The Professor of Sanshou

By Gigi Oh and Gene Ching

Professor Zhu Ruiqi is the leading authority on sanshou in China. Sanshou, China's modern form of free sparring, is actually very young as an organized sport, having started in the late '70s. From 1982, Zhu was the head coach of the Beijing Sport University Sanshou Delegation, a position he held for a decade. This put him at the forefront of sanshou development where he has remained to this day. In 1993, Zhu was Chief Referee at the 7th National Athletics Games for both sanshou and taolu (forms). He remained the Chief Referee for sanshou for the next three National Athletics Games. Today, Professor Zhu is the Deputy Director of the Board of Referees for the Chinese Wushu Association. He holds an 8th duan (level) in the national 9 level ranking system for martial arts in China, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if he joined the elite ranks of 9th soon (there are only eighteen 9th duan holders alive today).

On June 13, Publisher Gigi Oh interviewed Professor Zhu at Eastern Connecticut State University during the 2008 USAWKF Nationals and 3rd New England International Chinese Martial Arts Championships organized by Malee Khow. This interview is translated from Mandarin.

GO: Tell me about your beginning in the martial arts.

ZR: I was born in 1950 in Yangjiang City in Guangdong Province. I started learning Hong Fist from local villagers when I was in middle school. The five major boxing styles in Guangdong were Hong, Liu, Cai, Li and Mo. I practiced with a local kung fu team during the evenings, but it was more fun than serious training. After graduating high school, I worked at a sheet metal factory for two years. Then, in 1972, I enrolled in the Beijing Sports College (now Beijing Sports University). Grandmaster Zhang Wenguang was the head of martial arts department. I learned many other styles from Grandmaster Zhang - changquan, chaquan, huaquan, taijiquan, xingyiquan - mostly traditional styles. At that time, there was only competition for wushu taolu. There was no sanda (sanda is an alternate name for sanshou).

The traditional forms were modified from their original style for systemized and easier teaching. This included the 24 and 48 forms of taiji, xingyi and more. After I graduated, I worked as a taolu coach and judge until 1983. In 1994, the Wushu Administrative Center separated wushu into two divisions: taolu and sanda. After that, I stopped judging taolu and focused completely on sanda.

GO: Give us an overview of the development of sanshou.

ZR: After the Gang of Four, there was a movement to "bring order out of chaos" (bo luan gan zheng). The government wanted to recognize martial arts. One decision was to allow practice and competition for two-person contact fighting such as sanda, push hands (tuishou) and two-person fighting forms (duilian). In 1979, a sanda test program was launched under the guidance of Grandmaster Zhang. He began with 79 students from the Beijing Sports College. I was an assistant instructor at that time. There was a period when I was coaching and judging taolu competitions by day while devoting my after hours to researching and compiling sanshou rules and judging methods.

Taolu is a choreographed set of connected movements. It emphasizes the basics (jibengong). The footwork - bow stance, horse stance, empty stance, resting stance - must be crisp and clean. Sanshou are combat movements for two people for attack and defense. There are other types of martial competitions like tuishou, short weapons (duanbing) and long weapons (changbing).

In 1982, the first National Wushu Sparring Invitation Exhibition Tournament was staged in Beijing. The success of this event greatly stimulated the development of sanshou as a sport. From 1982 to 1988, exhibition sanshou tournaments were held annually in different locations in China. In 1988, the first raised platform (leitai) was introduced at a competition in Lanzhou. After collating all the experiences from these exhibition tournaments, the 1st National Wushu Sanshou Open Challenge was held in Yichun City, Jiangxi. This was the first official championship. (Note: the main distinction between "exhibition" and "championship" here was that exhibitions were open while championships were formal with only professional athletes competing).

Internationally, sanda was an exhibition event at the 1st World Wushu Championship (WWC) in Beijing 1991. At the 2nd WWC in Malaysia in 1993, sanshou became an official event. But the female divisions took a little longer. That was 2003 during the 7th WWC. It was also official at the 2nd Sanshou World Cup soon after.

Now there are many different sanshou championships annually: 1. Team championships, held in the early half of the year, 2. Individual championships held in the latter half of the year, 3. Individual male and female championships, 4. Youth championships, 5. Domestic commercial games such as Sandawang (King of Sanda - a televised tournament), and 6. International challenges such as sanshou vs. muay thai, China vs. Russia, America, Japan, and so on.

GO: Since wushu did not get into the Olympics, do you think this will effect the future development of sanshou and taolu?

ZR: I think there will be a large change in the environment of sports, not only among wushu taolu and sanda. After this year's Olympic and the next year's 11th National Athlete Games, the General Administration of Sport of China (GAS) will make certain changes. During this year's meeting of the National People's Congress of PRC (Zhongguo Renda), there was no mention by GAS. I feel it is certain that the emphasis of competitive wushu will switch health wushu and public or amateur wushu. I also think wushu will go public - a wushu club system - and wushu commercialization might happen too. The government won't continuously support the entire cost to keep professional teams.

GO: Do professional sport clubs exist in China?

ZR: I don't think there is a 100% privately-owned "sports club" in China yet. Soccer is trying to form private clubs. A large enterprise financially supports a soccer team, but the technical support will have to come from the Soccer Union (zhuxie), which remains under the control of the government. China is starting to research the commercial marketing of certain sports.

GO: How is the commercial appeal of wushu in China? For my own experience at last year's 9th WWC, there were hardly any locals in the audience.

ZR: Competitive wushu faces this problem. It's about choosing the venue. If the event is always held in the same city, the people of that city get bored of watching it. If the government funds it, the venue selection won't be determined by the audience attendance. The organizing committee is not under pressure of losing money. They often approach it with a "doing the job" kind of attitude and the event is staged without any market research.

There's also the lack of market. A championship might not meet the audience appetite. There were two commercial events held in Chongqing, the International Wushu Sandawang (guoji wushu sandawang). They sold a lot of advertising and it was a full house. But if that same event was held more frequently in Chongqing, the audience might die down. The common folk would complain that the tickets were too expensive and everything looks the same. So we need to add more variety, such as the recent rise of Mixed Martial Arts in America. The development of our sports industry and commercialization are very important and there's a lot to study.

GO: So what do you think of MMA in China?

ZR: I think transferring the techniques from sanshou fighters to MMA is not the problem. Chinese fighters are already competing in Thai boxing, kick boxing and K1 competitions. K1 uses strikes and kicks mostly, but no throws. Sanshou uses kicks, strikes and throws, which are the first three techniques of Chinese grappling (shuai jiao) without the 4th technique, qinna (joint locks qin). MMA uses kicks and strikes when standing. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is equivalent to qinna on the ground. The results of our Muay Thai contest prove that our kicks are not inferior to Muay Thai. So I think the transfer will not be a problem. A successful game is not determined by the type of fights; rather it is determined by its economy and efficiency. This is established by the vision of upper management, its direction and ability. If the powers that be have the guts not to be afraid of doing wrong, if they have the mentality that this is the last resource it has going for it, it will succeed.

MMA still lacks general acceptance in China. MMA uses thinner gloves and more aggressive techniques and rules, which results in larger impact and injuries. Most Chinese audiences aren't too fond of blood sports. Chinese medical insurance is not so good either, so fighters are afraid of getting hurt. The Chinese purses are not big enough to attract more fighters. Therefore, both the management and general public are not backing MMA 100%. From 1979 to 1988 was the sanshou testing period. From 1989 to 2008 was the development period. After almost 30 years, commercial sanshou is still not completely developed.

General audiences like two kind of games. One is "beautiful" such as beach volleyball - players with healthy body, beautiful skin and so on. All these games are easy on the eyes. The other one is "exciting" - watching people get hurt and getting hurt yourself are very different. People won't mind to watch other people get hurt, but won't necessary join the sport. The reward just isn't high enough. But MMA can offer the excitement that any audience likes. A high level MMA game will still have the market in China, but it will be like a small group playing and a large group watching. I think MMA will need some time to get accepted. Its health benefit still needs to be proven.

GO: What is the future of sanshou?

ZR: I see three elements. First, competitive sanshou should be continuously promoted through championships, world games, and so on. Second, commercial sanshou need market research. We need to listen to the desires of the audience. Third, sanda should be developed for health. Health sanda (jiankang sanda) uses sanda as a form of exercise to benefit health. Yesterday, I held a seminar where I taught students to use the sanda skills. "Touch and stop" trains their reactions, improves their energy and helps them get more physically fit and healthy. These kinds of exercises are perfect for public amateur sanda (dazong sanda). We shall go to the middle schools and colleges to promote sanda exercises. Just like in gymnastics, there are group gymnastics and competitive gymnastics. The former is the exercises to benefit the general health. Health sanda has been developed for a long time but the progress is not ideal. Some of the leaders and parents are worried that children get injured or get into a habit of fighting. Especially in China with our "one child" policy, most parents are overprotective of their child. Also the instructors have not done a good job to promote this. Currently, my graduate students are working on the subject of how to promote health sanda. After the 2008 Olympics, we need a clearer goal and a solid scale to measure the progress of the health sanshou. Since the competitive sanshou awards the athletes with the medals, the leaders are using medal counts to measure the achievements of their jurisdiction. Politics is tied to the gold medals. So the leaders are inclined to put more attention on the competitive sanshou and neglect the health sanshou. There are 4 to 5 leaders in WAC. If each one of them would take charge of one area such as competitive, health, public, commercial and marketing, and then combined their efforts, the wushu in a whole would be better. So, I think the goals, the missions and the systems need to be clearly defined.

The History of Sanshou

  • 1978: Sanshou investigation and research group established to compile a Sanshou Development Report.
  • 1979: September: 4th National Games: First sanshou public exhibition.
  • 1981: May: National Wushu Observation Exchange Demonstration in Liaoning Province: Sanshou exhibition match with athletes from Beijing and Wuhan Physical Education Institute.
  • 1982: November: The National Sanshou Competition Rules seminar was held in Beijing. First draft of National Wushu Sanshou Rules issued, establishing 9 weight divisions. National Wushu Sparring Invitation Exhibition Tournament in Beijing.
  • 1988: September: The leitai was introduced for sanshou.
  • 1989: October: 1st National Wushu Sanshou Open Challenge held in Yichun City, Jiangxi. This is the first official Sanshou championship
  • 1990: Wushu Sanshou Competition Rules and Regulations published. China Sports Administration published Standards of Wushu Sanshou Athletes Techniques Grades, establishing 4 grades: Martial Hero (wuyin), 1st Level Warrior, 2nd Level Warrior and 3rd Level Warrior. October: Wushu was an official event on the 11th Asian Games.
  • 1991: October: 1st World Wushu Championships (WWC) held in Beijing. Sanshou was an exhibition event
  • 1992: 4th National College Sports Game held in Wuhan. Wushu was an official event. November: 3rd Asian Wushu Championship held in Korea. Sanshou was an exhibition event.
  • 1993: May: 1st East Asia Sports Games was held in Shanghai. Wushu was an official event. August: 7th National Athletic Games held in Chengdu. Wushu competition included taolu (male, female) and sanshou (male) competitions. November: 2nd WWC was held in Malaysia. Sanshou was an official event.
  • 1994: May: Wushu Administrative Center established under the General Administration of Sports. August: Chinese Wushu Sanshou Leitai Championship held in Guangzhou. First Martial Champion Chen Cao crowned.
  • 1998: December: 13th Asian Games held in Bangkok. Wushu was an official event.
  • 1999: June: National Wushu Championship. Protective gear standardized to mouth guard, groin protector and gloves.
  • 2000: March: Sandawang launched in Beijing
  • 2002: July: 1st Sanshou World Cup held in Shanghai. August: Sanshou versus Muay Thai professional match held in Bangkok. China wins 3:2.
  • 2003: November: 7th WWC held in Macau. Women's sanshou formally introduced.
  • 2004: November: 2nd World Sanshou Cup held in Guangzhou, China, Women's sanshou officially added.
  • 2006: September: 3rd World Sanshou Cup held in Xian, China
  • 2008: September: 4th World Sanshou Cup held in Harbin, China

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May June 2009

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Written by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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