Origins of Wing Chun Kung Fu
The origins of Wing Chun kung fu can be found in the 1600’s, when anti-Ching (dynasty) revolutionary feelings began to grow amongst the Chinese people after the Manchu invasion of their country. Due to the oppression of the common people by these foreign invaders, secret groups and organisations sprung up around China, all with the intention of ridding China of the Manchus and of restoring control of the government to the Chinese.
Many of these secret groups contained skilled martial artists who were dedicated to this cause, and among them were those who are credited with the creation of what is known today as Wing Chun kung fu. The name, Wing Chun, is said to have come from ideas developed during this revolutionary period. The character, Wing, can refer to “singing” or “praising”, and Chun is the character for the season, “Spring”; so if you put them together, it meant “beautiful springtime” or “to praise Spring.” In the typically cryptic but beautiful meanings of the Chinese language, this meant that one should be happy that Spring brings new and beautiful things, new beginnings and fresh starts after long, cold and harsh winters. In revolutionary terms to fit the circumstances in that period of Chinese history, the meaning was far deeper, and cut to the core of every loyal Chinese person. It meant that no matter how bad the winter season had been (referring here to the Manchus ruling the land – the Ching dynasty), one should sing or look forward to the Springtime (the re-emergence of the Chinese, or the Ming dynasty). In essence, a perfect phrase to coin the revolutionary feelings of many Chinese, and the secret longings they held against the oppression of the Manchurian rule.
Such secrecy of these revolutionary ideas has led to much confusion and several stories and interpretations of what is known as Wing Chun kung fu today. One of the most popular versions of its origin begins at the Shaolin Temple.
The Shaolin Temple was a sanctuary to many, seeking religious or spiritual development. But it was also a haven for those seeking refuge from the oppression of the Manchu government, often providing safety for revolutionaries and others holding anti-Ching sentiments. Revolutionaries flocked to the Temple, gathering to conspire on ways to overthrow the government. Many there set about trying to develop new ways to train a revolutionary army, one that would be loyal to the Ming dynasty. But as time passed, the Manchus discovered the dissention brewing at the Shaolin Temple and sent their forces to burn it down and kill those within.
The five elders from the Temple escaped this conflict and went into hiding. These five elders were Jee Shim (from whom Hung Gar kung fu would develop), Fung Dao Duk, Miu Hin, Bak Mei (founder of the White Eyebrow kung fu style), and Ng Mui, the Buddhist nun who is most credited with the origins of this martial art. Supposedly during her flight, Ng Mui witnessed a fight one day between a snake and a crane. From her interpretations of this encounter, she added the knowledge that she and others at the Shaolin Temple were working on, and continued the evolution of this new martial art. Keeping her ideas secret, Ng Mui travelled the country, eventually meeting a young girl named Yim Wing Chun.
Yim Wing Chun was the daughter of the local bean curd merchant, and from all accounts a very beautiful girl. Wing Chun attracted the attention of many, including a local gangster who tried to force her into marriage. As the legend tells it, Ng Mui heard of Wing Chun’s troubles and decided to help her out of her situation. Ng Mui taught Wing Chun her new martial art, and Wing Chun defeated the gangster, running him out of town by using the efficient and effective methods of this new kung fu style. Eventually Yim Wing Chun met and married a man named Leung Bok Chao, a salt merchant who was also a martial artist. They practiced and fought, but Wing Chun could beat her husband, and so Leung Bok Chao learned her art and named it Wing Chun, in honor of his wife.
Secrecy continued to surround Wing Chun kung fu’s early years, and Leung Bok Chao passed it onto Leung Lan Kwai, a Red Boat (Hung Suen) Opera troupe member. Opera troupes were ideal for revolutionaries, as they allowed for frequent travel, no home addresses, and performers were always in disguise, wearing make-up and costumes, helping to maintain anonymity. Travelling up and down the rivers and the countryside, opera troupes also made it easy to disseminate information and to developing a common network. Leung Lan Kwai then passed the system onto Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai, who was also a Red Boat member.
Leung Yee Tai was a poler on one of the opera troupe’s boats, being responsible for keeping it away from danger or from getting stranded in shallow water. Leung met and befriended a cook on his boat, who was actually Jee Shim, one of the five Shaolin elders who escaped years ago. Jee Shim taught Leung Yee Tai his six-and-a-half-point pole form. Leung Yee Tai later met Wong Wah Bo, who was a Wing Chun practitioner and quite gifted in the use of the butterfly swords. As time passed, they exchanged ideas and trained together and one day had a contest of weapons, and thus this pole form which is quite different from much of the rest of the Wing Chun system was added to the style.
Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo are both credited with training one of Wing Chun’s most famous practitioners, Dr Leung Jan, the herbalist from Foshan. Leung Jan was also known as “Wing Chun Wong”, or the “King of Wing Chun”, due to his success and prowess in challenge matches. Leung Jan had two sons, Leung Chun and Leung Bik, whom he taught, and he was also the teacher of Chan Wah Shun.
Chan Wah Shun was a neighbour of Dr Leung Jan, and also by accounts, very big for a Chinese. Impressed by his neighbour’s prowess, Chan tried to spy on him as he taught his two sons, trying to learn the secrets of Wing Chun kung fu. Leung Jan caught him out one day, and agreed to teach him. But because he was much bigger than his own two sons, it is said that Leung Jan taught Chan Wah Shun a modified version of his art, trying to keep an advantage for his sons should Chan ever challenge them after Leung Jan was dead. Stories say that this did eventuate years later, after Chan had learned for many years, and Leung Jan had died. Chan Wah Shun ran Leung Chun and Leung Bik off and became the next Grandmaster of Wing Chun.
Because of his size, and the knowledge learned from Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun became well known, and eventually took 16 disciples. The very last of these was the famous Yip Man, then a young boy early in his teens.
Born to a wealthy family in Foshan, Yip Man approached Chan Wah Shun one day, asking to learn Wing Chun. Chan thought him too young, but admired his desire, so told Yip Man he would teach him if he could pay an outrageously high sum of money to him. Chan thought that this would dissuade Yip Man, and allow Chan not to have to teach him. But Yip Man came back with the money asked for, asking again for Chan to teach him. Chan Wah Shun thought Yip Man must have stolen the money, as no child should have such a sum, but when Chan approached Yip’s parents, he was told the money had come from Yip Man’s savings and he could do with it what he pleased. So through Chan Wah Shun’s teachings, Yip Man became well versed in Wing Chun and was known himself as a very accomplished fighter.
One day, Yip Man heard of an old kung fu master who possessed superior skill and he set out to challenge this man, to test both his and this man’s kung fu skills. It is said that during this encounter, Yip Man was embarrassed and thoroughly defeated by this old man, who ended up to be his kung fu uncle (sibak). The old man was actually Leung Bik, one of Leung Jan’s two sons, who was earlier run out of town by Chan Wah Shun. During his time away, Leung Bik honed and practiced the skills he learned from his father, reaching greater levels as he grew.
Yip Man then learned from Leung Bik, much of things that weren’t taught to him by Chan Wah Shun. Yip Man kept his training secret, teaching no one for many years, but trying out his skills in personal encounters and as a policeman in Fatshan. But the 1940’s came along, and so too did the Communists, and Yip Man’s life was to take a drastic change. Being from a wealthy family, Yip’s home and comfortable lifestyle were taken away and he ended up destitute on the streets of Hong Kong. He ended up living at the Restaurant Workers Union in Kowloon, where a man named Leung Sheung was teaching the workers kung fu. Being homeless didn’t keep Yip Man’s spirit from coming out, and one night while Leung Sheung was teaching, he was watching from the back of the hall. Supposedly laughing at the silliness of what he saw being taught, Yip Man made comments to that effect to Leung Sheung. Offended by what he heard, Leung challenged Yip to “put up or shut up.” It was Leung Sheung who shut up, and he became Yip Man’s first student of a “publicly” taught school of Wing Chun. Through all the years of secrecy, Wing Chun kung fu had never before been taught in a public way until now, and that is how it came to the attention of the entire world. Besides Leung Sheung, many of those first students of Yip Man have gone on to migrate to all parts of the world, spreading this martial art to everyone. That list of accomplished Wing Chun masters include: Lok Yiu, Chu Shong Tin, Wang Kiu, Wong Shun Leung, William Cheung, Hawkins Cheung, Duncan Leung, Jiu Wan, Victor Kan and of course, Bruce Lee, to whom many credit bringing Wing Chun to the attention of the world, via his screen charisma and martial presence.
For many years, Wing Chun kung fu was synonymous with Yip Man’s lineage only, but recent research has shown that this martial art has many lineages, some quite different to each other, but all having come from the same roots in China. Wing Chun can be found in many variations throughout southern China, Vietnam, Malaysia and other areas of Southeast Asia. Yuen Chai Wan, Yuen Kay San, Pan Nam and many other lineages of this art can be found today. Add up all of its lineages, and Wing Chun kung fu is probably the most popular Southern Chinese kung fu style in the world today.