Mixed Martial Arts in China: Sanshou and San Da

Sanshou is not quite kung fu, and it's not quite MMA. It's a Chinese amalgamation that lies squarely in the middle, and it has a lot to offer competitive martial artists who value tradition.

When people talk about the mixed martial arts, countries like Brazil, Japan and the United States come to mind. China seems to be more closely associated with the traditional arts. The average enthusiast probably imagines remote villages, where old people do tai chi chuan in the morning and children learn their families' esoteric styles of kung fu after nightfall. Welcome to the 21st century. The mainland Chinese martial arts community, while still stubborn in its stylistic chauvinism, has followed a relatively new training format for decades. Called sanshou or san da, (“free hands" or “free strikes"), it's not bounded by one martial art. Lacking only the ground-grappling portion of vale tudo, it allows for full expression of nonlethal techniques.


(Photo by Sara Fogan)

Amateur sanshou fighters can generally kick or punch any part of their opponent's body except the knees, spine, groin and throat. They can employ any throw or takedown that forces their opponent to land first or fall off the raised lei tai platform on which they compete. Historically, sharpened stakes surrounded the platforms, requiring fighters to develop their environmental awareness. In the modern era, however, cushions have replaced the spikes. Safety is further enhanced by the prohibition of knee and elbow strikes and the use of boxing-style gloves, headgear, and often foot and shin protection.

Professional fights, usually referred to as san da, allow participants to use more techniques, including knee and elbow strikes, and don't require them to wear as much protective gear. Some spectators have described it as Thai boxing with the added bonus of throws and takedowns.

With these new rules, martial arts authorities in mainland China sought to establish an open-minded venue for MMA-style competition. If the spinning kicks of northern Shaolin kung fu work well, use them. If the swirling punches of choy li fut can KO an opponent, keep them. If the high-amplitude throws and takedown counters of shuai chiao score big, study them. The breadth of allowed techniques makes it harder for the kickboxer to dominate. An experienced fighter with incredible ability in one area stands a better chance of winning — as does a proficient fighter with a well-rounded arsenal.

American sanshou pioneer Jason Yee offers some historical insight into his style's development: “Going beyond kicking and punching sports was a big goal for sanshou's developers in China, especially because the traditional Chinese martial arts encompassed many more techniques. Primary skills from traditional styles were broken down into combat tactics: punching, kicking, grappling, throwing, pushing, joint locking, scratching, poking, gouging, etc. The main goal was to create an internationally viable sport, so its developers had to distinguish between combat sport and raw survival."

Some of the “old dragons" were less than thrilled when they noticed that traditional techniques were increasingly absent from the new form of competition. The majority of fights exhibited techniques that looked no different from Western boxing with Thai kicks, some taekwondo and a little judo. Instead of representing an amalgamation of each school's best techniques, the rules appeared to be hastening the death of real combat kung fu.

Sanshou/san da stylist Cung Le, right, and Mark Cheng. (Photo by Rick Hustead)

“Many sifu complained that they or their schools weren't represented because their lethal techniques couldn't be used, such as hung gar's eye-scratching tiger claws or chin-na's joint locks," Yee says. “China was looking for models among sports like boxing that enjoyed worldwide popularity. Developers didn't want the rest of the world to brand the new combat sport as barbaric. As a result, compromises were made to foster a sport that allowed athletes to flourish without being permanently or mortally wounded.

“The first big complaint was about the boxing gloves. The gloves eliminated many hand techniques. This was a compromise for safety's sake. A lot of effort went into figuring out the most suitable rules and equipment."

What remained was a format that emphasized punching, kicking, throwing, kneeing and pushing. That left spectators with a source of entertainment that was safe without being boring, exciting without spreading mayhem

“In 1989, when I was introduced to sanshou, I'd only seen its components separately: boxing, kickboxing, judo, jujitsu and wrestling," Yee says. “A sport that blended striking and throwing was a huge deal to most fighters at the time, including me. When I was chosen to represent the United States and fight in the first World Sanshou Championship in 1991, I had no idea what to expect. Americans and Europeans had boxing and kickboxing backgrounds. Russians brought sambo and Greco-Roman wrestling talent. Tough fighters from Brazil, Iran and many Eastern Bloc countries also entered."

Sanshou proved to be a hit in the Chinese martial arts community because it finally had a combat sport in which internal skills — timing, intuition, determination and endurance — could be used. “This truly was one of the places where martial artists from all over the world came and mixed it up — an important step in the global development of mixed martial arts," Yee says.

About the author: Dr. Mark Cheng is a traditional Chinese-medicine physician, kettlebell instructor and martial arts researcher based in West Los Angeles.

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