(reproduced from http://shaolin.org/answers/sp-issues/sparring-culture.html)
An invaluable old picture taken about 30 years ago showing Poh Luk and Ah Kai (both are Sifu Wong’s senior classmates) engaged in an annual grand free sparring competition in Sifu Ho Fatt Nam’s Shaolin school.
Notice that the combatants did not wear any protective gears and they used typical Shaolin Kungfu. There were no rules and no referees. The combatants just fought, but usually there were no injuries because the combatants could defend themselves well, and on infrequent occasions when they couldn’t, the opponents would control their strikes expertly. Such an annual grand free sparring competition amongst classmates followed the old tradition of the southern Shaolin Monastery in China.
Finally we spar using gloves for about 30 minutes.
— Suis, Country Withheld
Answers by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
Not a single kungfu master in the past used gloves for sparring. Indeed I believe that any instructor asking his students to use gloves, himself has had no experience of genuine kungfu sparring. Using gloves to spar, especially without methodical preparation, almost always results in the students resorting to boxing or kick-boxing techniques.
I just hate sparring. I feel like a living punch bag. When I spar with senior students I am helpless; I can hardly touch them.
Your case, which is also the case of the majority of kungfu students today, is unfortunate. Sparring is an essential, and actually a lively and enjoyable, part of kungfu training. It is often in sparring, pre-arranged or free, that the beauty and efficiency of kungfu is brought to life.
Something is basically wrong if anyone becomes a living punch bag in sparring, in which case it ceases to be sparring, it has become a free exchange of kicks and blows. In traditional kungfu sparring, including free sparring, no one should be hurt. In the past, even free sparring was carried out with weapons; hurting one another was out of the question.
Our teacher tells us to try to use the techniques that we have learned and to attack. But till now it is merely exchanging blows and doing chain punches. I try to be relaxed and to use the techniques and to stay in my stance but everything just goes too fast.
The teacher did not have proper training in kungfu sparring when he was a student, otherwise he would not merely ask his students to try to use their techniques, he would instead actually and systematically teach them how to use the techniques.
Let us take an analogy. Suppose you are a properly trained swimming instructor. You would first teach your students the appropriate swimming techniques. Next you would have them practise the techniques systematically, first with full control, then as they progress you would gradually release the control. Only when they are competent you would allow them to swim, but still under close supervision and relevant correction whenever they make mistakes. You do not simply throw your students into water and ask them to try to swim.
Sometimes I try to defend only but I can’t deflect anything,. I’m too slow. I have been sparring since the first lesson.
This is because you have not been properly trained. Asking a kungfu student to free spar in his first lesson is like throwing a beginner into deep water in his first swimming lesson and asking him to try to swim.
There are many types of sparring, and I reckon that here you are referring to free sparring. In traditional kungfu training, free sparring comes at the end of combat training, and not at the start. Free sparring is not meant to teach fighting, as many modern instructors mistakenly think; it is meant to test and confirm that the students can fight. And they can fight effectively only if they have been systematically trained to do so.
Sparring is found in all styles of kungfu, including Taijiquan of course. Goh from Singapore practiced sparring with Geoffrey from England at an Intensive Taijiquan Course in Malaysia in September 2004.
Most other students seem to enjoy the sparring. I have talked to senior students about it. They say it is normal to get a lot of hits in the beginning, sparring is to develop stamina, sparring is a way to see if the techniques work. You must learn to accept hits and learn how to really hit instead of merely touching a person.
It is not normal to be hit, not even once. That is the fundamental purpose of combat training. Should this happen in the past, especially when sparring with weapons, the students would have been killed many times over. If in your sparring practice you are hit, it is accidental, not normal, and it indicates that you have failed in your purpose.
Sparring may develop stamina, but that is not its main purpose. There are other and better methods to develop stamina.
Sparring is not a way to see if the techniques work. In the first place, there is no questions about whether the techniques work. If there is any doubt, that technique should be discarded. Only techniques that have proven to work well are selected and practised, and in any particular combat situation the best one amongst the many available proven techniques is applied. In combat there is no room for chance; the combatant has to be 100% sure.
If in real combat or free sparring, a combatant is hit, it is not because his chosen technique cannot work, but because he lacks the appropriate skills to use the technique effectively. The fact that he chose the technique means not only it can work but it is the best for that particular situation. If he does not know which technique to use, then he should not be sparring in the first place. He is simply not prepared; he should go back to earlier stages of pre-arranged sparring.
Accepting hits and really hitting others may be normal in a brawl, but certainly not normal in traditional kungfu sparring. A kungfu exponent is expected to effectively defend against all hits, and if during sparring practice his partner could not defend against his attacks, he should merely touch his partner and not actually hitting.
Even in a real fight, he should avoid hurting an opponent unnecessarily. This is known in kungfu culture as “dim tou wai chi” (in Cantonese). It means in sparring or a real fight, you merely touch your partner or opponent, not really hurting him.
In the past when a master touched another master in a match, the latter would withdraw and gracefully acknowledge defeat. Sometimes he might kneel down and prostrate, and thanked the victorious master for sparring his life — in Cantonese it would sound something like: thor cheah si fu sau ha lau cheng, which means “Thank you, master, for showing mercy under your hands.” This is traditional kungfu culture. Continuing to brutally strike a helpless opponent, and proudly demonstrating to a maddening crowd how merciless he is, is a culture of barbarians.
There was no need for a master to strike hard to demonstrate his force. It was common knowledge that every master would have trained to be so powerful that he could kill or maim with just one strike. Kungfu in the past mainly involved force training, not learning flowery movements for demonstration as is the norm today.
That one touch was not connected randomly, it always aimed at a vital spot. If a forceful strike on a vital spot could not put an opponent out of action, it would at least daze him momentarily, which would be sufficient for the master to follow up instantly and from close quarters a second and a third strike on the same vital spot.
I know my sparring skills will improve if I continue doing it
The way you have been practising your haphazard sparring not only will not improve your kungfu skills, but it is actually detrimental to your development. You are actually conditioning yourself to take unnecessary punishment which may lead to serious injury, and learning to be insensitive, brutal and aggressive which is bad for your psyche.