Did Ip Man Invent the Story of Yim Wing Chun?

Ip Man not only brought Wing Chun to Hong Kong, he also passed on a rich body of lore and legend surrounding his art.

Many of the debates in the Wing Chun world today focus on the question of lineage.  People want to know which expression of Wing Chun best captures its essential essence?  Which is truly “authentic”?  Often it is assumed that authenticity must be expressed in terms of history.  Some individuals then conclude that the branch of Wing Chun which is the oldest must the most “true.”

Needless to say this entire exercise is problematic.  There are too many undefined terms and leaps of logic in the foregoing statement to count.  Yet this sort of reasoning is what is driving a lot of the public conversation on Wing Chun these days, lacuna and all.  Side stepping the issue of “authenticity” for a moment (a topic complex enough to deserve a post in its own right), I have real doubts that the pure expression of anything is really linked to its oldest form (or better yet, our best attempt to recreate it). 

The truth is that things change for a reason.  Historically speaking, all martial arts, almost without exception, have been forced to reinvent themselves in every generation in order to survive.  Every true Sifu or Sensei instructs his or her students not just to be a clone, but to rise to ever greater heights.  And occasionally this actually happens.  As a result our arts change, grow and evolve over time.  They adapt to new markets and new economic conditions almost continually.  What was done in the late 1700s or the mid-Ming dynasty can never truly be replicated today.  Deal with it, and consider some other ways of defining “authenticity.”

The Wing Chun Creation Myth

Of course one of the first things that we need to do when approaching the history of any martial arts is to actually separate fact from fiction.  For instance, how should we think about the oral folklore that gets passed down in almost every hand combat school?  Do we dismiss it out of hand?

That is probably not a good idea.  Folklore is passed on precisely because it is meaningful to the audience.  The folklore of Wing Chun, or pretty much any other kung fu school, reflects the actual lived experience of those who have dedicated their lives to this tradition.  This material has immense ethnographic value.

But that’s not really what most participants in the Wing Chun wars care about.  What they really want to know is, does it have any historical value?  Will it lead me to locate a Wong Wah Bo or Leung Yee Tai in the cemeteries of Guangdong if I just look hard enough?  Did these stories really happen?  Do they contain some essential grain of truth sufficient to justify my faith in the art?

The sad truth appears to be “no,” at least for the historical questions.  The orthodox Wing Chun creation story was first recorded by Ip Man sometime in the early or mid-1960s for a proposed organization called the “Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship.”  This project never panned out.  In fact, the process of creating a home organization for his brand of Wing Chun was a long drawn out ordeal with many bumps along the way.

A page from the historical account of Wing Chun’s origins. This document was written by Ip Man but was never officially used during his lifetime. The complete account can be seen on the VTAA’s webpage.

This document, found with Ip Man’s papers after his death and now displayed by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA), contains the basic Wing Chun creation story that everyone is now familiar with.  It talks about the burning of the Shaolin Temple, the escape of the Five Elders and Ng Moy’s instruction of Yim Wing Chun to beat the marketplace bully.  It then lists the subsequent transmission of the art through the Red Boat opera company to Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun and ultimately Ip Man himself.  Interestingly enough, this 1960s era document is the oldest recoded version of this story that exists.  There is no physical evidence (actual documents, not simply a different lineage’s folklore which claims to be older) that this story was ever told in the late 19th century.

Many historical investigations of Wing Chun take this document as their starting point.  However, even a passing familiarity with the folklore of the martial arts of Southern China indicates that this will be a problem.  The burning of the Shaolin temple (either north or south) is a myth, it never happened.  The escape of the Five Elders is a motif drawn from gangster folklore.  Yim Wing Chun bears a suspicious resemblance to female martial heroes in both Hung Gar and White Crane legends (in fact I have argued elsewhere that she is probably derived from the latter).  Lastly is the issue of Ng Moy herself.

Situating Ng Moy in the Historical Literature

The famous story about Ng Moy (related by the sons of Ip Man) watching a battle between a snake and crane is identical to the older and better established Taijiquan tradition.  Taiji was first introduced into Guangdong during the 1920s.  The appearance of this story in the Wing Chun canon appears to be a clear case of borrowing.  That is important to Ng Moy’s origins for another reason as well.  The 1920s-1930s are the first time that she appears in local literature and storytelling as a heroine rather than as a traitor and villain.

Ng Moy made her first appearance in the written record in the last few decades of the 19th century in Guangdong province.  Unfortunately for those seeking to trace a lineage back through her, this first appearance was actually in an anonymously published popular martial arts novel titled Shengchao ding shen wannian qing (The Sacred Dynasty’s Tripod Flourishes, Verdant for Ten Thousand Years.)  Given its somewhat unwieldy title the story is usually simply called Everlasting in the English language literature.

John Christopher Hamm, in his study on Jin Yong’s martial arts novels (Paper Swordsmen 2005), spends some time discussing Everlasting and its impact on the evolution of the “old” and “new” school martial arts stories in Guangdong and Hong Kong (pp. 32-48).  Everlasting is of great interest as it was directly copied (often plagiarized) by a variety of other novels and it ended up providing almost all of the local Shaolin “lore” that ends up in subsequent films and radio plays produced in the region. 

This is a very important point to emphasize.  There is no evidence that there was ever a large body of Shaolin folklore that southern martial artists or story tellers drew from.  With the partial exception of the Triad story on the burning of the southern temple, these were not simply “folk characters” indigenous to the region.  Rather, one novelist wrote a book expanding on the escapades of the various Shaolin monks and the Emperor’s attempts to destroy them.  That book was so successful that it spawned dozens of copies.  It literally created a genera of storytelling that is still with us today.

Working class patrons of a stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels. This 1948 AP photo illustrates the importance of heroic martial arts tales in southern China, even for individuals with limited literacy.

Everlasting is very important to the question of Wing Chun’s origins as it is the very first time that Ng Moy is ever mentioned in print.  Unfortunately for us, this is not quite the same wise and loyal figure that Ip Man honors in his narrative.  The Ng Moy of the novel is crafty and prone to laying elaborate plans (a major point of continuity with her later figure), but she is also a traitor.  Along with Bakmei she betrays the Shaolin heroes to the state and ensures their destruction.  In fact, one of the underlying themes of this novel is the righteousness of Imperial authority against the lawlessness and chaos caused by the wandering, argument prone, monks of Shaolin.  Ny Moy is an agent of the order brought by the government.  She is quite literally the Emperor’s hand.  Clearly this is not the sort of character that a supposedly “revolutionary” art like Wing Chun would put at the head of its lineage.

Of course shifting assessments of “revolution” and its desirability run throughout any longitudinal discussion of martial arts folklore.  In the last few decades of the 19th century the Chinese Imperial government was actually pretty popular among most of the population.  Yes there were cases of corrupt officials and tax revolts, but for the most part the government was seen as standing up to landowners and hated foreign intrusions.  Neo-Confucianism was accepted as the official arbiter of public morality and order.  For instance the Boxer Uprising was not a rebellion against the government, but rather a massive popular uprising in support of it against foreign religious and commercial interests. 

Somehow in Kung Fu folklore “revolutions” is always a good thing.  Yet it is pretty clear that most people in China in the late 19th century didn’t actually think that way and had no plans to depose the Qing and restore the Ming.  Nor was aligning yourself with the hated Taipings or the criminal underground likely to improve your popularity around town.  That sort of rhetoric became markedly more popular and common around the time of the 1911 revolution.  It persisted through the 1940s due to the encouragement of both the Nationalist and Communist Party (both of which sought to use the social revolution to further their own political objectives).  Its ubiquity in martial arts folklore is really just one more piece of evidence that this is the oral culture of the 1920s-1950s that we are dealing with, not the 1820s-1850s.

While the stories of Everlasting were very popular, the end of the book (where Shaolin and the government simply could not be reconciled) seems to have troubled some readers.  Perhaps the destruction of the Shaolin Temple was too definitive.  It did not leave enough room for new stories or imaginative play in the here and now.  And that is what readers really wanted.  I suspect this is still what many martial artists actually want today, a chance to enter the story for themselves.  To experience what Mircea Eliade might have called “sacred time” in the guise of a Kung Fu story.

The novel was subsequently republished (or more accurately stolen) a number of times throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, occasionally without its bleak conclusion.  One of the most important of these rewrites was an undated novel published during the 1930s.  Jiang Diedie’s novel Shaolin xiao yingxiong (Young Heroes from Shaolin) put the foundations in place for the eventual creation of the Yim Wing Chun narrative. 

His work lacks originality.  Many sections of text are simply copied directly from the original book, published 40 years earlier.  However, in Young Heroes the story ends when Ng Moy is able to negotiate a truce between the various feuding factions of Shaolin monks.  Rather than destroying the temple and siding with the state (all of which happened much later in the original narrative arc), she is now left the savior of Shaolin.  More importantly, she comes to be associated with those values that the Shaolin monks of Everlasting stood for; independence, stubbornness, hubris, short temper, loyalty and a love of southern China.  In short, Ng Moy was for the first time transformed into a literary hero.  She became exactly the sort of figure who someone like Ip Man might have included in his narrative.  More than that, she became the sort of figure that martial arts students would have demanded in their pedigree.

The Story of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun continues to be popular today. It has even spread beyond the Wing Chun community. Yuen Woo Ping’s 1994 retelling of the story is considered a comedic masterpiece.

To recap, Ng Moy is not an old figure in the regions folklore.  In fact, she never appears in the folklore record at all.  Instead she is a fictional character that was invented for a written novel in the late 19th century.  Originally she was a problematic figure and was associated with the domination of the state over Shaolin (and by extension local society).  It was not until the 1930s that this perception of her changed as authors began to rewrite the classic novel in such a way that the stories would appear to be more open ended.  Now Ng Moy was free to use her plans for good and she joined the ranks of Shaolin’s heroes.

The Wing Chun narrative recorded by Ip Man shows no knowledge of the older, original view of Ng Moy.  In fact, it is conceptually dependent on versions of the Shaolin story that were circulating in the form of novels and radio programs in the 1930s-1950s.  The established literary record forces us to conclude that Ip Man’s story must have been composed in the 1930s or later.  QED.

If Ip Man didn’t Invent Yim Wing Chun, who did?  And why?

There is another aspect of this legend that must be considered.  Stories like this one were used to advertise a school.  While fictional they played an important social role in creating a group identity and conveying core values and experiences.  Ip Man was neither a professional writer nor was he a martial arts teacher in the 1930s.  He would have had no reason to compose this story at that time.  And by the time he was teaching in Hong Kong the narrative is already well enough established that it is repeated and echoed in the myth of other lineages.

Wing Chun students today tend to obsess over Ip Man, yet he and the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” were actually rather marginal figures in the martial arts landscape of Foshan prior to WWII.  A number of other people, largely forgotten today, were responsible for actually teaching Wing Chun publicly.  Further, the 1930s saw a massive expansion of interest in the art as the local branch of the Nationalist party government started to support it.  I suspect that this is when there was a sudden increase in demand for a creation story and the myth of Yim Wing Chun was invented.  It was probably stitched together using material borrowed from White Crane and Hun Gar, the novel Young Heroes of Shaolin and an older genealogical name list.

It still isn’t clear which of the local other teachers (or newspaper writers) composed the Yim Wing Chun story.  I would like to introduce their individual biographies in separate posts so that readers might get a much better feeling of what the social history of Wing Chun actually looked like.  Further, these biographies might give us some clue as to who the mystery author really was. 

Still, we can be relatively certain that the Yim Wing Chun narrative cannot have emerged before the 1930s.  This is likely when Ip Man first became aware of it.  In fact, he may have known enough local folklore to be suspicious of it.  I think the most overlooked aspect of this discussion is that while Ip Man may have written the story down, he never passed it on (at least not in its written form).  Remember, this manuscript was found only after his death.  He may have contemplated giving this to an earlier association, but he never gave any official history to the VTAA.

Some of Ip Man’s students are deeply steeped in the Yim Wing Chun tradition.  But for others it doesn’t appear to be central to their understanding of Wing Chun.  Consider for example Bruce Lee’s book The Tao of Gung Fu.  While it was never published during his lifetime its still an great source for students that are interested in his development from Wing Chun to Jeet Kune Do.

Ip Man and his young student Bruce Lee. As a truly global superstar, Lee is responsible for much of Wing Chun’s early popularity outside of China.

At the end of this book Lee provides his American readers with as much information as he probably can on the origins and histories of a number of different Chinese styles and master.  He also discusses his own teacher, Ip Man, in glowing terms.  What I have always found interesting is that Lee never relates the Wing Chun creation story.  Perhaps he simply dismissed it (like so much else) as “non-essential.”  Of course another possibility might be that the story was just not as meaningful and widely discussed by the young students of the mid 1950s-1960s Hong Kong based Wing Chun revival.

Uncovering the literary origins of this myth is not entirely a bad for Wing Chun history buffs.  In exposing its recent origins I think we create as many questions as we resolve.  For instance, was this story composed all at once, or is it modular in its construction?  I personally suspect that the genealogy of names at the end of Ip Man’s account is actually the oldest part of the story and the bits about Shaolin and Yim Wing Chun were added on later.   What did Chan Wah Shun tell his students about the history of his art, as it clearly wasn’t the story that Ip Man wrote down?   Finally, what about Leung Jan?  Would even the name “Wing Chun” have meant anything to him at all?  When did the art taught by Leung Jan come to be known as Wing Chun? Clearly we are in no danger of running out of research questions.

[If you are Interested in learning more about Yim Wing Chun and her place in modern Kung Fu mythology, be sure to check out this post as well.  Just click the link.]

A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of Kung Fu Tea. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.

40 Comments Add yours

  1. pinoro says:

    Great article, very informative! And I love the refference to Mircea Eliade – his books were sacred during my teenagehood, in Romania 🙂

    1. benjudkins says:

      I am glad that you found it useful. My father is an anthropologist so I heard quite a bit about Eliade while I was growing up, and always enjoyed his work myself.

  2. freezer44 says:

    Had to stop reading when the author of this poorly researched article wrote that the burning of Shaolin is a myth. It has been well documented, through oral history, recorded provincial records, the Membership book of the Heaven and Earth Society, as well as archaeological findings that both Shaolin temples did burn and were rebuilt in later periods.

    1. benjudkins says:

      The oral history of the martial arts have proved to be a remarkably shaky foundation for historical discussions (see Thomas A. Green “Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts” in “Martial Arts in the Modern World.” If you want to know more about the actual history of Shaolin check out Meir Shahar’s book “The Shaolin Monastery.” The government never burned the Henan temple, though is was burned down multiple times in long history by local warlords. This is extremely well documented and there are no questions about it. Nor are the creation myths of the Heaven and Earth Society really about history. Take a look at B. J. Ter Haar’s work “Ritual & Mythology of the Chinese Triads.” This blog is dedicated to the academic study of the martial arts, so if you are going to comment here, those are the sorts of sources you need to stick with.

  3. marlonkamui says:

    Recently I am very interested in the history of Wing Chun and really enjoyed the article.

    A silly question : I thought that the term “wing chun ” was derived from this woman , if not where is it?

    Thank you and congratulations

    Sorry I’m from Brazil and don’t speak english

    1. benjudkins says:

      Yeah, that is the most commonly heard story within the WC world. However various lineages have a number of different stories about where the name comes from. From a more academic standpoint I am not sure that we can really confirm any of them.

      1. Wil says:

        If you think about it, Bruce Lee wrote the script for and nearly starred in Kung Fu, the legendary journey. If he did, that means all the tips and flash backs and philosophy came from Bruce. All the sayings in the show come from northern Shao Lin teachings as opposed to Sil Lum, traditional teachings. Which mean Bruce was taught for obviously a number of years in the actual government sponsored Shao Lin. Which means, he didn’t get kicked out of schools or was shamed by Yip Man and Yip Man him self worked with the government via training in the state sponsored temple. Maybe not as a Shao Lin student, but he was definitely part of this cultural revolution and never became ex-patriate.

        Then you look at how Bruce never had any trouble getting accepted into a university at 18. When many people had trouble even getting accepted. Then look at how much marketing took place around both characters.

        Leads me to believe the State even sponsored the other famous artists as just marketing tools. Huo Won Jia? Jackie Chan? Jet Li?

        There’s a reason they can do their art easily while everyone else has to spend years to even punch correctly. Why they don’t fail but others do politically or marketing based. So they can reserve the greatest power and techniques for them self while the public dilutes them self via a giant marketing campaign.

        Makes you wonder if tea was really the first herb or if Dit Da actually works. I’m betting Wing Chun was created by some wise guys in the 1800’s which culminated in the boxer uprising. To combat the Japanese and civilians. Basically mashing together all the most well known styles then utilizing just the stuff you can use to initiate imperial ass woopins. Even Wu Shu is state created. The Japanese even said Huo Won Jia was a leader of a religious sect. Heck his entire school was mostly originally composed of martial artists loyal to the state. His state loyalist cook even poisoned his tea. All just a bunch of propaganda now. It’s healthy I’ll give you that.

        But maybe there is more to it and it’s just a tool to fight other kung fu martial artists. Unless you dilute it and modify it to work with boxing it’s literally just a pivot art that enables you to do more. Heck a number of gangs like the mexican mafia worked with george w bush to push trade deals with yesentay fox. I wouldn’t put it passed some gangs to disguise fighting, ACTUAL fighting techniques with ones like propaganda ones. Much like how the re-written bible in 250 AD took out a bunch of books. Then King James re-wrote it with scholars to manipulate the poorest people into what ever (but here the similar result it they convinced people to become soldiers). So any normal person who went to get trained wouldn’t actually get trained. So they could cut out tons of actual rebellions. Then if you’re smart enough and can actually fight they take you under their wings and train you. The same tactics the hells angels use. Ya ever wonder why hells angels and other gangsters can fight without martial arts training? Like REAL gang members, not lil wayne. More like Chuck Zito.

        Because real fighting is dangerous and a subject of importance in controlling populations into being subjected to marketing.

        Like Tang Su Do. The original story is a guy invented it in his room in his home. After watching another amazing martial artist clean up a crowd of 20 people and he refused to train the onlooker who later invented it.

        When you go to a tang su do school, they don’t even teach that! It’s some watered down stuff used on punching bags and mixed with jujitsu. When it was originally supposedly invented to self teach.

        It’s apparently all propaganda to keep you from what will actually make you powerful and strong. Like family, friends, momentum, tension and energy.

        Thank you for this interesting post.

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