Antonio and his training brother Yilong practise sanda at a Shaolin Temple school. Photo courtesy of Antonio Graceffo

Wrestling is believed to be the oldest form of human combat and one of the world’s oldest sports, with the oldest depiction of it dating back to 3,000 BC Sumeria. Some anthropologists suspect running may predate wrestling as a sport; others argue that although primitive people ran, to actually make a sport of running necessitates the ability to measure distance and/or time, skills which our cave-dwelling ancestors did not possess.

Nearly every culture on the planet has some form of wrestling. Korea has ssireum wrestling, India has kushti, Cambodia jap bap. Japan has sumo and jujitsu/judo, Russia sambo, England catch-as-catch-can. Mexico has lucha libre, Mongolia Bokh, Greece ancient Greek wrestling and pankration. West Africa has Lutte Traditionnelle, China shuai jiao, France Greco Roman. Brazil has Brazilian jujitsu, and the United States has freestyle and folk-style, as well as pro wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts.

In 2013, when I was admitted to Shanghai University of Sport to pursue a PhD in wushu, I set out to conduct a cross-cultural comparison between Chinese shuai jiao wrestling and Western Olympic wrestling.  My findings were published this year in a book, ‘The Wrestler’s Dissertation.’

Since all of us, pretty much, have two arms and two legs, the same techniques will make us all fall down. So, why then do wrestling styles differ? It was my hypothesis that while differences in biology may have played some part – for example, European Greco-Roman wrestling is much more strength-intensive than Japanese judo or Chinese shuai jiao – the major differences come from culture.

Chinese shuai jiao wrestling, like many traditional wrestling arts around the world, including judo, involves competitors wearing a wrestling jacket and belt which can be gripped and used for assisted throws. There is no ground fighting and the winner is the person who throws his opponent three out of five times.

Most nations started from a similar position – namely that wrestling bouts end when someone hits the ground. How, then, did the West reach a zenith of development whereby wrestling morphed into Olympic wrestling, won by pin, or points, then into WWE-style pro wrestling, with muscle-bound combatants tossing each other through the air, and – finally – into mixed martial arts (MMA), a wrestling-based form of professional combat sport which allows wins by KO, choke, or submission?

Over the course of three years, I conducted countless interviews with martial arts masters and athletes, and read everything I could find in both English and Chinese, while training in the martial arts that were most closely related to my research.

I spent the summer of 2013 back at the Shaolin Temple, where I had previously studied in 2003. Most experts, and the Shaolin monks themselves, say that a wider variety of kung fu styles was taught at the temple in the past (basically, pre-1949, after which China’s new Communist government wanted to break with the past, including kung fu traditions, and effectively closed the Temple for several decades),  than is the case today. Nowadays, the primary martial art taught there is performance wushu (known as wushu taolu in Chinese). The other two most common arts are sanda (Chinese kick-boxing) and tai chi. There are elements of shuai jiao throws in the wushu forms and sanda throws, but shuai jiao is no longer practiced. Across China, I discovered the art was dying.

A young trainee practices wushu taolu at a school near the Shaolin Temple. Photo courtesy of Antonio Graceffo

Apart from some clubs of old men, particularly in Beijing, who have kept the tradition alive, I found shuai jiao was only being taught at a handful of sports schools and universities. Millions practice wushu nationwide and 50 universities in China offer degrees in it. By comparison, fewer than 600 compete in shuai jiao at university level in China, which is less even than the number (also under 1,000) competing in Western wrestling. Counting only public high school and university teams, the US has nearly a quarter of a million wrestlers. Additionally, some 1.3 million Americans train in MMA.

After three years of reading and researching, experiencing, training, fighting, and competing, I came to the following conclusions.

  1. The Chinese government is on an Olympic medal quest, pouring money into those sports where China has the best chance of winning, such as diving, ping pong, and badminton. China’s leaders probably see wrestling as a long shot at best, and thus do not wish to waste a lot of money on it. As for shuai jiao, because it is not an Olympic sport, it receives almost no attention from the government. Shuai jiao also fails to fulfill the government’s soft-power objectives. Both wushu and tai chi, unlike shuai jiao, are arts which can be showcased in movies and traveling shows sent to other countries around the world, or taught at Confucius Institutes and Chinese cultural centers.
  2. The reasons why WWE and UFC have failed to break the China market are economic and cultural. Most of the money in WWE and UFC is earned through Pay-per-view, online gambling, high ticket prices, and merchandise sales. Chinese consumers are price-sensitive, do not buy much merchandise, and Pay-per-view and online gambling are almost non-existent in the country.
  3. Finally, I determined that the major reasons for differences in wrestling rules, techniques and cultures between China and the US came down to competitiveness, aggression, and violence. The most popular sports in China are ping pong and badminton. Like wushu, these are neither aggressive nor violent. In the US, nearly 800 universities have American football teams, with over a million Americans playing on high school and college football teams. This suggests that American and western sports culture is far more aggressive and violent than Chinese sports culture.
Antonio sports a black eye at a shuai jiao school in Beijing. Photo: Antonio Graceffo

In shuai jiao, throwing your opponent to the ground is a symbolic act of domination. In western wrestling, pinning your opponent bodily to the ground is an actual act of domination. Transitioning from pin to ground-fighting submissions, and then to pinning an opponent and punching him in the face, as in MMA, is a lot easier for someone brought up in a pinning culture rather than a culture of symbolic victory. Equally, embracing a pinning sport would be an easier transition for someone brought up in a tackling culture, such as American football, than someone brought up in a wushu and ping pong culture.

Read more in The Wrestler’s Dissertation, by Dr. Antonio Graceffo, available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Dr. Antonio Graceffo works as an economics researcher and university professor in China. He is the author of eight books, including Warrior Odyssey and The Monk from Brooklyn. He has fought professionally as a boxer and MMA fighter as well as fighting as an amateur in boxing, sanda, and wrestling. Having spent over 15 years studying martial arts in Asia, he holds black belts in Cambodian Bokator, Filipino Kuntaw and Cambodian traditional kick-boxing. 

Antonio Graceffo

Antonio Graceffo works as an economics researcher and university professor in China. He holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport Wushu Department where he wrote his dissertation “A Cross Cultural Comparison of Chinese and Western Wrestling” in Chinese. He is the author of 8 books, including Warrior Odyssey and The Monk from Brooklyn. He has fought professionally as a boxer and MMA fighter...