Sanda: When Kung Fu created a solution to its problems - then threw it away
This article was generously contributed by Mason Zhong of the Chinese Martial Arts Reformation Society.
Many modern martial arts practitioners or combat sports pundits have critiqued that Sanda / Sanshou (Chinese Kickboxing), a modernized combat sport form of Chinese Kung Fu practiced by the likes of UFC Women's Strawweight Champion Zhang Weili, or Sanshou Kung Fu & MMA Legend Cung Le, as just… Muay Thai kickboxing with Judo throws and western wrestling takedowns.
One such YouTuber in Ramsey Dewey calls Zhang Weili a bit of a "pretender" in that while she may practice Tai Chi, Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling), or Sanda - when she fights, she just uses Muay Thai.
Many people tend to believe this narrative - that Sanda ("Free Fighting" in Chinese) is simply a mashup of techniques 'stolen' from non-Chinese martial arts, and that Sanda isn’t in fact, Chinese Kung Fu at all.
Which begs the question, is Sanda actually a modern culmination of Chinese Martial Arts, or not? And even if Sanda truly came from Chinese Kung Fu - why does no one seem to know or believe this?
It turns out, that somewhere along the timeline of the development of Sanda (Chinese Kickboxing), even Chinese Kung Fu / Martial Arts practitioners stopped believing that it was Kung Fu themselves.
"Ultimately, the biggest obstacle preventing Sanda from solving CMA's [Chinese Martial Arts] problems is CMA practitioners themselves: if even we don't own it as Chinese Martial Arts, why should anyone else?"
- In the 1980s, China modernized Chinese Martial Arts (CMA) to create Sanda (translation: "free fighting").
- CMA practitioners have long dismissed Sanda as not being CMA.
- Almost every Sanda technique can be found in CMA.
- While Sanda has foreign influence, saying Sanda isn't CMA is like saying Sambo isn't Russian.
- More work needs to be done to educate ignorant CMA practitioners.
So... what is Sanda?
For a long time, the Chinese government banned the combative practice of CMA among the civilian population, instead only allowing the practice of Wushu Taolu (武术套路), i.e. forms.
While some degree of combative training was maintained in the military and police, it was not until 1979 that the General Administration of Sport of China (国家体育总局) initiated a project to greatly expand and further develop such practices into a modern combat sport for the civilian populace.
After much research and experimentation, this project ultimately culminated in the creation of Sanshou (散手), later renamed Sanda (散打): a full-contact combat sport primarily characterized by punches, kicks, and throws.
After learning Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) (摔跤) as a child, Chinese National Sanda Team head coach Zhang Genxue (张根学) received his martial arts training in the military while Sanda was still in its early experimental stages.
Given its adoption of the same modern, scientific training methods used by martial arts such as Boxing and Judo, Sanda really should have solved the issues of unscientific mysticism and dogma plaguing CMA by now.
Yet, 40 years on, this clearly isn't the case, otherwise, no one would know who Xu Xiaodong (徐晓冬) was.
Sanda evolved CMA by adopting modern, scientific training methods.
As it turns out, Sanda has struggled to present a CMA identity to the world since its very inception, including towards CMA practitioners themselves.
From the outset of its early development in the 1980s, Sanda was dismissed by CMA practitioners as being "merely kickboxing" (“拳击加脚” - literally boxing plus feet, i.e. kicks).
As UMBC Wushu Club Coach and Jiayoo Wushu writer Matthew Lee pointed out, such a notion is still prevalent throughout the world 40 years on, with labels such as ‘a copy of Muay Thai’ and ‘Muay Thai mixed with Judo’ being commonly used.
Even the fact that Zhang Kaiyin (张开印) wore Muay Thai shorts when he defeated John Wayne-Parr has been brought up as ‘proof’ that Sanda is a ‘copy of Muay Thai’. Read the rest of the comment section at your own peril.
In particular, this notion continues to persist in China and the CMA community.
This Google Search result says it all. The translation is as follows:
- “Does Chinese Martial Arts still have combative ability? How is it only Sanda and boxing [that can fight] now?”
- “What you see right now isn’t even real CMA at all. Firstly, let’s talk about the problem you mentioned in Sanda, Boxing, etc: actually these combat sports/styles are all the same. Sanda is just boxing plus kicks plus…”
After Xu Xiaodong, former Beijing Sanda champion and later Sanda coach, defeated self-proclaimed Taiji master Lei Lei (雷雷), mainstream Chinese media outlets accused him of "using foreign forces to invade China”.
As an amateur Sanda athlete, Xu Xiaodong trained under Mei Huizhi (梅惠志), a Shuai Jiao coach and early Sanda pioneer often credited as being the “father of Sanda”.
Ironically, recent years have seen some CMA practitioners conveniently (read: shamelessly) do a complete volte-face in light of the Xu Xiaodong-related incidents, bringing up Sanda to ‘defend’ traditional CMA. As one netizen lamented:
“Tsk tsk, back in the day when Sanda was dismissed as not being CMA, that's not what certain people [i.e. traditionalists] said. How is it that now Sanda has become an excuse to cover up some CMA’s lack of combat effectiveness?”
The Hong Kong Sanda team's head coach calls Sanda a compilation of boxing, Taekwondo, and Judo (in Mandarin).
Shaolin Kung Fu Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit labels Sanda as "actually Kick-Boxing" (as opposed to CMA), calling it "a joke" and merely "an exchange of blows [where] the one who can take much punishment will win."
Finally, as a piece of anecdotal evidence, I personally know Chinese people, including a martial artist (a CMA practitioner in fact), who believed Sanda (and even Shuai Jiao believe it or not) was "Western".
Yeah, but Sanda IS just kickboxing, right?
“What else do we call kicking and striking?”
Dismissing Sanda as ‘merely kickboxing’ and therefore not CMA is both ignorant and counterproductive. As New York Sanda Coach David Ross expounded:
"The basic offensive movements of Chinese martial arts are Ti [踢] and Da [打]; kicks, sweeps, knees, punches, palms, elbows and forearms. Too many minds have been clouded with myths and legends, and with superstition. These basics are in fact “kickboxing.” What else do we call kicking and striking? Attempting to say Chinese Martial Arts is not “just kickboxing” and using the term in the pejorative sense has blinded the basic student to the reality of combat and is one of the reasons why Chinese martial arts is no longer functional for so many."
What most CMA practitioners, including so-called ‘masters’, don't even realize is that almost every single technique in Sanda can be found in various CMA styles. Let’s have a look at some examples.
Furthermore, throat punches, eye pokes, and countless other straight strikes to the head/neck can easily be adapted into jabs and crosses.
Many CMA techniques can be adapted for Sanda via the slightest of adjustments.
Hooks (including check hooks), overhands, uppercuts, spinning back fists, and superman punches are the bread and butter of Cai Li Fo (Choy Li Fut) (蔡李佛).
As permitted by Sanda rules, various parts of the fist are used as the striking surface. This is different from boxing, where only the knuckles may be used.
Hong Jia (Hung Gar) (洪家) has shovel hooks to the ribs, while body hooks with a more horizontal trajectory can be easily adapted from Pi Gua's (劈掛) open hand strikes.
Amateur Sanda bouts are fought on a raised platform known as a Lei Tai, continuing a tradition that dates back to at least the Song Dynasty.
Head movement isn't a concept alien to CMA either: this Hung Gar technique involves slipping a jab/cross and simultaneously counter-punching with a straight to the body. Xiao Hong Quan also has a similar technique. Bobbing and weaving is found in Da Hong Quan, while many northern styles use level changes that are usually used to set up takedowns but can obviously also be used to evade punches. Furthermore, pulling/swaying/fading is a hallmark of drunken styles.
Finally, Sanda’s signature kick catch throws are found in Northern Praying Mantis and Hung Gar.
Sanda’s kick catch throws (接腿摔) epitomize the style’s integration of striking and stand-up grappling.
I won't even bother with examples for straight punches to the body, parrying, checking, front kicks, sidekicks, oblique kicks, axe kicks, or foot sweeps.
In fact, the only Sanda technique I can think of that cannot be found in CMA is covering/shelling up using the gloves.
Found in countless CMA styles, the side kick (侧踹腿) is one of Sanda’s most characteristic techniques.
Sanda legend Liu Hailong (柳海龙) was known as ‘Axe Kick Liu’ (柳腿劈挂).
Of course, there is still room for improving Sanda’s ability to represent CMA, e.g. by allowing elbows and adopting open-fingered gloves, in addition to a cosmetic repackaging.
However, given that the discussion of educating CMA practitioners about ‘aliveness’ and scientific training methods has already been repeated countless times, perhaps more work also needs to be done to convince them that virtually all of the techniques already used in Sanda are in fact CMA techniques.
So… Sanda is 100% Chinese then?
It is Sanda’s adoption of modern, scientific training methods that sets it apart from Traditional CMA.
Not quite. Sanda has also been significantly influenced by foreign martial arts: its modern training and instructional methods; competition format that allows for efficient pressure-testing; adoption of modern sports science and medicine; and use of protective gear and modern training equipment were all influenced by foreign sources such as Boxing and Muay Thai.
Despite his prior experience as a military combatives instructor and initial successes as a provincial Sanda coach, current Chinese National Team head coach Zhang Genxue still undertook five years of full-time study at the Xi’an Physical Education University in order to continue improving his knowledge and skills as a coach.
Stylistically, such influences also led to the convergent evolution of fighting methods, with the end result being something that more or less resembles a modern kickboxing-derivative. It is no surprise then that the early developers of Sanda partially referenced martial arts such as Boxing and Muay Thai for guidance in selecting certain techniques and directing the development of some of their own fighting methods and tactics.
However, coming from numerous CMA backgrounds themselves, these developers also knew that the vast majority of the techniques they ended up adopting already existed in various CMA styles (as illustrated previously), hence why they even utilized traditional CMA terminology in naming many of these techniques in their training manuals for a period of time.
For example, straights, hooks, and uppercuts were respectively named Chōngquán (冲拳), Guànquán (贯拳), and Chāoquán (抄拳) in line with Long Fist (长拳) terminology; meanwhile, in a 1989 training tape, head coach of the Liaoning Provincial Armed Police Corps and Ministry of Public Security (Armed Police headquarters) Sanda teams, Tong Qinghui (佟庆辉), explained how the round kick is known as Diǎn (点) in Chuojiao, but is also known by a variety of other names in other CMA styles; even Hǔwěitǔi (虎尾腿), i.e. 'Tiger Tail Kick', made its way into some manuals for naming the spinning back kick.
China's first Sanda superstar and current professor and head coach at Beijing Sports University, Chen Chao (陈超), continued to use traditional CMA terminology when commentating for the World of Sanda (散打天下) professional tournament.
Additionally, it is known that some teams directly took their kickboxing techniques from indigenous CMA disciplines, rather than foreign martial arts such as Boxing or Muay Thai.
For example, the Guangdong Sanda Team's style was based on Choy Li Fut: a style that contains many kickboxing techniques.
The Guangdong Sanda Team was founded by Choy Li Fut practitioner Zeng Qinghuang (曾庆煌).
Furthermore, even the very concept of referencing other martial arts is not a new concept in CMA: Boxing and Judo were already being introduced to the CMA community during the Republican era; and even before China was a unified nation-state, the Hans, Manchus, Mongols, and other ethnicities often exchanged martial arts ideas with each other.
Thus, to say Sanda is not CMA due to the guidance provided by foreign martial arts would be the equivalent of saying Muay Thai is not Thai and Savate is not French because they were both influenced by English boxing, or Sambo is not Russian and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not Brazilian because they were both influenced by Japanese Judo.
As a friend of mine lamented: “Sanda is truly a mere tool/pawn [of Traditional CMA]. When they have a use for it, they drag it back. At all other times, they kick it straight out.” (“散打真的是[传武的]工具人：用的时候被拉回来，不用的时候他们一脚踢出去。”)
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle preventing Sanda from solving CMA's problems is CMA practitioners themselves: if even we don't own it as CMA, why should anyone else?
- Mason Zhong of the Chinese Martial Arts Reformation Society on behalf of Dynasty MMA