The True History of Wing Chun
200 years ago, less than 100 people practiced Wing Chun. Today, Wing Chun is practiced globally by over 100,000 people. The vast majority of them believe the Wing Chun creation story.
To question the story is similar to questioning a religious doctrine. The devout believers will be angered and want to punish the heretic!
I do not want 100,000 Wing Chun devout believers trying to excommunicate me. So, if you are a Wing Chun fundamentalist, please stop reading this article now!
I started my Wing Chun training in 1991. Now, thirty years later in 2021, I have decided to write my first article about Wing Chun.
In part one, I look at the difference between what I was told about the history of Wing Chun when I was young and what I now know to be true. This very recent journey of research and discovery is full of unexpected revelations!
In the second part of this article, I discuss why I think Wing Chun is such an incredible martial art. Why it is so enjoyable and beneficial to train, and why I recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese martial arts.
Part One: Wing Chun History
I was told the history of Wing Chun by my older martial arts teachers. They believed this story to be true. For decades, I also believed them. I felt that through this story I was connecting to an ancient Buddhist tradition.
The creation story of Wing Chun involves the Northern Shao Lin Buddhist Temple that was founded almost 1,500 years ago by the Buddhist monk ‘Bodhidharma’ who came to China from India.
When Bodhidharma arrived at the temple, he saw that the monks were weak and taught them some movement exercises that later became Shao Lin martial arts. He also left for them a secret training manual.
Then about 300 years ago, the Northern Shao Lin Temple (or sometimes the Southern Shao Lin Temple) was supporting a rebellion against the Manchu overlords. Some of the monks supported the government, others were against it.
There is a betrayal, and the Shao Lin Temple is burnt down. (Sometimes it is the Southern Shao Lin Temple, in other stories it is the Northern Shao Lin Temple).
Some monks and a nun escape from the temple. The nun hides out in the White Crane Temple where she reconstructs the best components of Shao Lin martial arts.
This compressed style is then taught to a young girl called Wing Chun. Wing Chun (the girl) then teaches Wing Chun (the martial art) to her husband. A student of the husband teaches it to an actor in the Chinese opera.
Questioning Wing Chun History
Recently, I started to question the Wing Chun creation story when I found out that it is almost the exact same creation story that is used by several other southern Chinese martial arts:
- The creation story of the martial art of White Crane is connected to the Shao Lin temple and a rebellion. It is developed by a female martial artist in the White Crane Temple and is passed on to an actor in the Chinese opera.
- The creation story of the martial art of Five Ancestors is connected to the Shao Lin temple and a rebellion.
- The creation story of the martial art of Hung Ga is connected to a monk from the Northern Shao Lin temple who is involved with a rebellion. When the Northern Shao Lin temple is burnt down, he flees to the Southern Shao Lin temple.
- In the creation story of another Southern Chinese martial art called Bak Mei it is said that the Shao Lin temple is involved in a rebellion and there is a betrayal and the temple is burnt down. (In some versions it is the Northern Shao Lin Temple in others the Southern). A monk flees the Shao Lin Temple and hides out in the Fujian Temple and develops his martial art.
- In the creation story of the martial art of Southern Praying Mantis, a rebel took refuge in the Northern Shao Lin Temple which was then destroyed. He then fled to the Southern Shao Lin Temple in Fujian where he taught his martial art.
I thought if the story is true, how can it apply to so many different styles?
Maybe it is a very good story which is why a lot of people use it?
Maybe some aspects of the story are true?
However, my total belief in the truth of the whole of the Wing Chun creation story has been undermined.
I was further shocked to recently discover that the story of Bodhidharma arriving at the temple and teaching the monks movement exercises that later became Shao Lin martial arts cannot be true.
This is because Bodhidharma never visited the Shao Lin Temple. When he arrived in China, he was already a very old man. The temple was built 30 or 40 years after he had arrived in China. He was dead before the temple was built or had monks in it.
Within the martial arts world, it is well known that the martial arts of Shao Lin Temple are intimately connected with the secret Buddhist training manual that Bodhidharma gave to the monks almost 1,500 years ago. It is called the ‘Muscle/Tendon Change Classic’. But it turns out that this is a Taoist Chi Kung instruction manual written in 1624 by the Taoist priest Zining. In 1827, a fake prefix was added to this document attributing it to the Buddhist Bodhidharma.
There are a vast number of historical documents that discuss Bodhidharma. There are also a vast number of historical documents that discuss monks from the Northern Shao Lin Temple training with the staff (pole).
However, these two separate subjects were only brought together for the first time in the fictional novel ‘The Travels of Lao Ts’an’. This book was written by Liu E (1857-1909) and first published in 1904. This fictional story was further developed in the 1915 book ‘Secrets of Shaolin Boxing’.
There is more…
The first document to mention a Southern Shao Lin Temple was the fictional novel called Sheng Chao Ding Sheng Wannian Qing published in 1893. In this story, the Manchu attack the fictional Southern Shao Lin Temple.
There are three modern-built ‘Southern’ Shao Lin Temples. All in different locations. All claiming to be inheritors of the original ancient Northern Shao Lin Temple tradition. All three modern ‘Southern’ Shao Lin Temples claim to be built on the location of an ‘ancient’ Southern Shao Lin Temple.
(It is quietly understood that having a local ‘Shao Lin’ Temple is good for making money from martial arts tourists who want a myth made real. This applies to tourists from within China as much as to foreign tourists).
Also, it seems that historically the Northern Shao Lin Temple was never burnt down in ancient times by the Manchu rulers. At that point in history, the temple consisted of a few mostly abandoned old buildings. It was actually the Manchu who paid for it to be renovated and rebuilt.
The Northern Shao Lin Temple was burnt down. But that was in 1928 during the fighting between the Warlords and the Nationalists.
Finding out that the martial arts stories handed down to me were just stories (literally, they were fictional literature) and not historical truth has been very unsettling.
Wing Chun Weapons
There are a vast number of historical documents that discuss monks from the Northern Shao Lin Temple training with the staff (pole). And Wing Chun has a pole form. So, is there a connection?
Throughout Chinese history, in every part of China, the use of a staff as a weapon was very common. Individuals used it, armies and militia used it. Every martial art used it. It was affordable, available and practical. So just because Shao Lin Temple and Wing Chun both trained with a staff, does not mean that there was any connection.
However, the Butterfly Swords, also known as the Eight Cutting Blades or Eight Slashing Knives is the quintessential weapon of Wing Chun. The way that the two weapons fit into one scabbard, the wide chopper shape and short length of the blades and the D-shaped guard are all unique characteristics. This weapon has only existed for 200 years and only in Southern China. Clearly, it has nothing to do with the ancient Shao Lin Temple in the north.
The Butterfly Knives were used by individuals, security guards, local militia and many southern Chinese martial arts systems. They were not used by the army. So this is a recent civilian weapon of Southern China.
Short swords are relevant for the urban alleyways of southern China’s heavily populated cities and the crowded boats on the waterways that crisscrossed the southern river deltas.
The Butterfly Knives have only existed for 200 years and are THE weapon of the Southern Chinese martial art of Wing Chun. The Butterfly Knives are a recent civilian weapon of Southern China. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from this is that Wing Chun is a recent local Southern Chinese civilian martial art.
Wing Chun in Print
Wing Chun must be a relatively new martial art. The first time it is mentioned in a printed document is in 1919 in the tenth anniversary commemorative yearbook of the mainland Chinese Jingwu Association.
The second time is in the 1926 local newsletter of the Foshan branch of the Jingwu Association. It explains that Feng Xiaoli was taught Wing Chun by Leung Jan’s son Leung Bik in 1883.
The third time Wing Chun is mentioned in a printed document is in Hong Kong in 1946. Huang Hanxun published a book called ‘Secrets of The Mantis Boxing Art’. Huang Hanxun says that his own Mantis Boxing uses long-range techniques for attacks and short-range techniques for defence. He says attack with hardness and defend with softness. Huang Hanxun says that his own Mantis Boxing is the perfect balance of softness and hardness and that Wing Chun and Tai Chi Chuan also emphasize softness.
Conclusions of Part One
The Wing Chun creation story is clearly not true historically. Wing Chun is approximately 200 years old, not 1,500 years old. It is a southern Chinese boxing style not connected with the Northern Shao Lin Temple.
The very last part of the Wing Chun creation story mentions an actor in the Chinese opera. I think it is here that we can find the true origins of Wing Chun.
From the historical evidence, it is clear that actors in the Chinese opera had an ongoing fascination with indigenous local Southern Chinese martial arts. They wanted to include authentic martial arts movements and techniques in their performances.
In addition, they needed to be good at martial arts for their own personal protection. Southern China was experiencing an endless cataclysm of rebellions, revolutions, land invasions, pirate attacks, sea-born foreign invasions, poverty and hardship leading to banditry and uprisings.
Clearly, the members of the Chinese opera performance groups who journeyed across this violent and unpredictable part of China would need to be able to defend themselves.
They would perform in many different locations as they travelled around Southern China. They would have been able to train in many different martial arts styles from many different geographical locations.
I believe that they created Wing Chun; a style that was the essence of the best techniques and principles of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts they encountered.
Leung Jan (1826 – 1901) learnt Wing Chun from the Chinese opera actors, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai.
Performers in Chinese opera were very low down in the social hierarchy. Who would want to learn, practice or teach a new style created by actors?
To give Wing Chun prestige maybe the recently created, fictional, heroic backstory that all Southern styles were using was adopted by Wing Chun as well?
Bodhidharma, Buddhist fighting monks, the burning Shao Lin Temple, betrayal, escape and rebellion!
Part Two: Why Wing Chun is such an incredible martial art
Wing Chun is a lot like western boxing (with the addition of kicks and knives!) Western boxing is ‘stand up’ and ‘strike’. In simple terms, western boxing has a small number of moves. For example: jab, cross, hook, uppercut and the overhand right. These moves are put together in unlimited combinations depending on the situation.
Wing Chun is also ‘stand up’ and ‘strike’. There is a small number of moves. For example: straight punch, chopping hand, wing arm, palm strike, elbow and shocking hand. These moves are put together in unlimited combinations depending on the situation.
Western boxing is also about how you close the distance with the opponent, where you position yourself in relation to them and how you succeed through a deep understanding of tactics and angles of attack. Wing Chun is exactly the same.
Western boxing has a few training methods. For example: the heavy bag and shadow boxing. Wing Chun also has a few training methods. For example: the wooden man and some two-person pre-arranged fight sequences.
Western boxing agrees that training methods are good, but the best thing is to pair up, put the gloves on and fight.
It is exactly the same in Wing Chun. We pair up (don’t put the gloves on) and fight.
In Wing Chun, true understanding comes from practical experience. Can you apply what you know in a spontaneous and unpredictable and slightly chaotic situation?
Wing Chun is the basic A B C from which the words, sentences and paragraphs of other styles are composed. It is the raw component pieces, the building blocks, the nuts and bolts of Chinese martial arts.
Because it is so simple, one might think it is a more ancient style and that the more complex and sophisticated traditional styles evolved from it as more intricacies were added over time.
Quite the opposite is the case. The modern creators of Wing Chun stripped down the traditional styles and found their essence. The common denominators that gave them all their functional effectiveness.
In addition to Wing Chun, I also teach other traditional Chinese martial arts. However, I like my students to first spend a few years learning Wing Chun with me to get a good grounding in the practical realities of applied Chinese martial arts. Then any other style I teach will make sense and be easy for them to learn and apply.
More Reasons Why Wing Chun Is Such an Incredible Martial Art
Wing Chun is like a simple line drawing. Teachers add in shading according to their personal preferences.
Here are 12 examples of how teachers shade and colour the way they teach Wing Chun.
A teacher could choose to tell the mythical creation story of Wing Chun and incorporate Buddhist ideas into their teaching, like mindfulness and meditation.
Alternatively, a teacher could emphasise that Wing Chun is an indigenous Chinese martial art, and it is, therefore, Taoist in its principles. There would be discussions about yin and yang and chi flow.
A teacher could emphasise Confucian hierarchical structures and ask to be called ‘Sifu’ which translates as ‘father’. He could say that the senior students should be called ‘Sihing’ which translates as ‘elder brother’.
Also, the teacher has the option of letting go of Chinese cultural concepts altogether and could use modern scientific terminology. They could emphasise angles, structural integrity, speed, momentum, weight and impact.
A teacher could emphasise the ‘martial’ in martial art and focus on practical applications.
On the other hand, a teacher could emphasise the ‘art’ in martial art and focus on presentation, form, posture and how the art is performed.
A teacher could say Wing Chun is an external martial art that is all about strength, force and aggression. Smashing the enemy is the objective by using Direct Attack.
On the other hand, a teacher could say that Wing Chun is an internal art that uses Evasive Attack and expresses the power of its strikes using internal force.
Another teacher could say that it is a bit of both, depending on the situation.
A teacher could explain that Wing Chun is only a practical martial art and should be trained with this one focus.
A teacher could also say that Wing Chun is not only a practical martial art but also a way of self-development to cultivate concentration, determination and awareness. It’s a way to achieve good health and a journey of spiritual development.
A teacher might spend more time getting students to practice single-person forms.
Another teacher might emphasise two-person pre-arranged sequences.
Some other teacher might emphasise spontaneous free fighting.
A teacher might emphasise that the Wing Chun Butterfly Knives are used to stab. And that the wooden man is a conditioning tool that should be hit hard.
Another teacher might emphasise that the Wing Chun Butterfly Knives are used to slash. And that the wooden man is about learning the correct angles of attack and one should move around it with a light touch.
A teacher might say that the martial applications of the moves are always used in a way that causes as little damage to the opponent as possible. They might emphasise a non-violent philosophy.
Another teacher might emphasise that the Wing Chun moves should be applied in a way that causes maximum damage to the opponent in case there is a second opponent. You would not want the first opponent to recover and re-attack at the same time as the second opponent. Winning one-on-one is hard enough. To win when it is two against one is a lot harder.
One teacher might say Wing Chun is for winning competitions with rules and rounds, weight divisions, scoring points and separate categories for men and women wearing protective equipment. So they would train their students a certain way.
Another teacher might say Wing Chun is for self-defence. Men and women fight each other. There are no rules or rounds, no protective equipment, no weight divisions and no points awarded. Just effective fight-stopping moves. So they would train their students a different way.
A teacher could have a preference for a 60/40 weight distribution. Then a kick from the front leg can be released with more ease.
Another teacher might have a preference for a 50/50 weight distribution. Then a practitioner could move in any direction without having to shift their weight first.
A teacher might say Wing Chun is only ‘stand up’ and ‘strike’ and only teach that.
Another teacher might say Wing Chun starts with understanding ‘stand up’ and ‘strike’. Then once this has been mastered, other ideas such as grappling, wrestling, throws, takedowns (and counters to takedowns), a ground game (locking them up and ground and pound) can be added on.
A teacher might say Wing Chun is for a face-to-face (nose-to-nose) situation when you are square on and that you must work from there.
Another teacher could emphasise fast footwork, always moving to the side and being in a side-on-stance to avoid face-to-face and instead create a nose-to-ear angle.
A teacher might have a preference for a formal atmosphere in the class with lots of saluting and bowing.
Another teacher might conduct the class in an informal way, on first-name terms with a more relaxed atmosphere.
Wing Chun is so wonderful because it is like a simple line drawing. Above are 12 different ways it can be shaded and coloured in by the teacher. No one can ever know which combination is how it was practiced 200 years ago. So each teacher creates their own picture.
After a few years, students have understood that behind the shaded and coloured picture their teacher has shown them, is actually a simple line drawing. They then also can shade it and colour it according to their own personal preferences.
I think that this adaptability is why Wing Chun is such an incredible martial art. It also allows for the teacher to rub out some of the shaded and coloured parts of their personal picture and rework it, so it looks different. This can be because they have realised things from their experience or have just grown older and so see things a different way.
Four of Wing Chun’s most famous practitioners: Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun, Yuen Kay San and Ip Man, all learnt from several teachers and mixed together what they had learnt.
They all shaded and coloured the style to reflect their own unique understanding. All four taught different versions at different times in their lives as they reworked their personal picture from their experience.
For example, when Leung Jan retired from his pharmacy shop in town and returned to his family village in the countryside, he taught a different version of Wing Chun. Or you could say he taught Wing Chun in a different way. (He reworked his personal picture).
We can conclude that there is not one version of Wing Chun but many variations. So who can say which is the best, most authentic or most useful?
To attract students, some Wing Chun teachers may say that they are the inheritors of the true lineage. They may also claim that their version is the correct way Wing Chun should be practiced and applied.
However, we can see that Wing Chun has been endlessly evolving and changing. Different teachers shade and colour the simple line drawing of Wing Chun in many different ways. Wing Chun still continues to adapt and change today.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. And I hope you continue to enjoy training the great martial art of Wing Chun.
A detailed explanation of Paul’s Wing Chun system is contained within Paul’s Wing Chun Book that students receive free at their first class.
Paul has also written many other Chinese Martial and Healing Arts Books.
Wing Chun classes in Hampshire
Paul teaches a weekly Wing Chun class on Monday evenings from 19:00 – 20:30 at Selborne Village Hall in Hampshire.