What Is Sanda Chinese Kickboxing? Introduction To Sanda


China is a home of many martial arts out of which Sanda(formerly known as Sanshou) might be the most popular modern one. People often mix it with other striking arts like Muay Thai because of the appearance of similar techniques and rules. But Sanda is a unique fighting system, much more versatile than most other striking arts. 

Sanda is a full-contact martial art, often seen as a sport version of Kung Fu. It consists of hand strikes, kicks, elbows, and knees as well as trips, throws, and wrestling takedowns. In some way, you can look at Sanda as kickboxing with takedowns and grappling.

But there is more to Sanda that makes this martial art even more unique than other styles of kickboxing. Keep reading this article to learn more about Sanda and what makes it one of the best striking arts. We will explore its history, techniques and see how it compares with other similar arts.

History of Sanda 

Sanda emerged in the 1920s in China. At the time, the military needed a new combat system to improve the fighting abilities of its soldiers. They created a Sanda, which means “free fighting”, as a mix of techniques from various Chinese arts like Kung Fu, Lei Tei, Shuai Jiao. Later on, they would add techniques from western arts like boxing and judo. Over the next four decades, police and military were the only ones trained in Sanda.

But it would all change in the 1960s when the Chinese government regulated Sanda as a combat sport. Their main goal was to gather techniques and rules from all Chinese arts, and put them into one style of fighting. The final result was a fighting system that is a mix of striking and grappling techniques. However, the Sport version differs a lot from the military as it is much safer. And it also doesn’t include techniques like chokes, joint locks and elbow strikes. 

It’s worth pointing up that Sanda wasn’t that popular because it wasn’t seen as pure Chinese art. Although it has its origins in Kung Fu and other Chinese arts, it also includes a lot of techniques from non-Chinese arts like boxing and judo. It looks a lot like Muay Thai or western kickboxing with wrestling techniques.

In modern times, Sanda is among the most popular combat sports in the eastern world and countries like Russia, China and Armenia. Although it is not that popular in the west, we can see the sport rising at a steady pace.

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Is Sanda A Real Martial Art? 

Yes, Sanda is a real martial art and there is a strong reason why this is so. First, it has a long history and origins in various other famous Chinese arts like Kung Fu. But Sanda is far more practical in real life as it teaches you only techniques you can apply in real combat.

As a result, Sanda is a much better option when it comes to self-defense. Techniques you learn in training are simple, practical, and can help you get out of trouble. Students do a lot of sparring and live drills which are the best methods to prepare for combat. Most other Chinese fighting systems that have a status of martial art do not include sparring at all and do not work well in real-life fighting situations. 

In Sanda, fighters rarely train alone, do kata, or any other pre-arranged practices. These practices won’t help you much to prepare for matches or self-defense. Instead, the focus is on sparring in a spontaneous action with the partner, and training for a real combat. This doesn’t mean that Sanda is the best fighting style, but it meets all the criteria to be real martial art. 

What Are Wushu Sanda Rules? 

Sanda is a very popular combat sport, notably in the eastern world. The rules differ between organizations, but the general ones are very much the same. Here are the most important rules in Sanda matches:

  • Fighting area: Sanda fighters compete on an elevated square platform. This platform originates from “lei tai” and is 80cm in height, 8m in width, and 8m in length. Around the platform, there is a 30cm thick cushion to prevent fighters from getting hurt when falling off.
  • Protective gear: chest protector, headgear, mouthpiece, pair of full padded gloves, and a jockstrap.
  • Length of the matches: Sanda matches have 3 rounds in total with each round being 2 minutes long. There is a 1 minute rest period between the rounds
  • Techniques: Sanda fighters can strike both the upper and lower body areas. They can strike with punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. When it comes to grappling, they can use various wrestling moves, trips, and throws from judo.
  • Weight classes: Sanda competition includes 7 weight classes for women and 11 for men.

(Side note: “Wushu” is the Chinese term for “martial arts”)

Does Sanda Have a Belt System?

Yes, Sanda has a belt ranking system. The beginners start from the white belt (level 1) and they must go all the way up to the red and black belt (level 10). Once a student completes 10 ranks, they must pass an exam to qualify for the black belt rank. However, their Sanda journey doesn’t end here as the black belt is further divided by another 10 ranks. 

LevelColor Belt
Level 1White Belt
Level 2 White-Yellow Belt
Level 3Yellow Belt
Level 4 Yellow-Green Belt
Level 5Green Belt
Level 6Green-Blue Belt
Level 7Blue Belt
Level 8Blue-Red Belt
Level 9Red Belt
Level 10Black Belt
Sanda Belt System
Photo by International Wushu Sanda Federation

Is Sanda Good For Self-Defense? 

Sanda is good for self-defense as all techniques you learn work in real life as well. It is one of the rare fighting systems that teach you how to use your entire body as a weapon. It is a versatile system that covers both the striking and grappling aspects, which is really important for self-defense. Once you get in trouble on the streets, the one who has better skills and more weapons wins the fight in most cases.

The best thing about Sanda is that it teaches you how to fight at all ranges. You will learn how to fight at distance, at close range, in the clinch, or even some basics of ground fighting. Students learn how to use kicks, punches, elbows, knees, and wrestling takedowns and throws. 

No matter if a fight is in the parking lot, or in the bar, you will have weapons to use to defend yourself. Even if the opponent is bigger and manages to get a hold of you, Sanda trains you how to use leverage to throw them down to the ground. The grappling aspect is crucial because most average people don’t know how to defend wrestling or judo moves. It doesn’t matter how big or strong they are, it takes years to learn how to defend against these moves.

Although Sanda has many pros, the biggest downside is that you may have a hard time finding a gym to train. The sport is not that popular in the western world, which might force you to take classes in other similar arts like Muay Thai or Kickboxing.

Is Sanda Good For MMA? 

Sanda is a versatile art that is more than present in modern MMA. Although not as much as other arts like Muay Thai for instance, many top-level UFC fighters have a strong base in Sanda. Some of the most popular ones are Weili Zhang and Muslim Salikhov.

Overall, Sanda is a solid base for MMA. The way you learn how to keep distance, move, and mix kicks with the punches would help you a lot in cage fighting. Still, the aspect that stands out is the speed of strikes and movement. 

Bear in mind that even the most skilled Sanda fighters must attend wrestling and BJJ classes to succeed in the game. You can’t expect to shift over from Sanda to MMA and do well without any cross-training. 

Although Sanda covers both striking and grappling aspects, there are more than a few cons. For instance, grappling throws and takedowns you learn in Sanda might look like you can use them in MMA. But these techniques are not advanced enough.

In modern times, just about every MMA fighter has a good takedown defense and will defend against your Sanda attacks. That’s why even the UFC standout Zhang needed to cross-train to develop all-around skills and not just rely on her Sanda skills.

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Is Sanda Hard To Learn? 

Sanda training is very hard and it takes a lot of time and practice to become a skilled fighter. People tend to think that Sanda is easy but bear in mind that training differs a lot as the emphasis is on hard sparring and endurance. This means that workouts are intense, and hard on your body. The risk of injuries is not that high, but you can get hurt while trading strikes in sparring or matches.

Training session lasts around 2 hours, but this depends on the school and level you are at. As a beginner, you won’t have a hard time picking up the basic techniques. It’s not that hard to learn how to stand in a proper stance, and basic kicks, punches, and how to mix them together. You may find the classes to be physically hard, but it all gets much easier as you get stronger and more flexible.

The biggest downside of training is the fact that Sanda is not that popular outside of China. It’s very hard to find Sanda schools in the US for instance, and even if you do, we are not sure if the quality of the classes is the same as in China.

Are Elbows and Knees Allowed in Sanda? 

Yes, Sanda is one of the rare arts that includes elbow and knee strikes, but only in training. Due to safety reasons, elbow strikes are not allowed in competition, but you can utilize knee strikes. This is the main reason why Sanda matches look a lot like “K-1” as the rules are quite similar.

Elbow and knee strikes do not play a big role in Sanda as much as in other arts like Muay Thai. The emphasis is on throws and mixing kicks with the punches due to rules that forbid elbow strikes.

Even if they change the rules and allow elbow strikes, it would not make a big difference. According to rules, fighters can clinch just for a few seconds which is often not enough to land knees or elbows as you can do in Muay Thai. Sanda fighters would rather use these couple of seconds to execute judo throws or wrestling moves to take the opponent down.

Overall, Sanda includes knee and elbow strikes and students learn how to use them in training. You can later apply these techniques in a self-defense scenario, but not in matches.

What Is The Key Difference Between Sanda and Kickboxing?

These two arts may look the same on paper. Both teach you similar techniques and the rules are very much the same. So much, that people often see Sanda as kickboxing with takedowns.

The key difference is that Sanda is a much older martial art that includes elbow and knee strikes as well as grappling moves. Kickboxing, on the other side, is a combat sport that includes punches, kicks, and knee strikes. Here is a detailed look at how these two fighting systems differ from one another:


Wushu SandaKickboxing
HistorySanda emerged in the 1920s in China. It has roots in various Chinese arts like Kung Fu, lei tei and Shuai Jiao. It became a sport in the 1960s.Kickboxing emerged in the 1950s in Japan. It has origins in various styles of karate, Muay Thai and western boxing. 
TechniquesSanda includes punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes. It also trains you to use grappling throws and wrestling techniques.Kickboxing consists of kicks, punches, and knee strikes. Grappling or any wrestling moves are not allowed.
RulesSanda fighters compete on an elevated platform that is 80cm in height. Matches have 3 rounds and each round is 2 minutes long. Elbows are not allowed in competitionKickboxers compete in a square ring.  Matches have from 3 to 5 rounds, and each round is 3 minutes long.

What Is the Key Difference Between Sanda and Muay Thai?

Sanda and Muay Thai have a lot in common. But there are also many differences. Here is a detailed look into how Sanda and Muay Thai differ from one another:


SandaMuay Thai
HistoryThe initial form of Sanda was created by the Chinese military in 1920s. It became a popular sport four decades later in the 1960s. The earliest records of Muay Thai date all the way back to the 14th century Siam Kingdom. It started to rise all over the world in the 1970s. 
TechniquesSanda is often seen as a sport version of Kung Fu. Fighters use different types of hand strikes(jab,Cross,Hook,Overhand,Uppercut,
Back-fist), kicks, knees, and elbows. They can also clinch and throw the opponent with trips, throws and wrestling techniques. 
Muay Thai is very much the same when it comes to striking as its fighters also use 8 points of contact to strike with kicks, punches, knees and elbows. Fighters can also clinch (for much longer than Sanda fighters), and take the opponent down with trips and throws. 
EmphasisThe emphasis of Sanda is on fast and precise striking, quick movement and throws. Fighters tend to focus more on hand strikes and mixing them with the kicks, very much like the western kickboxing.The emphasis of Muay Thai is powerful kicks and fighting in the clinch with knees and elbows. Fighters focus on throwing each strike with a lot of power and goal to hurt the opponent with each strike.
RulesMatches have 3 rounds Each round is 2 minutes long The rest period between the rounds is 1 minuteMatches have 5 rounds Each round is 3 minutes long The rest period between the rounds is 2 minutes

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