After the September 11 attacks, Antonio Graceffo realized “that someday” was never going to come and quit his successful job as a Wall Street investment banker, traveling to Asia and devoting himself to studying martial arts.
He mastered numerous styles, including Sanda, Muay Thai, and Bokator (Khmer kickboxing). During the summer of 2013, Graceffo finally realized his dreams of learning traditional Chinese wrestling, or Shuai Jiao. According to his blog, Brooklyn Monk in Asia, Graceffo began a three-year long study at the Wang Wen Yong wrestling school and later enrolled in the Shanghai University of Sport as a PhD candidate and joined the school’s Chinese wrestling team.
He writes in a blog post that “while we were supposed to be doing Chinese traditional wrestling, the coach would often give us a choice of what to work on. And we all inevitably chose freestyle or Greco Roman wrestling. While I tried to learn as much of the Chinese wrestling as I could, I simply liked freestyle better. Freestyle just seemed to focus on effectiveness, rather than tradition.”
But when the national tournaments came up, they all reverted to the traditional forms to adhere to the rules. This led to an epiphany for Graceffo, who was working on his dissertation about the difference between Chinese wrestling and other types.
“Different from freestyle wrestling, traditional wrestling means ‘traditional wrestling.’ It can’t change. It can’t be added to or taken away from. And no matter how many matches you win, you are either doing traditional wrestling or you aren’t,” he writes.
In the end, the entire team was pulled out of competition because they weren’t using traditional techniques. One of these unique Shuai Jiao techniques, which Graceffo barely used, was grabbing the opponent’s jacket.
However, Graceffo believes that promoting traditional wrestling would be a means to improve China’s wrestling reputation.
“Culturally, they could promote traditional wrestling to the Chinese people as a Chinese sport,” he tells the podcast No Holds Barred. “From that pool of traditional wrestlers, they could probably begin to draw people and then train them in freestyle and Greco-Roman.”
What are these traditions, and what exactly is Chinese wrestling? Here’s a brief rundown of its history.
In The Method of Chinese Wrestling, Tong Zhongyi and Tim Carmell argue that Shuai Jiao is “the oldest and most influential fighting system in China.” With more than 4,000 years of history, many say that it is rooted in the “grappling styles of the Mongolians and Tibetans” and “reached a high degree of practicality and sophistication a thousand years before most other Asian martial arts were conceived.”
Proponents of the martial art, unlike Graceffo, state that Shuai Jiao techniques are very suitable for practical application.
“Although the art consists primarily of throwing techniques, it also teaches kicking, striking, grabbing and joint locking,” writes master Nick Scrima on his website. It is a “practical and realistic fighting art” due to the fact that a practice match closely resembles an actual street fight. Furthermore, Scrima writes that Shuai Jiao relies on “redirecting an incoming force, and unbalancing tactics to apply throwing techniques. Since it does not rely on brute force, this is an excellent method for both men and women, and is especially fun for children to practice.”
According to this description on the International Chinese Wrestling Club’s website, “The common translation of Shuai Jiao as “wrestling” is not accurate since no true wrestling skills are involved.” They state that a more accurate translation would simply be “throwing”.
Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming echoes Scrima’s sentiments, stating that “Shuai techniques can be incorporated into all martial styles” and “are enjoying an increase in popularity as it pertains to “street fighting and barehand combat.”
Graceffo did not find traditional Shuai Jiao techniques to be effective, and it remains to be seen what the results of his dissertation research will be.