San sau

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2-person combat set

Students must learn the san sau 2-person set. It features simple street-style attacks intended to strike vulnerable targets.
The set teaches the student how to evade and counter skilfully, whilst offering tantalising bait and limiting the attacker's options.

Multiple skills

It teaches strategy and timing, positioning and framework. Peng, stickiness and jing must also be employed.


A student of the san sau needs to be adept at Long Yang form (section 1). Many of the form movements feature in this 2 person set.
If a student has neglected to practice form, they will struggle to learn this set.

In all the martial arts the critical foundation that must be cultivated by the student  is mindfulness.

(Ron Sieh)

Initial stages of learning

San sau is taught through 4 stages initially:

  1. Sequence

  2. Peng

  3. Jing

  4. Combat concerns

Stage 1

The 'sequence' is just the pattern of movements: the framework. It must be performed quite well but is still very crude.

Stage 2

The next stage involves slowing the sequence down in order to emphasise structure and peng.


The framework must be accurate and strong. Without the necessary angle and positioning, much of the power is lost and the student will tend towards tension in order to compensate.
It is important to test the posture (with a partner) to ensure structural stability and softness. The aim is to be pliable like bamboo rather than brittle and rigid.
Adhere to the standard taijiquan guidelines.


Without peng, the san sau will not work. You need inherent peng in every movement and manifest peng when counter-attacking.


The simple 'evade and attack' methodology of the san sau makes it quite easy for a student to address peng from the onset. There are no unpredictable attacks.
Correct countering will ensure ample opportunity to test peng.
If your peng is present you will immediately destabilise the attacker using the neutralising arm, and increase their instability with a counter-strike.
The absence of peng will be evident through blocking and crumpling, and the use of unnecessary force.


Initially the set must be practiced very slowly. Do not speed it up until you can perform the set without thinking or planning in advance. Slowness encourages control.


Premature application against full-power strikes will only cause the defender to panic. It will also promote unwanted postural tension.


Train slowly, carefully and thoroughly. There is no need to deliberately increase the pace. The set will get faster as you become more confident and your timing improves.

Stage 3

Jing is concerned with the effect of your applications on the opponent. Unless you affect the attacker in the required manner, the set will fail to work. Every counter-attack must be executed properly.
Think about:

  1. Stepping

  2. Stickiness

  3. Use of centre

  4. Precise alignment

  5. Gaps & deficiencies

  6. Small circle movement

  7. Angles of attack and defence

4 ounces

If you exceed 4 ounces of pressure at any time, something is wrong. It may be that you are forcing an outcome. It may be that the attacker is not being realistic.

Gaps & deficiencies

The san sau was designed with the recognition that every counter potentially leaves you vulnerable. By countering skilfully, you can limit what the attacker can do.
Having committed and failed to make contact, the attacker must select the next target. They will typically
choose the target that offers the greatest reward for the least amount of risk.
The san sau is designed to cultivate an awareness of these targets and uses them as bait to lure the attacker.

Stage 4

The final learning stage is about using the set in actual combat. Subtle changes and corrections enhance the set, making it much more versatile and functional in combat.


If you can defend correctly, then each counter will finish-off the attacker. You should also have compromised their structure and balance to an extent that forces the attacker to withdraw fully in order to re-attack.
Your aim is to be thorough and convincing against a full-power assault.


Both the attacker and the defender must attack whole-heartedly. The aim of the set is to gain practical combat knowledge and experience. If the attack is weak it trains nothing.
Playing the attacker is a skill and it must be cultivated earnestly in class. Failure to attack well also means that you will fail to counter-attack well.


If the defence is weak, your counters will not work. Use intention rather than tension. Make your responses accurate, effective and sincere.


The footwork uses in the san sau is pretty straightforward. The skill lies in performing it very accurately. Poor coordination leads to bad positioning, and the set simply will not work in practice.
Your steps need to be nimble and smooth.

Whole-body movement

You must avoid disconnected movement at all costs. Coordinate your body so that all parts are working together. Do not force a limb or push a stationary opponent.
Feel where the power is coming from and move your body accordingly. Correct application works in accord with the incoming force, so no force is necessary.
If you cannot find harmony with the attack, focus on the most basic partnered drills and re-train timing and sensitivity.


Practicing solo is a must. Use a door frame for positioning. A mirror may also be used but is less useful.

Quality matters

Aim for accuracy of posture and positioning. Make sure that every single movement is structurally correct. What is your target? Can you reach the target? How are you generating power?
Train slowly and thoroughly to avoid making mistakes.

Mirror the set

Solo and partnered practice must be mirrored.

Further learning stages

The student later applies this drill against a knife attacker. They uncover power generation methods, hidden strikes and chin na throughout the set. An instructor dismantles san sau to see how it works.

school database

Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 09 February 2021