Where Does Wing Chun Come From?
Wing Chun is a martial art that was created and assumed its modern, recognizable form, in Southern China during the 1800s. The first historically verifiable individual to master the art was a traditional doctor and herbalist who practiced medicine in Foshan during the late 19th century. His name was Leung Jan.
He claimed to have learned the art from two Cantonese Opera performers who took refuge with him after the tumultuous Red Turban Revolt (1854-1855). Their names were Leung Yee Tei and Wong Wah Bo. We have little actual verifiable information about these individuals and their background. However, the revolutionary opera performers of southern China have come to play an important part in the development of Wing Chun’s rich mythology.
Leung Jan was an enthusiastic practitioner of Wing Chun, but he saw himself as a medical doctor rather than a professional martial artist. He never desired to teach his art publicly. In addition to his children he only taught one other student, a local money changer (and later an herbal doctor) named Chan Wah Shun.
After Leung Jan retired and returned to his home village Chan Wah Shun opened his own Wing Chun school in Foshan. His tuition was expensive and it is said that he only taught about 16 students. The last student that he accepted was Ip Man.
Ip Man was the younger son of a wealthy businessman and landlord named Ip Oi Dor. At this time Chan Wah Shun was renting the Ip family temple for use as his school. The young and impressionable Ip Man was fascinated by what he saw. While Chan Wah Shun was initially reluctant to take him on as a student, he later proved to be perhaps the most influential practitioner of the art to ever live.
Ip Man practiced Wing Chun in Foshan until he moved to Hong Kong to attend an elite high school. While there he had a chance meeting with Leung Bik, the son of Leung Jan, who was also a Wing Chun master. The two continued to train together giving Ip Man a new perspective on his art.
Ip Man returned to Foshan and continued to be involved with the local martial arts community. While he constantly refined his Wing Chun he never considered publicly teaching. Instead he was content to practice by himself and with his friends.
After the conclusion of World War Two, Ip Man accepted a job as the head of a plain clothes detective unit with the Foshan police force. This job gave him a chance to use some of his skills in more practical situations, as well as to meet and associate with other martial artists who were employed by the Nationalist (GMD) government. Unfortunately his ties to the GMD police forced Ip Man to flee to Hong Kong in 1949 when the Communist Party finally seized control of Guangdong.
It was in Hong Kong that Ip Man first decided to publicly teach Wing Chun. Between 1950 and 1972 he taught literally thousands of students in dozens of locations around the city. Many of these students, including Bruce Lee, Wong Shung Leung, Leung Sheung, Chu Shong Tin, William Chung, Hawkins Cheung and his two sons (Ip Chun and Ip Ching) went on to become masters in their own right. In a single generation Wing Chun was transformed from a little known local style to one of the most popular Chinese martial arts in the world.
This transformation is all the more impressive when we remember that many of the other styles of southern China were slipping into obscurity and oblivion at the same moment in history. Ip Man helped to preserve Wing Chun by creating a more modern curriculum, finding new ways to introduce and explain the material, and presenting his art in a personalized fashion tailored to the needs of his individual students.
Hong Kong could be a violent place in the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that young Kung Fu students often challenged each other to illicit matches to test their skills made it even more so. Nevertheless, Wing Chun quickly gained a reputation as being a very effective fighting system during these private contests.
Ip Man firmly believed that key self-defense concepts and skills should be moved to the start of the system, rather than being reserved until the end, as was often the case in other more traditional Kung Fu schools. This choice paid off on the rooftops and in the back alleys of Hong Kong, and it led to an explosion of interest in the style. It was students like Bruce Lee, Duncan Leung, William Cheung and Kenneth Chung who had entered the system during these years, and later left Hong Kong seeking educational and economic opportunities, that introduced Wing Chun to the world.
The Basic Structure of the Wing Chun System
Today Wing Chun is still regarded as one of the simplest and most effective Chinese fighting systems. It is a “complete art” that employs various punches and strikes, kicks, locks, traps, throws, grappling and weapons. While it is best known for its short-range punching and boxing tactics, authentic Wing Chun is a versatile combat philosophy designed to keep you safe in a variety of situations.
Compared to some other traditional fighting styles, Wing Chun is a relatively simple system. It focuses on teaching concepts and basic skills rather than rote responses or involved applications. The entire style is contained within three unarmed forms (Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu, and Biu Jee), a wooden dummy form and two weapons sets (the Long Pole and the Butterfly Swords, or “Baat Jarm Dao”). With dedicated regular practice it is possible to work through the entire system in about five years. Yet Wing Chun contains enough nuance and complexity that one can spend a lifetime truly mastering it.
Introductory, intermediate and advanced classes are structured around the three unarmed forms. This material is synthesized and perfected by working on the wooden dummy. The weapons are then used to teach practical combat skills, to improve the students ability to identify lines of attack, to study entry strategies and to learn to generate explosive force.
The Traditional Wing Chun Creation Myth
The following story is an account of the creation of Wing Chun Kung Fu written by Ip Man some time in the 1960s. The original version of this document can be found at the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association. This account begins by linking the creation of the Wing Chun system to the destruction of the “Shaolin Temple” at some point in the 18th century. In fact, that element of the myth is shared by most other southern Cantonese martial arts, all of which trace their roots back to an unspecified destruction of the venerable monastery.
Almost all serious historians now regard the burning of the Shaolin Temple as a very widespread and culturally significant myth. Likewise, much of the rest of this account (everything up until the introduction of Leung Jan) is also best thought of as a “myth.” But that does not mean that we can ignore the traditional stories. This account still deserves study and careful consideration.
Such stories were never actually meant to be formal histories. Instead their purpose was to teach the listener something about the martial art in question. They tell us something about the conceptual background and world view of the style that generated them.
For instance, while Ng Moy may be better thought of as a literary character than a historic person, it is true that Wing Chun was created so that smaller people (such as women) could use structure and geometry to overcome much larger and stronger opponents. Properly understood, this story conveys much of the lived experience of the early Wing Chun masters.
“The Origin of Wing Chun”
by Ip Man
“The founder of the Ving Tsun Kung fu System, Miss Yim Ving Tsun was a native of Guangzhou (Canton) China. As a young girl, she was intelligent and athletic, upstanding and manly. She was betrothed to Leung Bok Chau, a salt merchant of Fukien. Soon after that, her mother died. Her father, Yim Yee, was wrongfully accused of a crime, and nearly went to jail. So the family moved far away, and finally settled down at the foot of Tai Leung Mountain at the Yunnan-Szechuan border. They earned a living by selling Tofu. All this happened during the reign of Emperor K’anghsi (1662-1722).
At the time, kungfu was becoming very strong in Siu Lam Monastery (Shaolin Monastery) of Mt. Sung, Henan. This aroused the fear of the Manchu government, which sent troops to attack the Monastery. They were unsuccessful. A man called Chan Man Wai was the First Placed Graduate of the Civil Service Examination that year. He was seeking favor with the government, and suggested a plan. He plotted with Siu Lam monk Ma Ning Yee and others. They set fire to the Monastery while soldiers attacked it from the outside. Siu Lam was burnt down, and the monks scattered. Buddhist Abbess Ng Mui, Abbot Chi Shin, Abbot Pak Mei, Master Fung To Tak and Master Miu Hin escaped and fled their separate ways.
Ng Mui took refuge in White Crane Temple on Mt. Tai Leung (also known as Mt. Chai Har). There she came to know Yim Yee and his daughter Yim Ving Tsun. She bought bean curds at their store. They became friends.
Ving Tsun was a young woman then, and her beauty attracted the attention of a local bully. He tried to force Ving Tsun to marry him. She and her father were very worried. Ng Mui learned of this and took pity on Ving Tsun. She agreed to teach Ving Tsun fighting techniques so that she could protect herself. Then she would be able to solve the problem with the bully, and marry Leung Bok Chau, her betrothed husband. So Ving Tsun followed Ng Mui into the mountains, and started to learn kungfu. She trained night and day, and mastered the techniques. Then she challenged the local bully to a fight and beat him. Ng Mui set off to travel around the country, but before she left, she told Ving Tsun to strictly honour the kungfu traditions, to develop her kungfu after her marriage, and to help the people working to overthrow the Manchu government and restore the Ming Dynasty. This is how Ving Tsun kungfu was handed down by Abbess Ng Mui.
After the marriage, Ving Tsun taught her Kungfu to her husband Leung Bok Chau, and he passed his kungfu techniques on to Leung Lan Kwai. Leung Lan Kwai passed it on to Wong Wah Bo. Wong Wah Bo was a member of an opera troupe on board a junk, known to the Chinese as the Red Junk. Wong worked on the Red Junk with Leung Yee Tei. It so happened that Abbot Chi Shin, who fled from Siu Lam, had disguised himself as a cook and was now working on the Red Junk. Chi Shin taught the Six-and-a-half Point Long Pole Techniques to Leung Yee Tei. Wong Wah Bo was close to Leung Yee Tei, and they shared what they knew about kungfu. Together they correlated and improved their techniques, and thus the Six-and-half-point Long Pole Techniques were incorporated into Ving Tsun Kungfu.
Leung Yee Tei passed the Kung fu on to Leung Jan, a well known herbal doctor in Fat Shan. Leung Jan grasped the innermost secrets of Ving Tsun, and attained the highest level of proficiency. Many kungfu masters came to challenge him, but all were defeated. Leung Jan became very famous. Later, he passed his kung fu on to Chan Wah Shan, who took me as his student many decades ago. I studied kung fu alongside my kungfu brothers such as Ng Siu Lo, Ng Chung So, Chan Yu Min and Lui Yu Jai. Ving Tsun was thus passed down to us, and we are eternally grateful to our kung fu ancestors and teachers. We will always remember and appreciate our roots, and this shared feeling will always keep our kung fu brothers close together. This is why I am organizing the Ving Tsun Fellowship, and I hope my kung fu brothers will support me in this. This will be very important in the promotion of Kung fu.”