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Traditional Shaolin contact sets

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Mural in Baiyi Hall at Shaolin Monastery. This mural was produced c. 1700’s during Qiánlóng 乾隆’s reign or possibly the reign of Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 and illustrates monks practicing Dui Lian of which ten pairs are practicing weapon sets and six are practicing barehand sets.

Traditional Shaolin 'fighting sets' or 'contact sets' dui da (對打), also called dui lian (對 練), are a series of fighting drills designed to train pairs of combatants opposing each other (Note the character 練, which means to practice, train, to perfect one's skill, and drill). Often, one of the following terms is also included in the names of fighting sets: 雙演, shuang yan, 'paired practice'; 掙勝, zheng sheng, 'to struggle with strength for victory'; 敵, di, 'match – the character suggests to strike an enemy'; and 破, po, 'to break'. For example:

• Hu Tou Gou Di Shuang Dao 虎頭勾敵雙刀 (Tiger Hooks vs Double Broadswords)

• Ma Dao Po Hua Qiang 馬刀破花槍 (Horse Knife vs Spear)

These contact sets generally comprise 21, 18, 12, 9, or 5 generic drills or exchanges/groupings of attacks and counterattacks. It is understood that these drills were considered only generic patterns and never meant to be considered inflexible 'tricks'. Students often practice individual drills by continuously switching 'sides' of the set. Dui lian drills are effective methods of passing on the fighting knowledge of the older generation but also effective training methods. The relationship between single 'sets' and contact sets is integral; combat efficacy cannot be improved by training on single 'sets' alone. Unfortunately, many traditional dui lian fighting drills have disappeared. This is especially true for weapons. In modern Chinese martial arts, most dui lian are recent inventions, with safety and drama being the overriding concern.

A martial arts street demonstration (Lian Bing Qi 練兵器) depicted in painting from the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD).

By the early Song period, sets were not 'isolated techniques strung together' but were composed of technique and counter-technique groupings. Even before the Song Dynasty, it is quite clear that contact sets were instrumental in TCM. Images of weapon training in stone paintings, which can be read as two-person training, go back at least to the Eastern Han dynasty. In our tradition, approximately 45% or more of the training forms are two-person contact sets. However, as documented in ancient literature from the Tang and Northern Song dynasties, some marital arts training sets became elaborate and 'flowery,' many mainly concerned with esthetics, designed for 'show' and primarily for entertainment. During this time, some martial arts systems de-evolved to the point that they became popular martial art storytelling entertainment shows, creating an entire category of martial arts known as Hua Fa Wuyi (花法武藝) ⁠— fancy patterns for developing military skill. During the Northern Song period, historians noted that this type of training had a negative influence on training in the military.

For much of its history, Shaolin martial arts was largely weapon-focused. In a world where predators would be armed, it made perfect sense that staves, rather than bare hands, were used to defend the monastery. You will note that even Shaolin's more recent military exploits, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, involved weapons. Although sport wrestling has existed in China for centuries, weapons were the most important part of Chinese wushu in ancient times. If one wants to talk about recent or 'modern' developments in Chinese martial arts (including Shaolin, for that matter), a key one is the over-emphasis on barehand fighting and the use of 'prop' weapons. During the Northern Song Dynasty (976-997 AD), when platform fighting known as da laitai (tournament or challenge fights contested on an elevated platform) first appeared, these fights were with only swords and staves. Although barehand fighting competitions later appeared on the 'platform', weapons events were the most famous. These open-ring competitions had regulations and were organized by government organizations; the public also organized some. The government competitions resulted in appointments to military posts for winners and were held in the capital and the prefectures.

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