The history of Wing Chun is relatively modern compared to other Chinese martial arts. Many ask “how did Wing Chun originate?” and the answer is varied, due in no small part to oral traditions. Wing Chun history has a number of branches, but at its center are common threads of Wing Chun’s creation. It is the goal of this article to share that central origin of Wing Chun.
Wing Chun History—Different Versions
The History of Wing Chun is, as stated above, varied. The legendary origins of Wing Chun point to a Buddhist nun by the name of Ng Mui, who used her own knowledge of Shaolin Kung Fu to take advantage of various weaknesses that were found in other systems of the Shaolin arts. According to Ip Man, it was not until Ng Mui met a girl named Yim Wing Chun, after fleeing the Kanxi Emperor’s forces who had attempted to destroy Henan Shaolin Monastery, that our art got its name. A bandit had been trying to force Yim Wing Chun into marriage, and it was the art of Wing Chun that defeated the bandit. Ng Mui’s way of teaching Yim Wing Chun was taught in a way so that she could learn quickly, and without having to develop strength. In a way, one could view this as a sort of David vs. Goliath story. This story of Ng Mui Wing Chun is not the only history in Wing Chun’s creation, however.
Some of the earliest mentions of Wing Chun date to the Red Boat Opera, a Cantonese group that traveled along southern China on red boats called “Junks” in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. This group played a big part in leading a popular uprising against the Qing Dynasty government, using an early version of what we know as Wing Chun.
Another theory, presented by Karl Godwin, is that Wing Chun was born from western influence. He proposed how English sailors introduced boxing to the Chinese, and from there, Wing Chun would eventually be born. In his theory, Karl notes the similarities between classical pugilism and Wing Chun.
How Wing Chun Was Developed
Wing Chun was developed to take on bigger, stronger opponents. This can be seen in the Ng Mui Wing Chun origin story. It was made to be efficient in handling a self-defense situation. While the question of how Wing Chun originated is still talked about, the development of Wing Chun as a form of Kung Fu is much more cut and dry. Wing Chun was developed for self-defense. In any self-defense situation, the goal is to end it efficiently and quickly. If you look at the story of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun, it is a story about how a teacher teaches a student how to defend herself from the unwanted and aggressive advances of a bandit trying to force her into marriage.
This story can be seen as a learning of self-defense at its core. If you also look at the popular uprising mentioned in the Red Boat Opera story, the reason why there was an uprising at all was due to living conditions being poor for most people living in Qing Dynasty China. Both of these stories also share another common thread of a smaller entity taking on a larger entity.
Who Started Wing Chun?
The question of how Wing Chun originated is still a hot topic among scholars of Kung Fu. As stated above, the possibilities are not all agreed upon. We at The Dragon Institute, however, look to Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai of the Red Boat Opera troupe as the people who started Wing Chun. They taught a man by the name of Leung Jan, a medicine man in 19th century Foshan, China. It is Leung Jan where many lineages trace their beginnings. Leung Jan’s student, Chan Wah Shun would eventually take Ip Man as his final student, three years before his death. Just before his death, Chan asked his second student, Ng Chung-sok, to continue Ip Man’s training after Chan Wah Shun’s passing.
Wing Chun History & Ip Man’s Lineage
It is with Ip Man that Wing Chun would eventually spread throughout the world. He taught in Hong Kong, most famously perhaps, Bruce Lee. In 1967, Ip Man, and some of his students, established the Ving Tsun Athletic Association in Hong Kong. (Note, “Ving Tsun” is another way that Wing Chun is pronounced.)
Leung Sheung: Ip Man’s Senior-Most Student
Despite Bruce Lee being Ip Man’s most famous student, it is actually his senior most student, Leung Sheung, which all of Ip Man’s student’s looked up to. Leung Sheung was renowned for his skill and achievement in Wing Chun. He was known as the King of Bil JeeHe deliberately never advertised his Wing Chun school, and is quoted as saying, “If you find me, you are lucky.”