The history of Wing Chun, has historically been passed from teacher to student verbally rather than through documentation, making it difficult to confirm or clarify the differing accounts of Wing Chun's creation. Some have sought to apply the methods of higher criticism to the oral histories of Wing Chun and other Chinese martial arts. Others have attempted to discern the origins of Wing Chun by determining the specific purpose of its techniques. Wing Chun starts to appear in independent third-party documentation during the era of the Wing Chun master Leung Jan, making the the subsequent history of Wing Chun and its divergence into branches more amenable to documentary verification.
Yip Man Wing Chun
The oral history of the Yip Man branch of Wing Chun dates its creation to the reign of the Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722). After escaping the destruction of the Fujian Shaolin Monastery by Qing forces, the Abbess Ng Mui fled to the distant Daliang mountains (大涼山) on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. One day, she came upon a fight between a snake and a crane (or other animal). She took the lessons she learned from observing the fight between the two animals and combined them with her own knowledge of Shaolin kung fu to create a new style. Ng Mui often bought her bean curd at the tofu shop of Yim Yee (嚴二). Yim Yee had a daughter named Yim Wing Chun (嚴詠春) whom a local warlord was trying to force into marriage. Ng Mui taught her new fighting style to Wing-Chun, who used it to fend off the warlord once and for all. Wing-Chun eventually married a man she loved, Leung Bok Lao (梁博儔), to whom she taught the fighting techniques that Ng Mui had passed on to her. Husband and wife in turn passed the new style on to others.
Yiu Kai Wing Chun
The oral history of the Yiu Kai lineage dates the creation of Wing Chun roughly a century later, to the early 19th century, and names Wing-Chun's father as Yim Sei (嚴四), a disciple at the Fujian Shaolin Temple who avoids persecution by fleeing with his daughter to Guangxi. Wing-Chun learned the Fujian Shaolin arts from her father and, from their raw material, created a new style after being inspired by a fight between a snake and a crane. She eventually married Leung Bok Lao (梁博儔)—a Shaolin disciple just like Wing-Chun's father—and taught her fighting style to her new husband. The young couple began teaching Wing Chun's fighting style to others after moving to Guangdong Province in 1815, settling in the city of Zhaoqing. Numerous variations on this story abound.
Other origins for Wing Chun have been suggested, typically involving connections to the Triads, revolutionary groups (often anti-Qing), or the Hakka people of southern China. Almost all extant lineages of Wing Chun, with the exception of the Pao Fa Lien? (刨花蓮) branch, claim descendance from the members of the mid-19th century cohort of the Red Boat Opera Company Hung Suen (紅船戲班).
Espionage and assassination
According to one theory, opponents of the Qing Dynasty used the Red Boat Opera Company as a cover to disguise themselves as a troupe of traveling entertainers. Their identities as Chinese opera performers provided a cover for martial arts training; however, the flashy moves of opera style martial arts were not suited to the activities of espionage and assassination, which required specialized skills. Even though assassinations themselves would be carried out using poison or knives, their targets were usually protected by bodyguards who, on discovery of an intruder, would seize the person, call for help, and disable the person to be held for interrogation. Therefore, according to this hypothesis, Wing Chun was designed to deal with an opponent who seized rather than struck and to silence that opponent immediately. This would explain certain technical aspects of Wing Chun, such as its emphasis on close-range combat and its many strikes to the throat and diaphragm.
Wing Chun City
Also of note is the existence of a city called Yongchun (永春) (literally, "Eternal Spring") in Fujian Province, China. In Mandarin, the pronunciation of the martial art and the pronunciation of the town are identical: Yǒngchūn. In Cantonese, the pronunciations are virtually the same: wing2 cheun1 (martial art) vs wing5 cheun1 (municipality). The name of the town is written with the character yǒng/wing "永" meaning "always",whereas the lineages of Wing Chun that descend from Yip Man, Yiu Kai?, Yuen Kay Shan, the Cho Family, Tam Yeung, Fung Sang, Yeung Fook, and Leung Kwok Keung write the name of their martial art using the character yǒng/wing "詠" meaning "sing." However, the lineages of Wing Chun that descend from Pan Nam?, , Way Yan, the Wang family of Saiquan, and Pao Fa Lien? use the yǒng/wing "永" character, making the name of their martial art identical with the name of the town. Several other Chinese martial arts come from Yongchun and the surrounding area, most notably the Fujianese style of White Crane, one branch of which is even called Wing Chun Bak Hok Kuen (永春白鶴拳), or Wing Chun White Crane boxing. Li Wenmao (李文茂), a historically verifiable opera performer and leader in the 1854–1855 Red Turban Rebellion in Foshan, is said to have been a Wing Chun White Crane practitioner. There is a story that White Crane was created by Ng Mui after she was inspired by a fight between a snake and a crane, as in the Yip Man oral history of Wing Chun. Another White Crane legend states that the art was created by a young woman who combined her observation of cranes with the martial arts she learned from her father—in some versions a refugee from the destruction of the Fujian Shaolin Temple—and later taught her art to her husband, as in the Yiu Kai oral history of Wing Chun. Most stories name this young woman as Fong Chut-Neung (方七娘), to use the Cantonese pronunciation, but other stories name her Fong Wing-Chun (方詠春) and the Shaolin disciple she marries as Hung Hei-Gun (洪熙官), to whom she teaches her Crane style which he combines with his Tiger style to create the famous Hung Family Tiger Crane style. Oral history aside, the technical similarities of Wing Chun and Fujian White Crane suggest that the two are related. As Yip Man's student Leung Ting put it, "Wing Tsun System is derived from the Fukien System of kung-fu, which is related to the Hakka System. Their common features are that during fights, pugilists of these systems prefer short steps and close fighting, with their arms placed close to the chest, their elbows lowered and kept close to the flanks to offer it protection. Another characteristic of these two systems of kung-fu is, unlike those of Kwangtung Province and Northern China, their boxing forms are rather simple". Fujian White Crane and Okinawan Karate are indisputably related and Guangdong is much closer to Fujian than Okinawa
The origins of Wing Chun's branches
Wing Chun Lineages
(黃華寶) and Leung Yee Tai (梁二娣), respectively the male and "female" martial leads of the Red Boat Opera Company, each of whom is said to have been an expert on different aspects of Wing Chun. According to legends from the Yip Man lineage, Leung Yee-Tai was a poler, that is, he used a pole to steer the Red Boat away from rocks and shoals, and was therefore chosen by the legendary Shaolin master Jee Shim himself to learn the six-and-a-half point pole. Leung Jan's students included his sons Leung Chun (梁春) and Leung Bik (梁壁) as well as "Wooden Man" Wah (木人華) and Chan Wah Shun? (陳華順) nicknamed "Moneychanger Wah" (找錢華), from whom the Yip Man, Yiu Kai, and Pan Nam lineages descend. However, the Leung Jan lineage is not the only branch of the art. According to the traditions of the Cho family, Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai had as many as 11 peers in Wing Chun among their colleagues at the Red Boat Opera Company. For example, "Dai Fa Min" Kam (大花面錦), who played the role of the martial painted face, is the ancestor of the Way Yan lineage. The Yuen Kay-San and Pan Nam branches descend from both Wong Wah-Bo and "Dai Fa Min" Kam. Gao Lo Chung ("Tall" Chung) and "Hung Gun" Biu (紅巾彪), also of the Red Boat Opera Company, both passed the art on to relatives, respectively, his son-in-law Yin Lee-Chung and the Wang (王) family. Outside the Red Boat Opera Company, a monk who had taken the name "Dai Dong Fung" (大東風) is named as its ancestor by the Pao Fa Lien (刨花蓮) lineage of Wing Chun. In this cohort of the Red Boat Opera Company, the role of the virtuous "female" was played by Yik Kam (翼金), better known as "Ching-Deng" Kam because of the role he played. Cho Shun (曹順), who played the "Little Martial" (小武) role, was a student of Yik Kam. By passing the art on to his son Cho Dak-Sang (曹德生), Cho Shun established the Wing Chun lineage of the Cho family of Panyu village.
Yip Man was the first Wing Chun master to teach the art openly in Hong Kong on a school fee basis. His students and their students therefore make up the majority of the practitioners of Wing Chun today (see his article for the outline of a family tree). Yip Man died in 1972. Though he never started a school himself, Yuen Kay-San's lineage of Wing Chun was continued by his student Sum Nung and the subsequent generations of students that descend from him