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I have been watching quite a bit of footage of the 15th World Wushu Championships and I was quite surprised with how much there appeared to be a difference between the techniques demonstrated in taolu (forms) vs in sanda (combat). In taolu the techniques are very flowing and acrobatic which is what I would expect, however in sanda it looks more like kickboxing combined with grappling. I am curious if this is just something that appears this way to me, having never practiced Wushu myself, or if a practitioner who competes primarily in sanda trains in more sanda focused techniques as opposed to those shown in taolu?

In TKD for example, the techniques used in competition sparring are also very different to anything practiced in forms, and a sparring competitor will undergo sparring specific training and unless they want to increase their belt rank may not practice forms at all after black belt. Is this similar in Wushu?

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Taolu (forms) are for a different purpose than Sanda.

Sanda and other forms of "free sparring" are centered on the notion that both opponents are free to move around and fight each other using kicking, punching, and blocks, and occasionally also sweeps, throws, and some standing holds.

Forms are encapsulations of self-defense techniques, or they were originally.

So what are self-defense techniques? They're what to do when someone gets you in a bear hug. Or someone in a bar grabs your lapel with one hand and raises his other hand to punch you in the face. Or someone is threatening you with a knife in his hand. These are typical scenarios that have occurred for thousands of years and are still happening today.

The techniques in forms are for these particular self-defense situations, for the most part. (Other forms do exist for other purposes, but self-defense is the primary purpose.)

Contemporary wushu has forms which derive from traditional kung-fu forms. Traditional kung-fu forms are generally all about self-defense. However, contemporary wushu has taken most of the self-defense meaning out of the forms in an attempt to emphasize the athletic components of the art. Though it still contains techniques that are taken directly from traditional kung-fu, they're usually taken out of order and treated individually, whereas those techniques may have occurred in the traditional form along with other techniques in a very specific order for a specific self-defense purpose. Individually, the techniques may not mean much, but in the context of 3 or 4 other techniques that come before or after them, they have self-defense applications. By taking a single technique out of here and putting in there, it loses that original self-defense context.

Now, what is free sparring and how does it differ from self-defense techniques?

The answer is that free sparring is "free". The two people are free to move around. They're not holding onto one another. There's no grappling. It's composed of punches, kicks, and blocks. Some rules (particularly those under Sanda's rule set) allow for sweeps and throws as well, but nothing like grappling found in Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example. Even in Sanda, people are mostly free to move around.

The goals, rules, and contexts of both self-defense and free sparring are different, and so their expression is going to look different as well.

People look the way they do in Sanda, because that's what you expect people to do while under Sanda's rules. It won't look like forms. It's going to look like kickboxing for the most part.

The same is true of Karate, Taekwondo, and other forms-based martial arts. The forms will generally look very different from the sparring.

People do attempt to make their sparring look more like their forms, because they simply misunderstand what I've just explained. They think sparring and forms are both for fighting, and so they should look the same. They really just don't know what their forms are for. They don't know how to interpret them, and their teachers haven't told them the self-defense meaning. To most people, forms are just punches, kicks, and blocks. But that's generally wrong (with some exceptions like two-man sets). And so if everything in the form is punching, kicking, and blocking, then why wouldn't you think you should apply that to free sparring? But most of what's in a form is grappling based self-defense, not punching, kicking, and blocking.

Hope that helps.

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  • Mattm has partly answered this but I'm curious about your experience: if a wushu practioner is interested in sanda primarily, when starting wushu as a beginner are they required to reach a certain rank first before attending sanda competitions? Eg. In TKD comps are usually black belt and above. Also, how would they approach their training differently, would they still do forms or attend only sparring focused training? – FrontEnd Apr 22 at 2:46
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    @FrontEnd Anyone can enter a Sanda competition. There are age and weight divisions, but no rank requirements. Your particular school of wushu might forbid entering Sanda tournaments until you've reached a certain level of proficiency, but official rules from the IWUF do not have rank requirements. There might be local Sanda competitions that do have categories like beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Each are defined in terms of how long you've been training, not your rank. iwuf.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/… – Steve Weigand Apr 22 at 17:13
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    @FrontEnd I recommend watching some Youtube videos on Sanda training. They don't do forms. Contemporary Wushu and Sanda are lightyears apart. They're completely different. Sanda is more like western boxing training. You get a coach, punching bags, big gloves, a ring, sparring partners, jump ropes, and so on. Wushu is really just forms and acrobatics training. Rarely do you do partnered sparring in contemporary wushu. In traditional wushu you can see sparring. But even traditional wushu is far removed from Sanda. – Steve Weigand Apr 22 at 17:15
  • That's interesting but confusing at the same time. I thought that taolo and sanda were simply different ways of competing in wushu, similar to how a TKD or Karate comp has forms and sparring events. You wouldn't for example have a Karate competition with forms and a boxing bout instead of kumite/sparring since they're two different styles. So, since the event is called Wushu Championships isn't it strange that one of the events (sanda) is as you state completely different to wushu itself? Why not call it Wushu & Sanda Championships instead for example, or have I misunderstood? – FrontEnd Apr 22 at 17:50
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    @FrontEnd To clear up the confusion, Sanda is a particular flavor of sparring governed by the IWUF. Since IWUF is synonymous with "Wushu", that's why you see both Taolu and Sanda in the same tournament. The word, "wushu", can refer to any martial art from China. It's very broad. But usually in the west, when you see "wushu" being used, they are referring to contemporary wushu. In China, it can mean any Chinese martial art. So Sanda does fall under the broad definition of "wushu" as well as the IWUF "Wushu" organization. But in terms of what they look like, they're completely different. – Steve Weigand Apr 22 at 18:10
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Modern wushu forms and sanda are basically different styles entirely.

In my now dated experience with wushu competitions, they have many separate events where the overlap between athletes may be close to zero, especially between forms and fighting. This is true in other ways as well; for example, traditional and modern forms events, and almost everyone competes in only one of these categories. This is analogous to a track-and-field meet; the javelin and 1500m events are at the same competition, but if you compete in one of these events you probably do not compete in the other. Events are at the same competition because it's more fun that way.

My understanding of TKD is that the curriculum includes both forms and sparring for everyone. In wushu, this is not the case. At the wushu school where I trained, training was almost exclusively forms. Forms classes were daily, but sparring training was only intermittently on Saturdays for one hour and contact was basically on pads only. There was no requirement or encouragement to undertake sparring training.

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