NG MUI AND YIM WING CHUN
According to Grandmaster Ip Man, it all began when the Shaolin monastery in Hunan Province offered refuge to anti-government revolutionaries during the rule of the hated Qing dynasty. This aroused the fears of the Manchu government, which sent troops to attack the monastery. Eventually the monastery was burned down. A few monks and their disciples escaped, including four monks and a nun – all of whom would go on to become iconic figures in various Chinese martial arts.
In particular, the abbess named Ng Mui has become an important figure in Wing Chun mythology. She is said to have taken refuge in the White Crane Temple on mount Tai Leung. There she met Yim Wing Chun, the beautiful daughter of a local tofu vender described as ‘an intelligent and athletic young girl, upstanding and forthright’.
Ng Mui learned that Yim Wing Chun’s beauty had attracted the unfavorable attentions of a local bully intent on forcibly marrying her. Taking pity on Yim Wing Chun, Ng Mui taught her a selection of her own fighting techniques, which Yim Wing Chun practiced hard and mastered. Then – it is said – she challenged the bully to a fight and defeated him.
After her marriage Yim Wing Chun taught her style of Kung Fu to her husband Leung Bok Chau, who went on to teach others and named this new style of Kung Fu after his wife – Wing Chun Kung Fu.
THE RED BOAT OPERA
Yim Wing Chun’s husband Leung Bok Chao passed on his art to members of a traveling opera company known as the ‘Red Boat Opera’. Some historians believe that these traveling performers were in fact anti-government revolutionaries who used the opera as a cover while they secretly spread their propaganda. Others believe that the story of Yim Wing Chun was fabricated to hide the fact that Wing Chun was secretly practiced and taught within the Shaolin temple to fight the Qing dynasty.
In any case, the Red Boat Opera member Leung Lan Kwai is said to have learned Wing Chun directly from Leung Bok Chao and passed it on to fellow opera members, including Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai. Leung Yee Tai also befriended a cook on the Red Boat Opera named Jee Shim, who was apparently another former abbot of the Shaolin Temple in hiding. He taught Leung Yee Tai the now famous six-and-a-half point pole techniques. Wong Wah Bo is said to have further developed and added the Eight Cutting Knives (Bart Cham Dao) form to Wing Chun.
Both Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo later passed on their Wing Chun skills to the legendary Leung Jan, a herbalist known both as a doctor and martial arts expert in the town of Foshan. Famous for his reputation as a winner of numerous challenge matches, Leung Jan taught many students in his clinic, which served as an herbal store as well as a martial arts school. Leung Jan’s students included his sons, Leung Chun and Leung Bik.
Some historians credit Leung Jan as one of the first Wing Chun practitioners and teachers who did not have ties to anti-government groups. This may be why his life and accomplishments are widely documented and accepted by most Wing Chun practitioners and historians.
CHAN WAH SHUN
Leung Jan had a well-known disciple named Chan Wah Shun or ‘Money Changer Wah’ (due to his job as a currency exchanger), who would later become the first Sifu or teacher of Grandmaster Ip Man.
Chan owned a coin changing stall near Leung Jan’s herbal medicine clinic in Foshan. It is said he developed great strength and agility over the years from carrying heavy loads of coins every day. Chan had learned some other martial arts before learning Wing Chun from Leung Jan. Chan went on to become famous in Foshan, winning many challenge fights.
Chan also learned traditional Chinese Medicine from Leung Jan, eventually closing his money changing business and opening a healing clinic. He accepted his last student, Ip Man, when he was 70 years old, but was only able to teach him for three years.
Before passing away, Chan asked his second student, Ng Chung-Sok, to continue Ip Man’s Wing Chun education.
GRANDMASTER IP MAN
GM Ip Man began studying martial arts as a teenager in Foshan when he became the last student of Chan Wah Shun. Later, when the young Ip Man went to Hong Kong to attend school, he was introduced to an elderly martial arts master. Being young and brash, Ip Man challenged this older gentleman, but lost to him. Later he found out that this man was in fact Leung Bik, the son of his grandmaster, Leung Jan. For the next several years Ip Man improved his Wing Chun skills under Leung Bik’s guidance before moving back to Foshan.
Due to the Communist Party takeover in 1949, Ip Man lost his wealth and status and was forced to relocate to Hong Kong. He found shelter at the Restaurant Workers Association of Kowloon and began teaching Wing Chun to its members.
In a short time, Ip Man’s classes grew to attract members from outside of the association. Eventually he went on to teach thousands of students, including the late movie star Bruce Lee as well as many others, who became accomplished Wing Chun masters in their own right.
WING CHUN TODAY
It is important to remember that no matter what changes have occurred, Wing Chun has always been a method of combat that focuses on simplicity, directness and efficiency. The core founding concepts of Wing Chun have been intricately crafted in poems known as the Wing Chun Kuen Kuit or fighting songs created during the Red Boat Opera period.
These martial songs encompass timeless principles which can be seen in all styles of Wing Chun, regardless of the lineage. For the intelligent student these songs provide the guidelines to form their own understanding of Wing Chun and its applications in daily life.
At IWCA we believe that while it is important to know the history of Wing Chun and give respect to those who have come before us, our duty is to practice hard to master, even improve on the skills they have passed on.
In Grandmaster Ip Man’s own words: “It can thus be said that the Wing Chun System was passed on to us in a direct line of succession from its origin. I write this history of the Wing Chun System in respectful memory of my forerunners. I am eternally grateful to them for passing to me the skills I now possess. A man should always think of the source of the water as he drinks it; it is this shared feeling that keeps our Kung Fu brothers together.”