Shou Bo: A Hybrid of San Da and Shuai Chia

Shou Bo

“Shou bo is like shuai chiao, but you’re allowed to hit people,” explained Dai Guobing, dean of the Wushu Institute at Shanghai University of Sport. He said a shou bo master named Yuan Zumou would give a special seminar that weekend and, because I was a wrestling major, he wanted me to attend.

Later, I asked a professor about shou bo, and he said, “It’s like san da, but you’re wearing a jacket.”Shou bo literally means “hand fight.” The definition, combined with the two descriptions, evoked images of the hockey brawls I knew so well. Further investigation revealed that in shou bo, you’re not allowed to pull the jacket over the guy’s head and hit him with your knee, but it still sounded like a great martial art.

I found out that Yuan graduated from the Wushu Institute in 1963. For the past few years, he’s lived in France, where he founded the French Shou Bo Association as a way to popularize shuai chiao abroad. In shuai chiao, wrestlers wear a heavy jacket with a belt. Practitioners can hold the jacket or the belt to throw the opponent. But because shuai chiao is wrestling, they’re also permitted to grip the body and arms, as well as attack the legs. One thing that makes shuai chiao different from judo and wrestling is the lack of ground fighting, which means no submissions or pins.

Shuai chiao is having trouble finding an audience in the West because many people find it too limiting in comparison to wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in which matches continue on the ground. Even among Chinese martial artists, shuai chiao is fading in popularity. Zhengtong, my wrestling teammate at SUS, summed up the prevailing sentiment when he told me, “I hate shuai chiao. Greco-Roman is so much more complete, dynamic and exciting.”

Chinese officials hope that by modifying the rules, calling it shou bo and allowing kicks and punches, shuai chiao will become more popular. If it does, it will provide an alternative for people who want to do more than throw but who don’t necessarily want to fight on the ground.

Critics claim that shou bo is not a traditional martial art because the rules and syllabus are recent, having been devised by Yuan. My counterargument: We know that in ancient times, Chinese wrestlers could kick and punch — and possibly ground-fight. We don’t know, however, the details of what they did or the rules under which they fought. Chinese wrestling went through numerous permutations and was known by many names over the centuries, including jiao di, jiao li, shan pu and kuai jiao.

There are records dating back to the Han dynasty of a style of unarmed, no-holds-barred fighting called shou bo, which was similar to modern shou bo. While modern shou bo might not be identical to that art from the third century, some system that was composed of kicking, punching and throwing did exist.

Critics also posit that shou bo, along with san da, are synthetic arts whose existence in ancient times cannot be verified. Meanwhile, proponents counter that although the rules are new, the techniques are traditional. I tend to stand with the proponents. The throwing techniques of san da are largely derived from shuai chiao. And the throwing techniques in shou bo can be traced to both san da and shuai chiao. Many of them also can be seen in traditional kung fu forms. In fact, one of the more respected organizations in Beijing is the Kung Fu Shuai Chiao Club, so called because its members recognize the connection between old kung fu forms and shuai chiao throws.

Yuan remained at SUS for three days. The first day, he gave a lecture for wushu majors and wrestlers. In shou bo, he explained, the goal is nonviolence and non-force. “Look for the elegance,” he said. That pretty much left me out.

The second day, I attended the workshop he gave for wushu, taolu and tai chi majors. The san da majors should have been there, but the ones I spoke with said they didn’t like shou bo because of the jacket — wearing it restricted their movement. They also said they disliked having people grab their jacket and take them down. One more gripe they had with shou bo was that while it allows kicks and punches, it isn’t really full contact.

After Yuan went over the rules, shou bo sounded more like a Chinese version of savate that focuses on technical, well-placed kicks rather than a system for hammering your opponent’s legs until he collapses. The rules prohibit shin kicks, knee strikes and punches to the face, he explained. The rule that completely shut me out was no hitting while holding.

When I first heard that there’s a Chinese art called shou bo in which people wear wrestling jackets, I kept thinking, When the bell rings, I’m going to grab the jacket, wrap it around my opponent’s head and punch him in the face until the round ends. Sadly, Yuan’s statement took away what I regarded as my best weapon.

Watching the wushu, taolu and tai chi students practice shou bo, it was apparent that they knew how to kick well, so that aspect of the sport worked for them. But they had no concept of wrestling or throwing. And of course, they had never been punched. The addition of those skills gave them something new to learn and helped make shou bo what it claims to be: a more exciting version of shuai chiao that can be practiced by all sorts of people, even non-fighters. From that perspective, it’s a success.

The next day, Yuan taught shou bo to the wrestling team. The throws were easy for everyone because they had grown up grappling. Shou bo, like shuai chiao, prizes finesse-based wrestling techniques in which a clever grab on the jacket might result in a throw. Yuan demonstrated how we could grab the jacket, set up the opponent, unbalance him and then throw.

“They have to wait for an opportunity to do a setup,” the skeptical Zhengtong said to me. “But in Greco, we create an opportunity, drive in and take the opponent down.”

He unknowingly described the primary difference I’ve noticed between the wrestling mentality and the mentality one encounters in judo, shuai chiao and other arts. Because Greco-Roman wrestlers are so strong, they can force an opening or create an opportunity. That, coupled with the culture of wrestling, makes them more aggressive.

Judo is often called the “gentle way.” Western wrestling is more like the “aggressive, powerful way.” My teammates at the seminar were the epitome of that mentality. Some said they liked shou bo for cultural reasons and because they normally didn’t get to do any martial arts apart from wrestling, but they weren’t prepared to adopt the jacket-dependent or finesse-based methods. Instead, time and again during training, they went for an upper-body lock and a throw, just like they would in Greco-Roman wrestling.

The striking portion of the clinic was new for most of the wrestlers — but not Zhengtong, who has a long history of street fighting. However, he lost interest in shou bo when he was told that he couldn’t punch his opponents in the face.

Yuan proceeded to show some of the chin-na locks that are in shou bo. At that point, Zhengtong whispered, “That doesn’t work. Chinese martial arts don’t work at all except san da and shuai chiao.”I tried to be more open-minded than my friend. Although in the end, I determined that shou bo wasn’t for me, I still regard it as an excellent art, one that I hope becomes popular around the world.

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