Sanda (Chinese: 散打) aka Sanshou (Chinese: 散手) or Chinese boxing is a Chinese full-contact combat sport. Developed by the Chinese military it is based upon various martial arts. These include traditional Chinese martial arts (Kung Fu, Shuai Jiao, Chin Na) and foreign combat fighting techniques (Judo and Sambo). It combines full-contact kickboxing, with close-range combat, wrestling, takedowns, throws and submissions.
Sanda is a martial art that employs all manner of striking as well as grappling, throws, locks and trips.
Table of Contents
Sanda’s competitive history is rooted in the early Lei Tai Matches of Ancient China. Lei Tai fights took place in an elevated arena without railings. The fights were bare-knuckle or would involve deadly weapons and no rules were observed. Lei Tai was a kind of no-holds-barred combat sport that combined Chinese martial arts, boxing and wrestling. These fights appeared during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). when it was used for boxing and Shuai Jiao exhibition matches and private duels.
In ancient China, to gain recognition as a fighter, challengers would build a Lei Tai. They then stood on it and invited all comers to try and knock you off. Some fighters issued their challenge in the form of a handwritten letter to the person they wished to face.
Traditional Chinese martial arts duel, held on a ‘Lei-Tai’ raised platform.
‘Sanctioned’ matches were presided over by a referee on the platform and judges on the sides. Fighters would lose a match if they surrendered, were incapacitated, or were thrown or otherwise forced from the stage. The winner would remain on the stage as a champion until beaten by a stronger opponent. If there were no more challengers, they would become the champion. Private duels on the stage had no rules and were sometimes fought to the death. Today the Lei Tai is used in Sanshou competitions throughout the world.
Adaptation for the military
In 1924, the Guomindang/Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) was eager to create a modern military force. Having formed a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union in 1923, they had been impressed with Soviet methods of training military personnel. This included Russian CQC (Close Quarters Combat) training. The Russians had vastly improved their own unarmed fighting systems with the development of Sombo.
The Guomindang (Chinese National Party) felt that Chinese forces were falling behind in their hand-to-hand combat skills. Hence the development of Sanda/Sanshou.
Under the tutelage of Soviet advisors, the Chinese endeavoured to create a similar method of training their military forces in CQC. This took place at the Whampoa Military Academy. Traditional CMA (Chinese Martial Arts) masters from China’s ninety-two provinces were brought together with medical experts to compare and evaluate techniques. The Whampoa military instructors fused what they learned with the Soviets with their own existing CMA traditions and created Sanda. This new combat system was developed based on three criteria: simplicity, directness, and effectiveness against larger, stronger opponents. The Sanda curriculum was designed to provide military personnel with realistic, hand-to-hand combat skills. In 1963 and 1972 the Chinese military published manuals on their finalised version of Sanda to train military personnel. Sanda was tested over the years in training camps throughout China and in border conflicts with Soviet troops.
Note: Originally the term ‘Sanshou’ (free-hand) was used rather than Sanda. In recent years there has been a push by the governing bodies to officially adopt the term ‘Sanda’ (free-fighting) which is more familiar in China. In China where the sport originates, Sanda is the term more commonly used while Sanshou is more familiar in North America. However, both terms are interchangeable.
China is home to many traditional martial arts including the hybrid fighting art of Sanda/Sanshou.
Competition bouts developed in the military as fights were commonly held between the soldiers to test and practice unarmed martial arts skills. Rules were developed and the use of protective equipment (gloves and headgear) was adopted.
The practice of Sanda was prohibited from the public during the early years. Outside the military, civilian Sanda was developed by underground martial arts schools and individual martial artists in communist China. These civilian Sanda fighters were usually ex-military/ex-police that had picked up their skills during their careers. They sharpened their skills in street championships where they challenged each other (usually on Lei Tai-type platforms). These kinds of challenges were very popular during the cultural revolution (1966-76) and usually ended by being broken up by the police.
Early Sanda fights were often non-sanctioned bouts which were eventually broken up by the Chinese authorities.
Around the late 80’s/early 90s a sport version of Sanda emerged (minus the deadlier components) that anyone was allowed to learn and practice. This was pushed by the Chinese government to help civilians deal with violent crime and also to improve the health of the population.
Wushu/Chinese Martial arts stagnated under the suppression of communist rule. Thankfully, once the Chinese government decided on a policy of promoting traditional CMA’s to the civilian population, things began to improve. Resultantly, Wushu associations began to better organise and codify Chinese martial arts. Sanda and wushu were given clear rules and a point system and many lethal techniques were discarded. Many sports institutions across the country began offering classes and training for both fighters and coaches. Interest in Sanda exploded in the late 1990s when competitions started showing up regularly on television.
Since 1997, the first attempts were made both in China and in the United States to establish professional Sanda matches conducted in a manner similar to other kickboxing styles such as Muay Thai. Today Sanda as a combat sport overshadows other fighting arts in China. Indeed, it generally serves as the foundation for many competing Chinese martial artists’ repertoires. There are competitions going on constantly, culminating in the biggest and most important martial arts event in China, the National Wushu and Sanda Championships. Winners of these competitions can expect to enjoy fame and fortune, especially in the Chinese motherland.
Characteristics of Sanshou
There are today two versions of Sanda. Military Sanda (Junshi) and sports Sanda (Yundong).
For the Chinese Special Forces
Junshi Sanda (Chinese: 军事散打) is a complete martial art specially designed for the Chinese Elite Forces.
It is a CQB system that covers the skills of striking, grappling, wrestling, ground fighting, and weapon defences. It is based on a variety of different fighting styles. These include traditional martial arts (Kung Fu, Shuai Jiao, Chin Na) as well as foreign systems (Sambo, Jiujitsu, Muay Thai, and Western Boxing). The aim was to develop a realistic system of unarmed fighting for the Chinese military. Junshi Sanda employs striking, head-butting, elbows, kicks, knees, stomping, sweeps, joint locks, strangulation, takedowns and throws.
Junshi Sanda is based on sciences ranging from physics, anatomy, biomechanics and human physiology. All are employed to help develop the most effective combat system. It focuses on applying the principles of combat rather than concentrating on or memorising specific techniques.
The strategies of the Chinese Art of War also play a part in Junshi Sanda. The Art of War is a famous book on strategy written by legendary Chinese military advisor Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu is considered one of history’s finest military tacticians and analysts. (His teachings and strategies formed the basis of advanced military training for centuries in both Eastern/Western spheres.) Some of his teachings include how ‘all warfare is based on deception,’ looking for weaknesses and exploiting them, and using wiles to overcome superior strength. This is the mindset of the Junshi Sanda exponent, taking an opponent’s strengths and neutralising them, exploiting all advantages.
Much of the mindset from Junshi (Military style) Sanda comes from the teachings of legendary Chinese Military advisor Sun Tzu.
The various divisions of the military and police force have slight differences in technique, but they all employ the same principles. The military Sanda curriculum addressed what the Chinese had long considered the four basic martial arts skills:
- Da – Upper-Body Striking: The use of fists, open hands, fingers, elbows, shoulders, forearms and the head.
- Ti – Lower-Body Striking: Kicks, knees and stomping.
- Shuai – Throws: Wrestling and Judo-like takedowns and sweeps.
- Chin-Na – Seizing: Joint Locks, strangulation and other submissions.
For the Civilian Population
Yundong Sanda (Chinese: 运动散打) aka Jinzheng Sanda (Chinese: 竞争散打) Is the sports version of Sanda that developed out of Junshi Sanda. This was taught to the civilian population to improve the health of the population and for self-defence purposes. It excludes the elbow and knee strikes of the military variation (although most Sanda gyms teach these techniques as well). Sport Sanda uses a more kickboxing-like format. Grappling and ground fighting is discouraged with staying on your feet the primary consideration. There is a greater emphasis on striking, kicking and wrestling (throws and sweeps are drilled extensively) although no submissions or ground fighting. There are no forms or formal stances, kata or forms as in traditional CMA.
Yundong Sanshou is practised both at an amateur and professional level. Most professional competitions also have bouts for amateurs. In amateur matches, competitions are held on Lei Tai-raised platforms as in ancient China. Fighters wear protective gear like head-guard, body armour, and boxing gloves. The Amateur version of Sanda allows kicks, punches, knees (not to the head), and throws. A match lasts for a maximum of three X two-minute rounds. Points are awarded based on strikes and throwdowns. The first fighter who wins two rounds wins the fight. Professional Sanda matches are conducted in boxing rings and fighters do not wear any protective gear. Professional Sanda allows knee strikes (including to the head) as well as kicking, punching and throwing. Scoring is based on strikes, but the points awarded for moves vary based on which organising body conducts the tournament.
Sanshou, Wushu and Taolu
In the 1970s the Wushu* associations of China began creating sporting competitions and tournaments for traditional Chinese martial arts. Most competitions involve Sanda competition (free-form kickboxing) and Tao-lu (practising traditional Kung-Fu forms). Sanda fighting competitions are often held alongside Tao-lu competitions. Sanda represents the modern evolution of ancient Lei Tai contests, but with rules in place to reduce the chance of serious injury.
Note: “Wushu” is the Chinese term for ‘martial arts.’
Repertoire of Moves
Although Sanda has learned much from Western Boxing, much of its punching techniques can be found within the CMA (Chinese Martial Arts) systems. 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.
Elbows and Knees
Sanda has a range of punches available drawing from traditional Chinese Martial arts and Western Boxing.
Sanda round kicks although less powerful than Thai-style ‘sweeping’ kicks, the snappier motion of these kicks makes them harder to catch, making them more suitable for Sanda
- Front Thrusting Kick
- Front Snap Kick
- Side Kick
- Hook Kick
- Spinning Back Kick
- Roundhouse Kick
- Axe kick
Examples of Sanda kicks.
Grappling and Defence
Much of the wrestling in Sanda is from traditional Shuai Jiao, although other styles have wrestling techniques too.
The importance of pushing and counter-pushing is vital in Sanda competition. Indeed a critical skill when fighting on a Lei Tai. This can translate into real-life applications and acts as a proxy for all sorts of ledges and tripping/slipping hazards. Level changes are used to set up takedowns (similar to shoot-fighting and MMA). Sanda is well known for its fighters ‘kick-catch throws’ where a kick is intercepted and used to throw a fighter off balance to the ground.
Examples of Sanda throws and leg catches.
Defence in Sanda is a combination of traditional CMA’s and other martial arts competitive forms such as Kickboxing/boxing. Good head movement, slipping punches, shoulder rolling, bobbing and weaving are all taught.
- Hip Throw
- Shoulder Throw
- Double leg takedowns
- Single leg takedowns
- Body lock takedowns
- Kick catch throws
Repertoire of Moves
There are many benefits to training in Sanda as in most martial arts. Training in Sanda helps develop strength, stamina, endurance, flexibility and resistance. It sharpens a practitioner’s reflexes and develops alertness to identify opportunities to attack and defend. It provides them with a sense of confidence in their abilities. It also fosters decisiveness, quick thinking as well as tenacity, stamina and a will to win.
Sparring is a big part of Sanda training to prepare a fighter for real combat.
Sanda training will begin with learning the proper techniques, punches, kicks and footwork. Padwork, bag work, and working with partners will all be involved to assist in learning the individual moves and techniques. Conditioning and endurance building is important in Sanda and drills are used to prepare the student for actual fights. Sanda practitioners are required to learn the different defensive moves and blocks prior to any sparring or actual combat. Once striking techniques have been mastered and conditioning and strength have been attained through training, a fighter can progress. At the next level, the students will be advised to train using combinations of attacks and blocks which imitate a real fight. With later progression, practitioners will learn takedowns, and throws and take part in heavier sparring sessions.
Training for Self-Defence
Sanda is much more practical than traditional Kung Fu when it comes to self-defence. Techniques learnt in training are simple, practical, and effective. Students do a lot of sparring and live drills can prepare students for the realities of combat. Many other Chinese (and non-Chinese) fighting systems don’t include sparring which does not fully prepare a student for real-life fighting situations. Furthermore, Sanda fighters rarely train alone or are required to do kata or any other pre-arranged practices. The focus is on sparring in a spontaneous action with the partner and training for real combat.
Sanda can help improve your ‘standup’ fighting skills (striking, punching, kicking etc)
Sanda is one of the rare fighting systems that teach you how to use your entire body as a weapon. Students learn how to use kicks, punches, elbows, knees, and wrestling takedowns and throws. It is a versatile system that covers both striking and grappling aspects, which real-life fighting is a combination of.
Sanda can also assist with grappling skills, takedowns and clinches.
Sanda teaches you how to fight in all ranges. You learn how to fight at distance, at close range, in the clinch, with some basics of ground fighting. With regard to taking on bigger opponents. Sanda trains you how to use leverage to throw them down to the ground. The grappling aspect is crucial because most average people don’t know how to defend wrestling moves. The combination of striking and grappling prepares a fighter to be ready for any circumstance. Whether the fight is a standup fight, or if it becomes a grapple or descends to the floor, Sanda’s skills can be a great help.
Shuai Jiao and Chin Na
The inclusion of Shuai Jiao and Chin Na in Sanda catches kickboxers from other disciplines off guard. Many are unfamiliar with these ancient martial arts and their reputations as effective throwing/grappling systems. In Sanda fights, repeated throws to the floor really take their toll, especially when added to a barrage of strikes that must be endured. Fighters unused to this type of fight can really be taken by surprise!
Sanda grappling, locks and trips draw heavily from traditional Chinese Martial arts of Shuai Jiao (Left) and Chin Na (Right).
Note: It should be noted that outside Military Sanda, Sanda’s ground fighting skills are not as finely tuned as BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) or even MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). Some Sanda fighters choose to cross-train in these ground fighting elements to give them a greater range of skills. This applies in particular to Sanda-background MMA fighters who would be at a disadvantage on the floor against a BJJ user.
Outside of China
Perhaps the biggest downside of Sanda training is that it is not as popular outside of China. Granted Sanda schools are becoming more popular internationally, and many good schools can be found in the US and Europe. However, arguably it may be difficult to find a school with the same quality of classes as you might find in China.
Rules and regulations
Competitors in modern Sanda are divided into weight classes similar to other combat sports. In amateur Sanda, they wear full protective gear, a groin cup, head and mouth guard and a chest guard. The reason for the increased use of safety gear is the longevity of the fighters. This is definitely the case with sparring to prevent serious injury.
There are numerous officials involved to ensure competitions run smoothly and without undue incident. These include a chief referee; one (sometimes two) assistant chief referee(s); a head judge, an assistant head judge, several sideline judges as well as several other officials, (recorders, medical staff etc).
‘Lei Tai’ style platforms used in Modern Sanda.
In modern Sanda rules, competitors can win in a number of ways. (Knockout, points decision or pushing an opponent off the raised Lei Tai platform.) Matches consist of three x 2-minute rounds. The winner is the person who earns the best score in two out of three rounds. Scoring is determined by the level of difficulty of a successful attack. This is usually 1-2 points for the successful application of a technique (knockdown or throw). 3 points are the most a fighter can earn with a single technique.
- Fighting area: Sanda fighters compete on an elevated square platform. This platform originates from the traditional ‘Lei Tai’ platforms. Its dimensions will be 80cm in height, 8m in width, and 8m in length. Around the platform, there is a 30cm thick cushion to prevent fighters from getting hurt when falling off.
- Protective gear: chest protector, headgear, mouthpiece, pair of full padded gloves, and a groin protector.
- Length of the matches: Sanda matches have 3 rounds in total with each round being 2 minutes long. There is a 1 minute rest period between the rounds
- Techniques: Sanda fighters can strike both the upper and lower body areas. They can strike with punches, and kicks, (in professional Sanda competitions elbows and knees are permitted). When it comes to grappling, they can use various wrestling moves, trips, and throws from judo/Chin Na/Shuai Jiao.
- Weight classes: Sanda competition includes 7 weight classes for women and 11 for men.
- The fighter with the most rounds won at the end of the match is the winner.
- If a fighter is knocked out, counted out by the ring referee, receives a TKO (Technical Knockout) or the referee stops the bout because he feels a fighter is not able or should not continue due to safety issues, the other fighter will win the match.
- Other ways to stop a match and win can be due to Injury or Disqualification due to Fouls.
Are you not entertained?
The rules and short time spans of Sanda matches motivate the fighters to demonstrate all that they are capable of. This means that the crowd is exposed to maximum excitement. In most Sanda matches a wide variety of techniques are on display. From the flashy high-kicks of Taekwondo to Muay Thai style leg kicks You may see a mish-mash of hand techniques from Boxing and CMA styles. Added to this is the sudden thrill of throws and sweeps straight from Judo and Shuai Jiao matches. The action is very fast, and there is little time for the fighters to hold back or gain recovery time. They are on the clock.
Kicks and punches are done with restrictions only to the throat, spine, groin, joints or the back of the head. For safety reasons, some techniques such as elbow strikes, knee strikes, chokes, and joint locks, are not permitted during tournaments. All sweeps and dynamic throws are allowed and encouraged. However, Sanda fighters are only allowed to clinch for a few seconds. If the clinch is not broken by the fighters, and neither succeeds in throwing his opponent within the time limit, the referee will break the clinch. The time allowed for clinching can be within 2 to 5 seconds of the clinch (depending on the rules of the tournament.)
Sanda matches are fast and furious, with fighters having limited time to give it their all.
If the fight goes to the ground, the referee will stop the fight and stand the fighters up before continuing. However, some schools practise it as an all-around martial arts system with no restrictions. They will only change their rules in relation to competition rules prior to the event. Basically, in Sanda the only techniques discouraged in any competition are techniques likely to cause permanent injury.
Sanda’s belt ranking system follows a similar path to most martial arts. The beginners start from the white belt (level 1) and they must go all the way up to the red and black belt (level 10). Once a student completes 10 ranks, they must pass an exam to qualify for the black belt rank. However, their Sanda journey doesn’t end here as the black belt is further divided into another 10 grades.
- Level 1- White Belt
- Level 2 – White-Yellow Belt
- Level 3 – Yellow Belt
- Level 4 – Yellow-Green Belt
- Level 5 – Green Belt
- Level 6 – Green-Blue Belt
- Level 7 – Blue Belt
- Level 8 – Blue-Red Belt
- Level 9 – Red Belt
- Level 10 – Black Belt
On the International Stage
Today in provinces and cities all over China, Sanda is taught. There are amateur and professional clubs everywhere from sports clubs to universities. Many Chinese Sanda fighters compete in local, regional, and national tournaments. The majority of Chinese-based promotions often feature predominantly Sanda fighters facing off against other disciplines such as Muay Thai and other forms of kickboxing. Chinese martial artists also compete in non-Chinese or mixed combat sports, such as boxing, kickboxing and MMA. Sanda fighters have participated in fighting tournaments such as K-1, Shoot-Boxing and UFC with some degree of success.
Sanda matches are fast and furious, with fighters having limited time to give it their all.
Perhaps the most internationally well-known exponents of Sanda/Sanshou are Cung Le and Zhang Weili. Le fought in the UFC as a middleweight with a 2-2 record. As a kickboxer, Le was the IKF Light Heavyweight World Champion with a professional kickboxing and Sanda record of 17-0. Before entering MMA Le finished his Sanda and kickboxing career undefeated. Zhang Weili is an MMA fighter in the UFC Women’s Strawweight division who also hails from a Sanda background. Weili is a former UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion and made MMA history by becoming the first-ever Chinese champion in UFC history. As of Sept 15th, 2022, she is #2 in the UFC women’s strawweight rankings.
Other Sanda fighters who have made a name in MMA include Pat Berry, KJ Noons, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Marvin Perry and Muslim Salihov.
Sanda is a highly dynamic and effective martial arts system, requiring great conditioning and a multitude of different skills. As a training system, it requires a high level of cardio fitness, great reflexes, power, speed and timing. It has proved effective both in sports combat and in self-defence. As Sanda grows in popularity outside of China expect more people to pick up on what this lightning-fast sport has to offer.
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