Sport of the Future?
By Marian K. Castinado
"It's amazing! One competitor tried to do an ax kick, the other person blocked it, grabbed his leg, and threw him. The guy went off the platform, and the crowd roared!"
The reactions to sanshou - a relatively new name for full-contact king fu that roughly translates as "free-form fighting" - are coming in as fast and furious as the strikes, throws and grappling maneuvers that make it different from anything on the open tournament circuit. Though unfamiliar even to some Chinese-style martial artists, the amateur sport is gaining popularity in the United States and worldwide. Rooted in ancient kung fu and largely a competitor's skills against each other, and even against martial artists from other styles, proving once and for all which techniques really work.
But as excited as its proponents are by sanshou's growth, the sport seems poised for something even greater, and decisions made now may decide if sanshou can succeed where point fighting and kickboxing have failed. Will quibbling over rules, origins and organizations bog down full-contact kung fu, or can the sport's dynamics guide it to a future as an international spectator event?
To its innate advantage, sanshou is a sport with a high excitement level. Executed in three, two-minute bouts, competition takes place on a platform - often called a lei tai - that is 24 feet square and raised two feet from the floor, significant in that some rules stress throws and grappling to maneuver the opponent off the platform, along those lines, sanshou is easy for the observer to understand - a clear component in successful spectator sports such as Western boxing.
Cung Le, a sanshou competitor who cross-trains in other martial arts systems, feels that sanshou can attract crowds through its full spectrum of techniques, making it more realistic - and thus more exciting to watch. "In tae kwon do, you can't punch to the face, foot sweep, or throw your opponent," he points out. "In kickboxing, you rest on the opponent in a clinch, but if you do that in sanshou, the other guy will probably throw you to your back and score high points. In kickboxing, all you do is kick and punch. There are rules in sanshou, but you are not limited in your techniques. Even if the opponent is a better puncher, if you can get close to him and sweep his feet, you can pull the match your way. This is the sport for me, "says Le, showing the kind of enthusiasm sanshou generates.
Yet while sanshou organizers emphasize the full-contact action to appeal to the stands, their primary concern is the contestants' safety. Competitors wear protective gear on their hands, feet, head and torso. Articulated boxing gloves, in which the fingers on these gloves are separated, allowing a competitor to grab his opponent and throw him. Rather than limiting the technique, throwing an opponent when you have safety equipment on "takes an added skill to do, more than most people think," explains Mark Wong, a sanshou competitor.
Even the rules stress safety, giving more points for a kick to the chest than a kick to the head, according to Dr. Chi-Hsiu D. Weng, a full-contact kung fu arbitrator on the international level. "Currently sanshou rules allow attacks to the head, but not repeated attacks." He explains. "Since this is amateur athletic competition, the rules must be structured to reduce risk of permanent injury to the fighters."
"The amount of destruction is limited," agrees Anathony Goh, president of the United States of America Wushu-Kung Fu Federation, "in that sense you have to deliver continuous kicks and punches to get points. The fighting style is limited to a certain format. Matches aren't stopped after each point is scored; judges just keep computing scores as the fight continues.".
Also for safety reasons, certain techniques are not allowed in sanshou competition. While leg sweeps and throwing are permitted and are awarded high points, the fighters are not allowed to hit at the throat, or kick to the groin, spine or knees. Other moves including elbow strikes, open-hand strikes, biting, and head-butts have also been forbidden. However, cautious changes are occasionally made when they are proven to benefit both competition and competitor. Professor Xia Bai-hua is head of the Technical Institute in Beijing, China, and was sanshou chief referee at the 1993 Second world Wushu Championship in Malaysia. According to Professor Xia, "one (upcoming) rule change will allow knee strikes and elbow strikes, in addition to the current repertoire of punches, kick and throws. The objective of our research is to make competition more exciting and spectacular for the audience, but also to be safer for the contestants," said professor Xia. "In order to accomplish these goals, new protective equipment has to be designed that will not limit fighting technique."
Other organizers would prefer to return to sanshou's ancient origins, however, Adam Hsu, who just returned from Beijing, related that Zhang Yao-Ting, the president of the Chinese Wushu Research institute, and chairman of the Chinese Wushu Association wishes to name a chuang yuan - an older term designating "the best" with origins in national examinations in the Confucian sacred text - in a national sanshou tournaments in the various provinces. More unconventional in light of the fact that it could limit international competition. Zhang Yao-Ting expressed a desire to gradually eliminate protective gear. "He wants to take it away step by step," said Hsu.
Equally intriguing when discussing various full-contact rules is sanshou's connection to kuoshu, often seen as the Taiwanese counterpart to the Chinese based sanshou. Differing mainly in regulations, such as kuoshu's allowing competitors to strike to the same place twice, kuoshu and sanshou are examples of how popular the overall concept of full-contact kung fu has become. Though a few see a stringent dividing line between the sports, some such as Goh see less contrast. "The rules will always be slightly different," says Goh, but "the various names all mean the same thing."
Others see the distinction as primarily historical. Huang Chien-Liang, president of the united States Kuoshu Federation and Chinese American Kuoshu Federation, notes that "kuoshu has another meaning as 'national art.' In 1928, the Central Kuoshu Academy was formed, and they sponsored a full-contact tournament, but when the Communists took over China, the original Chinese government moved to Taiwan, where, in 1955, they held a full-contact tournament, calling it lei tai. At that time, they used the original rules; no protection, and no weight class - whatever number you picked up, you fought together. In 1975, Taiwan sponsored the first World Wushu Tournament, and started to have weight class division. So by 1992, Taiwan had already sponsored seven kuoshu lei tai fighting events," he says.
Meanwhile in China, "kuoshu had been oppressed during the Cultural Revolution," notes president Huang, "and martial arts was then allowed only for performance until 1979, when wushu was allowed to include self-defense, so practitioners began writing the rules for the sanshou wushu tournaments, and the Communist government held a tournament called sanshou."
Confirming the common direction of kuoshu and sanshoul toward safety, however, president Huang approves of the rules changes in full-contact kung fu. "In 1986, at the fifth world tournament in Taiwan, they had a separate weight class, but still no protection. So many people suffered a broken nose and other injuries." As a result, the international Kuoshu Federation - of which Huang is vice-president - decided to change the rules. "So since 1988, the new rules apply."
Surprisingly, the varied opinions, organizations and interests in full-contact kung fu have seemed to foster rather than hinder its growth. Progression has been strong and steady throughout the last two decades according to Anthony Goh. "In the early 1970s, full-contact kung fu was being promoted in Southern Asia. Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong were active in championship competitions." Goh comments. "Thirty-eight countries participated in the first Wushu World Championship in Beijing, China in 1991, and 53 countries participated in the 1993 championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Athletes from all the countries competed in the sanshou division. The United States also sent sanshou teams both times," he says. Should full-contact kung fu realize the kind of success the proponents are shooting for, what would be the effect on non-sport kung fu? Would interest in traditional kung fu study increase, or would the arts be cheapened to facilitate sport rules?
Professor Xia Bai-hua expresses the belief that "according to our research during the past few years, many techniques in the traditional systems are not practical. It is important not to be preoccupied with arguments of traditional versus modern techniques. It is also not a good idea to 'protect' traditional systems by tailoring the rules to exclude, for example, foreign styles. Also, it is important to sift through the traditional Chinese arts to see which techniques are usable in sanshou. It is important to experiment with and thoroughly train in the traditional techniques to determine their effectiveness."
Others stress the similarities already present between sanshou and more traditional kung fu. "for example, the t'ai chi technique 'Waving Hand Like Clouds Drifting By' is widely used in countering the opponent's kick," notes Yu Zhi-bo, the coach of the Sanshou Team of Beijing Wushu Institute, which was headed by Wu Bin. "It is a very effective way to absorb and catch the opponent's leg."
Professor Jiang Hao-Quan, a former National Sanshou Champion of China, states, however, that because sanshou's goal is "winning the match, therefore only the techniques that work well under sanshou rules and are scoring-oriented would be appropriate for athletes to choose from." And Master Tim Gibson of Valley of the Winds martial arts school in simi Valley, California, noted that some martial artists may be opposed to sanshou, feeling "that sport rules undermine the self-defense aspect of the art, because you are not allowed to use techniques that you would in real-life situation."
Master Li Wing-Kay, president of the Brazil Chinese Kuoshu Federation, a representative of South America Khoshu Federation, and an international referee for wushu and kuoshu, however - who notes that "approximately 80,000 people in Brazil practice kung fu and nearly all of them are involved in sanshou" -echoes many who see sanshou as a chance to improve realistic fighting skills. "If you only practice (kung fu) without competition, why not practice other kinds of sports such as swimming or dancing?" said Kay.
"I think you have to emphasize both traditional and sport techniques." Says Huang Chien-Liang. "Traditional Chinese martial art is supposed to provide physical fitness, self-defense, and health. If you just study martial arts for sports purposes, you have no reason to study Chinese martial arts, you should do something else." Adam Hsu believes that sanshou "should be pat of the whole - the basics, kicking, punching, forms" and observes that often the more traditional kung fu competitors "are the ones who actually spar, because they are confident."
Yet while full-contact has found a place whining even the more traditional kung fu community, and additional test will be how attractive sanshou is to people not already involved in the Chinese styles. Sanshou's greatest strength may be the chance to pit style against style, opening it up for every practitioner to test his mettle. Though no martial art is banned from competition, a few are not suitable for sanshou because they emphasize close-range fighting. "When you put on the padding, it eliminates the fighting power of close-range style" said Goh. Yet, "any style will make some kind of adjustment to comply with competition rules. Sanshou will give people a measure of how well they can fight. It is a performable competition. A lot of techniques can't be used, because if they are intended to knock someone out or to kill, they are not performable. The fighting style has to change from the traditional life-and-death defense."
Making sanshou an even tougher sell to other styles, the sport is grueling: the physical demands of continuous full-contact fighting eliminating all but the competitors in top physical condition. "Fighters need to be flexible in order to react properly," says Professor Xia. "They need to realize the proper relationship between offense and defense, and sufficient skill is required in the three major attacks: kicks, punches, and throws."
Cung Le, who won the middle-weight and open weight full contact division in the 1993 9th Chinese American Athletic Tournament of the Bay Area, has been training hard in the last year for upcoming tournaments. "Sanshou is not like point fighting. With full contact I have to be more disciplined and be consistent with my training," said Le, who studies under Master Pham Khue at the Hung Vuong Institute of Martial Arts in San Jose, California.
Tat-Mau Wong was Full-contact champion of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia in the 1970's, and is licensed promoter of full-contact kickboxing in California and promoter of full-contact events open to all martial arts. He commented that full contact "is really tough training. It's not like usual kung fu training. It's mental game. You have to know your opponent and know yourself to win."
Even some kung fu styles must adapt their way of thinking to participate in sanshou. Dr. chi-Hsiu D. Weng, who is president of the United States Shuai-Chiao Association, notes that a majority of people in his style "would look at sanshou as a more combative expression of techniques already taught in shuai-chiao, but that are not practical in tournaments. In any case, the joint locks and joint attacks of shuai-chiao are not allowed in sanshou competition. Under the current sanshou scoring system, a throw is not valued as highly as it would be in a street-fighting situation. Being thrown head-first onto hard concrete, or being stuck with a joint attack, would have a much more decisive effect in a real fight, than being struck by a single punch or kick"
Nonetheless, Mark Wong, also a shuai-chiao practitioner, sees sanshou as an opportunity for martial artists. " to test their skills." He teaches martial arts at the Chinese American International School at the San Francisco Presidio military base and at his club in Oakland, California. "it would be interesting to see people with different martial arts backgrounds sparring." Says Wong. "many people work on theory, or they only fight in a certain style, and think that their style would work against everything else. Through sanshou, kung fu practitioners can try their skills against other styles, and see how they fare in this king of competition. "Though he notes that competing isn't for everyone, for the spectator, sanshou offers the excitement of "full-scale combat. When you see someone thrown really well - it's exciting!"
Perhaps the make-or-break event in deciding whether that sanshou excitement has a larger appeal will be the third annual World Wushu Championships. Planned for August 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland, it will be the first event held outside of Asia, and the largest competition to date, according to Goh. Sixth countries and more than 1,200 competitors and officials are expected to participate. "If it is popular in this country, we can raise the standard, "says Goh. Toward that end, the organization is in the process of certifying sanshou judges, and a selecting committee will review the potential competitors for the national team.
Yet while the United States is the trying ground for the Western world, its inhibiting legal system may not allow sanshou to be seen in its full glory. Insurance companies will not cover events under the full international rules. In many states competitions must choose between throwing, or punching and kicking. "California has the most ridiculous rules, " said one observer. "You can't even say that we have sanshou rules there. WE have to use the kickboxing rules."
Even so, Goh estimates that nationwide from 700 to 1000 Americans participate in sanshou competition, with several thousand more practicing in their schools. A small beginning by some standards, but the potential is unlimited.
Whether sanshou's expansion will continue remains to be seen, but the undeniable vivacity of this relative newcomer deserves the combined efforts of the martial arts community. The opinions d Dr. Chi-Hsiu vary, yet travel their different roads to the same conclusion: The world is ripe for full-contact martial sport - just waiting for the right combination of marketing savvy and expect handling to bring its future to light.
Editor's Note: Interviews for this article were also conducted by Deborah Duncan, William Oh and Dr. Chi-Hsiu D. Weng.
Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1994 .
Written by Marian K. Castinado for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM