The Legend of Wing Chun
Who was the mysterious founder of Wing Chun kung fu? There may be as many versions of her story as there are tellers. Some even say she never existed. Yet the legend captures the spirit of our art so perfectly that a serious student will always find truth in it.
Imagine yourself in China over 300 years ago. The ethnic Chinese, known as the Hans, comprise 90 percent of the population. However, a minority, the Manchurian Ching Dynasty, holds the reins of power. As a Han, you are forced to submit to a culture alien to your own. Your daughters will have their feet painfully bound in infancy, which will nearly cripple them as they grow up to become completely dependant upon their family or husband. Your sons will be forced to shave the front of their heads and wear a pigtail, to indicate their subservient status. Your career opportunities are severely restricted, your voice in government is nearly nonexistent, and your tax burden is backbreaking.
It was a time of great oppression, yet simultaneously, a time of great hope. The Shaolin Monastery of Songshan, in the Henan Province, tolerated by the Manchurian government as a Buddhist sanctuary, trained many in the ancient fighting art of Kung Fu. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Ching Dynasty (1662-1722), these disciples began to resemble, at least in the Emperor’s eyes, a revolutionary army of extraordinary strength.
When a frontal assault failed, the government’s troops convinced one of the Shaolin monks to betray the Monastery by setting fire to it. Five Masters escaped and went their separate ways. One of these, a nun named Ng Mui, took refuge at the White Crane Temple on Mount Daliangshan, near the border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. At the nearby town she met Yim Yee, a bean curd shop owner, and his daughter, a bright girl of fifteen – named Wing Chun.
A local bully became obsessed with Wing Chun’s beauty. Her father’s worries over his constant threats and harassment aroused Ng Mui’s sympathy. She agreed to take Wing Chun into the mountains to learn to fight. Before leaving for her training, Wing Chun was able to get the bully to agree to fight when she returned. If she won, the bully would leave her and the townspeople alone. If she lost, she would marry him. She trained day and night, until she mastered the techniques. Then she returned to fight – and defeat – the bully. Peace was restored to the town.
Before Ng Mui left to travel around the country, she told Wing Chun to strictly honor the martial arts tradition, to develop her fighting skills after her marriage, and to help the people working to overthrow the Manchu government and restore the Ming Dynasty. Wing Chun proved herself worthy of the task, and her legacy is a martial art that continues to live and grow like a living being, even to the present day.
The Master’s faith in her young student is reflected in her name: “Wing Chun” can be translated as “Beautiful Everlasting Springtime,” implying “Hope for the Future.” The system was never given a name by the founder, Ng Mui. Wing Chun’s husband, upon passing the art on to his students, named the system after his wife.
The Wing Chun system survived and continued to flourish despite its secretive origin, at least in part due to its practicality. While it has adapted and expanded over the years, the underlying purpose of the art remains the same as it was over 300 years ago: to defeat any opponent in the most direct and quick manner possible. Just as the opponents of the Ching understood so long ago, we must remember that while fighting can be an art, it is first and foremost an extremely dangerous activity that must be executed with precision, speed, and the utmost seriousness.