Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques #2: Taolu Applications

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By: Matthew Lee

Written March 13th, 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 specific techniques from the Changquan (Long Fist) style.

Having recently come off of my previous write-up, “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Applications: Taolu Applications”, I’ve come back with more.  For those of you that are new to my write-ups, you may not be interested in this.  But for those of you who have been reading my “Taolu Applications” segment, you know where I’m going with this.  Yup, I’m talking about applying Wushu techniques and movements in sparring for Sanshou.  In this context, I am specifically talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, although 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 to this day.  And as I’ve stated at the beginning of this write-up, just after my previous write-up “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Applications: Taolu Applications”, I’ve come back with capturing some more Wushu applications during sparring on camera, and am very pleased with my results.  This is the video of said results, but unlike the previous write-up, “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Applications: Taolu Applications”, which as the name suggests, was more about general applications and techniques that not only overlapped from multiple Wushu styles, but were broadly applied in multiple styles of martial arts and fighting, and also a part of the standard Sanda curriculum of techniques, this edition is more of a direct continuation of my first edition of “Taolu Applications”, “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”, which is more about specific Wushu techniques that are more unique and not as well-known, but are still valid applications and techniques that can and have been used in Sanshou 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, 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 techniques, both of which are found in modern Wushu and traditional northern Chinese martial arts styles:

3.     下截; xiàjié, downwards intercept

The physical technique for this one consists of an extension of the arm out via the straightening of the elbow joint, with the outer elbow facing upwards and outwards, 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 comes purely from the explosive or accelerated extension of the arm through the elbow.  This specific technique comes from the Wushu style of Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), and is in fact one of many fanquan (翻拳; fānquán, “turning”/“flipping” punch) techniques within Fanziquan that gives the style’s name its meaning, though it is not to be confused with the first technique from the first edition of “Taolu Applications”, “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications”, as there are many “fan” (翻; fān, turn/flip) techniques in Fanziquan that are delivered at multiple levels/directions, with this specific technique being one of them.  To be specific, this particular technique is labeled 下截 in the new Fanziquan duanwei (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system) system released by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association), which after some deliberation, I decided to go with as the name of this technique for this write-up.  Variations of this technique in Fanziquan, are to extend the arm through the elbow with the focus of power on the quanlun (拳轮; quánlún, fist wheel, the curvature formed by the pinky finger curling into the fist), either vertically upwards from below or on a more horizontal plane, or to punch straight out with the from punching out with the quanmian (拳面; quánmiàn, fist face, the flat surface of the fist formed by the bottom phalanxes of the fingers just under the knuckles) as with most standard Wushu straight punches.  It is thus similar to the qinglongchushui (青龙出水; Qīnglóngchūshuǐ, Green Dragon Emerges From the Water) movement from traditional Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), the traditional application of which is a strike to the bladder or groin (although this is prohibited in sparring, render this specific application moot), and the latter variation of the technique is also similar to from certain fist techniques from Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), as is the same case with the first fanquan technique from the first edition of “Taolu Applications”, “Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques: Taolu Applications.”  In sparring, this technique can essentially be adapted from the first variation into a backfist strike with the quanlun, with the trajectory of the movement being changed to travel more diagonally or horizontally, which is arguably stronger with a naturally stronger striking surface, and more powerful than the backfist strike where the striking surface is the quanbei (拳背; quánbēi, the back of the fist/hand).  The benefit of this technique is that it is a very easy and natural movement of the arm, using only the extension of the arm through the elbow.  The obvious disadvantage to this technique is that because it relies almost entirely on only the movement of the arm, it lacks the power of other more conventional fist strikes, such as a boxing uppercut, or even a spinning backfist (although given the context of its traditional and original application, it did not require much power, and thus was not designed to have much power).  However, this technique can be adapted to hit other smaller, more vulnerable parts of the body, such as the chin or face.  Although this is not a common technique in Sanda, as established, if this technique is known, it can be useful in certain situations.  One of the most effective applications of this technique is in a situation of orthodox vs. southpaw, where both sides’ lead hands would be hand fighting, or frequently make contact, where the technique can be applied by clearing away the opponent’s lead hand and quickly following up with the technique.  Alternatively, in a more standard sparring situation where fighters spar with the same side forward (ex: orthodox vs. orthodox), one can step across the inside of the opponent’s body at a 45° angle, allowing them to use the technique with their rear side; in both cases, the opponent may not necessarily see the strike coming, and thus can be surprised and caught off guard.

4.     勾手勾踢 gōushǒugōutī, hook hand and hook kick

Not to be confused with the boxing hook or uppercut, which are both alternatively termed 勾拳 (gōuquán) in Chinese, or the hook kick from Taekwondo or Karate, this technique consists of a simultaneous swing downwards with the gou (勾; gōu, hook) hand posture of Wushu and the scooping upwards from the ground with the foot of the same side dorsiflexed, hence the name of the technique.  Variations of this movement in modern Wushu Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) include having the hand of the opposite side assuming the zhang (掌; zhǎng, palm) hand posture idly flashing upwards, to also assuming the gou hand posture and simultaneously swinging down with both hands.  The former variation is more commonly seen in modern Wushu Changquan Taolu, as well as in other traditional northern Long Fist forms, such as the famous Lianbuquan (练步拳; liànbùquán, Training Stance Fist) Taolu from the Nanjing Central Guoshu Institute (南京中央国术馆; Nánjīngzhōngyāngguóshùguǎn).  The general movement is also present in many other traditional Chinese martial arts styles as well, such as Tien Shan Pai (天山派; Tiānshānpài, Celestial Mountain School), Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; Praying Mantis Fist) and Lama Pai (喇嘛派; lǎmapài, Lama School).  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 technique is a clear example of this, where the swing downwards with the gou hand posture becomes a wrapping of the front of the opponent’s body down to the ground, combined with the upwards scoop of the foot sweeping the opponent’s standing leg, thereby becoming a takedown.  In the standard Sanda curriculum, the hook kick is known as 勾踢摔 (gōutīshuāi, hook kick throw).  Traditionally, the application of this technique is initiated from a standing position, which can and has been done, although this is not a high percentage technique and can be easily be resisted, unless the opponent is not rooted in their stance.  As demonstrated in the video, one of, if not the most effective applications of this technique is off of a kick catch of an opponent’s heel kick or push kick, stepping behind the opponent’s body while holding the opponent’s kicking foot across one’s own body with the hand opposite to the opponent’s kicking side, and simultaneously wrapping away the opponent’s body with the hand closest to the opponent while sweeping out the opponent’s standing leg from behind.  Alternatively, this technique can also be set up from catching a round kick, where the free hand wraps the opponent’s head down and simultaneously sweeping the opponent’s standing leg from the front, although this requires adjusting the position of the scooping foot, as the scoop is more powerful sweeping the opponent’s standing leg from behind the ankle/Achilles tendon/calf, as with the previous interpretation of the application, as opposed to sweeping the opponent’s standing leg from in front of the shin, with this interpretation.  Additionally, these interpretations of the technique’s application are already apparent in the standard Sanda curriculum, making it a very common technique in Sanda.  In fact, this technique is parallel to leg sweeps and takedowns in Muay Thai.  The wide use of this technique should be a testament to its effectiveness and efficiency.

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, Tanglangquan, 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!


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