Wing Chun History

An alternative viewpoint

by David Peterson

*** Published 'Australasian Martial Arts' magazine (NZ) Feb 1999. ***

With an almost monotonous regularity, readers of the many martial arts books, journals and magazines are constantly confronted by version after version of the “legendary history” of the various Chinese combat systems. Each tale seems to begin with some chance encounter between a warrior, monk, nun or peasant with an animal or insect engaged in mortal combat with some other creature. Invariably one of the creatures, by one means or another, manages to become victorious over the other and the observer is able to go off and create a “new and improved” method for fighting their fellow man based upon what they have noted in the “battle”.

The “creator” usually has some kind of connection with the now famous Shaolin Temple, the one that still stands in Henan province that is, or the one which is said to have existed in Fujian province. This relationship established, the authenticity of the system is therefore not in question because we all know that “If it’s Shaolin, it must be good”. If one was to believe every story told about Chinese martial arts, one would be forced to accept that virtually every system extant in China is a so called “Shaolin” style, or a derivative thereof.

Some stories would even suggest that the founders, or at least the “key figures” in several systems were one and the same person. This practice of making a legitimising link with an established “authority” is by no means unique in Chinese society or history, nor is it uniquely Chinese to make such claims. Not only in the martial arts, but in all kinds of enterprises can one find examples of this. To cite such an example one need only take a look at the secret societies of China’s historical past, the “notorious” Triads.

Far from being the criminal groups which the Australian and world media are fond of portraying, the Triads were secret organisations formed to unite the Chinese against a common enemy. Such was the case in the 1890′s when the Boxer Movement swept across northern China, a rebellion organised by secret societies whose aim was the expulsion of the foreign invaders from Chinese soil.

Many of the modern Triads are legitimate groups whose aim is to help members of their own Chinese communities around the world. Melbourne’s Man Ji Dong or Chinese Masonic Society and its Sydney counterpart, the Ji Gung Tong are perfect examples of legitimate (not to mention law abiding) Triad organisations. I say this in complete confidence being, as I am, a fully initiated member of the Melbourne based group, perhaps in fact the only non Chinese in the last 150 years to have been through this very secret of ceremonies, the last known “gwailo” being a couple of British sailors in Macau during the 1800′s, according to what elder members here can recall being the case.

To return to my original thrust, even these legitimate Triad groups claim to have been founded by members of the Shaolin sect who founded these groups following the burning of the Shaolin Temple in the late 1700′s (an incident which, incidentally, cannot be verified by any existing records in China and is now thought to have been a story invented by the Triad leaders to encourage unity amongst the various groups and to fuel the Chinese hatred for their Manchurian oppressors). These Triad “ancestors” fled to various places in China and began inciting the people to rebel. Modern day criminal groups, such as the 14k Triad, in hoping to instil fear and respect, not to mention gain some measure of credibility for themselves by gaining some “instant history”, have adopted the customs and rituals of the real Triads. Unfortunately, these false Triads have received more than their fair share of attention and in doing so, have given the term ‘Triad’ a less than flattering interpretation.

In keeping with this idea of “instant history” it is not unrealistic to assume that the majority of these martial art legends are just simply “fairy tales” whose purpose was to make a system and it practitioners seem more believable because of some assumed link with an already accepted “authority”. The Chinese have a great love and respect for the past and for tradition, hence a system with a colourful history had a better chance of being taken seriously than one whose founder had “just-come-up-with-the-goods” so to speak.

The history of the wing chun system, as with the majority of Chinese systems, is shrouded in the mists and legends of the past. It, like most of the well known styles, has its “Shaolin connection”. Legend has it that the founder of the system was a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui who was one of a group of experts who were researching the existing systems in order to develop a more stream lined fighting style which could be taught quickly so as to aid the Chinese in rising up against their oppressors.

Before their knowledge could be systematised and passed on, the Temple was razed to the ground, resulting in the death of many of the masters residing there. Ng Mui, being a nun, was not at the Temple at the time (only monks being permitted to stay there) and so managed to escape the violence. She fled southwards, some versions of the story having her travelling to Sichuan province while others have her ending up in Fujian. While in the region she met up with Yim Yee Gung, a friend and past student of her senior, the monk Ji Sin, one of the “Five Elders” of Shaolin.

Prior to this, Ng Mui had witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane (some versions say a rodent and a crane, or a fox and a crane, etc.) and from this event had been finally able to systematise the knowledge which she and her colleagues had been experimenting with. On learning that the daughter of Yim Yee Gung, the beautiful Yim Wing Chun, was being forced into marriage with a local ruffian, Ng Mui devised a way of stalling for time during which she taught the young Wing Chun her “new” method. The rest, as they say, is history, …..or is it?

As far as records accurately describe, we know absolutely nothing of Yim Wing Chun or the inheritors of her skills, that is until we come across the one man in the history of the system whose existence can be verified and who is known to have taught the system that is said to be named after Ng Mui’s student. His name was Leung Jan, a herbal doctor who lived in the southern Chinese city of Fatsaan (Foshan in Mandarin) during the early 19th century. As a fighter he was renowned for his unrivalled skill and was reputed to have never been beaten. He taught only a handful of students, the best known of whom were his two sons, Leung Chun and Leung Bik, and Chan Wa Sun, who was also known as Jaau Chin Wa (“Money-changer Wa”).

Leung Jan himself was said to have learnt from two people, Wong Wa Bo and Leung Yi Tai, both of whom were said to have been experts at different aspects of wing chun, and at least one of whom (Leung Yi Tai) was a travelling performer with a Chinese opera troupe which moved from place to place by boat, on the so-called “Red Junk”, the name given to those engaged in this roving profession. This is where I would like to put forward an alternative view of the history of wing chun.

As stated earlier in this discussion, if one or more persons came up with a new idea concerning martial arts, it would conceivably be very difficult for them to convince anyone of its value if it did not boast some kind of link with past events, places or people. To digress for a moment, the sophisticated nature of the wing chun system does not allow one to easily accept that any one person could have devised its many sophisticated theories on their own. It is much more likely, as is the case with modern disciplines such as boxing, free style karate and the many eclectic combat arts, that only after several generations, and with the input and experiences of many individuals, that such a system would begin to develop into something of such depth.

The late Sifu Wong Shun Leung, of “Hong Kong” wing chun fame, in his seminars around the world over the years, liked to make a comparison with the modern combat sport of Western boxing, which he observed had changed quite dramatically over just the last sixty or so years, from the crouching-like postures of boxers like Joe Louis in the 30s and 40s, to the flashy footwork of the likes of Muhammad Ali in the 60s and 70s, through to the more upright and flat-footed approach of recent champions such as Mike Tyson. As sifu Wong would say, if it took boxing some sixty or more years to reach its current approach, it is easy to imagine the long process of development that led to wing chun’s present approach to combat. It is therefore very difficult to believe that any one individual could conceivably come up with such a sophisticated system in just one generation.

The nature of wing chun is such that it is quite easy to accept that a woman did indeed have some role to play in its development. It is an extremely logical, scientific system, which always makes use of skill over strength, economy of motion over flowery techniques, and is well suited to someone of smaller stature and strength. This is in no way meant to be interpreted as a sexist viewpoint, simply as one of many observations to be taken into consideration. The fact that Leung Yi Tai was said to be employed on a boat should not be dismissed lightly either. On closely observing the basic stances and footwork patterns of wing chun, it is indeed possible to accept that this system had its origins on the deck of a boat where it would have been quite impractical to jump about or throw high kicks. Wing chun’s Saam Gok Bo, or “Triangular-sliding stepping”, and Yi Ji Kim Yeung Ma, or “Goat-gripping stance”, are perfectly suited to maintaining stability on something as unstable as the deck of a boat.

Then there is the issue of the name of the system. Was, as the legend suggests, the system named after the first and only student of the nun Ng Mui, or is there another explanation? According to most accounts of the original Shaolin Temple, one of the halls in the grounds of the Temple was known as the Evergreen Hall (Wing Chun Tong), the first two characters being identical in sound, though differing in form and meaning, to that which makes up the first part of Yim Wing Chun’s name. In mainland China today there still exists at least one style of wing chun which uses this same character rather than the one favoured by the “Hong Kong” school.

Some other schools of southern Chinese martial arts also make reference to this Evergreen Hall, claiming it was one of the main sites in the Shaolin Temple for training, or that it was the residence of the monk Ji Sin and that when he taught his version of the hybrid style, he named it wing chun in memory of his former home. While training in Hong Kong over the years I have spent many long hours discussing the history of wing chun with instructors of the style, one of whom teaches another branch of the wing chun tree which traces its line back to the monk Ji Sin.

This instructor, Sifu Cheng Kwong, relates a history which brings the two branches of the wing chun line back together, firstly around the time of Yim Wing Chun’s husband, Leung Bok Chau, and again at the time of Leung Yi Tai. Sifu Cheng Kwong also believes that when the funeral tablet for Yim Wing Chun was being prepared, the first character of her personal name was written down incorrectly and was in fact meant to be the word meaning “evergreen” rather than the one which has come to be used, the meaning of the combined words in the “Hong Kong” wing chun meaning “to sing praises to springtime”.

As stated earlier on, I consider it fair to assume that several people, over a long period of time (rather than one or two people making up an entire system in just one generation), gradually developed and refined the techniques and concepts of the wing chun system, pooling their combined knowledge and experiences in order to do so. As my own instructor, Sifu Wong Shun Leung suggested, it is most likely that a group of “Gung Fu fanatics” with a wealth of knowledge and experience, gradually developed what we now call wing chun gung fu, refining it further and further with each successive generation.

Taking this notion even further, on more than one occasion I have heard it said by my teacher that it was not until when being interviewed by a reporter one day in the 1950′s that the late Grandmaster of the system, Yip Man, made mention of any of the history prior to Leung Jan’s time. It seems that there was popular martial arts magazine circulating then which regularly did feature articles on the various schools in the Colony and one surmises that, in order to follow the pattern already established, Yip Man may well have embellished the story somewhat. Sifu Wong even suggested on several occasions that Yip Man, on being bored with the whole idea, told the reporter to go ahead and make up the details himself! So much for the “history” that has been repeated again and again over the years.

Sifu Wong had himself surmised that the system was more likely to have been transmitted down the coast and along the rivers of south-eastern China by the people who ply those waters, such as fishermen, traders, opera junk performers and others, who would have had a use for good fighting skills and many an opportunity to test, refine and exchange skills. Finally, one extra piece of the puzzle fell into place during my quest for answers when I found, quite by accident while reading a Chinese book on a completely different subject, that tucked away in southern Fujian province, about one hundred kilometres “as the crow flies” north of the port city of Xiamen lies the small town of Wing Chun (Yong Chun in Mandarin), the characters being exactly the same as those in the name for the Evergreen Hall!

Could it be then, that over several generations a group of dedicated martial artists, seeking more efficient ways to engage in combat, gradually came to develop this unique method, and that they passed it on, friend to friend, relative to relative, teacher to student, until it made its way to Fatsaan where it was eventually learnt and refined even further by Leung Jan? Perhaps, as Sifu Wong suggested, they were people living on the water who travelled regularly up and down the coastline of southern China?

That would account for the opera performer Leung Yi Tai coming across the art while himself travelling on the opera boat. It would also help to explain how the wing chun system inherited its Luk Dim Boon Gwan or “Six-and-a-half-point-Pole” form, the techniques of which greatly resemble the poling actions used when travelling upstream along the many river deltas in that region. And what better name for their brilliant invention than wing chun, the name of the village from whence they had come?

While it is highly unlikely that we will ever know for certain what the true origins of wing chun are, it is interesting to consider these possibilities. The one factor which is irrefutable is that the wing chun method is one of the world’s most evolved combat systems. It is structurally sound and stands up to the most stringent scientific scrutiny, not to mention its very impressive record on the streets of Hong Kong and elsewhere. What is most important is that the man who brought wing chun to the public, the late Grandmaster Yip Man, should be remembered for the role he played in developing the art, and for passing on his unique skills to his four most gifted original students, Leung Seung, Lok Yiu, Chu Shong Tin and Wong Shun Leung, each of whom have contributed in some special way to the development of wing chun’s reputation for being a combat skill not to be taken lightly.

As Sifu Wong so often said, though we don’t know who the ancestors of wing chun were, it is our duty to carry on the tradition, to pass on the art as we have learned it, and to develop in our own students a pride in the system that they have inherited, and a desire to raise the skills of wing chun to even greater heights. On the walls of the Wing Chun Athletic Association in Hong Kong, and in countless wing chun schools around the world, is a two-line verse in Chinese characters which translates roughly as, “Pass on the skills of Wing Chun complete and unchanged in order to strengthen the Nation”, a motto which obviously has even wider implications.

Whether we owe a debt of gratitude to a nun and her student, or to a group of fishermen and an opera star, the fact remains that wing chun is a magnificent achievement which should be preserved for future generations. All teachers and practitioners of wing chun should strive to keep to the most basic principles of the system, to be, in sifu Wong’s words, “The masters of wing chun, not the slaves of wing chun”, and to always utilise the most SIMPLE, DIRECT, and EFFICIENT means available. If we, the most recent generation of practitioners, pursue these ideals, preserving the true nature of the system and teaching the concepts in their purest form (as opposed to so-called “secret techniques”), the future looks bright for wing chun gung fu.