The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it. The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan’s Ancestral Temple.  Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton.

The 1850s were a bad time to live in Guangdong.  As a matter of fact, it would have been better for one to avoid the entire second half of the 19th century if one could arrange it.  Multiple rounds of the conflict with the UK, the Red Turban Revolt, the lingering effect of the Taiping Rebellion up north, the Hakka Punti War as well as the disruptions of 19th century globalization and modernization left the Pearl River Delta a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) burnt-over zone.  This basic truth poses a great problem for historians interested in the region’s popular history.  There was so much change, disruption and destruction that the 1850s becomes a sort of veil of silence.  It is very, very, challenging to research any aspect of popular or local culture in southern China prior to the middle of the 19th century.  This is a huge problem for historians of the martial arts as our spider-senses tell us that all sorts of wonderful stuff was probably happening at the end of the 18th and the start of the 19th centuries.  But it is always just out of reach and we can never quite bring it all into focus.

This historical headache turns out to be great for individuals who actually do martial arts, particularly if they are interested in starting a new school or style, and want to create or adapt some juicy legend to help with the marketing.  Nowhere has this impulse been stronger than in the Wing Chun market.  Wing Chun’s popularity has not progressed through a steady and smooth growth curve.  Instead it seems to come in jumps.  The first of these was in the 1920s, another followed in the 1960s in Hong Kong and yet another in the 1980s in the West.  Today the art appears to be thriving everywhere.  These periods of rapid growth also tend to be periods of rapid myth-making and the end result is that we have half a dozen major competing narratives of where Wing Chun came from, not one of which has a single really solid piece of evidence backing it up.

The lead off article in the latest issue of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies is by Scott Buckler (“Origin of Wing Chun—an Alternate Perspective.” Winter 2012, Issue 6. pp 6-29).  This new publication is a great resource to the field (just look at the editorial board).  I was very happy to see them devoting space the question of Wing Chun’s origins.   In fact, they dedicated no fewer than two dozen pages to the piece, quite impressive by the standards of modern martial arts writing.

In this article Prof. Buckler attempts to wade through the conflicting narratives and sort out where Wing Chun really came from.  His conclusion is basically that Robert Chu, Rene Ritchie, and Y. Wu were probably correct in their concluding chapter of Complete Wing Chun (Tuttle, 1989).  They assert that Wing Chun’s origins are likely to be found in Opera and revolutionary groups that were formed after Chung Ng, an important opera teacher, migrated from Northern China to the south sometime in the late 18th century.  Personally, I have always felt that this story seems implausible.  There is simply no evidence (other than speculation) that actually backs it up and given its highly romantic, revolutionary and ahistorical nature I think some pretty strong evidence is called for.  That disagreement not withstanding I do like a lot of what Prof. Buckler did with this article.

Basically the article can be split into three sections.  The first of these is an argument about why the orthodox creation story that most students are taught (Wing Chun came from the southern Shaolin Temple via Ng Moy) simply cannot be correct.  To put it simply, there is absolutely no evidence that the Southern Shaolin temple ever existed as anything other than a fantasy in local literature that was then woven into the fabric of early 19th century mythology.

On this point we are in total agreement.  My only wish is that Prof. Buckler had simply come out and asserted the Temple’s non-existence in a much more straightforward way.  That would have left him a lot more time to develop his own, more interesting, ideas.  But more on that later.

The second section of the essay moved on to the main theory.  But I also felt that we saw a switch away from Wing Chun history to Wing Chun apologetics.  In this section Buckler brought up a whole host of parallels (too many to name or criticize in a single blog post) that seemed to connect Wing Chun to both Opera and Triad traditions.  Over and over again it was discussed how this “could” or “might” be related to Wing Chun.  And a lot of what he had to say was genuinely suggestive and interesting.  But at the end of the day there was simply not a single piece of solid evidence that actually tied any of the modern Wing Chun traditions to any of the ancient criminal or opera groups that Buckler reviewed.  The leaps of logic required were just too great for a skeptic to follow.

This is why I sense that the body of this article is an exercise in Wing Chun apologetics.  At the end of the day it is all a matter of faith.  There is nothing that Buckler can say that will compel belief from a non-believer.  There are simply too few facts; the curtain of silence that descends in the 1850s is just too thick.  At the same time, that doesn’t really appear to be his goal either.  Rather he is attempting to open a space for rational belief in, or acceptance of, the Chu, Ritchie and Wu narrative.  He is attempting to give those already committed to the Opera/Revolutionary narrative some room for hope and a reason to go on researching these theories.

The third section of Prof. Buckler’s article showed the greatest promise, but it was also the least developed.  Hopefully he will come back to these ideas later. Buckler started out by noting the prevalence of piracy in the area around Foshan in the 19th century and asked how that could have affected the development of an art like Wing Chun.

Now this is a line of questioning with some real potential.  What do we actually know?  Foshan was a center for trade and production.  It was quite wealthy, much more so than most modern martial artists realize.  All of this trade and wealth traveled on the water as there were few actual roads.  Pirates were as thick as flies in Guangdong for much of the 19th century, and that meant that all of these shipments had to be guarded by armed escort companies, i.e., groups of professional martial artists whose lives really did depend on both their diplomatic and fighting skills.

Foshan as it has always actually existed; a fair sized industrial town governed by commercial interests.  Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton.

Further, the big corporate entities of the day (clan associations that controlled local industries and land ownership) had a very strong economic incentive to actually build martial schools and train guards as their fortunes literally depended on it.  And when we look at the actual local history (not just history written by martial artists mind you, but history written by historians) that turns out to be exactly what we see.

One of the biggest of these families in Foshan was the Leung clan—a group of pharmacists and doctors who made a fortune in traditional Chinese medicine and patent medicine business.  This clan also had a particularly successful military school that even turned out some important military officers.  At this point it is important to note that their goal was to train soldiers and clan members who could take the military service exam, not martial artists as we understand the concept in the west today.  Subjects like military history, horsemanship and archery would have been stressed, with pole fighting and boxing taking a back seat to subjects that would actually be on the imperial military exams.

Yet all of this happened in the generation when the modern understanding of the public civilian martialarts school was just starting to come together in the region.  And is it any surprise that the first historically verifiable practitioner of Wing Chun (though it is unclear if he ever called his art that) was a wealthy pharmacist named Leung Jan, who grew up in the generation following the establishment of the Leung martial arts traditions?  Probably not.  He may even have had contact with refugee opera performers; the Red Turban Revolt was incredibly destructive and it displaced a lot of people.  But looking to a semi-legendary opera singer from the capital to bring the martial wisdom of the north to the benighted south seems a bit of a stretch.

As a matter of fact, why does Wing Chun have to come from anywhere?  Why can’t it simply be what it appears to be, a brilliant indigenous creation that reflects the martial styles that developed along the branches of the Pearl River?  Foshan was one of the richest towns in all of late Imperial China and a center for iron, ceramic, silk and paper production.  It was practically filled to gills with guards, escort companies, gangsters and pirates.  Is it really necessary to import a northern opera performer to teach these people how to fight?  I think not.

Of course if you would like to read more about all of this you will need to wait for my book (co-authored with Jon Nielson) on the Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts to come out.  While we review the development of a number of southern styles Wing Chun is our major case study, so I find that I always have too much to say on the topic.  In the mean time I would strongly recommend taking a look at Prof. Buckler’s very interesting article.  He sums up the current state of the debate nicely and there is a lot of interesting information in there, particularly with regards to the Red Boats of the Cantonese Opera and their history of dummy training, which you won’t want to miss.