San Shou is the practice of taking martial techniques embedded in the forms and applying them against attacks from a somewhat cooperative opponent. Its purpose is to learn how various techniques are employed, practice those techniques over and over again in a relatively controlled environment with various partners, and eventually introduce those techniques into free sparring. San shou integrates forms and sparring.
In the beginning of san shou, your attacker throws a right forward bow punch to your chest. Your job is to move your body to block the punch and counter the attack. Now, when you’re just starting san shou or learning a new technique some leeway is given to the defender and they shouldn’t be afraid of getting hit. As your experience increases, the attacker’s job is to lightly tap the defender in the chest if they miss the block! In fact, the attacker is doing the defender a disservice by not attacking at full speed with the intent of softly hitting his/her chest. The defender needs to know their defense was not good enough and they need to focus on their blocking technique next time. If the attacker does get through the defenders defenses, then both should stop, and bow in recognition that the defender got hit. The defender switches to become the attacker and they continue.
As students move up in rank, san shou gets more advanced and attacks can come in any form to any part of the body: punches, elbows, pushes, kicks, grabs, double-movements, etc. Again, the attacker must do their best to connect with the defender to ensure he/she is prepared with proper defense and counter. With the exception of learning or practicing new techniques, the attackers intention’s are to “get in” on their opponent to help them learn their technique, but certainly not to injure your kung fu brothers and sisters. There is no need to block an attack that doesn’t even come close to connecting. Clearly, an attacker outside of the school isn’t going to stop his punch a foot away from your body – he’s going to try his best to hit!
One of the benefits to attacking your opponent at full speed, but with only a light, non-penetrating power is the development of distance and sensitivity. Both require much practice to develop and both are vital to advancing in sparring. Distancing is crucial for being able to successfully employ techniques with proper contact and power. Sensitivity is important in that it provides the ability to increase or decrease power as needed while the counter is being employed. Distance and sensitivity are also benefits to proper counters to san shou attacks. These features of san shou begin with the attackers intention to lightly hit the defender.