Anthropologists have long taught that myths and legends die hard, if ever. This is certainly the case with the fables and stories surrounding the roots of Wing Chun (often spelled "Ving Tsun") Kung Fu. For many years now, martial arts families and writers have perpetuated the myth that five monks survived the burning of the Northern Shaolin Temple at Shong Shan Mountain in the Hunan Province of China, and that one or more of these monks created the Wing Chun art form. In truth, Wing Chun is a Southern Shaolin art in virtually every respect of structure and movement. It was the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple, in the Province of Fukien, that released Wing Chun to the revolutionary hotbed surrounding the Ching Dynasty. More than 20 monks actually survived that disaster and helped promote the growth of three key fighting styles amongst revolutionary societies. Those styles were Crane, Hung Gar, and Wing Chun.
To complicate matters even further, the proponents of the Northern Shaolin Temple / Five Monk Theory also hold that one of the "monks" was actually a woman named Ng Mui. They believe she designed and developed the art of Wing Chun and later taught it to another woman, named Yim Wing Chun, after whom the art was eventually named. Aside from the fact that Buddhist monasteries were not in the habit of training females along with males in a celibate monastic environment, least of all the very traditional Northern Shaolin Temple at Shong Shan, evidence now reflects that Yim Wing Chun never existed.
Recent findings uncovered by historians and martial arts teachers feeding continuous streams of information and documentation to the Ving Tsun Museum in Dayton, Ohio — and verified through extensive travel by the Museum Curator and staff to substantiate sources and documentation — reveal that Ng Mui played no role in the creation or development of Wing Chun Kung Fu, if she ever existed at all. This fact is verified through cross-referencing information from the history of the Cantonese Opera, Chinese secret societies, various Wing Chun lineages, and, ultimately, recorded Chinese history. These findings further reveal that Yim Wing Chun was a mythical character carefully constructed by the art's true founders to keep both its origins and its teachers secreted from Ching Dynasty authorities. "Wing Chun" itself means "Everlasting Spring" symbolizes its founders' focus on the "rebirth" of the Ming Dynasty. During the early 18th century when the Southern Shaolin Temple was destroyed, a suffix was added to the Chinese character "Wing" to change its meaning "to praise." This was a reminder to the art's practitioners to spread the word continuously about a rebirth of the Ming Dynasty.
The Chinese verb "Yim" means "to be discrete or secret." By adding the two words together in the mythical founder's name, the true founders were instructing followers to remain discrete about the art's origins and practitioners, but to continue to speak out about the return of the Ming family to the throne.
The burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple represents a significant turning point in martial arts history. For the first time in over 1,000 years, the monks moved the teaching and spread of their kung fu outside of the temple walls.
In essence, Wing Chun Kung Fu is the culmination of a military development effort (of both the Northern and Southern Shaolin Temples) funded by Ming Dynasty family members and sympathizers. The project's intention was to employ the monk's extensive knowledge of human physiology and animal fighting postures in the development of a fighting style centered around natural human motion. In addition, the style had to lend itself to training revolutionaries in minimal time without 10 years of acrobatic discipline. Finally, the style needed to be accompanied by highly scientific training methods grounded in a system that could be replicated to guarantee the production of top-notch fighters in far less time than it took to train Imperial fighters in the Ching army.
Some might question the contention that religious monks would engage in such a military development effort. In point of fact, military endeavors were not new to the Shaolin monks. They were fiercely loyal to the Ming Dynasty. Royal family money greatly enhanced the Shaolin monasteries' growth and influence throughout their respective provinces. In support of the Ming Dynasty, a powerful fighting force of Shaolin monks was organized and employed on numerous occasions to border regions in an attempt to hold back Manchurian incursions. It is not a stretch of the imagination that the monks would develop styles and training methods tailored to aiding Ming Dynasty revolutionaries to recapture the throne from the Manchurians and the Ching Family.
While a complete list of key players in the monk's support of revolutionary activities and the ultimate development of Wing Chun Kung Fu is still being researched, some principal figures have already been identified. The first was a Buddhist monk originally from the Northern Shaolin Temple with the alias "Chiu Yuen." His real name was "Chu Ming." He was one of the surviving members of the Ming Family who took shelter in the monastery as a monk following the fall of the Ming Dynasty. He learned all that he could of the monk's fighting styles and used his knowledge and money to continuously foment anti-Manchurian activities. His actions were highly responsible for the ultimate burning of both Shaolin temples by soldiers of the Ching army.
The second principal figure in the monk's revolutionary activities used the alias "Da Jung." His real name remains unknown, but his past and origins are not so hidden. Prior to his arrival at the Southern Shaolin Temple, he was a Ming military officer from the northern provinces. He fled south when the Ming Dynasty fell and sought shelter in the Southern Temple. He is truly important to the history of the Southern Temple because, prior to his arrival, kung fu was not of primary interest there. He is what Chinese martial arts traditionalists would call a "Joi Si," or "First Leader," because he is believed to be the first person to give his extensive knowledge of Chinese Kung Fu to the Southern Shaolin Temple. In the process of teaching his martial arts at the Temple, he formed a secret society known as the "Buddhist Hung Moon." The society's express purpose was the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty. It was this organization that was used to link Northern and Southern Shaolin revolutionary activities together. Secret sub-societies were formed to carry out the intent of the Buddhist Hung Moon, the most significant being the "Hung Fa Wui" (Red Flower Society) and another counterpart organization on the island of Formosa, called Tien Dei Wui (Heaven and Earth Society). The Formosa-based society was established by one of the last surviving Ming general officers, Cheng Sing Kung.
Following the destruction of the Shaolin Temples, surviving members of both the Hung Fa Wui and the Tien Dei Wui extended their efforts to numerous other resistance organizations and personages loyal to the Ming and interested in training revolutionary fighters. The common battle cry was "Overthrow the Ching and Restore the Ming." This expansion of influence and cooperation gave rise to new secret societies that ultimately gained public attention, the most notable being the "Triads," (Three Harmonies), the Gua Lo Wui (Brotherhood), and the Dai Doe Wui (Big Sword Society).
Two additional key figures are credited with keeping the Wing Chun system of martial arts alive following the burning of the temples.
The senior was a 22nd generation Shaolin Grandmaster named Yat Chum Dai Si. The second was his principal disciple, named Cheung Ng.
Yat Chum Dai Si was originally trained in the Northern Shaolin Temple, where he eventually attained a very high stature as a monk. He transferred to the Southern Temple following the arrival there of Da Jung. It would be easy to surmise that Da Jung may have had a significant influence in bringing this great martial arts master to the Southern Temple to participate in the creation of Wing Chun and other fighting styles.
More information is available about the origins and activities of the disciple, Cheung Ng. He was a highly educated man who possessed great literary and operatic skills, as well as extensive military training. He is believed to have descended from a Hanbuck family noted for producing generations of military men who served the Ming Regime. For certain, the Ching Dynasty wasted no time in attempting to kill all of the Ng family in Hanbuck. Cheung Ng himself fled to the Northern Temple and sought shelter there as a monk sometime after the departure of Yat Chum Dai Si for the Southern Temple. While at the Northern Temple, Cheung Ng heard rumors of the activities of the Hung Fa Wui at the Southern Temple in a place called "Hung Fa Ting." This was the gathering hall for the members of the Hung Fa Wui where revolutionary activities were planned. Wishing to participate in these activities, he sought and obtained permission to leave the Northern Temple and traversed to the Southern Temple where he met Yat Chum Dai Si. Under this Grandmaster, he began his study of the art that was to become Wing Chun Kung Fu.
Following the Southern Temple's destruction, Cheung Ng escaped to Guongdong province. There he used his previous knowledge of literature and opera to create the perfect disguise for himself and the continuation of revolutionary activities. He formed the Red Boat Opera Troupe. Many legends of Kung Fu history make reference to a famous character named "Tan Sao Ng." Indeed, these legends refer to Cheung Ng, who was quite famous during opera performances for the skillful usage of the redirecting and dispersing hand technique of Wing Chun known today as "Tan Sao."
This article sheds significant light on the "Ng Mui (a possible alias for Cheung Ng)/ Yim Wing Chun (a fictional person's name for the newly created fighting system)" legend about the origins of Wing Chun. More can be said of the activities of the Red Boat Opera Troupe in the spread of Wing Chun Kung Fu and about the Hung Fa Wui Goon troupe Cheung Ng formed to carry on the memory and activities of the Hung Fa Wui society destroyed by the Temple burnings. However, additional information is far too extensive to elaborate on in this single article. Future articles will focus on the art's growth and development as a result of its roots in the Red Boat Opera Troupe. For now, suffice it to say that the secrecy of its origins and Cheung Ng's role in its creation mandated that not all of his students, nor all of the opera troupe's players, were members of the Hung Fa Wui Goon.
The authors would like to give special thanks to all of the Sifus and professional historians who provided evidence to finally put the Ng Mui/Yim Wing Chun legend to rest. Particular thanks must be given to Sifu Garret Gee (8th Generation) who represents Cheung Ng's legacy.