Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, May 04, 2020

The History and Global Transmission of Wing Chun

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

Originally practiced by the Cantonese speaking population of the Pearl River Delta region, Wing Chun is a concept-based fighting system known for its distinct high stances, triangular footwork, short-range boxing and trapping techniques, emphasis on relaxation and preference for low kicks.[i]  

Most branches of the art feature three unarmed forms, Siu Lim Tao (the Little Idea, or Little Thought Form), Chum Kiu (Seeking Bridges) and Biu Ji (Thrusting Fingers).  The most commonly encountered weapons are the Baat Jaam Do (Eight Directional Chopping/Slashing Knives, Wing Chun’s version of the hudiedao) and a single tailed fighting pole typically over three meters in length.[ii]  These same weapons are often among the first taught in other regional Kung Fu styles, and were mainstays of the area’s 19th century militia system.[iii]  Wing Chun is also known for its emphasis on wooden dummy (muk yan jong) training.
Distinctions in stance and technique are often noted between this system and the other arts which were popular in its hometown of Foshan including Choy Li Fut (the most popular art in the region through the late 1920s) and Hung Gar (also an important style in both Foshan and Guangzhou).[iv]  It seems likely that Wing Chun developed in dialogue with these other modes of hand combat. It’s characteristic stances and triangular footwork bear a distinct resemblance to certain regional Hakka boxing styles and the arts of Fujian province.
This is not surprising as demographic pressures and market trends led to the emigration of large numbers of people (including many professional martial artists) from coastal Fujian to Guangdong throughout the 19th century.  The market town of Foshan (a regionally critical trade center holding the imperial iron monopoly and known of its exports of silk, fine ceramics and a wide variety of handicraft goods)[v] was a popular destination for such immigrants.  Foshan’s vibrant and quickly growing economy required security guards, civilian martial arts instructors, militia officers and popular entertainers.  As such, the market town became a greenhouse nurturing the development of multiple martial arts styles.[vi]

The region’s contentious politics, including the Red Turban Revolt (1854-1856) and the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) meant that much of the male population was forced into militia service (or swept up in bandit armies) during the middle years of the 19th century. In this environment there was a great demand for skilled martial artists who could act as military trainers in the gentry led militia units, or who might be hired as mercenaries to stiffen the ranks of the imperial Green Standard Army which local officials viewed as understaffed and unreliable.[vii]
Following the end of these hostilities we see a period of innovation as martial artists sought to digest the lessons of the past and rebuild their lives.  Douglas Wile has noted that the setbacks that China suffered at the hand of Western powers unleashed powerful internal discourses within the country as reformers sought for ways to preserve what was important within Chinese culture in an era characterized by rapid reform.  Many of the Chinese martial arts most commonly seen today actually emerged, or were fundamentally reformulated, during this period of “self-strengthening.”[viii] This includes Wing Chun.
While many modern students attempt to parse it’s often fantastic folklore in an attempt to rediscover the ancient origins of the art, connecting the practice to migrants from Northern China (such as the Shaolin Monks) or regionally important culture heroes (including Cheung Ng),[ix] all of this ignores a fairly obvious point.  The Wing Chun that is widely known and practiced today is not a particularly ancient practice.  There is no reliable documentation of its existence, or that of any practitioners, prior to the mid 19th century.  The art was not practiced widely until the Republic period (1910s-1940s), and many of the most popular schools today are reliant on changes made to the style’s pedagogy and presentation by Ip Man in the 1950s and 1960s.  Wing Chun, like most Chinese martial arts, is a fundamentally modern practice and its nature can best be understood by examining the social history of Southern China between the closing years of the 19thcentury and the present.[x]
This does not suggest, however, that we can simply ignore the creation myths or oral history of the art.  These texts are important as they provide us with insights into the social position and function of Wing Chun within a rapidly modernizing environment.  Perhaps the oldest and most complete written version of the Wing Chun mythos was recorded by Ip Man in the 1960s for the creation of a proposed association that never came about.  This account was found in his papers following his death and has subsequently been disseminated by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA).[xi]
Briefly, Wing Chun, which might best be translated as ‘Beautiful Springtime’, was named not for its creator, the famous Shaolin nun Ng Moy, but rather its first student.  After being forced to flee the provincial capital into the far West due to false accusations against her father, the teenaged Yim Wing Chun found herself the victim of unwanted marital advances by a local marketplace bully.  Learning of the girls plight the nun Ng Moy (who had previously befriended the refugee family) revealed herself to be one of the five mythical survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin temple by the hated Qing.
Taking Wing Chun into the mountains, she trained her student in the Shaolin arts for a year.  This allowed her young charge to defend her honor and defeat an individual who had terrorized the community.  Leaving to resume her wandering, Ng Moy declared that this new art (which allowed the weak to defeat the strong) should be known by her student’s name.  Yim Wing Chun was given the charge of passing on what she had learned, as well as resisting the Qing and working to restore the Ming.
Following that the myth becomes more genealogical in nature.  It records that the art was transmitted to, and preserved by, a company of Cantonese opera performers in Foshan.  Foshan was the home of the Cantonese Opera Guild prior to the Red Turban Revolt when the practice was officially suppressed.  Eventually two of these individuals, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai, would pass the art to a pharmacist in Foshan named Leung Jan.  He would teach it to his children and a single student named Chan Wah Shun.  Chan’s final disciple was the son of his landlord, a young Ip Man.
This entire account has a somewhat hybrid nature.  Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun and Ip Man are all known historical figures whose existence can be independently verified.[xii]  However, the story’s opening acts are clearly fictional.  All traditional Cantonese arts trace their origins to the survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin temple (a myth complex shared with the region’s Triads).  However, historians have known for some time that the Qing never destroyed the Shaolin temple in Henan, and the Southern Shaolin temple (despite being “rediscovered” by multiple competing local governments) is more the product of literary creation than actual history.[xiii]  Both Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to important female figures in the origin stories of certain branches of Fujianese White Crane.  Indeed, it seems that this folklore impacted the development of Wing Chun, along with certain footwork patterns and stances.[xiv]
Christopher Hamm has published studies of the evolution of Southern China’s martial arts fiction during the late Qing and Republic period which can also help to date the Wing Chun myth.  The story retold by Ip Man appears to be dependent on an anonymous novel, Shengchao Ding Sheng Wannian Qing (Everlasting), first published in 1893.  This was one of the most popular martial arts novels sold in the region and it saw many reprinting and pirate editions.  That is particularly important as in the original version of the story Ng Moy (who makes her first ever named appearance in these books) was not a hero.  Rather she was an antagonist who conspired to bring down the Shaolin monks.  She was not reimagined as a hero and friend of Shaolin until a pirate edition with an alternate ending titled Shaolin Xiao Yingxiong (Young Heroes from Shaolin) was published in the 1930s.[xv]  The Wing Chun creation myth as related in the Ip Man lineage seems to be dependent on that relatively late edition.
Indeed, the openly revolutionary ideology of the story would also have been much more popular with readers in Republican China than with the subjects of the Qing dynasty who had to be quite careful about how they discussed the government.  Yim Wing Chun is also interesting as she seems to act as a bridge pointing back to the possible influence of Fujianese boxing styles, while also connecting the art to popular trends in Republic era fiction that focused on stories of the amazing feats of female heroines.  In short, while not a historical document, this story likely served an important role in explaining the nature and purpose of the art to Republic era students.  It also supports the view that Wing Chun is a relatively recent art which may have first developed in the middle or later years of the 19th century (likely following the opera ban), before being popularized among Foshan’s middle class and bourgeois martial artists in the Republic period.

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