The history of WingTsun

WingTsun, "Beautyful Spring" – the story of a fascinating martial art

Hardly any martial art has such a fascinating origin and history as WingTsun Kung Fu. And no wonder, for this martial art is one of the very few that is said to take its origin from a woman. Intensive research, especially by GGM Leung Ting, has since shown that the stories about the founder of this style Ng Mui and her student Yim Wing Tsun do not correspond to historical facts. Historically verifiable persons and events are mixed with traditional accounts, political agitation and Asian symbolism. However, this by no means lessens the unique fascination of this legend, and the impact of myths is never dependent on their historical authenticity.





The Shaolin Monastery

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More than two hundred and fifty years ago, during the reign of Yung-Cheng (1723-1736) of the Ching Dynasty, it is said that there was a fire at the Siu Lam Monastery when it was under siege by soldiers of the Manchu Government. The incident gave rise to two different tales passed among two groups of people in China. One tale, which is spread among secret societies (Triad Societies), tells that the siege of the Siu Lam Monastery was led by high officers of the Manchu Government, notably Chan Man Yiu, Wong Chun May and Cheung King Chow. They were helped by defectors from the Monastery, notably one by the name of Ma Ning Yee, who set fire to it from within, as a means of retaliation for being dismissed from the Monastery. The story revealed that only five monks escaped from the ruin. They later went into hiding and organised secret societies working for the over-throw of the Ching-Dynasty. Another tale, which is passed among the martial arts circle in Southern China, reveals different happenings, except for the part about the fire that burnt down the Monastery. It tells that the number of survivors exceeded five and their names were quite different from those mentioned by people of the triad societies.
It is said that during the fire at the Siu Lam Monastery, which was ruined by the treachery, most of the monks and the unshaved disciples who were skilled in martial arts were killed or burnt to death. Many skilful pugilists however managed to escape from the calamity. These included the Five Elders, leaders of the five systems of Siu Lam – who were the Buddhists Mistress Ng Mui, Master Chi Shin, Master Pak Mei, Master Fung To Tak and Master Miu Hin and their disciples, notably Hung Hay Kwun, Fong Sai Yuk and Luk Ah Choy who scattered and went into hiding.
One of the Five Elders fo the Siu Lam Monastery, Master Chi Shin the Abbot, who had adopted the largest number of disciples in the Monastery before the fire, led them to fight against the Manchus. So Chi Shin and his favourite disciples, Hung Hay Kwun, Tung Chin Kun, Tse Ah Fook, were all wanted by the Manchu Government. To avoid being caught, Chi Shin ordered his disciples to disperse, then he disguised himself as the cook of a "Red Junk".
Others like Master Miu Hin and his daughter Miu Tsui Fa, for a time went into hiding among the Miao and the Yao tribes between Szechwan and Yunnan Provinces, but later travelled around, thus adding to our legends many fantastic adventures, of which the most notable were, "Fong Sai Yuk challenging the defender of a tournament" and "Ng Mui killing Lee Pa Shan on the Plum-blossom-Piles".




Ng Mui creates a new fighting system

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The Buddhist Mistress Ng Mui was the only female in the Siu Lam Monastery and the eldest among the Five Elders. She was more tolerant towards the Manchu Governement than her kung-fu brothers and their hot-tempered disciples, (though of course would sometimes apply physicel power if necessary, in order to maintain justice). Ng Mui went travelling about the country after the destruction of the Siu Lam Monastery, determined never to become involved in mundane affairs again. At first she settled down in the White Crane Temple, at Tai Leung Mountain (also called Chai Ha Mountain), a sparsely populated mountain on the border between the provinces of Szechwan and Yunnan. There, being seldom disturbed, she concentrated on Zen Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism originated by Bodhidharma during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and also martial arts, as her favourite pastime. Ng Mui, like her kung-fu brothers, who were then separated from each other, never forgot the bitter experience they suffered from the fire at Siu Lam, and the teacherous defectors who turned to the Manchu Government. Besides, she had another worry too. That was, how they could defend themselves from further attacks of the skilful Siu Lam defectors and the Manchu Government. She knew the difficulty of overcoming these defectors of Siu Lam, who had during the past years mastered most of the techniques of Siu Lam Kung-fu, that at the moment she herself excelled over them in skilful techniques only, but her knowledge of theories being only equal to the defectors, she worried that one day her strength would fail to overcome the more powerful younger Siu Lam defectors. The only way to defeat them was to create a new fighting system that would overcome the existing Siu Lam techniques. But what? And how? These were the questions that troubled her at this time.
Her chance came one day, when she witnessed a fight between a fox and a large wild crane. The fox ran around the crane in a circle, hoping to get a chance of launching a fatal attack. The crane stayed at the centre of the circle, turning all the time to face the fox. Each time the fox came near the crane to attack with its paw, the crane would block the fox's paw with one of its wings, and at the same time rendered a counter-attack with its beak. So the crane kept defending itself with its wings and rendering counter-attacks with its beak. The cunning fox took advantage of its running speed and strove to make surprise attacks with its paws. So the fight continued for quite a long time under the observation of Ng Mui. Which one was the victor is not the important question. It did however give a hint to Ng Mui - an inspiration initiating a new fighting system.



The Shaolin nun and her student

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Miss Yim Wing Tsun, a native of Kwangtung Province, stayed, after her mother's death, with her father Yim Yee, a disciple of the Siu Lam Monastery. At a very early age she was bethrothed to Mr. Leung Bok Chau, a salt merchant of Fukien Province. Yim Yee, having learnt a certain techniques of the Siu Lam System, managed to uphold justice if the opportunity arose, and so was eventually involved in a court case. Rather than be arrested, he escaped, taking with him his daughter Wing Tsun, to the border of Szechwan and Yunnan Provinces, settling down at the foot of Tai Leung Mountain, and made a living by keeping a bean-curd stall.
As time went on, Wing Tsun grew into a quick-witted, active and pretty young teenager. Her attractive personality soon brought her problems.
Ther was a local bully, by the surname of Wong, who was notorious for his bad behaviour. However, due to the fact that he was skilled in the art of fighting and that the power of the court was too weak at this remote frontier area, the local natives there could do nothing about him. Being attracted by Wing Tsun's beauty, he sent a go-between to Wing Tsun to ask for her hand in marriage, with a threat that if she refused, he would force her to marry him on a fixed dare. Wing Tsun's father was now old, and herself weak. So they were much troubled. Day after day they worried about this and did not know what to do.
Meanwhile, the Buddhist Mistress Ng Mui, who was at that time staying at the White Crane Temple on the slopes of Tai Leung Mountain, used to come down to the market place of the village several times a month to do some shopping for her daily necessities. Every time she passed by the stall of Yim Yee, she would buy some of the bean-curd from him. In this way they became acquainted. One day she came as usual to the bean-curd stall of Yim Yee. But at once she noticed that there was something strange in the look of the father and daughter. At Ng Mui's request, they told her all their troubles. Their confession re-kindled the feeling of justice in the mind of Ng Mui. She determined to help Wing Tsun, not by beating the local bully herself (as she surely would have done before her retirement) for the reasons that did not want to disclose her own identity and that it would be unfair for a famous Mistess of a famous kung-fu system to fight an unknown boxer of a remote village. She thought of a way to solve Wing Tsun's problem, that was, to bring her to her own convent and to teach her the art of fighting. The art fighting was not a strange thing to Wing Tsun, as her father was a pugilist himself. It was only that Wing Tsun, as her father was a pugilist himself. It was only that Wing Tsun hat found no need to learn the art before. Ow, under the personal guidance of this skilful mistress and with her own wisdom and hard word, she quickly attained competence withing three years of learning from Ng Mui.
One day, Ng Mui told Wing Tsun that she hat mastered the skill of her kung-fu system and that she might go back to her father and deal with the local bully by defeating him. As soon as Wing Tsun came down from Tai Leung Mountain, the local bully at once bothered her again. This time Wing Tsun challenged him to a fight, instead of running away from him. The bully, though surprised, welcomed this fight, as he was convinced of his own physicel power and that he would eventually defeat Wing Tsun and win a wife. However things did not turn out as he expected. He was helplessly knocked down by Wing Tsun and would never dare to give her any more trouble.
Wing Tsun, after defeating the local bully, continued to practise the art of fighting. On the other hand Ng Mui, finding her life on Tai Leung Mountain too monotonous, decided to travel about the country for sightseeing purposes, having first reminded Wing Tsun to keep the commandments of the Siu Lam System, and to be careful in finding a suitable successor to avoid passing the art to unworthy persons.



From Yim Wing Tsun to Wong Wah Bo

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Wing Tsun eventually married her fiance Leung Bok Chau and managed to pass to him the art of the new system which she had learned from Ng Mui. It was said that her husband, Leung Bok Chau, was himself a pugilist before their marriage, who liked practising the art of fighting in his leisure time. After their marriage Wing Tsun talked much about theories of martial arts to her husband. At the beginning her husband paid little attention to what Wing Tsun told him, thinking that he himself knew the art of fighting and that Wing Tsun was, to him, only a feeble woman. But then Wing Tsun strove to find opportunities to practise fighting with her husband and managed to defeat him time after time. It was only then that Leung Bok Chau realised that his wife was not a weak young woman, but a skilful mistress of the art of fighting. From then on he admired his wife's techniques and would very often practise the art of fighting with her. He also called his wife's kung-fu system the "Wing Tsun Kuen", in honour of his wife.
Later Leung Bok Chau passed the techniques of Wing Tsun Kuen to Leung Lan Kwai, a herbal physician of osteology, who never mentioned to anyone of his knowledge of kung-fu skills. That was why even his relatives and close associates were ignorant of his skills in Wing Tsun Kuen. This secret was revealed to people only when, once, he assisted in driving back a group of fighters who attacked a single unaided pugilist. Anyway, he always refrained from boasting of his skills, bearing in mind the forerunner's commandment of "not to make public the skills of Wing Tsun Kuen".
Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tei
It would be necessary to re-write the history of Wing Tsun Kuen if Leung Kwai had never made known his skills to anyone. But happily by a lucky chance, he did pass his skills to Wong Wah Bo, an actor who played the role of the "hero" in an opera troupe. At that time, actors in opera troupes were known by the Chinese as "followers of the Red Junk". Wong Wah Bo was one of these Red Junk followers at the time when he encountered Leung Lan Kwai, by whom he was accepted as a disciple. Leung Lan Kwai never intended to take a disciple. It was Wong Wah Bo's upright character and sense of justice that appealed to Leung most deeply and so he was allowed to learn kung-fu from Leung Lan Kwai.
It was a common thing that most of the Red Junk followers knew the art of fighting. In their shows, they had to put on a heavy facial make-up, which kept them from being recognized. That was why at that time many of the followers of the former Siu Lam Monastery were disguised as Red Junk followers to keep secret their real identity from the Manchu Government. A good example of this was the Buddhist Master Chi Shin, one of the Five Elders of the Siu Lam Monastery.
Master Chi Shin, who escaped from the siege of the Siu Lam Monastery by the Manchu soldiers, was disguised as the cook of the Red Junk to avoid being arrested. But it was difficult to keep a secret. Sooner or later a man would eventually disclose his secret to those he thought reliable. Master Chi Shin was not an exception. His identity was finally revealed to several Red Junk followers who had a sense of justice. They did not inform the government of the existence of this "wanted criminal", on the contrary, they tried, and succeeded, to protect him on several dangerous occasions, because they were among those righteous people who hated the Manchu Government and were working secretly to overthrow it by means of organising secret societies and taking subversive action. So Master Chi Shin then became their hero. He taught them the art of fighting, teaching them the Siu Lam System, to get them prepared for fighting the Manchu soldiers when the time came.
Among Master Chi Shin's disciples on the Red Junk, there was one by the name of Leung Yee Tei, who was worthy of mention. Leung Yee Tei was not an actor of the opera troupe, but a sailor of the Red Junk, a poler, to be precise, who used a long pole to guide the junk into a desired position.
Of all the techniques demonstrated by Master Chi Shin, the one Leung Yee Tei admired most was the "long pole techniques". It was lucky for Leung Yee Tei, that Master Chi Shin was an expert of the "Six-and-a-half-Point Pole Techniques", and thought that Leung Yee Tei was worthy of being instructed in the techniques. Now to come back to Wong Wah Boh, he was working in the opera troupe on the Red Junk where Leung Yee Tei was the poler. Wong Wah Bo admired the Six-and-a-half Point Long Pole Techniques of Leung Yee Tei, and Leung Yei Tei admired the Wing Tsun Kuen techniques of Wong Wah Bo. So they both had something to learn from the other, as well as something to teach each other. In this way, they exchanged their techniques. As a result, Leung Yee Tei also became a successor of the Wing Tsun System, and the Wing Tsun System had therefore absorbed to itself a set of weapon techniques - the Six-and-a-half Point Long Pole Techniques, in addition to its Eight-Cutting Knives (Bart-Cham-Dao) Techniques. As Leung Yee Tei and Wong Wah Bo helped each other in learning the techniques, they realized that they could improve their own techniques, they realised that they could improve their own techniques by adding to it what they had learnt from the other. For example, they found that they could greatly improve the Six-and-a-half Point Long Pole Techniques if they added to it some of the Wing Tsun Kung-fu concepts. They then added to it the Chi-sau (Arm-clinging) training way, and by doing so they gave birth to a new training colled the "Pole-clinging Exercises" (Chi-Kwun). Further more, to improve the practicability of the long pole, they decreased the "portal-width of the hands", and changed the advancing steps of the pole-stance into those of the boxing stance.


Leung Jan, the "king of Wing Tsun"

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At an advanced age Leung Yee Tei passed the art of Wing Tsun Kuen - boxing techniques and pole techniques etc., to Leung Jan, a famous physician of Fatshan, one of the four famous towns of Kwangtung Province of Southern China.

Fatshan, being located at the junction of many busy travelling routes near the Pearl River, is a famous commercial centre, densely populated - a place where government officials, wealthy merchants, workers and common folks gather together. Leung Jan, the owner of a herbal pharmacy there, was brought up in a good family, being well-cultured, gentle and polite. Besides keeping his Jan Sang Pharmacy in "Chopstick Street" in Fatshan, he also offered medical services to the residents of Fatshan. He was skilled in his profession and was in fact flourishing. In his spare time, he enjoyed literature, and suprisingly enough, the art of fighting. In the art of fighting however, he was particular about choosing his mentor. Besides, he did not like the "long bridges" and "wide stances" that looked fierce and powerful. Systems that emphasised physical power and brutal force were not to his liking. Nor were those which consisted of good-looking, graceful but impractical movements. What he wanted to learn was a system that insisted on practical skill and wise application under the cover of its simple appearance.

Years passed as he waited for his ideal instructor and the ideal system, eventually his chance came when he met Leung Yee Tei and learnt from him the Wing Tsun System.

Soon Leung Jan's skill earned him the title of "Kung-fu King of Wing Tsun". His fame brought him many challenges. Ambitious people forced him to defend his title, but were all quickly defeated. Whenever people heard his name, they all remember his title - "Kung-fu King of Wing Tsun", and the incidents when he defeated all challengers. Nowadays, people of the older generation still talk about his exploits with great enthusiasm.



"Wah the wooden man", Leung Tsun & "Wah the money changer"

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Leung Jan did not regard teaching Wing Tsun Kung-fu as his profession, but his own interest in the art of fighting urged him to adopt a few disciples, including his two sons, Leung Tsun and Leung Bik. He taught each of them Wing Tsun Kung-fu every day after the close of his pharmacy.
Among his disciples there was one by the nickname of "Wah the Wooden Man". He earned the nickname because he had a pair of strong arms, which were as hard as wood and he would often break the thick arms of the wooden dummy during practices. Every evening, after the close of the Jan Sang Pharmacy, he used to practise Wing Tsun techniques with his co-students, under the guidance of their mentor Leung Jan.
Next to the pharmacy of Leung Jan there was a money-changers stall, of which the owner was Chan Wah Shun. People used to call him "Wah the Money Changer". He had a yearning to learn kung-fu and was determined to follow a famous kung-fu master. As his stall was neighbouring the pharmacy of Leung Jan, whose behaviour and kung-fu skills he had admired for a long time, he was eager to request Leung Jan to accept him as his disciple. But owing to the fact that Leung Jan was a respected gentleman of a famous family and at the same time a walthy shop owner, Wah the Money Changer felt humiliated in making such a request. Besides, he did not know whether Leung Jan would accept him or not. Anyway, his determination to learn kung-fu and his respect for Leung Jan gave him much hope.
Every day, when work was over and the streets were quiet, Wah the Money Changer used to tip-toe to the door of Leung Jan's parmacy, to peep through the crack of the door, to watch Leung Jan teaching kung-fu. Mr. Leung Jan became his idol. Each move of Leung Jan's hand of foot he studied carefully, and made a deep impression on him. Day after day his eagerness to learn kung-fu grew stronger and stronger.
So one day, he thought ist was time to make his request. he gathered all his courage and spoke to Leung Jan. Leung Jan refused his request, as he had expected, with kind words. This made him feel naturally disappointed, but not hopeless. He thought of another way to fullfil his wish.
One day, when Leung Jan was out, Wah the Wooden Man brought to Leung Jan's pharmacy a strong man, when only the elder son Leung Tsun was there. It turned out that the stranger was in fact Wah the Money Changer, who had for a long time been learning Wing Tsun Kung-fu by peeping through the crack of the door. A feeling of superiority prevailed at the back of the pharmacy. So Leung Tsun suggested having a fighting practice with the intruder to test how much he had learnt through his illicit lessons.
Leung Tsun had never worked hard as his co-student Wah the Money Changer. At the first contact of their Arms-clinging, Wah the Money Changer at once felt that his opponent was not as powerful and skilful as he had expected. By mistake Wah the Money Changer launched a palm at Leung Tsun. So heavily that Leung Tsun fell helplessly on the much valued armchair of his father Leung Jan, and broke one of its legs. This surprised all of them in the first place, and in the second place, worried them in case they should be punished by Leung Jan for breaking his valuable armchair. So they quickly attempted to conceal the damage to the chair.
Wah the Money Changer's final adoption as Leung Jan's disciple
That night, when Leung Jan returned to his pharmacy, he, as usual, tried to rest himself on his beloved armchair after his meal. To his surprise the armchair collapsed to one side and he nearly fell to the ground. On inquiring into the matter Leung Jan was informed by his elder son of the full details of the visit of the stranger and the fighting practice.
Leung Jan, on hearing this report, summoned his disciple Wah the Wooden Man and made further inquiries, particularly about how his friend the Money Changer had acquired kung-fu to his friend the Money Changer and that the Money Changer had surreptitiously been peeping through the crack of his door to watch him teach Wing Tsun Kung-fu every day after the close of business at the pharmacy. Leung Jan then immediately asked Wah the Wooden Man to send for his friend. It was then that his disciple Wah remembered that it was wrong to teach kung-fu to others without the permission of one's instructor.
Thinking that his Master Leung Jan might punish him for this, Wah the Wooden Man told his friend to run away to his native town, instead of asking him to see his Master.
When Wah the Wooden Man did not return with his friend, Leung Jan asked for the reason. On hearing it, he realised that his disciple had misunderstood him. He then told his disciple that he wanted to see how much knowledge his friend had acquired in Wing Tsun Kung-fu, and how talented he was. Wah the Wooden Man, over-joyed on hearing this, rushed to his friend and brought him back at once. After watching this young man, Leung Jan immediately adopted him as his disciple.



Chan Wah Shun, Yip Man's first teacher

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Though Wah the Money Changer was not educated, he made rapid progress in learning Wing Tsun Kung-fu from his master Leung Jan, simply by his perseverence and determination. He was a man of the market and thus was in close contact with people of the lower class, who were fond of fighting. This gave him more opportunities to improve his skills in the art of fighting. Before long his fame spread and reached the ears of the officials of the Manchu Government.
It was the time when the Manchus had been ruling the Chinese for over two hundred years and were being gradually assimilated into the Chinese culture. The barrier between the Manchu race and the Han race was breaking down, as shown in diminishing national feeling against the Manchus and more and more people of the Han race were taking up official positions in the Ching Government. On the other hand, the Ching Government of the Manchu reace, after ruling the Chinese for over two centuries and having enjoyed much of the Chinese way of life, was becoming corrupt race. As a result, invasion from foreign countries increased year after year. Concessions of land, war indemnities in silver to foreign powers, all led to the weakening of the country. One way to restore the strength of the country was to re-inforce its military. That was, to streghten the "Soldiers of the Eight Banners", as the Manchu forces were called. It was for this reason that Wah the Money Changer was invited to take up the post of Chief Instructor to the Soldiers of the Eight Banners, a post much admired and respected.
However, Wah the Money Changer, being the successor of Leung Jan, did not regard it as an honour to be the Chief Instructor of the Manchu soldiers. He, like his master, regarded teaching kung-fu as an amateur pastime, not as his profession.
He did not have a fixed site for his gymnasium. He rented one for this purpose. During his thirty-six years of teaching kung-fu, he had althogether adopted sixteen students, among whom one was his own son, Chan Yu Min. His son Chan Yu Min was a wayward child, and, being spoiled by his parents, indulged in fighting with local juvenile deliquents, much to the displeasure of his father. For this reason, his father hesitated to teach him the most advanced skills of the Wing Tsun System, but instead, his father taught them to his daughter-in-law. As a result, Chan Yu Min's wife was much better skilled than he and he had later to learn from his wife what he did not learn from his father. However, he was particularly skilled in one technique, that was, the Six-and-a-half Point Long Pole Techniques. His competence in this was confirmed by this gaining the title of "King of the Pole of Seven Provinces" which was conferred on him after his performances in "Martial Arts Tournaments of Seven Provinces", in which he was also bestowed with a memorial pole, thick as his arm, engraved with his title "King of the Pole of Seven Provinces". He put this pole at the gate of his own gymnasium at its inauguration some years later to attract students.
Among the students of Wah the Money Changer, the most remarkable was Ng Chung So, his second disciple, who had learnt from him all his skills, and who later became his helpful assistant until his death.
In his later years, when he was over seventy years old, Wah rented the ancestral temple of the Yip's clansmen from a wealthy merchant as a site for teaching Wing Tsun Kung-fu. It was here that he adopted his sixteenth, and the last disciple, who was at that time, thirteen years of age, and destined to be the heir-successor of the Wing Tsun System, and to spread the techniques of Wing Tsun from a small town to all parts of the world. However, he himself was not aware of this, and during the final stages of his life, reminded his second disciple Ng Chung So to take good care of that little boy, his youngest kung-fu brother.
After the death of Wah the Money Changer, there came a period of decline of the development of Wing Tsun, a period coincident to the time of upheavals in China, during which none of his students, who were too intent on minding their own business, had the least intention of promoting the Wing Tsun System, of of passing its techniques to the next generation.
This duty seemed to rest on the shoulders of his last adopted disciple, surnamed Yip, whom he adopted at the Yip clasmen's ancestral temple. It was not until Yip reached the age of fifty six years that Wing Tsun began its renaissance. He fostered the development of the Wing Tsun System, and brought it into a golden age.
Eventually he became the unchallenged Grand Master of Wing Tsun. His name, greater than any of his forerunners, was known to all people of the martial arts circle. His fame was hard earned, by his diligence, and with the help of his disciples. He was Yip Man, The Grand Master of Wing Tsun.