The history of Chinese martial arts is filled with legend, myth, and oral stories passed from sifu to student. This is especially evident when looking at the early Kung Fu history of Wing Chun.
Toward the 1800s and 1900s more documentation exists which some believe makes it easier to trace this art… maybe not.
The most popular Wing Chun origin story is the one of a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui and a young woman named Yim Wing Chun – the name sake for Wing Chun Kung Fu.
A few variations of this story exist. In brief they all revolve around this general theme:
- The nun Ng Mui was a Shaolin Kung Fu master who escaped political persecution when the Qing imperial forces burned down the Shaolin Temple.
- The Temple was a refuge, hideout, and underground training area for rebels against the Qing government.
- She either developed Wing Chun by watching a fight between a snake and a crane or a fox and a snake.
- OR, Wing Chun was developed by boiling down all the best Kung Fu known at the time from all the masters found at the Temple before it burnt down. This ‘efficiency’ cut the time needed to become a deadly fighter down to a fraction of what it was.
- After the temple burned down, she escaped and passed Wing Chun to a young woman she befriended because the lady was being hassled by a local bully/thug/warlord. The woman used her new Wing Chun skills to beat up the thug.
- This woman was either named Yim Wing Chun, or later took on the name Wing Chun. In many lineages, she is the namesake for the art.
- Yim Wing Chun taught the art to her husband and it has since spread, evolved, and grown into different branches over a couple hundred years including Ip Man’s branch.
- The end (?)
Not a bad story, but there’s more to it…
Ng Mui, Yim Wing Chun, the Fall and the Rise of an Empire…
I believe it’s helpful to understand some of China’s history during these times and how it may relate to Wing Chun’s birth.
The earliest origin stories claim it happened during the tumultuous period between the fall of the Ming Empire [1368 – 1644] and Rise of the Qing Empire [1644 – 1911] – China’s last empire before modern times.
The new Qing government was ruled by foreign invaders called the Manchus. Ethnic Chinese, the ones you picture in your head when you think of Chinese people, are called Hans.
In China’s 4,000 year written history, and especially since it’s imperialistic era starting in 221 AD with the founding of China’s first empire, it has been ruled by foreigners twice.
The first time it happened the Mongol Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, took over and founded the Yuan Dynasty. For less than one hundred years, 1279 – 1368 AD, Mongolians dominated the Han Chinese.
Then, nearly 300 years later, it happened again, except this time it was the Manchurians (in Medieval Asian history they are called the Jurchens. One of the many “barbarians” the Chinese wanted to keep out with their Great Wall.).
They took over the Han Chinese and established the Qing Dynasty from 1644 – 1911.
Throughout the millennia the different ethnic peoples of Asia have assimilated to some degree.
However, inside China’s modern borders today, 56 distinct ethnic groups are officially recognized by the Chinese government. Plus, another 15 groups that are not ‘officially’ recognized.
China is not, and probably never has been, the homogenous country many in the West believe.
These minority ethnic groups include peoples such as the Tibetan, Uighur, Mongols, Korean, Miao, and Manchu.
Many of them live largely autonomously, often on their own traditional lands, speak their own language, use their own written language, religion, food, music, social customs, etc.
A Chinese friend told me during the 1970s – 1980s, while most food and “shopping” was still centrally planned and rationed through the communist/socialist system, families had to pick up (not buy) rationed food with coupons (not money).
A Muslim family lived in my friend’s building and instead of being issued a meat coupon for “pork”, they had special coupons for “beef.”
This was done so they could eat according to their dietary and religious customs – no pork.
The 50-year conquest and transition between Ming and Qing was not peaceful. Not even close.
World War II holds the record for number one.
Estimates say between 40,000,000 to 72,000,000 humans died in just six years.
That’s like wiping out the populations of Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, and Moscow in six short years.
Like all wars, it created an upheaval that practically destroyed China economically. Some accounts puts this period as the fourth largest loss of human life in history – 25,000,000 people.
The Manchu conquest began in earnest around 1616. It took thirty years for the capital of Beijing to fall in 1644.
When that day came, the last sitting Ming Emperor, Chongzen, committed suicide and this officially ended Ming rule and began the ascent of the Qing.
But there’s more…
Like any people who don’t want foreign invaders on their land, many Ming loyalists (now the “rebels”) fought on. Some of the strongest pockets of resistance were found in the south.
Part of the reason was because that’s where the last remnants of the extended Ming family made their stand. The hope was one of these last bloodlines would take back the throne.
But, one by one the Qing imperial forces snuffed the rebels out in Taiwan, Nanjing, Shanxi, Yunnan, Guangdong, and Fujian.
In 1662, nearly 50 years after the beginning of the Manchu conquest, the Yongli emperor, Zhu Youlang, the last of the Ming bloodline, died and this ended any possibility for a Ming revival.
Kung Fu History, The Shaolin Temple, and the Southern Shaolin Temple…
Many Kung Fu styles, not just Wing Chun, set their origin during this period.
They revolve around the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple during the Ming/Qing upheaval, which causes the exodus of the Five Shaolin Kung Fu grandmasters who spread their skills far and wide.
Loosely speaking, the Five Shaolin Elders are Bak Mei, Fung Dou Dok, Hiu Min, Ji Sin, and Ng Mui.
From these five elders Ng Mui goes on to spread Wing Chun, while Ji Sin’s martial art spreads down to five more grandmasters.
They are Hung Hei Goon, Lau Saam Ngan, Choi Gau Yi, Lei Yau San, and Mok Ching Giu.
These five in turn are responsible for establishing Kung Fu styles like Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, and others.
One problem: many scholars (not martial artists) don’t believe the historicity of the “Southern” Shaolin Temple (said to be located in today’s Fujian province) as the mecca of southern Kung Fu.
They say there isn’t enough, or any, provable documentation.
This story is nonetheless deeply rooted in wuxia literature; the most popular being Outlaws of the Marsh written in the 1300s (about 300 years before the Ming/Qing), and one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature.
Before there were Kung Fu movies, there was Kung Fu literature collectively known today as wuxia!
One reason why the Shaolin Temple (North and/or South) feature so prominently in Kung Fu history, is because its monks have been kicking butt since at least 610 AD, around the beginnings of the Tang Dynasty.
Buddhism reached China around 464 AD when the Bodhidharma traveled from India to China spreading the teachings of the Buddha.
According to some texts, the Shaolin Temple (northern) was built on Mt. Shaoshi as early as 477 AD, while others place its construction as late as 497 AD.
Either way, it was a long, long time ago.
The word Shaolin is written with two Chinese characters – ‘shao’ (少) and ‘lin’ (林).
The ‘shao’ comes from the fact the temple is built on Mt. Shaoshi (少 室 山).The ‘lin’ means forest.
Often ‘shao’ is incorrectly transliterated as ‘small’ (小 – xiao). This is not accurate.
Although to the untrained eye both symbols look similar, and to the untrained ear they sound similar, they are not the same – it’s like saying b and d are the same.
Today, this mountain is located inside Henan province about 826 km (513 mi.) from Beijing and 1500 kilometers (930 miles) north of the fabled ‘Southern’ Shaolin Temple.
The actual Shaolin Temple is located in today’s Henan province, this is referred to as “Nothern Shaolin” by martial artists. This temple has been burned down and ransacked many times in its centuries long history.
- Most notably, it happened in the 1300s during the Yuan Dynasty under Mongolian rule;
- It’s said to have happened during the 1600s Ming/Qing period;
- It happened in the 1920s during China’s modern Warlord era;
- And in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution when Communists purged writings from the Temple’s walls leaving them bare for years;
- But these are not the only times the Shaolin Temple has been persecuted, it’s happened many more times in its long history.
Another problem: The claims of the Ming/Qing period burnings have some peculiarities.
Apparently, the Qing burnt the Temple for its anti-Qing activities and this MAY have taken place in 1647, or 1674 (about 30 years later), or 1732 (about 100 years later). One hundred years is a pretty wide margin of error, in my opinion.
Adding to the confusion, it’s not clear historically speaking, whether it was just the ‘Northern’ Shaolin Temple, or the supposed ‘Southern’ Shaolin Temple, or both that were burned down by the Qing.
Everyone agrees (historians and martial artists), if there ever was a Southern Shaolin Temple, it was never rebuilt like the main one in Henan province.
On top of that, during the bloody 50-year conquest of the Qing over the Ming, it’s easy to assume a lot of temples, homes, businesses, documents, and towns were burned and destroyed. That’s half a century of chaos,
One more problem: Although Buddhist temples, monasteries, and/or cloisters are plentiful in the south of China and Fujian province (in fact all over China), even the Shaolin monks don’t agree that “Shaolin” was ever in the south.
One Chinese website quotes two Shaolin abbots disagreeing on its existence. Below are two rough translations:
In an interview the abbot of Henan Shaolin, Shi Yongxin, said:
“In all the records of the Shaolin Monastery, I have never seen the words ‘Southern Shaolin.'”
But, the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou (located in Fujian, but not “THE” Southern Shaolin Temple of martial arts fame), replied:
“Shaolin is definitely present in Fujian, it is not up to anyone to say it does or does not, its history can be found, its history can be proven, in this kind of argument these are of no consequence.”
The 1800s – 1900s: The Red Boat Opera, Lueng Jan, Leung Bik, Chan Wah Shun, Ip Man, and Bruce Lee…
Some, like Rene Ritchie, co-author of Complete Wing Chun: The Definitive Guide to Wing Chun’s History and Traditions, say a more accurate history for Wing Chun and its people starts around the 1800s.
This is where the “official” story of Wing Chun should begin… until we uncover more peer reviewed evidence.
Even so, the 1800’s Wing Chun story isn’t as clear as we would all like it to be.
What we could say with some level of confidence is during this time a connection between Wing Chun and the Red Boat Opera took hold.
Some don’t believe in the Ng Mui/Yim Wing Chun story. Instead they say Wing Chun comes from the melding of different martial artists working as Red Boat Opera actors (some of them using this job as a cover for their revolutionary activities).
This period would start from around the 1700s (maybe earlier), which is the middle of the Qing dynasty, 100 years after the Ming/Qing transition.
In any case, the 1800s is about when the Dragon Pole weapon and form (note: many variations of the form, like most Wing Chun forms, exist) got incorporated into Wing Chun.
Most families have a Dragon Pole form and attribute it to the Red Boat Opera era.
Of the handful of Dragon Pole (also known as the Six and Half Point Pole, or Liu Dian Ban Gan in Mandarin) forms I’ve seen, the moves and footwork are usually long and low.
In other words, it’s the one form that looks the least like Wing Chun to me. It would seem the Dragon Pole came from somewhere else entirely, giving credence to the Red Boat people.
From these years we also hear about grandmasters Leung Jan, his son Leung Bik, and his student Chan Wah Shun, as well as others who established different Wing Chun lines. Only one of which was Ip Man.
Chan Wah Shun was Ip Man’s sifu (and Choy Fong Lum’s sifu, too). Yet, one Wing Chun family says Ip Man learned from Chan Wah Shun when he was young and then Lueng Bik, by chance when they both lived in Hong Kong.
Finally, Ip Man teaches Wing Chun to its most famous practitioner – Bruce Lee
I’m pretty sure Bruce is for real. Although he’s already falling into legend status now.
The book Complete Wing Chun: The Definitive Guide to Wing Chun’s History and Traditions goes into greater detail on at least 8 Wing Chun families with pictures and descriptions of their unique aspects.
Wing Chun History Being Written Today…
Thanks in large part to the Internet, Wing Chun is going through a growth spurt.
Students, fans, and the curious can learn about Wing Chun online, watch videos, and even buy books, DVDs, and other resources they couldn’t get before unless they were very lucky to have a store that stocked this material in their neighborhood, which wasn’t likely.
The Internet is also helping enterprising sifus and school managers reach out to more potential students like never before. Which means many more people are learning Wing Chun all over the world.
Like Bruce Lee, the power of the cinema has definitely helped push Wing Chun into the spotlight, especially in recent years with the Ip Man series of movies, and big name actors like Robert Downey Jr. using Wing Chun in blockbuster movies such as Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes.
In Asia, top movie stars are training Wing Chun and their fans are taking their lead and joining classes as well.
Some other exiting developments I see happening is the use of Kali sticks in many Wing Chun schools, as well as more time spent improving ground fighting/grappling due to the popularity in MMA.
Who knows, in one or two hundred years Kali and ground fighting forms may be a staple in many Wing Chun lineages, just like the Dragon Pole today…
… Wing Chun has a bright future!