Preface Although the world itself has not gotten smaller, life in the Information Technology Age (via the media of email and Internet) has made contact and communication with people around the globe easier. Consequently, it is now harder for information and research to be constrained or concealed, or for only one perspective to be put forward. Most importantly, it means that certain myths will not be perpetuated. Information pointing to the historical origins of Wing Chun kung fu is one of them.
Put simply, the harsh truth is this: the myth of the Buddhist nun, Ng Mui and her disciple Yim Wing Chun, the supposed founders of the Wing Chun system, is just that - a myth. As the internet has brought information more readily to us, it has come to light that the story of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun was merely a way to conceal the truth about the system's origins and the identities of the political rebels who truly developed it.
After almost 400 years, mounting evidence is pointing to the truth of Wing Chun's creation and evolution. The question is: is the kung fu world ready for it?
There is no doubt that the information about to be disclosed will ruffle feathers to say the least. This is mainly because many Wing Chun instructors throughout the world are naively, and through no fault of their own, imparting a romanticized, fantastical history of the Wing Chun system. They are telling and retelling a story that is little more than a fairytale.
A view of the traditional legends with an eye on history reads as an even more fascinating point of view. And no less deserving of the term `legendary'...
Secrets in the Shadows of Shaolin As near as history can testify, Wing Chun was developed around 400 years ago in a time of civil unrest. Between 1644 to 1911, the Manchurians ruled China, where 10% of the population (the Manchus) ruled over 90% of the population (the Hons). To maintain control over the Hons, the Manchus ruled with an iron fist. Aggression and oppression were the cornerstones of the Dynasty and the Hons were banned from using weapons or training in the martial arts. Thus, in order to overthrow their oppressors, rebel activity was instigated by martial arts masters in hiding.
Rebel activity developed rapidly in the Buddhist monasteries, which were largely left alone by the Manchus out of respect for the Buddhist culture and religion. These Shaolin/Siu Lam sanctuaries were ideal places for renegades to conceal themselves - they simply shaved their heads and donned the monastic robes of the disciples of the temple. During the day, the rebels would earn their keep by doing chores around the temple. At night, they would gather to formulate their plans to overthrow the Manchus.
There are some that maintain that Shaolin/Siu Lam sanctuaries possessed no political leanings. They further emphasize that the Buddhist teachings of these monasteries would have prevented their support for rebels and secret societies. Such a position is emotional at best with no grounding in historical fact. Religious leaders throughout history, in both the Western as well as the Eastern world, have influenced politics and government since the beginning of time. Churches have forever harbored political victims sought by authorities believed to be oppressive. In the case China, serious precedent for such behavior on the part of the monasteries had already been set 400 years earlier. As verified by Ving Tsun Museum research, Jyu Yuhn Jeung, the man who led the Chinese revolt against the Mongol and established the Ming Dynasty was himself a Buddhist monk.
Upon meeting, the revolutionaries identified themselves to each other with a secret hand-signal that would come to be the formal greeting or courtesy of Wing Chun. In fact, the traditional greeting or courtesy common to many of today's kung fu styles has two meanings. The first meaning recognizes the style's Shaolin origins - the left hand symbolizing the union of the Green Dragon (the left hand) and the White Tiger (the right hand), the fighting animals of the Shaolin monks.
In the Hung Fa Yi (Red Flower Righteous) Lineage of Wing Chun, however, the hands are reversed: the left hand forms a fist and the right hand is open palm. It still retains its significance to Shaolin but it also refers to the secret society. In this context, the fist represents Yat (the Sun) and the palm represents Yuet (the Moon). Combined, these two characters mean "Bright" which reads and sounds like "Ming." This is the name of the previous Dynasty - the one overthrown by the Manchurians who formed the "Ching" Dynasty in its place. Hence, during the time of rebellion, when a Wing Chun practitioner or secret society member saluted with a fist and open palm pushed toward you, they were saying "Return the Ming, overturn the Ching." Obviously, this was not a sentiment shared by the Manchus.
Late in the 1600's, the Manchurians became concerned about the Siu Lam Temples' rebellious activities and their continual development of the fighting arts. Therefore, they sent spies (many of them Manchu military leaders) to infiltrate the rebels and learn the traditional Southern fist systems as taught secretly in the Temples. The rebel kung-fu masters, realizing this, clandestinely developed a new system that was two-fold in purpose: firstly, it had to be learned quickly and efficiently, and secondly, it had to be devastatingly effective against the existing fighting systems that the Manchus were learning and teaching to their soldiers. Thus, Wing Chun was born.
Their spy rings compromised, the Manchus decided to eliminate the threat of spreading rebel activity by simply exterminating the Siu Lam monks. Eventually, the Southern Siu Lam Temple was burned and destroyed.
Extensive research conducted by the Ving Tsun Museum points to a generation of inheritors following the Southern temple's burning. Among them was a gentleman named Cheung Ng (referred to as Tan Sao Ng in other texts). Of this generation of inheritors, Cheung Ng is one to date that has proven to have historically existed. After establishing the Beautiful Flower Society Association (the precursor to the Red Opera and the public name for the Red Flower Society) and providing Wing Chun training to the secret societies, Cheung Ng went into hiding, disappearing from the public eye to escape Qing Dynasty persecution.
He was hidden by distant relatives, a Fuk Gin business family named Chahn. The Chahn Sih Sai Ga (Chan family) were well established and wealthy. Through indirect action they were willing to help Cheung Ng. Staying with the family for over a decade, Cheung Ng taught the family the art of Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun. It was preserved by the family for four generations before it was taught to outsiders. The direct members of the Chahn family were never directly involved with the secret societies themselves, resulting in a low profile in Praise Spring Boxing history. The last generation of the Chahn family to learn the art was a distant nephew, a high level secret society leader, Huhng Gan Biu. In Qing archives as well as historical research into Chinese secret societies, a person by the name of Chahn Biu was recorded as the leader of the Heaven and Earth Society. He was caught and executed by the Qing authorities. Due to similar names appearing in difference sources at around the same timeframe, there is much debate as to whether the Opera's Biu and the Heaven and Earth Society's Biu were the same person. According to members of the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun clan, Huhng Gan Biu was the 4th generation leader of the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun clan and his Wing Chun descendants have preserved the system through to the 8th generation Master Garrett Gee and his 9th generation students in today's modern era.
It was at the fourth generation that history and truth parted ways and the myth of Wing Chun's origins was created.
The Myth of Ng Mui and The Truth About Yim Wing Chun To protect the identities of the creators and the perpetuators of the Wing Chun system, a smokescreen was thrown up in the form of a story - the story of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun.
The legend was told that among the survivors of the Shaolin/Siu Lam massacres was a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui. Ng Mui was believed to have been the sole custodian of a streamlined, highly practical and effective martial arts developed within the temples. In turn, Ng Mui is said to have passed her knowledge onto her chosen disciple, a young girl named Yim Wing Chun. As Yim Wing Chun taught the system to others, it became known as Wing Chun. The story spread and today many versions of it exist around the world.
However, there are three important considerations to make when regarding the story of Ng Mui. Firstly, outside of the legend, there is no other evidence that Ng Mui - in her capacity as a kung-fu grandmaster or founder of a kung-fu system actually existed - no records, no historical documents - nothing. Secondly, it would have been forbidden for a nun to live in, let alone train within, a celibate monastic environment like the Siu Lam /Shaolin Temples. Thirdly, and perhaps the most important, after escaping from a life and death situation as a revolutionary, it does not make sense that Ng Mui would teach an advanced level fighting system to a local girl with romantic problems and no connection to the revolution. At that time in Chinese history, the Qing dynasty had devised a special form of punishment for traitors and rebels. After being made to confess his or her crimes, the guilty party was executed. Afterwards, Qing officials would hunt down members of the guilty party's family down to nine generations and execute them as traitors as well. Teaching Yim Wing Chun a martial arts would directly put her life at risk.
With regards to the Yim Wing Chun element of the legend, consider once more the relevance of secret rebel societies. `Yim' can be translated to mean `prohibit' or `secret.' The term `Wing Chun' referred to a geographic location - the Siu Lam Wing Chun Tong (Always Spring Hall), where the rebels perhaps practiced martial arts and orchestrated their seditious activities. The use of the term Spring symbolized the rebirth of the Ming Dynasty and Always referred to the reestablished dynasty lasting forever. After the destruction of the Southern Shaolin temple and its Wing Chun Tong, the survivors changed the character of Wing from Always to Praise. The term Praise referred to the fact that the revolutionaries had to spread the word about the revolution after the destruction of their base. Thus, `Yim Wing Chun' was actually a codename, meaning (protect) the secret art of the Wing Chun Hall.
If we now know that the destruction of the Siu Lam/Shaolin Temples occurred but that the story of Ng Mui was a diversion, the question remains: who were the real custodians of the Wing Chun system?
Enter the Hung Suen We do know that many (not the legendary five) monks and rebel leaders escaped the Manchurian massacres and that, to aid the secrecy of the system, historical material was passed directly from teacher to student. Thus, the elders told of two Siu Lam monks/rebels who survived the temple raids and were able to keep their Wing Chun system alive. One of these was a monk, a 22nd generation Siu Lam Grandmaster, Yat Chum Dai Si from the Northern Shaolin temple. The other was a rebel training under him in the Southern Temple, named Cheung Ng. Fleeing the Manchurian persecutors, Cheung Ng founded the Kihng Fa Wui Gun (Beautiful Flower Society), the roots of the (in)famous Hung Suen (Red Boat) Opera Troupe.
Historically, we know that rebel activity flourished in the Red Boat Opera Troupe. The Red Boats allowed talented stage performers, accomplished in kung-fu and gymnastics, to form their own secret societies to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty. The Troupes provided the ideal sanctuary for fleeing rebels as the performers wore elaborate costumes and stage make-up, providing excellent but natural/plausible disguises for them. Additionally, the performers adopted and were known by their `stage-names', further cloaking their secret identities.
When Cheung Ng founded the Opera Troupe he became known as Tan Sao Ng - not only a stage-name but also a sly nod to his skillful deployment of the Wing Chun deflection/striking technique, Tan Sao.
An important fact to note is that so suspicious of the Manchus and their spies were these secret societies, that the true identities of the leaders, members and real nature of their activities were known only to an inner-circle within the society. Thus, genuine knowledge of kung-fu was passed only from a master to select, trusted disciples, thus protecting the purity and origins of the system.
In conclusion With the development of many different lineages of Wing Chun over the centuries (over 10 are known to date), Wing Chun could simply be seen as a generic name for a style with so many lineages - no different to `karate' being a generic term to describe the various Japanese arts - varying and similar. However, this article has focussed on shedding light on the origins of Wing Chun. Indeed, to chart the development of the various lineages would require an entire book more complete than anything currently written. A complete historical and political analysis of Wing Chun's origins and development is currently being compiled in book form by the Ving Tsun Museum and should be available through major publication sources within the next twelve months.
A hypothesis that Cheung Ng was indeed the inheritor of the art from Southern Temple and the guiding force behind its employment as a complete combat training system for rebels certainly has more historical weight behind it than the legend of a young girl. It represents a much more plausible explanation of Wing Chun's roots considering the completeness of the art in terms of total combat effectiveness. It also gels with the historical background of the times preceding the Red Boat Opera travels. However, as with all historical study, one hypothesis can give great impetus to further in depth study giving rise to even more revelations. In short, more study grounded in the proper structure and atmosphere of true historical research will get us even closer to reality. Hats off to the Ving Tsun Museum staff and researchers for moving our search into the realm of scientific investigation and giving us another starting point for serious research!
Myths are often created to simplify something or to disguise the true nature of the subject to make it more palatable to the mind. Consequently, sometimes people want to believe the myths despite scientific or historical evidence to the contrary. A fiction can be more comforting than the truth; a fairytale easier to grasp than a treatise. The legend of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun is a great story. It just isn't true.
In light of being told one story for centuries, it will be difficult for some to accept the truth in minutes, hours or even months. But studying the martial arts (and Wing Chun in particular) is a continual quest for truth - personal truth, social truth, spiritual truth and - yes - historical truth.
I trust you have enjoyed your enlightenment on the true origins of Wing Chun.