Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~


Friday, July 01, 2022

Ding Number Seven and the Origins of White Crane Boxing

Below is an excerpt from a fascinating article from Kung Fu Tea, which has to do with women in martial arts and the origin of Southern White Crane Boxing. The full post may be read here.


The historical records produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties contain a number of references to female martial artists.  These sources clearly indicate that they were massively outnumbered by their male brethren, but as a category they were never entirely absent either.  Of course “martial arts” as a conceptual category is a comparatively recent invention.  Most of these individuals were identified and discussed using different professional markers.  They were remembered as entertainers, vagabonds, criminals, healers, mystics, saints and in one memorable case even a rebel general.  The fighting arts (and their related body of traditional physical culture) might play a role in each of these professions.


There are far fewer cases in which a woman was explicitly identified as a full time martial arts instructor with a large number of students.  And I am aware of only a single a instance in which a historical woman was acknowledged by later male writers as the founder of area’s martial tradition.  

But before we can explore further we need to know something about the sorts of resources that are available to students of Chinese martial history.

“Gazetteers” are a fascinating historical resource for anyone interested in life in late imperial China.  

These records were by their nature both geographically bounded and technical.  They might focus on a region, a province, a county, a city, a temple or even an important waterway.  The ostensible point of a gazetteer was to gather the information that a busy outside government official or visitor might need to get up to speed on a new posting or assignment.  As such these books are a valuable historical resource which provide maps, community histories, economic discussions, biographies of notable citizens and local color.  


Members of the gentry were usually tasked with writing and editing the gazetteers.  This was considered a prestigious assignment as the editor of such a volume had the ability to shape the local social and historical record.  A review of these books shows that the families of the editors were inevitably remembered as “illustrious scholars” and “paragons of virtue.”  It is important to take the social history that one finds in these books with a grain of salt, but they remain a vital resource for understanding local history in China.
The editors of these volumes usually went to some effort to put their best foot forward and appear as orthodox and socially respectable as possible.  As a result gazettes often omit the sort of information that might be most useful to the historian of the martial arts.


Douglas Wile discovered a classic case of this while researching his landmark volume on the early Taiji literature (1996).  The Wu brothers, who had important careers as high ranking public servants, were also gifted literary scholars.  They put these skills to good use by editing the local county gazetteer after retiring from public office, as well as discovering, editing and preserving the oldest still existing manuscript tradition of what we now call the “Taiji Classics.”


In fact, all three brothers were deeply involved with and committed to, the practice of Taiji.  It is thus odd that the historical volume that they edited contains no references to Taiji, or to the brothers other very substantial military exploits.  Wile debates how we should interpret this silence.  Was it some hint of sedition?  Possibly.  But a simpler explanation would be that a public airing of such an eccentric interest in a “dignified” source would bring embarrassment to the Wu family.


Marnix Wells has fared better with the use of gazetteers in his research.  The county records that he dealt with in his investigation of Chang Naizhou not only preserved his memory, but it went into detail on the biographies of a number of other martial artists in the region.  This is really about the best scenario that you can hope for.  Yet in many cases these records simply pass over the martial arts in silence, not because they were actually absent, but rather because they were viewed as undignified or unorthodox by the volume’s editor.


The other difficult thing about gazetteers is finding and translating them.  Localities were supposed to update these records regularly.  Some did, while others were pretty lax.  Nor is there a central clearing house for this information today.  A few of these volumes (generally the ones for the more important areas) have been republished, but most of this information is still sitting in library stacks and private book collections in China.  Actually getting ahold of all of the information that you would like to see, and successfully translating it, can be a major feat of scholarship in itself.


Luckily for us the editors of the late 17th century gazetteer for Yongchun County, Fujian Province, had no moral objections to the martial arts.  We are also fortunate in that what he had to say was deemed important enough to warrant subsequent republishing and discussion, first by scholars in China, then by Stanley Henning in the United States.


Very often information about important martial artists (if any is included) will be found in the section on local biographies of noteworthy private citizens that most county gazetteers seem to have included.  The brief account quoted by Henning and others states that during the Kangxi era (1662-1735) a woman named Ding Number Seven moved to Yongchun with her husband.  Together they taught a number of individuals including 24 disciples.  The most important of these was an individual named Zheng Li.


Zheng warranted his own entry in the volume.  It focused on his immense strength and boxing skills.
The discussions of his feats included a stereotyped defeat of a water buffalo (which he pulled the horns off of) and a shaolin monk (who later became a friend and teacher).  Zheng was taught by Woman Ding, and he in turn provided instruction to most of the lineages that were still operating in the area at the time that the account was written.


So when does this account date to?  We do not have an exact date, but we do have some clues.  The list of southern gazetteers provided by James Tong indicates that Yongchun County did not update their records frequently (Disorder Under Heaven, 1992).  As such it looks like this account might date to the 1684 edition of the local gazetteer.   If these dates are correct than Ding Number Seven would have been active sometime between 1660 and 1680.  Given that the account indicates as least two generations of instruction have passed, this would indicate that she was probably teaching in the 1660s.


Of course this account is also interesting for what is left out.  We hear very little of her husband and his accomplishments.  One wonders if perhaps she was included because she was both a martial artist and a “virtuous widow,” a group that always enjoyed recognition in these lists (see the discussion in Victoria Cass, 1999).


Nor do we know the name of the style that she taught.  Today she is revered as the ancestor of Yongchun White Crane Boxing.  Yet neither avian nor geographic nomenclature are mentioned in the account of her teaching, just the size of her school.  Readers are also never told where she learned her art.  Was it from her husband?  Or possibly her father? 


While the biographical account of Zheng Li is full of exaggeration and folklore (the defeat of a bull-type creature is one of the classic markers of a martial arts legend, as is a confrontation with a Shaolin monk) his teacher’s life lacks any fantastic elements.  The account is all business, possibly too much so.


Subsequent versions of her story were more expansive and attempted to fill in these blanks.  Perhaps the best-preserved account from this era is found in the Bubishi.  This enigmatic work represents a Fujianese martial arts manuscript tradition dating from the last half of the 19th century.  The manuscripts in question were preserved in Okinawa (hence the Japanese title), and went on to influence the development of that island’s indigenous fighting traditions. 


The manuscripts included in the Bubishi are written in Chinese and include discussions of martial arts history, ethics, White Crane and Monk Fist styles, vital point strikes and traditional Chinese herbal medicines.  The manuscripts are sometimes heavily illustrated and often appear without any specific order.  An almost identical work entitled the Secret Shaolin Bronze Man Book was preserved by the Liu family in Fuzhou leading to the conclusion that the work was originally composed in China rather than Okinawa.


The volume begins its discussion of White Crane Kung Fu with the following story:



“In spite of his fighting skills in Monk Fist Boxing, Fang Zhonggong was no match for the scoundrels from a neighboring village who deceived and then viciously beat him while vying for control of his village.  The injuries Fang sustained during the altercation were so severe that he was unable to fully recuperate and fell gravely ill.  Attending to by his loving daughter and personal disciple, Fang Qiniang, his condition gradually deteriorated.  No longer even able to eat, he finally died.

Deeply troubled by the loathsome circumstances of her beloved father’s death, Fang Qiniang vowed to take revenge.  Although just a country girl from the rural village of Yongchun, Fang Qiniang was nevertheless a promising and spirited young woman.  She longed to vindicate her family name, but she had not yet mastered the fighting skills her father was teaching her.  She deeply pondered upon how she might find the power and strength to overcome such adversaries.

One day, not long after the tragedy, Fang was sobbing over the memory of her loss when suddenly she heard some strange noises coming from the bamboo grove just outside her home.  Looking out the window to see what was making such a racket, she saw two beautiful cranes fighting.  She noticed how the magnificent creatures strategically maneuvered themselves away from each others fierce attacks with remarkable precision.  In the midst of piercing screams, the vigorous and lethal pecking was well concealed.

Deciding to frighten off the creatures, Fang went outside and grabbed the long bamboo pole she used for hanging clothes to dry.  As she approached the cranes, Fang swung the pole but was unable to get close.  Each time she attempted to swing or poke with the pole, they sensed her proximity, and, before the pole could reach its intended target, the birds instinctively evaded her every effort and finally just flew off.

Reflecting deeply upon this incident, Fang concluded that it was a revelation and soon set about evaluating the white cranes’ instinctive combat methods.  If someone could fight the way the white cranes had, that person would be unbeatable.  After considerable time and study, Fang finally came to understand the central principles of hard and soft and yielding to power.  Fusing the central elements of Monk Fist gongfu with her own interpretation of the birds innate defensive movements she created a new style.

After three years of relentless training, Fang developed into an unusually skillful fighter.  Capable of remarkable feats of strength and power, Fang Qiniang was no longer the weak and frail girl she once was.  Her skills and determination finally gained her a notable reputation.  Undefeated in those three years, Fang’s innovative style ultimately became one of the most popular civil self-defense traditions in and around Fujian Province, and became known as Yongchun White Crane Boxing.”



The Bubishi demonstrates that within two centuries the creator of Yongchun Boxing had evolved from a historical person with a number of personal students to a full blown initiatory figure with a martial arts mythology of her own.  A comparison of the early account of “Ding” to the later stories of the woman “Fang” provides an excellent illustration of how it is that myths emerge and crystallize around the barest historical details.  Note also how the questions posed by the short biographical sketch are systematically answered throughout the later extended story.


Rather than coming to the county with her paradoxically quiet husband, she is now attached to a father capable to teaching her Monk Fist Style.  This certainly explains where Feng learned her art.  

Yet she did not teach Monk Fist to her students?  Instead her father conveniently dies at the hands of bandits and she is forced to innovate to avenge the family name. 


While the theme is a common one in martial arts legends, it still serves to introduce the vision of the fighting cranes that has been central to the development of martial arts in the Yongchun region.   

Further, Feng’s encounter with fighting cranes at her moment of greatest loss and despair shows an uncanny resemblance to Ng Mui’s later epiphany in the aftermath of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. 


Of course this new account raises its own set of questions.  Did Feng use her new found martial prowess to carry out an act of bloody revenge?  And what of the missing husband?  Did she ever go on to marry? If not, why?  Lastly, who was Feng Zhonggong?  Given the abrupt start of the story it would appear that the Bubishi is only presenting a tantalizing fragment of what was once a longer narrative.


Current folklore, still in circulation among modern martial artists, has taken up each of these questions in turn.  It takes no great leap of imagination to see Fang Zhonggong as an escapee from the ruins of Shaolin.  This conclusion may even be implied in the 19th century fragment of the story that we still poses.  He is obviously not a monk as he has married and has a daughter.  Still, many lay Buddhists studied martial arts at Shaolin in both legend and fact.  This would certainly seem to explain how he learned Monk Fist style in the first place. 


His daughter’s use of the long pole in her attempt to scare off the noisy cranes is highly suggestive of the historic Shaolin pole fighting style.  Lastly, the Bubishi claims that Feng always taught that it was only through the cultivation of inner peace and harmony that true martial mastery could be achieved.  It also states that her ideas about this were handed down from the ancient past through her father and were not native to Fuzhou.


Modern readers have accepted this implied Shaolin connection without hesitation.  Ng Ho reports that in some versions of the story Feng Qiniang refuses to marry, becomes a Buddhist nun herself, and changes her name to Yongchun (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  In the end he concludes that from a folklore perspective “It is impossible to ascertain whether Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang and the nun Yongchun were one and the same person or three distinct individuals.”   I agree with this basic conclusion that the myth takes a single identity and reworks it into multiple stories.  To this list of overlapping stories we can also add the Abbess Ng Mui. 


Historically speaking, the faded memory of Ding, a real martial arts instructor in Yongchun Village, has inspired the foundation myths of both Wing Chun and White Crane, as well as the individual legends of the Yim Wing Chun, Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang, and most recently the Nun Yongchun or Ng Mui.  All four of these individuals probably represent different aspects of the same legendary figure.




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