Wing Chun – Part 2: Discerning Mythology from History

Wing Chun Part 2

“History” and Mythology

Popular legend has it that Wing Chun
was developed by a woman.

As its movements are reliant
upon the thinking processes of physics
– and NOT brute strength and ignorance,

I do believe that those who were developed it
were philosophers – that is, were
sober-minded people who … thought,
rather than disgorged crude talk and male posturing
that typically precedes the brutality of vicious savages.

[ It is interesting to note, too, that
the practitioners of White Crane Gung fu
equally, assert that their founder
was a woman named Fang Qiniang,
who lived at the end of the Ming dynasty,
and beginning of the Qing. ]

Wing Chun – whoever devised and refined it –
is certainly a system of defence that does NOT
place any reliance upon brute strength and aggression.

It is, in fact, quite the opposite.


Legends place the beginning of Wing Chun
during the time after the subjugation of China
by the Manchurians – the invaders
who removed the Ming dynasty and replaced it
with their own rule, which they called the Qing dynasty –
around 1645 AD.

These rulers were aware that Shaolin monks were proficient
in martial arts; were seemingly threatened by the fact;
and proceeded to give them an ultimatum.

In c.1670, the story goes, the emperor
tried to insist that the Shaolin (Siu Lam) monks
form his personal, (effectively in-house) bodyguard.
When the monks refused to leave the Temple,
a military force was sent to burn temple and monastery.

Legend common to the half-dozen variations of Wing Chun
speculates that five survivors – “The Venerable Five”,
formed separate styles of Gung fu.

The varying legends of the differing styles of Wing Chun
each share these few common similarities:

the invasion and occupation of the Manchurians;
the burning of the Shaolin Temple;
an escape by one or more Temple members; and,

consistent mention of The Red Junk Opera Company –
which was an anti-government society.

1. Cruel Government.
2. Fleeing Refugees.
3. Defiant Rebels.
4. Proliferation of skill in a Theatre Company.

More likely was the fact of –

1. Government taxation of crime proceeds.
2. Enraged Organised Crime Families.
3. Threats and Extortion of Merchants.
4. Competitive Acting Troupes who combined
gymnastics with mock combat in performances

Was IS certain is that skilled athletic display
(“Martial Arts”) joined Acting and Singing
as the principle skill set employed by …
Performers – such as those of the Cantonese Opera.

In this, the legends’ citing of Wing Chun
having a crucial connection to the Red Junk Opera
may indeed have more than a grain of truth.

The Qing government brought (it seems) an
improved standard of living to citizens:
but it did so by imposing taxes …

… And government tax inspectors
were certainly not above imposing a few
‘additional fees’ to line their own purses;
even demanding a percentage of gambling
proceeds from crime families.

Criminal gangs responded with ‘protection rackets’
against merchants; and intimidation of local peasants;
and, of course, rousing anti-government sentiment.

By the mid-1850’s, it was not strictly the government
who were tyrannical; the criminals were becoming

An imagined Shaolin Temple being burned
by the Manchurians? Dispossessed victims
fighting cruel, tyrannical oppressors?

Opening a Gung fu school tended to attract more
interest – and paying students –
if its stock-in-trade can be linked to a poor,
fleeing woman who trained a bullied girl.

Certainly, it is far more glamorous than the truth
of Gung fu grew out of the worlds of, alternately,

theatrical gymnastics used to entertain
paying audiences assembled to be amused
by a Foshan-centred, Cantonese acting troupe;

or the physical force used by certain extortionist
thugs of criminal gangs against town merchants.

A 17th century temple of Shaolin priests;
and a woman fleeing government tyranny
… sounds infinitely better.


The popularly recounted legend amounts to
the speculation, that the Shaolin Temple
was attacked and burned to the ground.

Escaping along with four others, (stated Ip Man)
was a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui,
who fled to the region of the Daliang mountains
in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan.

At some point in this time frame (according to Ip Man)
Ng Mui developed the rudiments of a methodology
of self-defence.

Wing Chun is too meticulous in its attention to detail
regarding human anatomy and physics
for me to accept that a contemplative woman
would waste time with the ludicrous premise
of thinking to make the human body
imitate the physical qualities
of a large bird, tiger, or reptile — each
possessing respective physical capabilities
that No human will ever possess.

In the course of daily life (the legend continues),
Ng Mui met a certain man with his daughter
named Yim Wing Chun.

The object of lust and unwanted attention
from a local despot, Wing Chun was determined
that she would not become the
property-by-marriage of this local nobleman.

Her plight came to the attention of Ng Mui,
who issued an ultimatum to the belligerent suitor:

She would train Wing Chun and if the nobleman
could overcome her in combat,
Wing Chun would become his bride.

The baron lost.

[ Near-Instant Wing Chun skill … And yet,
multitudes believe it. ]

Wing Chun and her husband, Leung Bok,
further developed the skills taught her by Ng Mui,
into the refined practice that would afterwards
bear her name.

The skill was taught to a certain Leung Lan Kwai,
an herbal apothecary; and Wong Wah Po (or Bo),
who was a performer in the prominent Red Junk Opera.

Members of this troupe became proficient in the art,
and it seems that the Muk Jong – (the log-like,
Wooden Dummy) developed here …

… as did (not surprisingly, given the usual method
of keeping any boat from colliding) the
Six-and-a-Half-Point Pole.

The practice of Wing Chun moved
from members of the Opera Company to students
Leung Yee Tai and Leung Jan – the latter,
an exceedingly humble, resident Chinese
herbal doctor in Foshan (Leung Jan is better associated
with Gu Lao’s – and not Ip Man’s – Wing Chun).


The Story better blends into reality with Leung Jan
– at which time its development enters actual history
rather than verbal legend.

As well as his sons, Leung Bik and Leung Tsun,
one of Leung Jan’s students was a private ‘banker’
(currency changer) named Chan Wah Shun (or Soon).

Chan, in turn, (apparently) considered carefully
the request from one Foshan teenager to become a student
– thinking the boy to be altogether too slight and genteel
to learn a self defensive skill:

After Ip Man’s parents explained that their son
had saved diligently to afford tuition,
Chan Wah Shun agreed to teach Ip Man.

In 1908, Ip Man relocated to Hong Kong
in order to attend the Church of England’s,
St Stephens College.

It was at this time that he met the elderly Leung Bik –
the son of Leung Jan.

Mr Ip returned to Foshan, where he found
work with the police. The austerity that came
with the invasion of Japan in 1937
(presumably) led Ip Man to began teaching
his first students in 1941.

With the end of war, the ascendancy of the Communist Party
obliged Ip Man to relocate, once again, to Hong Kong where,
by 1950, he was teaching Wing Chun.

In February of 1954, Ip Man’s senior student,
Wong Shun Leung, was teaching a particularly ambitious
student Lee Siu-Lung, a young actor known as Bruce Lee.

Although Ip Man was only one of multiple teachers,
it is generally held that he was the one responsible
for the spread of Wing Chun by not refusing to teach
non-Chinese students. Whether accurate or not,

he may be certainly credited if for no other reason
than that it was Ip Man’s student, Bruce Lee,
who made the name known
through the medium of his film career.

This – I firmly believe, ushered in greed, arrogance,
and the degradation of this fine system
to such an extent …

… that it is now perverted
to accommodate the thug-brawling mentality
of “Mixed Martial Arts” and its adherents –

who have neither the humility,
patience, or desire
to study a classical system … fully.

P Livingstone