Full-Contact Kung Fu
Sport of the Future?

By Marian K. Castinado

Sissor Kick"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?

Inherent Advantages
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 f