The Legend of Wing Chun

Wing Chun (alternatively yongchun, wing tsun, ving tsun or youngchuan) is a Chinese style of martial art that, as oral tradition dictates, was developed by a woman. Even the term itself denotes its feminine roots. It is translated as “Eternal Springtime” and is said to be the name of the style’s first student.

A friend of the author, Peter, practicing on a wooden dummy
A friend of the author, Peter, practicing on a wooden dummy

There are several variations of the style. However, the most renowned style is that which was practiced by the legendary martial artist and movie star, Bruce Lee. Wing Chun is the style that Lee based his fighting style on, and although he incorporated techniques from many different martial arts into his fighting style and scenes, Wing Chun was his cornerstone. Unlike many martial arts, Wing Chun is often described as “a fast road to self-defense”.

This is because the core of the system is based on only three forms: Sil Lim Tao (Little Idea), Chum Kil (Seeking the Bridge) and Bil Jee (Flying Fingers) which makes it easy to learn in a short time.

Forms, also called katas in Japanese, are a set of prearranged movements designed to teach practitioners execution of techniques and fluidity of movement when changing techniques. It also teaches balance and coordination, and allows martial artists to practice their deadliest techniques without endangering fellow practitioners.

In addition, weapons forms, specifically for the Bo (long staff) and Butterfly swords (broad-bladed, single edged swords), were later incorporated into the curriculum. The Muk Yan Jong (wooden dummy) forms are also taught to practitioners. Other martial arts retain a considerable amount of forms.

The three unarmed forms encompass all the theoretical and scientific knowledge of the art: the center line, the four gates, balance, stances, angling etc. The system encourages flowing and disrupting an attackers flow rather than meeting brute force with force. It also teaches deflection to simultaneously block and attack. The style is well suited for a smaller, weaker person against a larger, stronger opponent which is not surprising considering the origins of the art.

In China there is a saying that ‘everything begins in Shaolin’, and so did Wing Chun. Oral legend has it that the style was developed by a Buddhist abbess by the name of Ng Mui who escaped from the Shaolin Temple in Hunan (some versions Fujian) province after it was destroyed by the Manchu forces of the Ching Dynasty (1644 – 1911) around the eighteenth century. According to reputed Heaven and Earth society legends, Ng was one of the Five Elders who escaped and would become the Five Progenitors of the Heaven and Earth Society, which gave birth to China’s most notorious secret society – the Triads.

After witnessing a fight between a snake (other versions, fox) and a crane, Ng developed a fighting style by combing the movements she had witnessed with basic Shaolin Kung Fu. Ng, after escaping from Shaolin, lived in White Crane Temple on Tai Leung Mountain and regularly visited the village at its foot where she befriended a local shopkeeper named Yim Yee and his beautiful daughter, Yim Wing Chun.

On one of her trips, she learnt that Wing Chung and her father were being bullied by a local warlord. The warlord intended to make Wing Chung his bride with or without her consent or her father’s permission. Ng helped Wing escape and gave her sanctuary at Tai Leung. It was there that she instructed Wing in her newly developed system of fighting.

After a short time, considering the years it takes to learn and master martial arts, Wing returned to the village and challenged the warlord. Using Ng’s fighting style; Wing soundly defeated the warlord who in turn, honored her wishes by leaving her alone.

Wing continued to practice and refined the style, making it simpler and easier for others to learn. She later married a martial artist by the name of Leung Bok Chau who was also an accomplished martial artist. After several sparring sessions with his wife, Bok Chau noticed that his wife was an accomplished fighter. He was so amazed by his wife’s skill that he eventually asked her to teach him. After his wife died, Bok Chau, passed on the style to a student. He also gave it the name Wing Chun in her honor.

Some variations of the legend suggest that Leung actually helped shape the style of Wing Chun. As a student of Choy Gar, he incorporated its stances and short centered hand techniques which would explain the similarities in these styles.

Grandmaster Yip and Bruce Lee.
Grandmaster Yip and Bruce Lee.

Wing Chun was a well guarded secret and had a select few disciples through subsequent generations, until Grand Master Yip Man (1893 – 1972). Grand Master Yip is credited with unveiling the secrecy of Wing Chung by making it available for public instruction. Among Grand Master Yip’s students was renowned martial artist and movie star Bruce Lee (1940 –1973). Lee would later synthesize his own style of fighting and call it Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist).

Wing Chun and Chinese martial arts in general owe its popularity to the influences of Yip Man. Grand Master Yip’s move to open Wing Chun to public instruction was due to the financial situation that he faced at the time. However, it also opened the door for students like Bruce Lee to study the art.

Lee’s progress in the art caused jealousy among senior students who pressured Grandmaster Yip to expel Lee. They argued that he was not a true Chinese because his mother, Grace, was half European (German). Grandmaster Yip would eventually bow to pressure. Yip instructed Lee from 1954 to 1957.

Grand Master Yip’s life is the subject of a 2008 movie starring Donnie Yen which is called Ip Man. Yip’s lineage now spans over 2 million disciples of Wing Chun worldwide.

Lee would later on follow in his Sifu’s footsteps by teaching the ancient fighting techniques to non-Chinese.

The oral legend of Wing Chun, be it truth or not, is a fascinating story. It gives a certain quality to the art that cannot be found in its technical or theoretical forms. It animates the art beyond mere mechanics – giving it life.

There are many people, martial artists and historians, who have disputed the legend of Wing Chun and there are many who are still going to. But the truth is, the legend has given Wing Chun the eternal springtime that she really deserves.

References:

  • http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wing_Chun. Retrieved on April 12 2009.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wing_Chun. Retrieved on April 16 2009.
  • “History of Wing Chun Kung Fu”. http://www.chiulau.com/page1/page2/page2.html.
  • Retrieved on April 16 2009.
  • Thomas A. Green (2001), Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia Volume 1 A – Q. Santa
  • Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc. ISBN 1-57607-556-7
  • http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/martialarts/famousmartialartists/yipman/index.shtml.
  • Retrieved on April 13 2009.
  • Caroline Chen-Whatley. “What is Wing Chun?”
  • http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art29325.asp. Retrieved on April 15 2009.
  • Ip Man, (2008). Directed by W. Yip [DVD]. Hong Kong. Mandarin Films Co.
  • The Warrior Within, (1976). Directed by Burt Rashby [DVD]. Puerto Rico. RBC Entertainment.
  • Dragons of the Orient, (1988). Directed by Shek Bing Jin [VCD]. Shanghai. Golden Sun Film Co.

Note: This article was first published in 2009 on Scribd.com and is available for download as PDF.

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Bernard Sinai

Editor at PNG Warrior
Bernard is a student of Kyokushin Karate and a blogger. He believes martial arts has the potential to change people for the better.
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