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 ~


Monday, December 06, 2021

The Foundation Myths of Wing Chun


Every martial art has it's own folklore swirling around it's foundation. Some are in the far distant past and others are documented by newspaper accounts and newsreels.

Below is an excerpt that appeared at Kung Fu Tea concerning the foundation story of Wing Chun kung fu, as related by Ip Man. The full post may be read here. 

Many of the debates in the Wing Chun world today focus on the question of lineage.  People want to know which expression of Wing Chun best captures its essential essence?  Which is truly “authentic”?  Often it is assumed that authenticity must be expressed in terms of history.  Some individuals then conclude that the branch of Wing Chun which is the oldest must the most “true.”

Needless to say this entire exercise is problematic.  There are too many undefined terms and leaps of logic in the foregoing statement to count.  Yet this sort of reasoning is what is driving a lot of the public conversation on Wing Chun these days, lacuna and all.  Side stepping the issue of “authenticity” for a moment (a topic complex enough to deserve a post in its own right), I have real doubts that the pure expression of anything is really linked to its oldest form (or better yet, our best attempt to recreate it). 

The truth is that things change for a reason.  Historically speaking, all martial arts, almost without exception, have been forced to reinvent themselves in every generation in order to survive.  Every true Sifu or Sensei instructs his or her students not just to be a clone, but to rise to ever greater heights.  And occasionally this actually happens.  As a result our arts change, grow and evolve over time.  They adapt to new markets and new economic conditions almost continually.  What was done in the late 1700s or the mid-Ming dynasty can never truly be replicated today.  Deal with it, and consider some other ways of defining “authenticity.”

The Wing Chun Creation Myth

Of course one of the first things that we need to do when approaching the history of any martial arts is to actually separate fact from fiction.  For instance, how should we think about the oral folklore that gets passed down in almost every hand combat school?  Do we dismiss it out of hand?

That is probably not a good idea.  Folklore is passed on precisely because it is meaningful to the audience.  The folklore of Wing Chun, or pretty much any other kung fu school, reflects the actual lived experience of those who have dedicated their lives to this tradition.  This material has immense ethnographic value.

But that’s not really what most participants in the Wing Chun wars care about.  What they really want to know is, does it have any historical value?  Will it lead me to locate a Wong Wah Bo or Leung Yee Tai in the cemeteries of Guangdong if I just look hard enough?  Did these stories really happen?  Do they contain some essential grain of truth sufficient to justify my faith in the art?

The sad truth appears to be “no,” at least for the historical questions.  The orthodox Wing Chun creation story was first recorded by Ip Man sometime in the early or mid-1960s for a proposed organization called the “Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship.”  This project never panned out.  In fact, the process of creating a home organization for his brand of Wing Chun was a long drawn out ordeal with many bumps along the way.

This document, found with Ip Man’s papers after his death and now displayed by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA), contains the basic Wing Chun creation story that everyone is now familiar with.  It talks about the burning of the Shaolin Temple, the escape of the Five Elders and Ng Moy’s instruction of Yim Wing Chun to beat the marketplace bully.  It then lists the subsequent transmission of the art through the Red Boat opera company to Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun and ultimately Ip Man himself.  Interestingly enough, this 1960s era document is the oldest recoded version of this story that exists.  There is no physical evidence (actual documents, not simply a different lineage’s folklore which claims to be older) that this story was ever told in the late 19th century.

Many historical investigations of Wing Chun take this document as their starting point.  However, even a passing familiarity with the folklore of the martial arts of Southern China indicates that this will be a problem.  The burning of the Shaolin temple (either north or south) is a myth, it never happened.  The escape of the Five Elders is a motif drawn from gangster folklore.  Yim Wing Chun bears a suspicious resemblance to female martial heroes in both Hung Gar and White Crane legends (in fact I have argued elsewhere that she is probably derived from the latter).  Lastly is the issue of Ng Moy herself.

Situating Ng Moy in the Historical Literature

The famous story about Ng Moy (related by the sons of Ip Man) watching a battle between a snake and crane is identical to the older and better established Taijiquan tradition.  Taiji was first introduced into Guangdong during the 1920s.  The appearance of this story in the Wing Chun canon appears to be a clear case of borrowing.  That is important to Ng Moy’s origins for another reason as well.  The 1920s-1930s are the first time that she appears in local literature and storytelling as a heroine rather than as a traitor and villain.

Ng Moy made her first appearance in the written record in the last few decades of the 19th century in Guangdong province.  Unfortunately for those seeking to trace a lineage back through her, this first appearance was actually in an anonymously published popular martial arts novel titled Shengchao ding shen wannian qing (The Sacred Dynasty’s Tripod Flourishes, Verdant for Ten Thousand Years.)  Given its somewhat unwieldy title the story is usually simply called Everlasting in the English language literature.

John Christopher Hamm, in his study on Jin Yong’s martial arts novels (Paper Swordsmen 2005), spends some time discussing Everlasting and its impact on the evolution of the “old” and “new” school martial arts stories in Guangdong and Hong Kong (pp. 32-48).  Everlasting is of great interest as it was directly copied (often plagiarized) by a variety of other novels and it ended up providing almost all of the local Shaolin “lore” that ends up in subsequent films and radio plays produced in the region. 

This is a very important point to emphasize.  There is no evidence that there was ever a large body of Shaolin folklore that southern martial artists or story tellers drew from.  With the partial exception of the Triad story on the burning of the southern temple, these were not simply “folk characters” indigenous to the region.  Rather, one novelist wrote a book expanding on the escapades of the various Shaolin monks and the Emperor’s attempts to destroy them.  That book was so successful that it spawned dozens of copies.  It literally created a genera of storytelling that is still with us today.

Everlasting is very important to the question of Wing Chun’s origins as it is the very first time that Ng Moy is ever mentioned in print.  Unfortunately for us, this is not quite the same wise and loyal figure that Ip Man honors in his narrative.  The Ng Moy of the novel is crafty and prone to laying elaborate plans (a major point of continuity with her later figure), but she is also a traitor.  Along with Bakmei she betrays the Shaolin heroes to the state and ensures their destruction.  In fact, one of the underlying themes of this novel is the righteousness of Imperial authority against the lawlessness and chaos caused by the wandering, argument prone, monks of Shaolin.  Ny Moy is an agent of the order brought by the government.  She is quite literally the Emperor’s hand.  Clearly this is not the sort of character that a supposedly “revolutionary” art like Wing Chun would put at the head of its lineage.

Of course shifting assessments of “revolution” and its desirability run throughout any longitudinal discussion of martial arts folklore.  In the last few decades of the 19th century the Chinese Imperial government was actually pretty popular among most of the population.  Yes there were cases of corrupt officials and tax revolts, but for the most part the government was seen as standing up to landowners and hated foreign intrusions.  Neo-Confucianism was accepted as the official arbiter of public morality and order.  For instance the Boxer Uprising was not a rebellion against the government, but rather a massive popular uprising in support of it against foreign religious and commercial interests. 

Somehow in Kung Fu folklore “revolutions” is always a good thing.  Yet it is pretty clear that most people in China in the late 19th century didn’t actually think that way and had no plans to depose the Qing and restore the Ming.  Nor was aligning yourself with the hated Taipings or the criminal underground likely to improve your popularity around town.  That sort of rhetoric became markedly more popular and common around the time of the 1911 revolution.  It persisted through the 1940s due to the encouragement of both the Nationalist and Communist Party (both of which sought to use the social revolution to further their own political objectives).  Its ubiquity in martial arts folklore is really just one more piece of evidence that this is the oral culture of the 1920s-1950s that we are dealing with, not the 1820s-1850s.

While the stories of Everlasting were very popular, the end of the book (where Shaolin and the government simply could not be reconciled) seems to have troubled some readers.  Perhaps the destruction of the Shaolin Temple was too definitive.  It did not leave enough room for new stories or imaginative play in the here and now.  And that is what readers really wanted.  I suspect this is still what many martial artists actually want today, a chance to enter the story for themselves.  To experience what Mircea Eliade might have called “sacred time” in the guise of a Kung Fu story.

The novel was subsequently republished (or more accurately stolen) a number of times throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, occasionally without its bleak conclusion.  One of the most important of these rewrites was an undated novel published during the 1930s.  Jiang Diedie’s novel Shaolin xiao yingxiong (Young Heroes from Shaolin) put the foundations in place for the eventual creation of the Yim Wing Chun narrative. 

His work lacks originality.  Many sections of text are simply copied directly from the original book, published 40 years earlier.  However, in Young Heroes the story ends when Ng Moy is able to negotiate a truce between the various feuding factions of Shaolin monks.  Rather than destroying the temple and siding with the state (all of which happened much later in the original narrative arc), she is now left the savior of Shaolin.  More importantly, she comes to be associated with those values that the Shaolin monks of Everlasting stood for; independence, stubbornness, hubris, short temper, loyalty and a love of southern China.  In short, Ng Moy was for the first time transformed into a literary hero.  She became exactly the sort of figure who someone like Ip Man might have included in his narrative.  More than that, she became the sort of figure that martial arts students would have demanded in their pedigree.

To recap, Ng Moy is not an old figure in the regions folklore.  In fact, she never appears in the folklore record at all.  Instead she is a fictional character that was invented for a written novel in the late 19th century.  Originally she was a problematic figure and was associated with the domination of the state over Shaolin (and by extension local society).  It was not until the 1930s that this perception of her changed as authors began to rewrite the classic novel in such a way that the stories would appear to be more open ended.  Now Ng Moy was free to use her plans for good and she joined the ranks of Shaolin’s heroes.

The Wing Chun narrative recorded by Ip Man shows no knowledge of the older, original view of Ng Moy.  In fact, it is conceptually dependent on versions of the Shaolin story that were circulating in the form of novels and radio programs in the 1930s-1950s.  The established literary record forces us to conclude that Ip Man’s story must have been composed in the 1930s or later.  QED.

 

 


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