Brief Wing Chun History.
The story of Wing Chun really starts when the Shaolin Temple was destroyed in 1723 by Emperor Yongzheng with the help of Shaolin traitor Ma Ning-Yee. The Qing army were able to kill all but five of the Shaolin Monks.
Ng Moy the founder of the Wing Chun system is one of the 5 said to have survived before fleeing to Foshan where she first meets Yim Wing Chun her new disciple who she decides to name her new system after, Wing Chun Kuen.
The five elders as they are sometimes called as well were: Chi Sim, Bak Mei, Fung Dou Dak, Ng Moy’ and Miu Hin. The skill sets making up Wing Chun came mostly from White Crane and Snake styles of southern Chinese Kung Fu, but Wing Chun was also influenced and contains parts from Chi Na, as well as principles and methods found in other southern Chinese Systems that also pre-date Wing Chun. Even the pole form is Northern Shaolin, meaning Wing Chun, is possibly one of the first mixed martial arts systems ever recorded that was purposefully designed that way, that said there is evidence to suggest the direct origin of Wing Chun for the Ip Man lineage, is actually from Weng Chun, at least in the Ip Man line that is & not all in general, this we will come back to later.
During the time of the civil war, in around 1850, people were attracted to Wing Chun, as it was regarded as a good system that could be learnt relatively quickly for combat, while not being obvious at first sight. Wing Chun was first taught publicly in Guangdong province during the second half of the 19th century. It slowly gained popularity in the area during the Republic Period around 1911, but declined quickly on the mainland after 1949, largely due to the mass introductions of guns and the onset, then completion of WW2, this is also true for many other Chinese Martial Arts because of this troubling time period as well.
It became a global phenomenon when Ip Man, a resident of Foshan and former police officer, moved to Hong Kong and began to teach professionally in the early 1950s. His most famous student was the iconic movie star and Martial Artist, Bruce Lee, although it is widely accepted today that Master Wong Sheun Leung was Lee’s main teacher, a senior student of Ip Man. It is understood that Ip Man’s teachers were Chan Wah Shun a senior student of Leung Jan in Foshan. Then Leung Bik, who was also Leung Jan’s son. After meeting Leung Bik in Hong Kong he naturally became Ip Man’s teacher as well.
Today in 2022 the VTAA (Wing Chun Athletics Association), which was originally founded by Ip Man and his students in 1967, can still be visited in Hong Kong. It is now run by his eldest son, Grandmaster Ip Chun, who is currently 98 years old. Pre Ip Man, another popular version of the Wing Chun history is that after Ng Moy, the founder passed the skill to Yim Wing Chun. Yim Wing Chun then passed it to her husband, Leung Bok Chau, who in turn passed it to, Leung Lan Kwai. It was Leung Lan Kwai that introduced the skill to his friend, Wong Wah Bo, aboard the Red Boat that carried the Chinese Opera performers.
Wong Wah Bo passed it to a worker aboard the boat called Leung Yee Tai. Together they are responsible for adding the pole form to the system. After this it is believed the Red Boat visited Foshan, where the skill was passed directly to Leung Jan, and the rest is as they say, history, well, sort of anyway…..
Simply put, today there are many versions of the Wing Chun history, including versions that state it originated in the north of China by a person called Tan Sau Ng, or even from a fleeing abbot monk called Chi Sim, and they state that Yim Wing Chun was only a story book character from back in the day.
Another version states that the skill originated in the Yong Chun village in Foshan province from the start but, the truth is none of the historical versions have been 100% proven pre the Ip Man generation, as the information simply doesn’t exist anymore.
This is mainly due to the burning down of the shaolin temples, and later, the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, then of course WW2. Although there is no physical evidence of Ng Moy today there is a Martial Art called Wu Mei, this literally means Ng Moy in Cantonese and is said to be her Martial art named after her directly, as well as of course Ng Moy being the founder of other arts like White Crane and Yim Wing Chun Kuen. In the Wu Mei style under the lineage of Master Yap Boh Heong the history states that Ng Moy was actually part of the Ming royal family originally and surprisingly, although she was a well-respected shaolin nun, she only had one arm, later on becoming a rebellion leader after her own family was removed from power. Personally, something that interests me a lot is the story of the abbot monk, Chi Sim.
This is because it’s the only version I have come across after speaking directly to many Master’s and personally visiting many historical sites, that has any real historical records that might prove its existence above other popular versions believed today.
During my research into the different claims to Wing Chun’s history, I came across the name of Chi Sim (Also known as Tan Sau Ng), which led me to the Tang Yik Weng Chun family lineage. Tang Chung Pak, or, Master Michael Tang, as he is commonly known as, is the current family head of this skill. Through that lineage, I was surprised to learn they have some interesting historical articles, as well as other things, including; direct family ties that show a completely different history to what I was originally aware of in some ways.
The first things that were pointed out during my communications with Master Michael Tang is that his family originally learnt directly from Chi Sim in the Fei Loi temple, before its destruction in 1854, and that Chi Sim, the founder of Weng Chun, was a man, not a woman! The idea of using small energy to beat big people, although it was correct, wasn’t in reference to man against woman but instead because in this time period, southern Chinese people where much smaller and weaker than northern Chinese.
This was mainly due to the difference in the local economies and diets. Also Weng Chun under this version of the history is actually the predecessor to Ip Man Wing Chun because Leung Jan was actually a documented student of this school, as was Chan Wah Shun, so why all the confusion? This is because at the time of the uprising around the same time period of Chan Wah Shun teachings, some people stayed on the side of the government and others joined the revolution.
Chan Wah Shun, one of Ip Man’s teachers, also known as Money Chan! Wanted to stay on the side of the government and distance himself from the revolution that Weng Chun and also Leung Jan supported, so he simply left to go it alone, the skill in terms of name was changed from Weng Chun to Wing Chun masking it in with other Wing Chun lineages of that time that already existed from other founders like Ng Moy. The forms, and the way the skill was practised, were changed, along with the history, so you could not accuse one of being involved with the other. This was a good way of hiding the truth due to the fact other genuine lineages of Wing Chun existed back to Ng Moy already at that time so the changeover and cover up wasn’t so hard to do. Unlike Chi Sim also known as Tan Sau Ng, for our lineage there are no records of the nun, Ng Moy, pre-dating Ip Man other than in different arts like Wu Mei carrying her name as mentioned above, but so its clear outside of the Ip Man line plenty of other lines have lots of records leading back to this famous nun, just not Ip Man’s.
It is easy to see when looking at both Weng Chun and Wing Chun in application, they are not so different at all, and some things like Chi Sau practice, they are still the same, as are many principles, even parts of different forms are not too different as well. Weng Chun, however, has remained more internal still using the 4 elements of earth, water, fire and wind, whereas Wing Chun has become more of an external art over the years.
In part, this is due to the changes made to the system under Chan Wah Shun and later Ip Man, from its original teachings. If we follow the Tang family records then, from the founder, Chi Sim, he then passed the skill on to the father of Yim Wing Chun, in Jiang Xi, a province immediately north of Guangdong. This would mean the correct Ip Man lineage to the founder would be as follows.
Abbot Monk, Chi Sim. (Founder)
Yim Yi Kung. (Yim Wing Chun’s Father)
Yim Wing Chun & Leung Bok Chau. (Yim Wing Chun & Husband)
I Leung Jan. (Father of Leung Bik, one of Ip Man’s Sifu’s)
Chan Wah Shun & Leung Bik. (Teachers to Ip Man in mainland China & Hong Kong)
This modified lineage above from Tang Yik Weng Chun starting from Chi Sim seems the most likely to me due to the overwhelming amount of evidence available for the Ip Man line, it doesn’t mean Ng Moy did not exist as other lineages I looked at have an equally clear line back to her and for example Si Lim Temple as a lineage of Wing Chun from Ng Moy, it’s just that the Ip Man line in my opinion goes back to abbot Chi Sim and the Weng Chun school originally instead based on the reasons I have outlined above and that both Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun was originally part of the Weng Chun school (Eternal Spring), not a Wing Chun school (Praising Spring).
That said, i will not be changing the lineage history that was originally passed on to me, out of respect for my Sifu and Sigong as well as Ip Man Tai Sigong and so on. As you can see, the history is full of politics and historical events that have made certain things happen that I could never pretend to understand, as I wasn’t there at that time.
I do feel though, that it’s important to share this information so everyone can decide for themselves what’s best. I personally feel no need to add to any controversy that already exists by changing my lineage history, instead, the full story with all available evidence should be shared as above for a more complete understanding of Wing Chun history.
The most important thing I have learnt from researching the history of Wing Chun is the need to preserve the ancestor lineage, whether that is by documenting in museums, books, or through tree recordings in schools, so in the future, we will know exactly where we came from and why!
Great Grandmaster Ip Man's most famous student was the legendary Bruce Lee.