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Sanshou (Chinese: ??; pinyin: sanshou; literally “free hand”) or Sanda (Chinese: ??; pinyin: sanda; literally “free fighting”) is a Chinese hand to hand combat, self-defense system, and combat sport. Not seen as a style itself, but is rather considered as just one of the two components (taolu and sanshou) of Chinese martial arts (Kung fu) training and is often taught along side with taolu training. It may simply be seen as the practice of martial applications in a realistic environment or simply free fighting. However at the same time the modern standard taolu curriculum was created by the Chinese government. They created and formalised a standard curriculum for sanshou as well. This curriculum was developed by experimenting with the Chinese military experiences in close range and hand to hand combat with reference to traditional Chinese martial arts. Chinese martial arts masters that were still in China (prior to the abolishment of traditional martial arts during the Cultural Revolution) gathered to contribute the creation of the standard curriculum. This general sanshou curriculum varied in its different forms, as the Chinese government developed a watered down version for civilians for self defense and as a sport. However in traditional wushu circles the practise of sanshou may vary and is practiced in relation to their taolu. Later the official name reverted back to Sanda. The term Sanda has a longer history and is more commonly used.
The generalized modern curriculum practised in modern wushu schools is composed of different traditional martial arts fighting styles in China, but mainly based on scientific efficiency. Sanshou is composed of Chinese martial arts applications including most aspects of combat including striking and grappling, however when sanshou/da was developed as a sport, restrictions were made for safety reasons as well as to promote it as a non violent sport. Examples of such restrictions included no blows delivered to the back of the head, spine or groin and the discontinuation of the combat when any of the fighters fall to the ground. However many schools whether traditional or modern, or that practise sanda for competing or not, practise it as an all round martial arts systems with no restrictions, only adapting their training in relation to competition rules prior to the event. Teaching and practicing techniques to restrain, maim, injure or kill an opponent or opponents. Sanda tournaments are one of the two sport wushu disciplines recognized by the International Wushu Federation.
Sanshou’s competitive history involved barehanded or lei tai fights in which no rules existed. However, even sanshou as a competitive event developed in the military as these bouts were commonly held between the soldiers to test and practice barehanded martial skills, ability and techniques. Rules were developed and the use of protective gloves etc. was adopted. It was originally used by the Kuomintang at the first modern military academy in Whampoa in the 1920s. Later it was also adopted as a method by the People’s Liberation Army of China.
One can see general sanshou as a synthesis of traditional Chinese kung fu fighting techniques into a more amorphous system and is commonly taught alongside traditional Chinese styles which Sanshou techniques, theory and training methods are derived from. The emphasis of Sanshou is on realistic fighting ability.
As an unarmed self-defense, close combat system, Sanshou includes da (punches), ti (kicks), shuai (grappling), and na (throws, locks, chokes). Sanda as a sport has a very great emphasis on throws. One of its most distinguished techniques is the “kick catch”. This is when one person kicks and the person performing the throw catches the kick and then trips the person kicking when he’s on one leg. While kickboxing styles, such as Muay Thai also allow this, the kick catch is emphasized in San Shou because of the importance it is given by the judges.
As a sport, San Shou/San Da is practiced in tournaments and is normally held alongside taolu events in wushu competition. For safety reasons, some techniques from the self-defense form such as elbow strikes, chokes, and joint locks, are not allowed during tournaments. Furthermore, when competition is held on a raised lei tai platform it is possible to defeat the opponent by moving (whether by throwing, striking, or otherwise pushing) him out of the competition area. Fighters are only allowed to clinch for a few seconds. If the clinch is not broken by the fighters, and if neither succeeds in throwing his opponent within the time limit, the referee will break the clinch.
In the US, competitions are held either in boxing rings or on the raised lei tai platform. Amateur fighters wear protective gear. “Amateur Sanshou” allows kicks, punches and throws. If the rule set is referred to as “San Da”, knees to the body are also permitted. A competition held in China, called the “King of Sanda”, is held in a ring similar to a boxing ring in design but larger in dimension. As professionals, they wear no protective gear except for gloves, cup, and mouthpeice, and are allowed to use knee strikes (including to the head) as well as kicking, punching and throwing.
Some Sanshou fighters have participated in fighting tournaments such as K-1 and Shoot boxing. They have had some degree of success, especially in Shoot boxing competitions, which is more similar to Sanshou. Due to the rules of kickboxing competition, Sanshou fighters are subjected to more limitations than usual. Also notable competitors in china’s mainstream Mixed Martial Arts competition, Art of War Fighting Championship are dominantly of wushu background.
Sanshou has been featured in many style-versus-style competitions. Muay Thai is frequently pitted against Sanshou as is Karate, Kickboxing and Taekwondo.
Although it is less common, some San Shou practitioners have also fought in the publicly viewed American Mixed Martial Arts competitions, including Cung Le, who won the Strikeforce middleweight title, after defeating Frank Shamrock. Other San Shou/San Da based fighters who have entered MMA include KJ Noons and James Fanshier.
Some well-known Chinese Sanda fighters include Yuan Yubao, Bao Li Gao, and Liu Hailong who is known as “The Conqueror of Muay Thai” as he has beaten many of the top Muay Thai fighters. Some Sanda (Sanshou) fighters who are well-known in the United States include the IKF and Strikeforce middleweight champion, Cung Le, as well as Jason Yee , Rudi Ott, and Marvin Perry. Salihov Muslim from Russia was a European Champion in 2004, a world champion in 2005 (both in 80kg category), and in 2006 Muslim beat 4 top Chinese fighters from different weight cateogries, including the Chinese champion from the 90kg category, to claim the Sanda “Wangzhongwang” (King of Kings) title.
Cung Le, probably the highest profile San Shou competitor in the USA, competed against Frank Shamrock in a mixed martial arts competition and used part of his San Shou experience to deliver a devastating kick which ended up fracturing Shamrock’s right ulna.
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