An Overview of Chinese Mixed Martial Arts

Note: Abridged and modified version originally published in 2010

Bruce Lee is the father of Mixed Martial Arts (Webb, 2009)

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is an eclectic combat sport combining striking and grappling techniques extracted mainly from muay Thai, Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ), western wrestling and boxing, which through the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) banner, it has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world (Trembow, 2007); attracting an average of 3.1 million pay per view spectators and employing 270 fighters (Miller, 2008). The opening comment by Dana White, acknowledges the importance of Bruce Lee’s training philosophy and the influence of his films to popularize Chinese martial arts outside China’s borders. Lee’s background was mainly in wing chun (yong chun, 詠春) a fighting style that emphasizes short range techniques. However, given his limited exposure to the system and through his personal experience Lee came to the realization  that fighting requires one to be prepared in other areas that his physical frame and basic style lacked. Hence Lee spent a great deal of effort researching different strength and conditioning methods, hand techniques from western boxing, kicking techniques derived from muay Thai, French savate and Korean taekwondo, take downs from Japanese judo and wrestling, joint locks from jiu jitsu and even western fencing to name just a few (Lee, 1975). Lee also criticized what he considered as “organize despair” when referring to routines practice in martial arts and their lack of real application.

Even though Bruce Lee’s ideas inspired millions to follow the martial path, there are many examples throughout China’s history indicating that these theories were already well known, as we will develop in this essay.

Early Imperial China

Many civilizations had their own style of grappling and China is no exception, starting with the practice of jiao di (head butting), which the Chinese believed was created by Chi You, a god creator of metal weapons and who would head butt his enemies, (Birrell, 1993) it might have developed through time from a past time game to an early Chinese wrestling style. Chinese grappling became by the Qin dynasty an official military sport evolving both in technique as well as in terminology such as juedi, 角砥 during the Qin, xiangpu, 相扑  in the Tang and Song (Henning, 2001) to shuai jiao, 摔跤 in modern China. Parallel to the evolution of grappling, striking methods were also practiced and differentiated from the former. The first mention of a striking method comes from the term bo 搏 (hand to hand combat or to use the hands to strike). The term bo was used as early as the Warring States Period (Wei Ji, 475 – 221 BCE). This concept also appears in early Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BCE) books to describe survival activities like hunting and fighting (Ma, 2000).  In the Book of Songs (Shi Jing, ), the term bo shou, 搏獸was used to describe “fighting with animals” (Ma, 2000), the relationship between hunting and martial skills lies in the fact that hunting was considered a preparatory activity for war, not only physically demanding, but also requiring planning and strategy in order to be successful (Boyuan, 1996).

Xiangpu Scene Dunhuang Grottoes
Xiangpu Scene in the Dunhuang Grottoes

Sanshou (translated as scatter hands, 散手), it is a term much older than Sanda (Free Striking, 散打). It first appeared in Han Dynasty bamboo slips (居廷漢簡), where the following sentence was found, “Xiang Cuo Xu, Xiang San Shou/相錯畜, 相散手To raise [animals] on one another, To Scatter Hands on one another (Ma, 2010). The sentence seems to refer to some type of ancient agonistic event. Chinese historian and poet, Ban Gu, 班固 (32 – 92 CE) who wrote the History of the Former Han (Hanshu, 漢書), refers in his work to a book titled shou bo, 手搏as part of a series of entries on martial practices, which to date it has not been found (Shahar, 2008). Skill in the weapons of war as well as empty hand methods were important for troop training, even though empty hand methods were considered a basic skill (Qi & Ma, 1560, 1980).  The methods included in the practice of shou bo, 手搏 were grappling and striking techniques, as well as the need to practice these skills “for real” (Ma, 2000). Chinese martial arts in general have preserved the ancient practical approach by including the basic elements of fighting such as:  kicking (ti 踢 ), punching (da 打), throwing (shuai 摔), seizing (na 拿) and the use of weapons.

An example of the lethality of ancient shou bo is found in the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuozhuan, 春秋左傳) in the commentary (Gongyangzhuan, 公羊傳) by a master named Gonyang Gao. This source tell us that in “681 BCE, Wang of Song is said to have killed Duke Min by striking him and breaking his neck” using his skill in bo (Henning, 2001). The above shows the variety of fighting skills already in existence at the time as well as the difference between real combat vs. “sport” practices.

The Imperial Military Examinations

Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690 – 705 CE) the first woman to become Empress Regnant of China was responsible for instituting the imperial military examinations (wu ju 武举) as a way to eliminate the remaining influence of the Li family, former rulers of the Tang dynasty. The requirements for the officers applying to the examinations had several ”mixed”  martial abilities to be demonstrated. During the Tang, military examinations included fighting skills such as the use of spear on horse, archery and physical strength. By the Ming dynasty it was suggested to include more subjects as part of the evaluation; including archery (ma bu jian马步箭), long spear (qiang枪), sabre (dao刀), straight sword (jian 剑), close quarters fighting (baida, 短打), wrestling etc. (Ma, 2000).

Qing military examinations adopted elements from the Ming system requiring the candidates to demonstrate mastery in archery, horse riding, Dao (knife), stone lifting as well as a written exam on martial theory (Ma, 2009; Miysaki, 1976). Additional to these subjects, wrestling was also an important part of military training for the Manchu rulers who had a long wrestling tradition to the point of organizing a special camp with the best wrestlers, known as the shanpu ying (善撲營) camp (Ma, 2009).

Outlaws of the Marsh

Evidence of martial eclecticism or “mixed martial arts” as well as critical commentaries about “flowery” methods, can also be found in literary novels, one of which is Outlaws of the March also known as All Men are Bothers or the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳). This novel contains the best descriptions of ancient military skills, with such realism to be considered an encyclopaedia on Chinese martial arts practices (Ying & Yan, 2008). In chapter two of the novel, a military arms instructor known by the name Wang Jin is forced to seek refuge to avoid the persecution of a tyrant Marshal. As the story goes, Wang Jin and his mother make a stop at a manor, where its kind owner takes them in. After a short stay and while Wang prepares the horses, he witnesses a young man practicing with a staff, after watching the young lad Wang makes the following comment: “Not a bad style, but it has its weaknesses. It wouldn’t stop anyone who was really good” (Nai’an, Luo, & Shapiro, 1980).

15-07-2010 8;20;55 PM Resized
Outlaws of the Marsh scene, Yan Qing defeating his opponent

This passage reveals the concept of practicality vs. “flowery” movements, when training for combat, and it can be applied either in the practice of martial arts with or without weapons. A second passage about the same arms instructor, has him teaching the young man named Shi Jin, who was the son of Wang Jin’s host, the eighteen weapons of war as a sign of gratitude for the hospitality Wang and his mother received at the manor. These weapons are: “lance (mao, 矛), mallet (chui, 锤), long bow (gong, 弓), crossbow (nu,弩), jingal (chong, 铳), jointed bludgeon (bian, 鞭), truncheon (jian,  锏), sword (jian, 剑), chain (lian, 链), hooks (gou, 鉤), hatchet (fu, 斧), axe (lian, 链), trident (ge, 挝)), shield (pai, 牌), staff (gun, 棍), spear (qiang, 枪) and rake (pa, 扒)” (Nai’an, Luo, & Shapiro, 1980). One could argue that mastering these weapons, as the novel goes, in less than a year is an exaggeration. However, this passage could also be taken in a different context, indicating that the warrior should familiarize himself with different fighting methods in order to be prepared for any situation encountered in the unpredictable scenario of the battlefield. These eighteen weapons or martial skills are perhaps a metaphor for excellence in martial skills (Ma, 2011); during the Yuan Dynasty the phrase “Eighteen Martial Skills” was in common use. By the Ming other sources also refer to these skills some of which include empty hand baida (close fighting) (Ma, 2011)

The novel also describes wrestling matches on an elevated platform like and ancient “octagon”, where fighters tested their skills in combat, under the watchful eye of a judge. Moreover the contestants had to write a waiver in case of death or injury (Nai’an, Luo, & Shapiro, 1980). These competitions were a common occurrence by the Song dynasty (Gewu, 1995).

The Classic of Pugilism

During the Ming dynasty Japanese, Chinese and other pirates increased their incursions in China’s Fujian, Zhejiang and Shandong provincial coasts. These attacks could not be stopped by the regular army which was focused on the northern borders.  For this reason a special group of commanders were put in charge of organizing special Chinese troops, civil, and even monastic militias to stop the pirates. Among the most famous military leaders of the time was General Qi Jiguang, 戚繼光 (1528 – 1588 CE), who wrote the Manual of Effective Discipline, (1560,  Jinxiao Xinshu, 紀效新書). A military manual covering battle formations, weaponry, rations, empty hand fighting to mention just a few, the fact that Qi had build from the bottom up even the most basic needs for his army demonstrated the organizational issues that plagued the Ming army at the time (Huang, 1981).

The section dealing with empty hand fighting is the oldest surviving Chinese illustrated empty hand martial arts manual in existence, titled Classic of Pugilism, Chapter on Essentials (Quan Jing Jie Yao Pian,拳经解要篇, 1560). Qi combined what he considered the most practical boxing/fighting skills without weapons of his time, from which Qi extracted thirty two movements to train his troops in empty hand fighting; These are: Taizu of Song’s thirty two postures long boxing (Song Tai Zu, san shi er shi chang quan), six steps boxing (liu bu quan), monkey boxing (hou quan), decoy boxing (hua quan), Wen family ‘s routines of seventy two postures (Wen jia qi shi er xing quan), seizing routine of thirty six postures (san shi liu he suo), palm of horse twenty four throwing techniques (er shi si qi tan ma), eight evasive manoeuvres (ba shan fan), close quarters boxing of twelve postures (shi er dun), Liu Hong’s eight throws (Liu Hong ba xia), Zhang’s close quarters cotton boxing (mian Zhang duan da), Li Ban Tian’s from Shantung leg techniques (Li Ban Tian zhi tui),  Wang’s eagle claw seizing techniques (ying zhua Wang zhi na), Qian’s one thousand falling techniques (Qian die zhang zhi die), Zhang Bo Jin’s striking techniques (Zhang Bo Jin zhi da). (Qi & Ma, 1560, 1980; Wile, 1999).

Qi’s work shows an early eclectic understanding based on practical experience, requiring a thorough preparation for battle, removing the boundaries and allegiances to a specific martial art school. This approach of “mixed martial arts”, Ruo yi ge jia quan fa jian er xi zhi, (to learn every style all together) (Qi & Ma, 1560, 1980), included long range (chang quan, 長拳), short range (duanda, 短打) techniques as well as grappling skills such as locking (he suo合鎖), seizing (na, 拿) and falling (die, 跌). Qi also emphasized practicality, by testing one’s skills in combat, Ji de yi, bi shi di  (to test your mettle with the enemy). Even though routines practice is a method used even in today’s PLA to train a great number of soldiers, and useful to teach basic body mechanics. Ming military experts such as Tang Shunzhi (1507 – 1560) stressed that “the reasons for postures in the martial arts is to facilitate transformations… Forms contain fixed postures, but in actual practice there are no fixed postures. When applied they become fluid, but still maintain their structural characteristics” (Wile, 1999). Qi also quotes an old adage that agrees with Tang’s assessment, ”if there are no mistakes in your posture, you will be successful in one move, if mistakes are made, you will be ineffective the next ten movements” , bu zhao jia, zhi shi yi xia, fan le zhao jia, jiu you shi xia (Qi & Ma, 1560, 1980). The above statements reveal that even though routines training help to develop good posture and body mechanics, in real practice, the martial artist does not follow a set pattern. Nevertheless, one must maintain proper alignment in order to apply any fighting technique effectively. One important point to note is that “styles” such a Monkey Boxing in Qi’s list are most certainly very different from what is nowadays demonstrated, which resembles what Qi criticized as “flowery” methods.

Republican China

At the beginning of the XX century, China was at a crossroads between modernization and the preservation of its traditions. Martial arts were shun away by intellectuals educated overseas, who considered them outdated and unfit to strengthen the bodies of China’s citizenry (Brownell, 1995). Despite these attacks, Chinese martial arts were preserved and used for military and civilian training. During the warlord period (1916 – 1928), general Ma Liang (1878-1947) also known as Ma Zizhen edited a training manual in 1916, composed of empty hand (quan jiao ke 拳脚科 ), Chinese wrestling (shuai jiao ke 摔角科) and the use of sword (jian shu ke 剑术科) and staff (gun shue ke 棍水科).  This manual was, at least on paper, to be taught in schools, military as well as police units around the nation (Boyuan, 1996; Svinth, 1999). What concerns us about Ma’s approach for  this discussion, is the combination of some striking styles as well as wrestling techniques to be taught as part of this new program named new wushu (xin wushu 新武术) (Boyuan, 1996). However, this curriculum was short lived and disappeared from national view after the opening of the Central National Arts Academy (Zhongyang Guoshu Guan, 中央國術館) in 1928.

The Central Academy’s curriculum was made out of several empty hand as well as weapons styles. During its initial years, the Academy required its students to be well versed in some form of martial art, having to demonstrate it against an opponent before being accepted to the program (Hsu & Chang, 2010). This curriculum was a “mix” of several styles such as: eight extremes boxing (ba ji quan, 八極拳), mind and intent boxing (xing yi quan, 心意拳), eight trigrams palm (ba gua zhang, 八卦掌), chopping palms (piqua zhang, 劈掛拳), supreme ultimate boxing (tai ji quan, 太極拳), chinese wrestling (shuai jiao, 摔跤), and several weapons. In addition to the practice of the above mentioned styles, the students had to demonstrate their skill sparring against other students. One of the main testing grounds organized by the Academy, was the institution of a national exam  (guo kao, 國考). Two national exams were organized, in 1928 and 1933, even though some provinces organized a similar examination at local (xian kao, 縣考), and provincial (sheng shi kao, 省市考) level. During the examinations, participants faced each other in matches of Chinese wrestling, empty hand (sanshou, 散手), long weapons (chang bing qi, 長兵器), and short weapons (duan bing qi, 短兵器) fighting. Empty hand fighting allowed the use of striking as well as wrestling techniques and were fought on an elevated platform (lei tai 擂臺) (Ma, 2009; Chong, 1996). The academy’s instructors created several routines “mixing” different styles of martial arts. One example is the complete forms of  eight trigrams palm (quan shi ba gua zhang, 全式八卦掌). This routine combines the old eight palms form (lao ba zhang, 老八掌) with elements of xing yi quan, shuai jiao, and kicking methods (tui fa, 腿法) (Miller D. , 1992).

Additionally, during this period, renowned martial artist and scholar Ma Fengtu (1888–1973) created  The Connect All (Tongbei, 武学) system of martial arts, which include long range, short range styles and weapons practice. These styles are: ba ji quan, pi gua quan, tumbling boxing (fanzi quan, 翻子拳) and poking foot (chuo jiao, 戳腳); Ma was also an expert in Chinese wrestling. Ma’s inspiration came from his studies of Qi Jiguang’s writings, specifically the blending of different styles in order to be prepared for anything (Acevedo, Cheung, & Hood, 2008). Other Republican era martial artists who also combined striking and grappling as part of their training were: Bu Enfu (1911 – ?) combined his knowledge of shuai jiao, yi quan and western boxing; Bu believed that the highest levels of skill would come through combining grappling and pugilism (Burroughs, 2006). Chang Donsheng (1910 – 1986) learnt taijiquan and xingyiquan at the Central Martial Arts Academy; blending striking and throwing techniques. Tong Zhonyi (1879 – 1963) an expert in six harmonies boxing (liu he quan fa), techniques of catching and locking (qin na) and Mongolian style wrestling. Tong combined the three and created his unique fighting (ji ji) techniques (Chong, 1996). Wang Ziping (1881 – 1973) an expert of Long Fist (cha quan), shuai jiao, ba ji quan; created a routine called Twenty Methods Fighting Form,  er shi fa quan 二十法拳,  which combines seizing, throwing and striking techniques (Ruggieri, 2009). In short cross training was by the Republican period a common occurrence in part due to the threat of Japanese expansionism in Asia was becoming a reality.

Moreover famous martial artist Wan Laisheng (1903 – 1995), who participated in the first national examination, also criticized “flowery” practices over combat effectiveness. To Wan practicing moves without martial intention and understanding of their practical applications, was equivalent to dancing (Laisheng & G). Wan also stressed the importance that martial arts should be tested against a resisting opponent and learning from the experience no matter the outcome, Ji de yi, bi shi di, mo yi sheng bai wei chou (Wan, 2006). One thing worth mentioning is that these systems were taught independently from one another and not as modern MMA where certain techniques are hand picked from different systems without the need to train in one base type of martial art. High level competitors train in a specific art e.g. BJJ, wrestling, Muay Thai to hone their skills in each separate system and then is put together for competition.

Current Developments

MMA has slowly started to permeate Chinese combat sports scene with some local fighters participating in UFC, One Championship and local promotions. One of the latest Sanda champions to join the UFC roster is 33 years old Muslim Salikhov among other lesser known fighters. BJJ practice is also well established in cities like Hong Kong, Guanzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. This process has not being smooth due to some resistance from the traditional martial arts circles and the powers that control martial arts who see MMA as a threat to the traditional arts. The infamous fight between a Taijiquan “master” who presented himself as able to perform impossible feats on national TV brought the attention of a Chinese MMA coach/fighter leading to a quick and bloody defeat of the Taijiquan exponent. The not so shocking incident has ignited a most needed national soul searching about the place and de-evolution of Chinese martial arts and its lack of practicality in the realm of fighting/combat; prior to the infamous fight shows like Kung Fu Quest had already brought up to the attention of the martial arts community the lack of proper fighting preparation of the traditional martial artists in China and elsewhere. While the term “Martial” implies military skills which are centered in combat ability much of what we see today is calisthenics/gymnastic movements inspired from martial arts or skills applied in combat sports with a pre defined set of rules for safety. In all fairness the above is a continuation of developments that took place in the Republican period. The mainland’s IWUF (International Wushu Federation) sponsored Competition Martial Arts (Jing Ji Wu Shu ) is split into two components: Taolu (Routines) and  Sanda/Sanshou (Free Fighting) none of which are a prerequisite for the other. Interesting enough the PLA’s martial arts has kept the more traditional approach where routines practice is done in the basic stage of training followed by free fighting applying the skills learnt in the initial step in both armed and unarmed combat.

Combat Training of Chinese Forces


We have presented several examples from early sources as well as literary examples, of an early eclecticism and cross training mindset in the practice of Chinese martial arts. Ancient Chinese warriors were also aware of the need to practice these methods in a realistic way, in order to apply them correctly when needed. These concepts precede the creation of modern MMA and the theories made popular in the west by Bruce Lee in the 70’s. MMA has also brought up most needed discussion on the role Chinese martial arts play in the combat sport scene when compared with other systems/competition venues from around the world.


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  1. Hi, I would like to share and reference this post in an upcoming podcast, if that is okay with you.


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