Paul Hanrahan

My goal in writing this article is to try and highlight some of the important underlying principles that Lao Shi discussed during the Dui Da (對打) classes.
It is important to know that all the principles of traditional Wushu should remain intact when sparring with a partner. To think that form techniques have no use during sparring means incorrect understanding of the movements. This article will discuss several fundamental principles and their relevance when sparring.

1) Centre of gravity

In all martial arts the centre of gravity or Zhong Xin (重心) is a very important concept to be aware of. If we aren’t in control of our centre of’ gravity then we cannot stay standing firmly. Standing upright requires that our centre of gravity, remains anywhere on the line between our two feet. If this criterion is not met then we will easily fall over. An opponent will try and unbalance us by getting our centre of gravity off this line. Under the pressure of sparring with an opponent we must be very aware of where our centre of gravity rests at any time.
Our basic posture or ready position has the centre of gravity mostly on the rear leg so that it is furthest from our opponent and less vulnerable to being pulled or swept. If the leg closest to the opponent carries less weight then it can be more easily lifted to kick with. The stance that suits these criteria well is San Jiao Ma (三角馬) or triangle stance. The rear foot has about 70% of the weight and the front foot has 30%.
To achieve control of the centre of gravity we must pay attention to the Dantain (丹田), Kua (胯) and posture. The Dantian should be drawn in and held stable so that it forms the central hub for all forces in the body. Opening the Kua and stretching the lower torso taller allows the stepping to be lighter and more sensitive to changes in balance. Keeping the whole spine upright is vital to keeping the centre of gravity controlled. Tension in the shoulders and expanding the ribs and chestwill cause the body to become top heavy and hence unstable. The legs and Dantian at the base of the body should be relied on for power instead of the shoulders. This is the foundation for good upright posture that is essential for agile movement and generating force while sparring.

2) Vertical Centre-line

The principle of centre line is probably the single most important idea in Wushu. Our basic ready stance should be balanced around the vertical central axis of the body. Most styles of Wushu also stipulate that the central axis of the body must be kept vertical at all times no matter how low or high the posture is. This is an important principle to keep in mind for sparring because it helps keep the body balanced, helps us generate power and keepsthe head protected.
Whenever the body rotates it should be on the central axis. Most turning hand and leg movements are more efficiently done using a very small movement with the limbs accompanied by the rotation of the body on its centerline. The surprising truth is that turning the whole body on its centre is much quicker than keeping the body still and moving the limbs on their own. So if we use the rotation of the body our blocks and strikes will be much faster and more powerful.
Turning of the body gives us a way to convert and redirect incoming force from an opponent and send it back at them. As an opponent strikes at us we reach out and stick to their strike with our one hand blocking or controlling their strike. Simultaneously our other hand strikes back at them. As both arms are driven by the body’s rotation this simultaneous action is possible. As opposed to a block followed by a separate strike which would be much slower. Rotation of the bodyon the central axis allows us to move efficiently and keep the limbs relaxed. Making use of this concept will allow us to save energy. Otherwise a short session of sparring will leave us exhausted.

3.) Line of attack and Strategy

When facing an opponent we should have a clear idea of the direct line between our bodies centre and our opponents centre. This can be called the line of attack.
Our focus normally is straight down this line. Our eyes, fingertips and front foot all facing the same way. This presents a well-defended front line to our opponent. It leaves our limbs well aligned for attack and defense, and our senses focused on our opponent.
The strategy of stepping during sparring is to face directly down the line of attack, and hence prevent our opponent from doing so. As soon asany contact is made the opponents will compete for alignment down the line of attack. If one opponent is even slightly off, their power cannot be sent in towards their target as easily. If they are misaligned and continue to exert forward power they are easily deflected like water by the angled hull of a boat. To achieve this relies on our understanding of the Line of attack concept and our stepping being agile, swift and well timed.

4.) Stability, Balance and Dantian

There are very few discussions in Wushu that do not mention the Dantian. It is seen spatially as the 3 dimensional centre of the body, and also as the central hub via which all force in the body should be channeled. A vital property of the Dantian is thus to be stable and balanced. To achieve this stability the lower section of the body that is cupped partially by the pelvis should always remain drawn in during Wushu practice. When stepping the Dantian controls force from the legs to shift the body to the required new position. If done correctly the stepping should be light and the bodyshould stay at the same height and remain stable during the transition. We want to keep the bodybalanced at all times without the weight falling as we step. A good test for this is if the stepping can be silent.
Stability in the hands is also important. A stable Dantian provides the starting point for extension of the rest of the body and allows the shoulders to relax and open. Our goal is to meet our opponents with defensive arm postures that are stable, but empty. This means that they are free of muscle tension. If our arms are too stiff then an opponent can easily push us over by pressing on them. Ourhands should be an intelligent defense that allows us to sense the direction and position of our opponents force and also disguise the nature and position of our force.

5) Don't use force against force

One of the most important ideas in Wushu is that one should never fight force against force.
Bu yao yong Ii peng (不要用力碰). This can also be translated as: Don't use the collision of force.
We can say that this is the “litmus test” for successful application of Wushu principles. One might feel that this is a very lofty ideal that can never be achieved in the heat of a sparring situation, but in actual fact if we can keep a clear head, this idea can be our sole guiding principle.
When it comes down to instinctive reaction as an opponents attacks, the answer to the question “what should I do now”, is answered by the sense of which action will not let our force crash into our opponents force head on.

6) Ranging

When facing an opponent in San Jiao Ma, the most efficient way of shifting backwards or forwards is a small shuffle step keeping the San Jiao Ma stance intact. Once one is able to do the basic forward, backward and side step, the strategy of stepping needs to be studied.
When facing an opponent one of the most important principles to be aware of is staying in the desired range from the opponent. Thisis not to say that being close is good and far away bad, or vice versa. Each range has its benefits and deficits. What is important is that we have the ability to move to the desired range at any moment.
If we first only consider forward and backward stepping along the line of attack:
there are preferred ranges for both attacker and defender. Hand techniques will all be much easier to use if the basic stepping and range is well executed. Poor stepping viIl always leave us vulnerable to attack and unable to generate power in our strikes.

7) Mental state

When sparring it is very important to keep our mental state focused, but calm. Just as the body should remain relaxed to conserve energy and move swiftly, similarly with the mental state. If we are overcome by fear or panic then our ability to react quickly in defense and attack is lessened. Frantic action will cloud our mind and reduce our ability to instinctively choose the correct course of action. We should keep our intention centered and undistracted, and our vision focused on the opponent. An aid in keeping the mind and body calm is to keep the breathing even.

8) Summary

The above sections have highlighted a few points of traditional Wushu and their relevance to sparring. Posture and body alignment are very important. To be aware of the centre ol gravity and how to protect it is essential in both sparring and wrestling situations. The concept of centerline shouldbe focused on until it becomes a natural instinct to keep the vertical axis upright. It is the key to good movement and power generation. The competition for control of the line of attack between u and our opponent is the most vital point to be aware of for maneuvering and strategy of sparring. The basic sparring posture should ot’fer the opponent the least opportunity to attack vital areas of the body, and most importantly keep the front centerline of the body guarded. The body should stay stable, balanced and relaxed to conserve energy and allow for swiftmovements. Instances of colliding with the opponents force and using too much muscular effort should be avoided. Keeping the body relaxed, the mind calm and the breathing steady and even are all key points in keeping the mental intention and focus unclouded.
An analogy that is often used by Lao shi to summarise the nature of good Wushu practice is:
Huo de shi ruan de, si de shi yin de (活的是軟的,死的是硬的).
Which can be translated as: That which is living is flexible. That which is dead is rigid.
This is a core underlying principle that we should try and infuse all our Wushu practice with.