Wing Chun History – A Definitive Guide

Wing Chun History

The History of Wing Chun and Its Origins

This is the ultimate guide to Wing Chun history and how it was created. No. It’s NOT your average “History of Wing Chun” one page summary. It covers the most important parts of the origin of Wing Chun and its founding legend, but also the broader context of Wing Chun history… including information on the when, where and why of the development of Wing Chun. We’ll even go into Wing Chun’s cultural and social impact as well as its relevance for today.

So if you’re looking to REALLY learn Wing Chun history and its origins…you’ll love this updated guide!


The Origins of Wing Chun – Its Legendary Early History and Different Stories

Wing Chun History Background and Context

Historical Development:

Cultural and Social Impact

The History of Wing Chun’s Relevance Today

The Origins of Wing Chun

When it comes to Wing Chun’s origins, many variations exist. However, noone truly knows its true origins. Some origin versions are theories based upon fact and some are legends past down from teacher to student. Here we will do our best to give a broad range of several Wing Chun origin ideas.

Below are a few of these origin stories…

:: Wing Chun Origin – Version 1 ::

Ip Man’s Written History of Wing Chun

Ip Man’s handwritten account of the origin of Wing Chun by the late Grandmaster Ip Man and was supposed to be the preface for the purpose of organizing the “Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship” once upon a time. However, the Ving Tsun Tong Fellowshp had never been come in existence. In stead, the “Ving Tsun Athletic Association” was finally established on 24, August 1967.

This is an updated translation of the origin of Wing Chun Kung Fu as written by Ip Man.

Origin of Wing Chun - By Ip Man

The creator of the Wing Chun Kung Fu system, Miss Yim Wing Chun, was originally from Canton (Guangdong province) in southern China. As a young girl, she was intelligent and athletic, upstanding and sincere. She was engaged to Leung Bok Chau, a salt merchant from Fukien (aka Fujian) province. Her mother passed away shortly after her engagement. And her father, Yim Yee, was falsely accused of a crime and nearly imprisoned, so the family moved far away and eventually settled at the foot of the Tai Leung (Daliang) Mountains on the Yunnan-Szechuan border. They made a living by selling bean curd during the reign of Emperor K’anghsi (1662-1722).

At that time, Kung Fu was becoming very popular in the Shaolin Temple (Siu Lam Monastery) of Mt. Sung, Honan. This concerned the Manchu government, who sent troops to attack the temple, but were unsuccessful. That year, a man named Chan Man Wai, the number one graduate of the civil service examination, was seeking favor with the government. He plotted with Shaolin monk Ma Ning Yee and others to burn down the temple while soldiers attacked from the outside. The temple was destroyed and the lucky few were able to escape alive.

Abbess Ng Mui, Abbot Chi Shin, Abbot Bak Mei, Master Fung To Tak and Master Miu Hin all  escaped and went their separate ways. Ng Mui sought refuge in the White Crane Temple in the Tai Leung (Daliang), where she became friends with Yim Yee and his daughter Yim Wing Chun. They met when Ng Mui purchased bean curds from their store.

When Wing Chun was a young woman, a local bully took an interest in her beauty and attempted to force her into marriage. She and her father were very concerned, but Ng Mui took pity on Wing Chun and agreed to teach her fighting techniques so she could protect herself and solve the problem with the bully. Wing Chun followed Ng Mui into the mountains and trained day and night, mastering the techniques. She then challenged the local bully to a fight and emerged victorious.

Before Ng Mui departed to travel around the country, she instructed Wing Chun to honor the kung fu traditions, continue to develop her skills after marriage, and to help overthrow the Manchu government and restore the Ming Dynasty. This is how the Wing Chun Kung Fu system was passed down by Abbess Ng Mui.

So that’s the story Ip Man taught. In fact, its same tale that’s been passed down to every student within the Ip Man lineage of Wing Chun. But today, instead of thinking about this as true history, think of it as a story created to teach about Wing Chun concepts. 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, you could view this as a sort of David vs. Goliath story. 

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.

:: Wing Chun Origin – Version 2 ::

Karl Godwin’s Theory of Wing Chun’s Origins

Anther Oritheory was presented by Sifu Karl Godwin in his 1986 Blackbelt Magazine article In Search of Wing Chun’s Roots.

In Search of Wing Chun's roots

Karl Godwin presented the idea that Wing Chun could have roots in Western Boxing making note of the unmistakable similarities between bare-knuckle boxing and Wing Chun. He highlighting several factors:

  1. There is no actual record of the existence of the Buddhist nun Ng Mui, who is said to have created Wing Chun.
  2. Every Wing Chun master has a different idea of where the various Wing Chun temples are located.
  3. Wing Chun masters have inconsistent opinions regarding the art’s age, ranging from 150 to 300 years old.
  4. Wing Chun lacks the typical ritualistic practices of other Chinese martial arts, such as salutations at the beginning of its forms.
  5. Wing Chun has technical differences from other Chinese styles.
  6. Wing Chun does not emphasize pacifist traditions that are found in most kung fu systems.
  7. Wing Chun takes less time to become proficient in than other Chinese methods.
  8. No weapons are native to the Wing Chun system. The bart cham dao and long pole were “introduced from another style”.

The idea is that British sailors who visited coastal southeast China, where Wing Chun was developed, may have influenced local southern Chinese fighters. This theory is supported by the fact that Western boxing was introduced in China in the 19th century and that Wing Chun is more similar to boxing than any other Chinese martial art.

Godwin specifically noted the similarities between the techniques of Wing Chun and boxing, such as the use of straight punches and shuffling steps to advance. He also pointed out that Wing Chun’s principle of simultaneous attack and defense is a common characteristic of boxing. The fact that Wing Chun was developed to fight against taller opponents suggests that the locals were fighting against taller people, possibly visiting European sailors.



How Did Wing Chun Originate?

Wing Chun originated to take on bigger, stronger opponents. This can be seen in the Ng Mui Wing Chun origin story. But is this really how Wing Chun originated? No one truly knows. It is however, the story Ip Man told of how Wing Chun originated. (Ironic that people now ask if the movie story of Ip Man is true?)

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 can generally agree that some form of what we call Wing Chun today was perpetuated by Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai of the Red Boat Opera troupe. 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 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 to spell Wing Chun)