Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Applications: Taolu Applications

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By: Matthew Lee

Written February 27th, 2016

“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 Wushu movements, each from the Changquan (Long Fist) and Nanquan (Southern Fist) style.

It’s been a while since I’ve last touched the topic of applying Wushu directly into Sanshou.  For those of you who have just heard of this from me, this may or may not be of interest to you.  For those of you who have actually read my first, previous write-up on this topic “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”, you know where I’m going with this.  That’s right, I’m talking about directly applying Wushu techniques and movements into sparring within Sanshou, and although I am primarily focused 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.

I will start exactly as I have established in “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”: 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 counter this criticism of modern Wushu, more application of specific Wushu techniques in Sanshou should be shown and explained, thus bridging the perceived 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 “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”, I have continued on my never-ending quest to do exactly that.  It’s been a long time since then, and one time I had failed to prepare a camera to record such sparring sessions with great traditional Wushu applications in use, while other times failing to deliver on my goals while being recorded on camera.  But after finally being prepared, with a camera recording and capturing some active Wushu applications during sparring, I felt satisfied enough with my findings to share my results for this write-up.  This is the video of said results, and it is 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 techniques, one from Changquan (Long Fist) and one from Nanquan (Southern Fist), 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 modern Wushu techniques, one from Changquan (Long Fist) and one from Nanquan (Southern Fist), both of which are found in modern Wushu and traditional Chinese martial arts styles:

1.     退步压掌; tuìbùyāzhǎng, backwards step pressing palm

As the literal translation of the technique’s name suggests, the physical movement consists of a backwards step into gongbu (弓步; gōngbù, bow/front stance) where the stepping leg becomes the straight supporting rear leg of the stance, and a simultaneous push or pressing downwards of the palm of the same side as the leg stepping backwards.  As I established in “A Look at Taijiquan: What You Need to Know”, in Chinese martial arts culture, tuì is used in conjunction with 步, making up the term tuìbù (退步), which means to physically step backwards.  In the general Chinese language, “tuìbù” means regression, however, in this case, tuìbù simply means to step backwards.  It is important to note that in gongbu, most of the weight is forward, thus in most cases, movements and transitions into gongbu have energy going forward into the front, bent leg; however, this specific movement is moving backwards, an example of the contrary.  This specific technique is extracted from modern Wushu Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), which is itself a standardization of various northern Chinese martial arts styles combined together.  In the current Changquan duanwei (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system) system released by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association), this movement has been labeled as 斜推掌 (xiétuīzhǎng, oblique push palm).  Although a very basic movement in comparison to many modern Wushu Changquan movements and techniques, it is simple, and thus practical and useful in its martial application.  In terms of fighting, this technique is characterized as a takedown (摔; shuāi).  Many people are under the impression that Chinese martial arts is only concerned with esoteric kicking and punching.  This is a fallacious belief, as Chinese martial arts contains its own emphasis on wrestling, throwing, and takedown techniques.  The example of this application is a clear example of this, where the backwards step forming the back leg of gongbu becomes a trip of an opponent’s leg, combined with the pressing palm pushing down the opponent’s body, thereby becoming a takedown.  Thus, in the context of sparring and fighting, this technique is to be applied at close range in wrestling, in the clinch in Sanshou.  Conceptually, it is essentially the same movement as guata (挂塔; guàtǎ, literally “hanging tower”) from Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist), where the martial application is the same (although in the context of Taolu, the execution of the 穿掌; chuānzhǎng, spear/threading palm, is done differently based on the style).  This technique is also essentially the same as ohsotogari (大外刈) in jujutsu and judo.  At its best execution, this technique requires no use of muscle or force at all, but rather the right position of leverage in relation to the opponent, and the simple body mechanics of the movement itself.  As seen in the video, one of the most effective applications of this technique is as a counter to an opponent attempting to initiate the same exact technique, and one counters with the very same technique (I should confess that in this specific instance, this was not at all my intention, though it is a perfect example being able to counter without any effort at all).  A common flaw, or rather misinterpretation of this technique, is that practitioners tend to overextend their body and hips to initiate the trip, thus compromising their position, and risk getting countered as mentioned and demonstrated in the video, which can and has happened before.  As the principle should be with all takedowns, it is important to have a dominant position where you are in control and the opponent’s position is compromised, before initiating any takedown.

2.     盖拳; gàiquán, swinging overhead fist

The physical technique is very straightforward; the downwards swing of a straight arm with a closed fist.  The power of the technique is accentuated through the swing of the waist and hips combined with the whipping motion of the shoulder and the rest of the arm, and the focus of power is traditionally the quanxin (拳心; quánxīn, fist heart, the flat surface of the fist formed by the middle phalanxes of the fingers); for direct fighting use of the bare fist in this striking technique, the thumb should be tucked into the quanyan (拳眼; quányǎn, fist eye, the curvature formed by the index finger curling into the fist) as if holding a pen or pencil within the grip of the fingers, from the standard modern Wushu quan (拳; quán, fist) hand posture, where the thumb is placed on the first two fingers.  Better known as the 盖 (gài, literally “cover”) in 挂盖拳 (guàgàiquán, swinging overhead fists), which is one of the three primary basics of modern Wushu Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), and also a required compulsory movement in national and international optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) Taolu competitions, this technique is obviously taken from modern Wushu Nanquan.  Throughout the history and development of modern Wushu Taolu, variations of this technique include the vertical downwards swing of the arm by itself, to the more modern execution of the swing with a trajectory of 45° across the body to the waist at the opposite side.  The latter version is more commonly seen in modern Wushu Nanquan Taolu today, as well as in traditional southern Chinese martial arts styles as well, such as Hung Gar (洪家; Hóngjiā, Hong Family), Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), both which have contributed to the standardization of modern Wushu Nanquan, and Lama Pai (喇嘛派; lǎmapài, Lama School).  Given the downwards and swinging direction of the movement, this technique shares the same body mechanics as a haymaker, or even a wide boxing hook.  In fact, it is interesting to note that in modern Wushu Sanshou, this technique is also termed as 摆拳 (bǎiquán), the more well-known Chinese translation for the boxing hook term, since modern Wushu Sanshou uses virtually all the basic punches of boxing for hand techniques, including hooks.  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.  Due to the orientation of the shoulder, arm and fist in natural combination with the waist and hips, it can generate a lot of power, arguably as much as power as that of the aforementioned haymaker and wide boxing hook, as they share the same basic body mechanics, and can be used as a “long-range hook” or lateral strike, 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.  Additionally, the movement and coordination of the arms in guagaiquan can also be applied as a hip throw, as the head coach of the Wushu school I used to go to has pointed out when coaching Taolu applications in Sanshou, or as a head and arm throw, as a Sanshou instructor showing Lama Pai applications of a similar movement has demonstrated, which I can personally attest to using this specific application as a go-to technique in the clinch.  The obvious flaw of this technique is that due to its large motion, it is easy to see coming, and thus easy to defend against, block or dodge, despite being a powerful strike, as demonstrated in the video.  The obvious solution to this would be to set up the strike rather than lead with it in a physical exchange, such as with a jab, as also demonstrated in the video, jabs from different angles where the opponent would find it difficult to defend themselves from the strike, and even 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 (although this is where the technique is incorporated and would replace the counter straight punch) in kind with the opposite hand; the opponent may not necessarily see the counter coming, and thus can be surprised and caught off guard.

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, 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, 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.  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, and UMBC Wushu Club member Brian Carroll for participating! signaturemini.fw

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