History of the Art

The Convoluted 'History' of Wing Chun Kuen


Grandmaster Ip Man

History and Legends of Wing Chun

The Wing Chun system of martial arts was developed in southern China approx. 250-300 years ago.

During the reign of Emperor K’anghsi of the Ching Dynasty (1662-1722), the Shaolin monastery called Siu Lam of Mt. Sung,Sut the use of the knee in the Honan province, had become very powerful through Kung Fu training. The Manchurian government was afraid of an uprising and sent troops to destroy the Siu Lam. However, it was internal treachery that sealed the fate of the monastery, with traitorous monks setting it alight. Only a handful of monks managed to escape the onslaught of the Manchurian army. Ng Mui, a Buddhist Nun and Grand master of Sui Lam Kung Fu and the creator of the Wing Chun system was one of them. Ng Mui later developed a system of Kung Fu designed to overcome the Sui Lam systems of the Manchurian army.

Her ideas of a close quarter combat were totally different from the Sui Lam systems of that time. She discarded many of the old traditions, which often required years of dedicated practice at each stage, and started to develop this new system based on the principles of winning at all costs, using speed and subtlety to overcome an opponents’ natural advantages. Her system, as yet unnamed had less stress on muscular strength (lik), bone conditioning, or muscular flexibility. The emphasis lay in sudden contraction and relaxation (ging) causing one to explode into action with natural weapons such as finger jabs to the eyes, elbow strikes to face and the powerful use of the knees and feet to the opponents lower body.

Ng Mui later met and befriended a young woman named Yim Wing Chun, who was just fifteen years of age. Little is known of Yim’s childhood other than her mother died when she was in her teens and her father, Yim Yee, was falsely accused of a crime. They had moved to Mt. Tai Leung along the border of Yunan and Szechwan provinces, rather than risk imprisonment. Here they set up a bean curd shop. Yim was a beautiful and intelligent young woman but soon attracted the attentions of the local bully, who wanted to marry her and tried to rape her. Ng Mui took Yim Wing Chun into the mountains and taught her the techniques of the new system she had devised in a bid to protect the young woman. Under Ng Mui’s direction, Wing Chun, studied Kung Fu religiously and mastered the style.

Wing Chun, like Ng Mui, knew only too well that in a street situation the male aggressor is already emotionally unstable and therefore the female has to respond using the skills of economy of motion using his strength to her advantage. She then returned to the village and defeated the local bully. After this event Ng Mui named the new style, Wing Chun Kuen after her protégé.

Roughly translated Wing Chun means ‘Perpetual/Beautiful Springtime and Kuen is fist or fist fighting style.

Wing Chun passed on her skills to her husband and he in turn taught his brother. The system was passed on to many others to become the popular martial art it is today. Wing Chun continued to fight for the overthrow of the Manchurian Government until her death, keeping a promise to her Grand Master Mentor Ng Mui.

History or Legend Two

The above is one version. Another relates, with more historical reference, to Cheung Ng (also known as Taan Sau Ng) who worked in the Chinese opera and was a well respected martial artist. The Chinese Opera travelled on boats. The wing chun stance, poles (used to punt), close range techniques etc. would have been useful on a boat. Taan Sau is a very specific Wing Chun technique and this man could be the true founder of Wing Chun Kung Fu, with Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun perfecting his unnamed approach to martial arts. How it was passed down is difficult to prove until we reach Dr Leung Jan of Foshan, then the lineage becomes clearer.

Dr Leung Jan is the most noted historical figure in the Wing Chun style and taught Chan Wah Shun who taught Grandmaster Ip Man.

Grandmaster Ip Man taught movie legend Bruce Lee for a number of years. Master James Sinclair, Founder and Chief Instructor of the United Kingdom Wing Chun Fu Association received personal tuition from the late Grandmasters son, Grandmaster Ip Chun, on several occasions and visited Hong Kong and Foshan where Wing Chun Kung Fu had its strongest links.

Grandmaster Ip Chun is the eldest son of Ip Man as well as one of the most respected teachers still teaching in Hong Kong to this day. While he finds beauty in the legend of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun, Ip Chun sought more historic facts to base his beliefs. Upon recent research, a man named Cheung Ng has been confirmed as having existed and can be more accurately credited with the spread of Wing Chun. As a student of the Shaolin Temple in Fujian, Cheung Ng became proficient in martial arts prior to the destruction of the temple. It was during this time that Cheung Ng learned the form of Wing Chun which was being taught as an effective form of martial arts against the Manchus.

After the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, Cheung Ng was forced to seek refuge with different families while teaching Wing Chun to secret rebellious groups. He was even nicknamed Tan Sau Ng after the term Tan Sau which is one of the essential blocks taught in Wing Chun.

Even the story of Cheung Ng becomes shrouded with some mystery as he and his students were forced to train in secret. It is likely that legends similar to the story of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun were intentionally created to protect the teachers and practitioners from being discovered by authorities.

There are numerous legends pertaining to the origins of Wing Chun. Below are a few that may be of interest. The reader can extrapolate parts and put a picture together. What is fascinating is that at times we have some clear dates for the historical record.

History or Legend Three

The origin of Wing Chun Kung Fu can be found in the turbulent, repressive Ching (Manchurian) dynasty of over 300 years ago. It was a time when 90% of the Chinese, the Hans, were ruled by the 10% minority, the Manchurians. The Manchurians treated the Hans unjustly. For instance, all the female Han infants were made to bind their feet so that when they grew up they would be dependent upon their parents or husband. Men were made to shave the front of their heads and were forced to wear a pigtail (queue) to distinguish them as Han males, not Manchurian.

The work opportunity of the Hans was also restricted. They were not allowed to hold a position above a certain level of Government. Heavy tax burdens were placed on the country, so that the Manchurians could have economic control of the Han people.

Martial Arts training was also banned for the Hans; however the Manchurian Government was adopting the Han culture. The Manchurians respected the Siu Lam Temple as a Buddhist sanctuary, since the Manchurians were Buddhists as well.

When all weapons were outlawed by the Manchurians, the Hans began training a revolutionary army in the banned art of Kung Fu. The Siu Lam Temple became the secret sanctuary for preparatory training of a classic style which took 15 to 20 years for each person to master. Five of China’s grandmasters met to discuss the merits of each of the various forms of kung Fu, in order to develop a form with a shorter learning period. By choosing the most efficient techniques from each style, they developed training programs that would develop an efficient martial artist in 5 to 7 years, one-third the original time. However before this new form could be put into practice, the Siu Lam Temple was raided and burned by the Manchurians Ng Mui, a nun, was the only survivor of the original five grandmasters. She passed her knowledge onto a young orphan girl whom she named Yim Wing Chun. The name means “Praise Spring”, representing “hope for the future”, a future without Manchurian domination and injustices. In turn Yim Wing Chun passed her knowledge to her husband, Leung Bok Chao. Through the years the style became known as Wing Chun. Its techniques and teachings were passed onto a few carefully selected students. After Yim Wing Chun passed away, Leung Bok Chao taught his nephew Wong Wah Bo.

Wong Wah Bo joined the Red Junk Opera Company and taught Leung Yee Tai who was an actor in the company. Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo both taught Leung Jan who in turn became famous for his skill in Wing Chun kung fu. Leung Jan opened an herbal shop in Fat Shan, where he practiced medicine. At night he trained his sons and Chan Wah Shun. After Leung Jan passed away, Chan Wah Shun took over the instruction of Wing Chun and Leung Bik left the province. In time, Chan Wah Shun accepted Yip Man as his last disciple.

History or Legend Four

The history of Wing Chun begins in the Siu Lam temple, the cradle of the martial arts around the world, with the culmination of hundreds of years of experience. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw a blossoming of Siu Lam martial arts as never before. Almost all the residents of Siu Lam practiced, and a powerful detachment of several hundred warrior-monks was organized. The Ming government treasured the warrior-monks, sending them on expeditions to border areas. After the Manchurians conquered China, the remnants of the Ming family encouraged export of the secret knowledge of Siu Lam fighting arts to rebel troops to defend the Han nation and to try to restore the Ming regime with the slogan: “Overthrow Ching, Restore Ming”. This time period was known as the Ching Dynasty.

The conquest of China by the Manchu in the 17th century and harsh actions created distrust among the people towards the Ching government. The Manchu, excellent warriors in their own right, kept the Ming dissidents under control, imposing on all the badge of subservience, the “queue” which symbolized for them a horse’s tail. Animosity and discontentment towards the Manchurians became more visible. In the spirit of “Overthrow Ching, Restore Ming”, many boxers joined various secret societies hoping to return the Ming to power. Formations of underground movements were the precursory events that brought Wing Chun and many other Chinese martial art styles into existence. Thousands from the north retreated southward to southern China, disseminating their martial arts skills as they went. Although unsuccessful in their aims, the boxers seeking a return of the Ming did achieve a result. They spread the Siu Lam boxing doctrines to all corners of China. Many of them were later killed by the British gun during the eight nations allied military forces era.

Early in the 1700’s, during the reign of Emperor K’ang Hsi (1662-1723), the Manchurians became concerned about the Siu Lam Temple’s rebellious activities as well as their advanced fighting abilities and continued development of their martial arts system. Deciding to eliminate the threat of these rebels and their rebel leaders, the Manchurians sought to exterminate the Siu Lam monks to prevent them from spreading their martial arts skills and rebellious activities. The Emperor even sent his own officials to live like monks at the Siu Lam Temple to spy on rebel’s activities but many failed. Eventually the Southern Siu Lam Temple was burned and destroyed by K’ang Hsi’s order.

The Siu Lam Temple was not only a repository of martial arts knowledge and rigorous training academy but, just as important, a stimulus for other martial art styles. Many of the systems today were born out of Siu Lam roots. Prior to the destruction of the Siu Lam Temple, a comprehensive and high-level martial art system was developed which was formulated through multiple generations of Siu Lam knowledge and experience.

During that time it was strictly forbidden to teach or reveal the art to anyone that didn’t belong to the secret societies or were non-Han. Because of this reason, Wing Chun took on a mysterious personal. Many years later, a famous novelist wrote a martial art fiction titled 10,000 Year Ching. The novel talks about Ng Mui, Chee Sim, Hung Hei Goon, and Fung Sai Yuk. Many fairy tales, movies and stories about Hung Kuen and Wing Chun were based on this novel. With each telling of the story from the novel, embellishments and exaggerations were added until the story reached the level of a fairy tale. Due to the nature of secret societies, these fictional stories and legends came to be the accepted truth as to the creation of Wing Chun.

After the destruction of the Southern Siu Lam Temple, Cheung Ng fled to Guangdong province. In order to keep his identity and Siu Lam background from the Manchurian government, Cheung Ng founded the Red Boat Opera Troupe in Fat Shan. Known for its discipline and rules of conduct, the Red Boat Opera Troupe was an organization of talented stage performers who traveled in up and down the rivers of Southern China in red boats. This time period around the mid-to-late-1700s was known as the Red Boat Period.

Wing Chun comes from snake and crane shape boxing around 1810. In Chuan Jiao, Fu Jian, Yim Yee was going to be arrested by the government, so he fled with his daughter, Wing-Chun, and sold tofu for a living. His martial arts were healthy, beautiful, and effective and he taught them to Wing-Chun. One day while she was washing clothes by the river she saw a snake and crane fighting. She watched and learned from them and later she mixed the inspiration with her knowledge of Fu Jian Siu Lam styles to suit herself.

A merchant from Shang Xi named Leung Bok-Lao, who had been a student of the Hunan Siu Lam Temple, came to relax in a hotel. By chance, one day under the light of the moon he saw Yee and his daughter Wing-Chun practicing martial arts beside the tofu grinders. He thought Wing-Chun was beautiful and had excellent technique. He fell in love with her. He stayed and passed by many times to talk with them about martial arts. His first wife had died, and he though Wing-Chun had excellent fighting skills, so he wanted to marry her. He had a friend ask, but Wing-Chun was too embarrassed to answer. Yim thought Leung was good-looking, and was a fellow Siu Lam follower, so he agreed for his daughter and they were married.

After a few years, Yim Yee died, and Leung and Wing-Chun moved to Shang Xi. But due to the constant fighting of bandits and soldiers, they moved again to north Guangdong (Ngam Hong Yuen village). They opened a small business and taught “Wing Chun Kuen” to some students.

In about 1815, they moved the school to Zhao Quing and continued teaching. The Red Junk Opera Company would often travel between Zhao Quing and Fat Shan. Wong Wah-Bo (Mo-Sang), Leung Yee-Tai (Mo-Deng), Ah Kam (Dai Fa Min), and Siu Fook (Siu-Sang) met them and learned Wing Chun. The Opera performers later went back to Fat Shan.

When Wong Wah-Bo retired in Fat Shan, he taught the son of an herbal doctor named Leung Jan. Leung Jan taught many, many, students including Chan Wah, Chan Kwai and Leung Kai. Chan Wah graduated and went on to teach Chan Yu-Min, Ng Jung-So, etc.


History or Legend Five

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 “Siu Lam 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 streamlined fighting style which could be taught quickly so as to aid the Chinese in rising up against their oppressors.

Before their knowledge could be systematized 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 traveling to Sichuan province while others have her ending up in Fu Jian. 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 Siu Lam.

Prior to this, Ng Mui had witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane and from this event had been finally able to systematize 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.

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. His name was Leung Jan, an herbal doctor who lived in the southern Chinese city of Fat Shan 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 “Money-changer Wa”.

Leung Jan himself was said to have learnt from two people, Wong Wa Bo and Leung Yee Dai, both of whom were said to have been experts at different aspects of Wing Chun, and at least one of whom (Leung Yee Dai) was a traveling performer with a Chinese opera troupe which moved from place to place by boat.

Wing Chun, according to legend, was a style of Chinese martial arts technique designed by the Siu Lam monks for the smaller stature of women fighters. Although there are many legends about the origins of what have become traditional Cantonese martial arts, one legend avers that, after escaping the destruction of the Fu Jian Siu Lam monastery, a nun named Abbess Ng Mui taught her own style of Kung Fu to a young woman whom she adopted named Yim Wing-chun , whose name means “Sing Praise Spring,” from whom the style gets its name. Wing-chun was being bullied into marriage by a local warlord but, by learning from Ng Mui, was able to defeat the warlord in hand to hand combat and marry her own chosen fiancé. The style was then passed down their family line.

Unfortunately, this legendary history cannot be confirmed and has been the subject of debate for decades. Other alternative histories for Wing Chun typically involve connections to the Triads, revolutionary groups, or the Hakka people of southern China.


History of Legend Six

One alternative explanation for the distant origins of Wing Chun is not so exotic. This explanation asserts that Wing Chun was practiced by the members of the Red Boat Opera Society, a revolutionary group under cover as traveling entertainers on a riverboat. The explanation is that while they were highly trained martial artists (in the Chinese opera tradition) their tasks as spies and assassins required specialized skills. While actual assassinations would be carried out using poison or knives, the targets would typically be protected by bodyguards. If these guards noticed an unauthorized person at night, they would seize the person, call for help, and disable the person to be held for interrogation. Thus, according to this explanation, Wing Chun was developed. It was designed to deal with an opponent who seized (rather than struck) and it was designed to silence that opponent immediately. This would explain certain technical aspects of Wing Chun (such as the emphasis on close-range combat and the many strikes to the throat or diaphragm)

Wing Chun Kuen has its origin from the Siu Lam temple, Fu-Kien of Kwang Tung Province, southern China. Legend has that Yim Wing Chun’s father; Mr. Yim Yee earned his living by selling bean curd in a place near Mountain Kau-Lin. Because of the “Overthrow Ching, Restore Ming” slogan, the Buddhist abbess Ng Mui had to live her life on the run. Yim Wing Chun was forced to marry a local warlord. On one occasion, Ng Mui traveled by the village and overheard the crying voice from the young girl Yim Wing Chun in the middle of the night. After learning what was happening to Yim’s family, Ng Mui was angry with the fact that such young girl being forced against her own will. She then decided to teach Yim Wing Chun the effective fighting techniques that she had developed after escaping from Sil Lum massacre. After practicing with Ng Mui for a short period of time, Yim Wing Chun was able to defeat the local warlord and free herself from the forced-marriage.

Ng Mui continued to travel the road ahead, hoping to recruit more followers to practice martial arts, in order to one day overthrow the Ching Government. Before leaving Fu Kien, she taught the young girl Yim all the fighting techniques that she developed by studying the fighting movements between a snake and a crane. With the help of Buddhist abbess Ng Mui, Wing Chun developed her own martial arts technique. When Wing Chun requested to give the name of this new martial arts system, Ng Mui suggested using her name. Thereafter, Wing Chun Kuen was formally named.

After her marriage, Yim Wing Chun taught Wing Chun style to her husband, Leung Bok Chau. This was the time that Wing Chun Kuen was formally passed on to others. Since Leung Bok Chau had a close friendship with Leung Lan Kwei, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai, he exchanged the Wing Chun techniques with them for the Luk Dim Bun Kwan. Later, Leung Bo Chau traveled with his friends. During the journey, they studied Wing Chun Kuen by heart and become totally familiarized with this technique with a short period of time. From then onward, Luk Dim Bun Kwan was also included in the Wing Chun system as one of the weapon forms. Therefore, Leung Lan Kwei, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai could be treated as Yim Wing Chun’s grand students.

When Wong Wa Bo retired at age sixty, he lived at Ching Wan street of Fai Chi town in Fat Shan. A famous herbal doctor, Leung Jan, also lived on that street. Owing to his good reputation, Fat Shan people always referred him as “Jan Sin Shin” (Jan the god). Wong Wah Bo always visited Jan Sin Shin at his free time and later, Wong taught Jan Sin Shin the Wing Chun fighting system.

Though Jan Sin Shin had practiced martial arts before, he still was not satisfied. When he started practicing Wing Chun, he found the theories he wanted; bodywork and handwork were so good that he devoted himself wholeheartedly in studying Wing Chun. With his effort, Wing Chun Kuen became famous in the Ling Nam province in the late Ching Dynasty. As Jan Tien Shin was too busy with his herbal clinic, only three persons could attain high level of proficiency from Jan Tien Shin. They were Chan Wah Shun and his two sons Leung Chun and Leung Bik.

Chan Wah Shun earned his living by working at a money exchange store in Fat Shan and went by the name “Ja Chin Wah” or “Wah Money Changer”. Because of his business, he always had a chance to interact with Jan Sin Shin at his shop. Chan Wah was later admitted as one of Jan Sin Shin’s disciples. After the death of Jan Sin Shin, in deep respect and appreciation for his Sifu, Chan opened a school at Lin Fa Tei Main Street, to pass on the the art of Wing Chun that was taught to him. Unlike other popular styles in Fat Shan at that time, Wing Chun Kuen demanded that its practitioners undergo long-term training and dedication. Learning Chinese martial arts became a lifestyle, a fashion, and popular during this period of time. Most disciples were usually from rich families; therefore, Chan Wah could not teach many students at one time. Wing Chun thereof was known as “Sin-ye Kuen” at that time and could not be well promoted.

Chan Wah had only a handful of disciples, including Ng Chung So, Ho Ho Lui, Lui Yu Jai, Yip Man, and Chan Yu Kam (Chan Wah’s son). However, the only person who really promoted Wing Chun was Yip Man. Because of poor health, Yip Man followed Chan Wah Shun at the age of seven. Yip Man was a brilliant and hard working boy. Not only Chan taught him personally, Ng Chung So practiced Chi Sau with him all the time. Ng also guided Yip in mastering the system after the death of Chan Wah Shun.

At the age of Fifteen, Yip Man went to Hong Kong to pursue academic studies at St. Stephen’s College in Stanley (Hong Kong was a British colony). On one occasion, he was introduced to Leung Bik, the son of Leung Jan (Sifu of Chan Wah Shun). Yip Man followed Leung Bik to further advance his Wing Chun.

Shortly after that, Yip Man went back to Fat Shan and made friends with many martial artists of different styles. His story on sponsoring the competition of Wan Tai Ngau had made him well known in Fat Shan. After the Second World War, Yip Man left Fat Shan and joined the military force. His achievement included the winning battle in Sha Tong, and the capture of a serious criminal, Law Cho, at San Bun Restaurant on Kung Ching Road. The later incident was widely mentioned by others. After the Communists took over China, he migrated to Hong Kong in 1949. With the help of his friend Lee Man Hang, Yip Man earned his living by teaching Wing Chun at the Kowloon Restaurant Association on Da Nam Street in Kowloon, later he moved the school to Hoi Tan Street, Lee Tak Street, Lee Cheng Uk, Tai Wong Temple on Queen’s Road. During his life of dedicating to Wing Chun, he had improved, promoted, and made Wing Chun famous not only in Hong Kong but everywhere in the world.


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