Wushu Sparring (Sanshou) Techniques #3: Taolu Applications

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By: Matthew Lee

Written February 11th, 2018

“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.

It’s been a long time since I’ve touched on the topic of Wushu applications in Sanshou.  For general readers that are new to my write-ups, you may not be interested in this.  But on the off-chance that readers have read my “Taolu Applications” segment, you know where I’m going with this.  Yes, 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.  It’s been a while since then, and I had always had this idea in the back of my mind; a large part of this required finding the time with my friend and sparring partner to get together and recording a sparring session, and after some time, I’ve finally done just that, and got the results I wanted.  This is the video of said results, and with it, 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, 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:

  1. 俯掌 fǔzhǎng, stooping palm

Also known as chengfuzhang (成俯掌; chéngfǔzhǎng, completed stooping palm), as the translation of the technique’s name suggests, the physical technique in forms work consists of a bend forward and downwards, conventionally from a pubu (仆步;pūbù, drop/crouching stance) to gongbu (弓步; gōngbù, bow/front stance) transition, where the palm of the lead side (with the “front”/straight leg of the pubu) extends out and over the same side of the straight/extended leg and foot of the pubu, and pulling back to the side of the body during the transition into gongbu.  This leads into variations of movements and postures that follow afterwards, such as pulling back to the side in a chambering position with the other hand punching forward into chongquan (冲拳; chōngquán, straight punch) when transitioning into gongbu, resulting in gongbuchongquan (弓步冲拳; gōngbùchōngquán, bow stance punch) as demonstrated in the video, or pulling back into the gou (勾; gōu, hook) hand posture of Wushu and the other hand pushing forward with the zhang (掌; zhǎng, palm) hand posture when transitioning into gongbu, resulting in gongbugoushoutuizhang (弓步勾手推掌; gōngbùgōushǒutuīzhǎng, bow stance hook hand and push palm), also known as gongbujizhang (弓步击掌; gōngbùjīzhǎng, bow stance palm strike).  This is a very basic movement in modern Wushu Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) used in many compound training (组合练习; zǔhéliànxí) basics combinations of the style, 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.  Traditionally, the application of this technique is an ankle pick, making it very close to the forms work, though this is a very unorthodox and risky technique, as it requires a lot of movement in level change, and leaves oneself open to an attack from above.  In sparring, the application of this technique can be adapted as a counter to an opponent’s low leg/thigh kick to the outside of one’s lead leg/thigh, by catching or trapping the opponent’s kick, followed by a punch with the other hand, coinciding with the martial application and fighting idea behind the first aforementioned variation of gongbuchongquan (弓步冲拳; gōngbùchōngquán, bow stance punch).  Alternatively, instead of punching, or if the punch misses, the other hand can be used to push the opponent, driving them down into a takedown, as demonstrated in the video.  Personally, I have found both counters to be effective in sparring.  This application is most effective in a standard sparring situation where fighters spar with the same side forward (ex: orthodox vs. orthodox), where the opponent’s kick would be done with their rear leg, making it easier to see the kick coming, and thus easier to counter as such, as opposed to a situation of orthodox vs. southpaw (mirror/open stance), where the opponent’s kicking leg is closer to one’s outer thigh, making it faster and thus harder to see and counter, though this can and has also been done in a situation of orthodox vs. southpaw, as seen in the video.  Additionally, these interpretations of the technique’s application are already apparent in the standard Sanda curriculum, making it a very common technique in Sanda.  This application is also found in Karate as well.  The benefit of this technique is that it is a very easy and natural movement to do, making it easy to implement.  The obvious disadvantage to this technique is that it involves dropping the lead hand from a guard, leaving the face and head open to an attack.  The best solution to this would be to use this application only AFTER acquiring a good understanding of the opponent’s rhythm and timing of their kicks, and not initially, where the opponent would be able see this response and counter later.

  1. 盤肘; pánzhǒu, coiling elbow

At first, the name of this technique may seem very strange.  In modern Wushu Changquan, the physical techniques starts with the arm extended straight out, coming horizontally across and inside the front of the torso, and then bending and retracting the arm at the elbow, as the arm comes in front of the body.  In modern Wushu Taolu, variations of this technique include ending at a 90° bend, which is very common, to full flexion as done at the basic and beginner level, as seen in the video.  Variations of the ending posture range from the other hand pulling back to the side in a chambering position, as demonstrated in the video, to an upwards block with the palm of the other hand.  Another variation of this technique is simply bringing the arm fully bent at the elbow across the torso, as in other traditional northern Long Fist forms, such as one style of Chaquan (查拳; cháquán) Taolu from the Nanjing Central Guoshu Institute (南京中央国术馆; Nánjīngzhōngyāngguóshùguǎn), and forms of Shaolinquan (少林拳; Shàolínquán, Shaolin Fist), such as the Dahongquan (大洪拳; dàhóngquán, Big Flood Fist) Taolu, making its application and namesake as a traversal “elbow” technique very obvious and straightforward.  However, this write-up will focus on the first and former execution of the technique.  Traditional applications range from a swinging hook strike with the extended arm to a follow-up traversal elbow strike with the arm bent at close range, to grabbing the opponent with the extended arm and then pulling/bending at the elbow to strike with said elbow at close range, thus giving way to the theory that this movement teaches how to move from full extension to close range striking.  Another application, as demonstrated by former Beijing Wushu Team coach Li Jinheng, is wrapping around the opponent’s neck to choke from behind, although the rear naked choke in BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) can be seen as more efficient and effective at achieving this goal, as a large motion of the arm wrapping around the front of the neck can be easily stopped by the opponent’s hands, whereas the rear naked choke technique simply snakes across and around the opponent’s neck, making it much harder to prevent.  In terms of fighting, this technique is used in the realm of grappling, wrestling, throws and takedowns (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.  This technique is a clear example of such an emphasis, where in a clinching situation, the coiling arm wraps around the back of the opponent’s neck, where it can’t be stopped, as opposed to in front of the opponent’s neck from behind where it can easily be stopped; 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, can be applied in wrestling and grappling ranges, where one pulls the opponent with the chambering side, while simultaneously stepping across the opponent’s body in the direction of the wrapping and pulling motion.  This technique and application is also a fundamental technique of Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), termed huanzhou (环肘; huánzhǒu), which can be translated as “encircling elbow”, and thus gives way to the nature of its namesake, and by extension, Wushu’s own parallel panzhou and its translation of “coiling elbow.”  This is also a parallel movement and position to that of jujutsu, judo, and BJJ.  From this position, multiple options of throws and takedowns are possible, from the classic hip throw, to trips and leg reaps, to a head and arm throw, which is a common go-to technique in the clinch in both Sanda and 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”), and I can also personally attest to using this specific application many times, as seen in the video.  The biggest flaw of this technique is in using it with a taller opponent, as it is extremely hard to wrap around a taller opponent’s neck and impose leverage on them, unless the opponent has no wrestling or grappling defense.  The obvious solution to this flaw would be to only reserve this technique for opponent’s of at least the same height.

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, 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; tánglángquán, 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!


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