Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (11): Mok Kwai Lan – The Mistress of Hung Gar.⋅
This post is the third entry in our series examining the lives of female Chinese martial artists. While it is the case that the vast majority of hand combat practitioners in the 19th and 20th centuries were male, a certain number of women also adopted the art. We started by looking at the life and historical reputation of Woman Ding Number Seven and her contributions to the creation of White Crane Kung Fu in Fujian province. Not only did she make some critical technical contributions to the development of the local arts, but her memory served as an important touchstone for discussions of gender and hand combat throughout southern China.
Next we examined the life and contributions of Chen Shichao and her brother Chen Gongzhe. This dynamic pair was an important force behind the success that the Jingwu Athletic Association enjoyed in the early 20th century. Chen Gongzhe was instrumental in financing the group, while his sister worked tirelessly to promote female involvement in the martial arts on equal footing with men. This goal challenged strongly held norms and resulted in notable (often quite personal) push-back from more conservative elements in society. Yet ultimately the Jingwu Association succeeded in spreading the belief that women should have access to martial training and that this was an area where they could excel. It is unlikely that this social transformation would have been quite so successful without the pen and teaching efforts of Chen Shichao.
In the current post I would like to return our focus to southern China. Mok Kwai Lan is most often remembered as the fourth wife (or more accurately concubine) of Wong Fei Hung, the renown martial artists who is regarded by many as the father of modern Hung Gar. Yet Mok was also a martial artist and practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine before her marriage. Further, she maintained an independent and fruitful teaching career for more than five decades after Wong’s sad death in 1924.
Both Mok Kwai Lan’s life and career deserve more careful consideration than they usually receive.
She is a figure whose influence spans generations. She was born in the final decade of the 19th century and her martial training likely started at the same time as the Boxer Uprising. She saw the rapid development and transformation of the martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s, before having her own career disrupted by the invasions of the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the postwar era she witnessed a fundamental transformation in the popular perception of the traditional arts, driven in no small part by her departed husband’s rise to fame as a local folk hero. Lastly she was still active and teaching when the “Bruce Lee Explosion” reignited global interest in the martial arts in the middle of the 1970s. It is hard to think of too many other figures whose careers spanned so many important eras.