a jab being thrown from a lowered guard with the lead hand down by the hips or waist, as is done by undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, which is also hard to see and thus anticipate, thereby making it difficult to defend or counter against.  It is also similar to the interpretation of pao in Hung Gar, where the arm is also straight and striking up with the back of the fist to the opponent’s chin; another application of this is using the upwards swinging force of the arm to break the opponent’s own arm, or at least hyperextend and injure the elbow.  Ben Ji also calls back to footwork and angles, saying, “Don’t let your body move before your horse.  I like to say ‘ride your horse’”, where “horse” (马; mǎ) refers to one’s stance in traditional Chinese martial arts, and is tied to perhaps the most well-known idea of stance in Chinese martial arts, mabu (马步; mǎbù, horse stance), where in Choy Li Fut, as with many traditional southern Chinese martial arts styles there many “horses” (read: stances).  “The moment you extend past your horse, you don’t have power, and you’re vulnerable to…being attacked.”  This statement is another reflection, where in fighting, whether in striking combat sports such as boxing, kickboxing and MMA or otherwise, one has to have a good base, or stance, weighted into the ground, in order to generate power from the legs, through the body, and finally express it through the hands.  Otherwise, overextending past one’s foundation results in being off-balance, which results in loss of good structure, positioning and proper power generation without balance, and consequently leaves one vulnerable to attack, as Ben Ji said.

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, Choy Li Fut, 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 Ben Ji Liu for sparring, demonstration, explanation and clarity on his demonstrated techniques, and the East West Martial Exploration group for the meetup!


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