Today the traditional Chinese martial art of wushu usually refers to set routines of movements performed by one or more persons, with or without weapons. It is somewhat like calisthenics as a performing art as well as a means of staying fit. Historically, however, wushu usually referred to actual fighting and was in many ways similar to Japanese karate and judo and Western boxing and wrestling. Indeed, one might say that wushu resembled an amalgam of the four disciplines. This kind of wushu, known as "sanshou" (free hand) or "sanda" (free combat), is now making a comeback and seems to be well on its way to carving out a permanent place for itself in the Chinese sports world. Sanda was officially established as a competitive event in 1982. Since then, sanda teams have been set up in many cities and contests held at various levels, culminating with the first national tournament, held in Shenzhen last October.
Sanda is a comprehensive combat art which incorporates the kicks and blows of karate and taekwondo and the grappling and throwing techniques of wrestling. It is similar in many respects to Thai boxing, although elbowing and kneeing are forbidden. Matches are contested on a 9m x 9m mat not surrounded by ropes. Two opposite corners are marked out for resting between rounds as in a boxing ring. The fight is supervised by a referee on the mat, with four judges and a head judge stationed outside it. A bout usually consists of three rounds, each lasting 2-3 minutes, and is settled on a points system.
Sanda is still in an experimental stage. Some people, concerned that it may cause serious injuries, argue that the fierce combat of sanda violates the true spirit of sport. Eager to allay such fears, sanda promoters have put a premium on the safety of competitors. The Chinese Wushu Association (CWA) has passed a comprehensive set of rules governing acceptable contact. Elbowing, kneeing and joint twisting are all expressly forbidden. Blows to the back of the head, the throat or the private parts are also violations. Competitors are not permitted to strike their opponent's head in rapid succession. All contestants must wear gloves, helmets and protectors for the chest, genitals and shins. Since these precautionary measures were implemented no serious accidents have occurred. Today, many people regard sanda as a safer sport than boxing or karate. This should accelerate the popularization of the sport.
Many wushu experts, however, think that the new rules are too restrictive and that the traditional skills of sanda should be given freer play. To make sanda more exiting, some people advocate the restoration of the ancient form of leitai -- a system in which the winner of a bout becomes the "owner of the platform" and remains on stage until he is ousted by someone stronger. It is now the task of the CWA to chart a course for sanda that will satisfy both traditionalists and safety watchdogs. The CWA officials are approaching the issue in a patient and prudent manner, and are confident that sanda has a very bright future.