"The first casualty when war comes is truth." - Hiram Johnson
Although the world itself has not become smaller, life in the Information Technology Age (via email and the 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 regarding the historical origins of Wing Chun kung fu is one such myth.
Put simply, the harsh truth is this: the myth of the Buddhist nun, Ng Mui, and her disciple Yim Wing Chun, who are believed to be the 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 points 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 around 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. Viewing the traditional legends with a historical perspective is even more fascinating, and no less deserving of the term 'legendary.'
As far as history can testify, Wing Chun was developed around 400 years ago during a time of civil unrest. Between 1644 and 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. To overthrow their oppressors, rebel activity was instigated by martial arts masters in hiding.
Rebel activity rapidly developed 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 temple disciples. During the day, the rebels would earn their keep by doing chores around the temple, and at night, they would gather to formulate their plans to overthrow the Manchus.
Some maintain that Shaolin/Siu Lam sanctuaries had no political leanings, but this emotional viewpoint lacks historical grounding. Throughout history, religious leaders in both the Western and Eastern worlds have influenced politics and government. Churches have harbored political victims sought by oppressive authorities. In the case of China, a precedent for such behavior had already been set 400 years earlier, as evidenced by Ving Tsun Museum research, with Jyu Yuhn Jeung, a Buddhist monk who led a revolt against the Mongols and established the Ming Dynasty.
Upon meeting, the revolutionaries identified each other with a secret hand-signal that would become the formal greeting of Wing Chun. The traditional greeting has two meanings: the left hand symbolizes 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, the hands are reversed: the left hand forms a fist, and the right hand is an open palm. It still retains its significance to Shaolin but also refers to the secret society. In this context, the fist represents Yat (the Sun), and the palm represents Yuet (the Moon). Combined, these characters mean "Bright," which sounds like "Ming," the name of the previous Dynasty overthrown by the Manchurians. Thus, 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," which was not shared by the Manchus.
In the late 1600s, the Manchurians became concerned about the Siu Lam Temples' rebellious activities and their development of the fighting arts. They sent spies, many of them Manchu military leaders, to infiltrate the rebels and learn the Southern fist systems taught secretly in the Temples. The rebel kung-fu masters clandestinely developed a new system: it had to be learned quickly and efficiently, and it had to be devastatingly effective against the Manchus' fighting systems. Thus, Wing Chun was born.
The Manchus compromised their spy rings and decided to exterminate the Siu Lam monks. The Southern Siu Lam Temple was eventually burned and destroyed. Research by the Ving Tsun Museum points to a generation of inheritors following the temple's burning. Among them was a man named Cheung Ng (also known as Tan Sao Ng in other texts). Of this generation, Cheung Ng is the one historically verified to have existed. He established the Beautiful Flower Society Association and provided Wing Chun training to secret societies. He went into hiding to escape Qing Dynasty persecution, staying with a Fuk Gin business family named Chahn.
The Chahn family preserved Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun, taught through generations before being shared with outsiders. The last family member to learn the art was a distant nephew, Huhng Gan Biu, a high-level secret society leader. According to the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun clan, Huhng Gan Biu was the 4th generation leader of the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun clan, preserving the system through the 8th and 9th generations.
At the fourth generation, history and truth diverged, and the myth of Wing Chun's origins was created.
To protect the creators and 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 tells that among the survivors of the Shaolin/Siu Lam massacres was a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui. She was believed to be the custodian of a practical martial art developed within the temples, passing her knowledge to her disciple Yim Wing Chun. However, there is no evidence beyond the legend that Ng Mui existed as a kung-fu grandmaster or founder of a kung-fu system.
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. Furthermore, after escaping as a revolutionary, it does not make sense for Ng Mui to teach an advanced fighting system to a local girl with no connection to the revolution. At that time in Chinese history, Qing dynasty punishment for traitors and rebels involved execution and targeting the guilty party's family down to nine generations. Teaching Yim Wing Chun a martial art would have directly endangered her life.
Regarding Yim Wing Chun, 'Yim' translates to 'prohibit' or
'secret,' and 'Wing Chun' referred to Siu Lam Wing Chun Tong, where rebels perhaps practiced martial arts and orchestrated activities. The term 'Spring' symbolized the rebirth of the Ming Dynasty, and 'Always' referred to the reestablished dynasty lasting forever. After the Southern Shaolin temple's destruction, the survivors changed 'Always' to 'Praise,' signifying the revolutionaries spreading the word after their base was destroyed. 'Yim Wing Chun' was a codename, meaning (protect) the secret art of the Wing Chun Hall.
If we accept that the story of Ng Mui was a diversion and that the Siu Lam/Shaolin Temples were destroyed, the question remains: who were the true custodians of the Wing Chun system?
Many monks and rebel leaders escaped the Manchurian massacres. Historical material was passed from teacher to student to maintain secrecy. Two Siu Lam monks/rebels survived the temple raids: Yat Chum Dai Si, a 22nd generation Siu Lam Grandmaster from the Northern Shaolin temple, and Cheung Ng, a rebel who founded the Beautiful Flower Society and established the roots of the Red Boat Opera Troupe.
Rebel activity flourished in the Red Boat Opera Troupe, a sanctuary for fleeing rebels. The performers wore disguises through elaborate costumes and stage make-up, adopting stage names to cloak their identities.
In conclusion, as various Wing Chun lineages developed, the name could be seen as a generic term for a style with many lineages. This article focuses on shedding light on Wing Chun's origins. A complete historical and political analysis is being compiled in book form by the Ving Tsun Museum.
Cheung Ng, inheritor of the art from the Southern Temple, guided its development as a complete combat training system for rebels, which aligns with the art's total combat effectiveness. It represents a more plausible explanation for Wing Chun's roots. As with historical study, this hypothesis spurs further research, bringing us closer to reality. The Ving Tsun Museum and researchers contribute to this quest for historical truth.
Myths simplify or disguise subjects, making them more palatable. The legend of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun is a great story, but it isn't true. It may be challenging for some to accept the truth, but studying martial arts is a quest for personal, social, spiritual, and historical truth.
Sifu Benny Meng, an internationally published author, is the founder and Curator of the Ving Tsun Museum. Sifu Alfredo Del-Brocco has trained in Wing Chun for over 15 years and teaches in Brisbane.