Bak Mei

Bak Mei is included in the Wing Chun Pedia because a number of Wing Chun families and lineages contain Bak Mei Kung Fu in them.

Bak Mei (Chinese: 白眉, literally White Eyebrows; also known as Pai Mei, Pei Mei, Bai Mei, Pak Mei) is said to have been one of the legendary Five Elders - survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Qing Dynasty imperial regime (1644-1912) - who, according to some accounts, betrayed Shaolin to the imperial government. He shares his name with the Southern Chinese martial art attributed to him.

Bak Mei has been fictionalized in Hong Kong films such as Hung Hsi-Kuan (1977), Shao Lin ying xiong bang (1979), and Hung wen tin san po pai lien chiao (1980). In these movies, Bak Mei was played by Lo Lieh, who also directed the 1980 film. Recently, Bak Mei is better known in the West as "Pai Mei" (the Wade-Giles romanization of his name in Mandarin), played by Gordon Liu in the Hollywood film Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004).

White Eyebrow, Traitor?

Accounts of the Five Elders are many and varied. Some versions identify the traitor not as Bak Mei, but as Ma Ning-Yee. In other versions, Bak Mei and Ma Ning-Yee both betray Shaolin, sometimes joined by Fung Do-Duk. Still other versions say that "Bak Mei" is a nickname for either Ma Ning-Yee or Fung Do-Duk. For that matter, the stories of the Five Elders may have no basis in historical fact at all, and come solely from wuxia novels like Wan Nian Qing and the mythology of anti-Qing organizations such as the Heaven and Earth Society, which were spreading wildly through China in the early 19th century. Whether justified or not, Bak Mei's traitorous reputation has led to real life animosity between practitioners of his namesake martial art and practitioners of arts identified with those whom he is accused of betraying. In the accounts of some Bak Mei practitioners, their founder did not so much betray Shaolin as decline to join their rebellion against the Qing. Other tales portray Bak Mei as having been banished from Shaolin Temple because he killed several of his fellow monks when he first tried out his new style. Some Bak Mei practitioners embrace their founder's reputation as a murderer of Shaolin disciples as proof of the superiority of their style.

Historical Bak Mei

Historical Bak Mei according to the lineage of Grand Master Nam Anh

Bak Mei played an important part in the downfall of Shaolin temples. Manchu conquered China in 1644. Before then, China had been ruled by the Ming Dynasty, which had been weakened by internal corruption and rebellion. The Manchu dynasty became known as the Qing Dynasty. As part of the Manchu campaign to pacify China, they attacked some Buddhist Shaolin Temples. The leader of the Shaolin Temple, Hong Mei ("Red Eyebrows") died, leaving his legacy to Chi Thien Su, also known as Jee Sin, one of the five Great Kung Fu Masters. According to some stories another such master, Chu Long Tuyen, the monk who would later become Bak Mei, did not accept this. He believed the Ming had become corrupt and Chi Thien Su would still serve them; Bak Mei would rather serve the foreign Qing Dynasty. Then came the attack against the Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou in Fujian province in 1647. Some sources indicate that this temple was actually in Henan, or that the invading forces recruited help from Tibetan warriors in the attack.

The Five Elders survived, however, and soon Chi Thien Su would found a second Shaolin Temple at Nine Lotus Mountain, also in Fujian Province. The Five Kung Fu Masters survived the first destruction of the Shaolin Temple by Qing Imperial forces and sought shelter in another temple, Fujian Temple, but the other monks were massacred. After Bak Mei refused to provide his real name for fear of retribution (against his family and students - if they survived), the Abbott of the temple christened the monk "Bak Mei" - White Eyebrow. According to some stories, Bak Mei betrayed the Ming at this point, taking information about their plot against the Manchu to the Manchu Shunzhi Emperor, then returned with information about the Manchu attack plan to the Shaolin. After the temple was destroyed by the Manchu, Bak Mei left the temple to study Taoism. Bak Mei trained an anti-Imperial attack force but following capture of the force by the Imperials, was forced to teach and lead 50,000 Imperial troops in the second destruction of the Shaolin Temple at Henan to prevent those captured with him from being tortured and killed. There, Bak Mei slew the "invincible" Shaolin leader, Chi Thien Su, in single combat by breaking his neck. He claimed he did this to prevent the massacre of the monks in the temple by the troops who followed him.

The tale of Bak Mei's death comes in many forms - it is often claimed that he was poisoned, or slain (in a grand battle) by other martial artists. Bak Mei is often portrayed as a traitor, however, it is important to note that Bak Mei's actions are not always consistent with this. Bak Mei's actions were undertaken, even to the destruction of the temple, with the intention of preventing harm to those who had chosen to follow him. It is possible that if Bak Mei had not aided the Imperial forces, his followers would have been tortured to death.

Historical Bak Mei according to the lineage of master Jie Kon Sieuw

During the reign of the Qing emperor Kangxi (1662C1722), the warriors of the Xilufan revolt were so feared that the 2 ministers Kangxi ordered to end their attacks fled China rather than face either the mercilessness of the Xilu warriors, which often involved beheading, or the displeasure of the emperor, which often involved beheading.

It was the 128 monks of the southern Shaolin temple who defeated the army of Xilu over 3 months in 1673 without suffering a single casualty. However, by doing so the monks had made enemies of those in the Qing army and Qing court who were embarrassed by how easily the Shaolin monks had succeeded where they had failed. Soon rumors began to spread about the threat posed by a power so great that it defeated the entire Xilu army with a force of only 128 monks. This campaign of innuendo was wasted on Kangxi, who remained grateful to the monks, but the rumors had their intended effect on his successor, the emperor Yongzheng (1722C1735), who ordered the temple's destruction.

In 1723, on the 6th day of the first new moon of the lunar calendar, Qing forces launched a sneak attack on the southern Shaolin temple, which began by bombarding the largely wooden monastery with a relentless deluge of burning arrows. Between the surprise attack, the fire, and the overwhelming number of Qing soldiers, 110 out of the 128 monks were killed that day. The Great Shaolin Purge took 70 days as Qing forces hunted down the 18 survivors. The surviving warrior monks of Shaolin inflicted massive casualties on their Qing pursuers but, in the end, their numbers were too great. Soon only five remained:

  • The Chan (Zen) master Jee Sin (Vietnamese: Chi Thien Su)
  • The nun Ng Mui (Vietnamese: Nou Mei)
  • The Taoist Bak Mei (Vietnamese: Pei Mei)
  • The Taoist Fung Do-Duk? (Vietnamese: Phung Dao Duc)
  • The "unshaved" (lay) Shaolin disciple Miu Hin? (Vietnamese: Mieu Hien)

After 2 years of running and hiding from the Qing army these fugitives of the cloth regrouped at Mount Emei in Sichuan Province. As one of the sacred mountains of China, Mount Emei was home to about 70 monasteries and temples where the five clerics could blend in easily.

It was decided that Bak Mei would infiltrate the Qing court as a spy while the others travelled throughout China to establish an alliance of anti-Qing rebels. However, the more Bak Mei learned, the more he realized that his allies' efforts would never be enough to overthrow the Qing, and so he left the rebellion, who took this as a betrayal, forcing Bak Mei on the run from those he was once on the run with. Almost all of the rebels who over the years sought to punish Bak Mei for his withdrawal from the struggle ended up dead at Bak Mei's hands, including Jee Sin and Miu Hin's son Fong Sai-Yuk, whom Bak Mei had known since Fong was a small boy.

In other accounts, Fong Sai-Yuk is not Miu Hin's son but his grandson.


Both these versions of the legend of Pai Mei come from inheritors of Bak Mei Kung Fu yet are very different from each other. Accounts of the Bak Mei and the Five Great Kung Fu Masters are many and varied.

The latter account names the Shaolin traitor as Ma Ning-Yee rather than Bak Mei, though that detail was omitted for reasons of length. In other versions, Bak Mei and Ma Ning-Yee both betray Shaolin, sometimes joined by Fung Do-Duk. Still other versions say that "Bak Mei" is a nickname for either Ma Ning-Yee or Fung Do-Duk. For that matter, the legend of Bak Mei may have no basis in historical fact at all, and come solely from wuxia novels like Wan Nian Qing. The legends are particularly confused because some temples were burned down repeatedly, including after the time of Bak Mei.

Bak Mei Kung Fu

Bak Mei is characterized by its emphasis on powerful close range hand strikes. Within Bak Mei can be found the four principles of Fou (Float), Chum (Sink), Tun (Swallow), and Tou (Spit) common in the Southern Chinese martial arts and also found in Karate. Unique to Bak Mei is its classification of the following 6 powers: biu (thrusting), chum (sinking), tan (springing), fa (neutralizing), tung, and chuk. Bak Mei emphasizes the movements of the tiger. The traditions of Bak Mei Kung Fu trace its origins to Mount Emei, where Bak Mei is said to have transmitted the art to the Chan (Zen) master Gwong Wai, who transmitted the art to the Chan master Juk Faat Wan and the Taoist Fung Fo.

Futshan branch

The Taoist Fung Fo in turn passed the art on to Lau Siu-Leung, who established the Futshan lineage of Bak Mei.

Cheung Lai-Chuen branch

Cheung Lai-Chuen began his study of the martial arts at the age of 7 with the traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Shak Lim, who taught him the Vagrant style. Later, Cheung would learn from Li Mung, who taught Chueng his family style, and from the Lam Yiu-Kwai's older uncle. While he was studying martial arts with the Lam family, he became close friends with their son Lam Yiu-Kwai, with whom he had much in common. Lam would later become known for disseminating Dragon Kung Fu much as Cheung would later become known for disseminating Bak Mei. Both were born in Huyng () County in the prefecture of Huizhou in Guangdong and a marriage between their families would eventually make them cousins. They both left Huizhou to build their futures in Guangzhou and did so by opening several schools together.

After moving to Guangzhou, Cheung was defeated by the monk Lin Sang after which the monk referred Cheung to his own teacher master Juk Faat Wan, who taught Cheung the art of Bak Mei over the next two or three years.

Cheung had a background in Hakka Kuen, the martial arts of the Hakka people, from his study of the family style of Li Mung and the Vagrant style, which are both identified with the Hakka, as is Southern Praying Mantis (which Cheung is not known to have trained in). Because of this, Cheung's style of Bak Mei is associated with Hakka Kuen, but more strongly still with the Dragon style of Lam Yiu-Kwaiwho is also said to have had a background in Hakka Kuendue to the many years Cheung and Lam spent training together.