The History of Wing Chun

Origins and Founders

The history of Wing Chun Kung Fu is quite a mixed tale indeed. Spanning back about 400 years in a country famous for the oral tradition of passing on information there is much in the history of this art that cannot be stated with absolute certainty.

It would probably be fair to say that the origins of Wing Chun lie more firmly in fiction than they do fact. Different accounts give a number of different origins of the art, the most famous of which is the creation of Wing Chun by the fleeing Shaolin nun, Ng Moi, who fled for her life after the destruction of the Shaolin temple in Fu Jian province during the Qing dynasty. Legend has it that Ng Moi came across two animals fighting, (accounts differ, usually snake vs crane) became enlightened by be movements they made and devised what became Wing Chun Kung Fu.

She then came to pass on these skills to a young girl called Yim Wing Chun who used them to challenge the local gangster who was pursuing her for marriage. As the legend goes, Yim Wing Chun used her skills to soundly defeat her opponent and humiliate him enough in front of his men to persuade him she wasn't suitable wife material. Not for him anyway. She was then free to marry her true love, Leung Bok Chau, and live happily ever after. Leung Bok Chau studied with his wife and named the style Wing Chun in her honour.

Alternative History

Other accounts of Wing Chun history give slightly different explanations of the origins of the art, some claiming that the fighting style was in fact developed in the Shaolin temple, and was a hybrid style created from the most effective movements from a number of Wu Shu styles and designed to be simple, quick, effective and able to produce ready fighters within half the normal time,

It is also worth noting the political climate in China at the time, as many Chinese hated their Manchurian overlords who successfully invaded in the 1640's and sought the overthrow of the existing government. It is told that the Shaolin temples (how many were were is another topic of debate) were places of shelter for those still loyal to the Ming Dynasty and the restoration of the Han nation. So, it is not too difficult to understand, as they were also schools for producing top class warriors, why the Manchu's felt it a good idea to burn them to the ground and eliminate their threat.

The names of the temples themselves is Siu Lam or Shaolinsi which translates as the 'Young Forest Temples'. This becomes interesting only when added to the fact that when written slightly differently, the Chinese characters for 'Wing' in the title means 'evergreen' which was also the name of the temple within which the hybrid style was supposedly developed.

There are also tales of a man named Cheung Ng, or 'Tan Sau Ng' because of his skill with the technique, who is credited in certain accounts of being the founder of the art. The fact that both supposedly founding characters have the same surname is possibly relevant but it is only Cheung Ng of whom there is actual written accounts from the period to suggest he was an actual person.

Lastly, it is also suggested that Yim Wing Chun was never actually a real person at all, with her name being a revolutionary mob and the name of the style itself an abbreviation of an anti-Qing slogan and all of the tales of her exploit were just that, stories. However they were meant with a purpose and that was to unite a people in a common cause to revolt against their oppressors. It is increasing to note that at the time, many gung fu styles carried the name wing Chun as it was a very important motto for those in rebellion. Thankfully, they fell back to their original names with the passing of time, with the style of fighting known today as Wing Chun being the only fighting style to carry the name.

Wing Chun Development

Wing Chun followed in it's revolutionary origins by being passed down through the years through what was a hotbed for revolutionary activity, the Red Boat opera troupe. It is sometimes known as the Red Flower Union or Red Junk Society. Regardless of exact title, the opera troupes had access to the waterways and travelled throughout China performing along the way as well as getting up to their covert revolutionary activities.

During this time, Wing Chun passed down from individuals such as Leung Lan Kwai, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai amongst others, until Wing Chun development settled with a man named Leung Jan in Foshan, southern China. lt was there that the art started to become more systematised, and it was there where a young man named Yip Man first started to train.

Yip Man

According to trusted accounts, Yip Man (sometimes spelled Ip Man) began training in Wing Chun under the tutelage of one Chan Wah Shun, who was the eldest student of Leung Jan, There he studied until he moved to Hong Kong, where he met Leung Bik, Leung Jan's son who continued his teaching. Yip Man began teaching and went on to produce students and then instructors who have gained fame in their own right throughout the world.

Bruce Lee

The most famous of all of his students was Lee Siu-Long, better known as Bruce Lee. No one has had a bigger impact in terms of raising the profile of martial arts and in particular that of Wing Chun in the west than him. Although not directly credited for developing the art in itself, it could be very effectively argued that his contributions to raising awareness of martial arts have made it possible for many of us all around the globe to be able to find Wing Chun and include it in our lives.

Wing Chun today

Today, Wing Chun can be found all over the world, with classes found in both the East and West and the remnants of Yip Man's students having branched of into all directions with their students branching off again. Today we are a few generations on from Yip Man's death and it would probably be fair to say that there is quite a bit of variation between schools overall, but most follow what they believe to be the fundamental principles of Wing Chun and don't look too dissimilar upon first glance.

Consequently, with the modern advent of the commercial aspect to teaching in the west, many schools seek to validate their existence by making associations with certain elements of this family tree or the other. It is understandable that people seek to justify their existence and give history and credence to their teaching but at the RWCA, we actively try to avoid that route. We teach in the hope that our past historical connections to the Yip Man family tree matter less than the quality it has inspired in our actions and the sense that is found in our teaching.

This is because the real magic of Wing Chun lies in it's attention to detail and in particular to the principles which guide all techniques. In the opinion of those teaching in the RWCA, the further from those principles a class finds itself, the further from being Wing Chun we believe it is.

It is this attitude that we believe should unite all Wing Chun schools as we all take the art into the future.