Interior architectural detail of a “tulou,” or traditional Hakka walled village.


Categorizing the Martial Arts of Southern China

As I have discussed here, there are a number of different ways that one can conceptualize the traditional martial arts of Guangdong province and the Pearl River delta.  One of the more informative sets of distinctions to be made is between the “Hung Mun” and the “Hakka” styles.  The Hung Mun arts were developed by the Cantonese speaking population of Southern China.  They are united by a number of factors including a shared creation mythology revolving around the Shaolin temple (though it’s not clear if these stories go back much further than the early 19th century), stylistic similarities and shared names and concepts.  Typical examples of the Hung Mun schools that are popular today include Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar.

The other half of this classification scheme refers to the Hakka arts.  These fighting forms were developed for or by individuals of the Hakka linguistic minority.  At certain points in the 19th century there was a fair amount of violence between the Hakka community and their more numerous Cantonese neighbors.  The Hakka communities tended to be concentrated along the eastern branch of the Pearl River.  Their arts often displayed triangular footwork, characteristically hunched shoulders and concave chests, complex hands and a general resemblance to the styles of Fujian province.  While historians debate about the form and origins of the ancient Hakka styles, the modern schools that one might encounter today include Bak Mei, Dragon, Southern Mantis and Chuka Shaolin.

All of which brings us back to Wing Chun.  A typology is useful not only when it classifies easily, but also when it points to an important research puzzle.  On a sociological level Wing Chun should be a pure Hung Mun school.  It was developed by Cantonese speaking individuals in and around Foshan in the mid to late 19th century.  Its creation narrative focuses on the myth of the southern Shaolin temple.  Its students and instructors even have a distinctly bourgeois bias (at least between 1900 and 1949).

Yet in actual practice it does not look all that similar to the other Hung Mun arts.  It even shows little resemblance to the lineages of Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut that dominated its own home town.  Instead it shares the triangular footwork, higher stances and emphasis on complex hands that is seen in a number of Hakka schools.  Chi Sao, the unique sensitivity exercise that is practiced in Wing Chun even bears more than a passing resemblance to similar exercises used in these other arts.  (It also shares some features with “pushing hands” in Taiji, an art that first appears in southern China in the 1920s).

Possible Connections between Wing Chun and the Hakka Arts

A number of people have noted these parallels, but unless you understand the traditional sociological divide between these two communities you might miss the depth of this puzzle.  Both the Hung Mun and the Hakka arts grew up along the various branches of the protean Pearl River.  Yet the communities that developed these arts were not always on good terms, at least prior to 1900.  Sometimes community relations were marked with episodes of sharp violence.

Different solutions to this puzzle could be proposed.  For instance, what we have here could be a case of correlation without causation.  The large cities of Fujian (such as Xiamen) were important hubs of economic activity and trade.  It is certainly possible that Hakka travelers from the east branch of the Pearl River, and Cantonese merchants from the west, might both be exposed to the sophisticated martial arts of their northern neighbor and learn generally similar lessons.

In fact, Stanley Henning has argued that the White Crane styles of Yongchun County in Fujian essentially gave rise to modern Wing Chun.  As I have written elsewhere I am not sure how much evidence one can actually supply to support this assertion and, in the final analysis, I am not sure it holds up.  Still, if it was true it might explain the general similarities between these arts.  Wing Chun might resemble Bak Mei not because of any direct dependence, but rather because they are both derivative of trends in Fujian.  It is certainly a possibility that needs to be considered.

Still, objections can be raised.  Why, for instance, did these trends appeal only to the creators of Wing Chun and a group of Hakka teachers?  Lots of Choy Li Fut students worked in ports and on vessels as sailors, traveling from city to city along China’s eastern coast.  There were vastly more of them than the total number of all Wing Chun students in the late 19th century.  Why didn’t they adopt these “superior” techniques after visiting Fujian?

Another suggestion is that this has nothing to do with Fujian per se, and everything to do with the Cantonese opera singers who helped to create Wing Chun (at least in the orthodox version of the creation myth).  The suggestion here runs something like this.  The Hakka styles of Guangdong really did emerge through an organic and local process.  While there may have been the normal outside influences, you can tell that these arts were in fact a local creation when you look at a number of factors, including naming conventions.  There are a number of movement and form names, such as “three arrows” and “east river” that are shared by most of the Hakka styles but none of the arts of Fujian.

The Red Boat Opera Company likely encountered these communities while plying the rivers and coastal areas of southern China, promoting revolution and providing entertainment.  This contact gave individuals like Leung Yee Tai, Wong Wah Bo and Painted Face Kam a chance to observe and borrow from the local martial artists.

I suppose that it could have happened this way.  We have no evidence to support this, and we have no evidence that contradicts it.  In fact, evidence always seems to be the sticking point when we get to discussions of the Red Boats.  There is no actually verifiable and universally accepted evidence that Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai even existed in the first place.  As a result one is pretty free to speculate as to how they spent their free time.  Nor is it immediately obvious to me that members of the Hakka linguistic minority would be all that interested in Cantonese language performers, singers and storytellers.  But I could be wrong.

A traditional Hakka village. One does not have to be an expert on castles to see the defensive nature of the tulou. Typically these dwellings are made from stone or rammed earth, have a single entrance and no windows on the ground floor.

Leow Fah Shih Koo and Ng Moy and in the 1930s

Recently I was rereading something about Chuka Shaolin (a Hakka art popular in South East Asia) when another possibility occurred to me.  This style has its own creation legend that might be of interest to members of the Wing Chun community.  Like so many martial stories from the region it begins with the destruction of the Southern Shaolin temple.

The legend relates that Leow Fah Shih Koo was a Buddhist Nun who resided at the Shaolin temple.  This is quite odd as monastic communities generally had pretty strict rules about male and female monastics living in the same temples, but that small detail never seems to bother martial artists who by in large are less familiar with Buddhism than they might suppose.

Like everyone else associated with the Temple Leow was reputed to be an expert martial artists.  Due to government oppression and surveillance she decided to seek more peaceful surroundings and so she fled to Guangdong province where she settled on a remote mountain and made her home in “White Crane” cave.  Chuka Shaolin mythology often claims that Leow herself was an expert in Fujianese White Crane Kung Fu.

Leow was a skilled herbalist and her expeditions to collect different plants brought her to various parts of the surrounding region.  On one of these occasions she discovered two crying female children.  Upon questioning the girls she learned that they had bandit problems.  They had grown up in a wealthy family but they had been attacked by bandits.  Their parents had been killed and the girls feared for their safety and future.  Their names were Chu Meow Eng and Chu Meow Luan.

Leow took the girls back to her mountain where she taught them her form of Shaolin Kung Fu.  This initial course of martial study was supplemented by additional material that the girls learned by watching the local animals including birds, insects and monkeys.  Leow also passed on her extensive herbal and medical knowledge.  The art was named Chuka Shaolin after the surname of the students themselves (Chu-their surname, Ka-meaning family, Shaolin-a popular form of butt-kicking).

What follows next is a lineage list that brings the art through the generations up to the present point in time.  Readers interested in investigating this story further might want to start with Cheong Cheng Leong and Donn F. Draeger’s account in Phoenix-eye Fist: A Shaolin Fighting Art of South China.  New York: Weatherhill. 1977. pp. 11-15.

This version of the Chuka creation myth is told in Malaysia.  The parallels that it exhibits with Ip Man’s story of Yim Wing Chun are striking.  In fact, the two accounts are so similar in thematic terms that they seem to be two different variations of the same story.  Both are accounts of a nun who flees the Shaolin Temple, lives in a cave associated with “white cranes,” modifies the original Shaolin arts through animal observations, rescues young women with bandit problems, teaches them the martial arts, and then names the resulting hybrid style after the female student(s).  The differences between the accounts are pretty much stylistic, the location of the cave, the number of girls, and the language that the story is told in (Hakka rather than Cantonese).  The nun Leow is identical to the better known Ng Moy.

This is very interesting as readers of this blog will now know quite a bit about Ng Moy’s origins.  She first appears in the anonymously published novel Everlasting that came out in the 1890s.  However her character in that story is complex and she sides with the Qing government, betrays the temple and is responsible for the deaths of its heroes.  She is hardly the sort of figure one wants at the top your lineage chart.

By the 1930s her character had evolved through a series of minor re-writes and republications of parts of the original story.  In Young Heroes of Shaolin she is portrayed as a faithful member of the order.  The new novel ends when she resolves the internal squabbling of the various martial heroes and insures the survival of the temple.  This is the figure that we know from the Wing Chun creation myth.  Note that she is purely a literary creation, a modification of a pre-existing story, and a rather late one at that.

What does this mean for the Wing Chun creation story?  As it exists in its current form it is probably relatively late, dating to the 1930s or there about.  What this implies for the Chuka Shaolin story is also fascinating.  This is exactly when Lee Siong Pheow (1886-1960) left Guangdong and migrated to present day Malaysia where he would use the preceding creation story in the establishment of his Chuka Shaolin lineage.  The timing could not be more perfect.

So why have a creation story at all?  To be totally honest I think that these sorts of myths became so prevalent in the traditional hand combat schools because consumers demanded them.  While a relatively small number of individuals were interested only in the combative aspect of the martial arts, for others they formed a social community with important cultural, economic and even political functions.  Membership in a martial arts community became an important part of an individual’s identity.

Some individuals preferred a modern and progressive approach to both the physical culture and identity.  They tended to join groups like the YMCA or the Jingwu Association.  Others were looking for something more regional and traditional, often with a hometown vibe.  The story of the nun Leow would have resonated with the sorts of stories of “old China” that were popular at the time.  It would have told you quite a bit about the community you were joining and its view of the martial arts, even if it probably didn’t have much to say on the style’s actual origin.

At this point a fascinating possibility begins to emerge.  Traditionally Hakka schools didn’t dwell all that much on Shaolin.  They exhibited a much more heterogeneous body of folklore than the Hung Mun styles.  But as styles like Bak Mei, Dragon and Chuka Shaolin were either created or made public in the 1920s and 1930s, they came under market pressure to adopt some sort of advertising that would have broad appeal.  These were the sorts of stories that most southern Chinese individuals, already acculturated to the Hung Mun schools, wanted to hear.  They read about them in newspapers, in cheaply produced novels and even listened to them on the radio.

Given that Wing Chun’s first explosion in popularity also occurred in the 1920s and 1930s it would have also been subjected to the same market pressures and demands from potential students.  I think the similarity in timing and triangulation with then current fads can explain many of the parallels in the creation stories that I noted above.  It might also explain some of the more substantive similarities between Wing Chun and the Hakka arts.  After all, these arts were all emerging and starting to compete with one another at roughly the same time.

A Hakka restaurant on Hennessy Road in Hong Kong. The Hakka remain an important and vibrant community within Southern China.  This is a shout-out to my Hakka sister-in-law and her wonderful family.


Once again this would be a case of correlation without direct causation.  Perhaps the similarities we are focusing on are actually common to any number of arts from Southern China that were trying to make their way in the world during the years between WWI and WWII.  Hung Gar, White Crane or Choy Li Fut would have missed out on much of this precisely because their public schools were already a generation or two older and better established.  They enjoyed some degree of insulation from these market pressures.

In conclusion, it might be impossible to know with certainty why Wing Chun resembles so many aspects of the Hakka arts.  I am not sure that there is enough direct evidence left to fully piece this puzzle back together.  However, when thinking through our options we need to consider the question of timing.  It is probably not a coincidence that all of these arts were emerging from the same literary milieu and entering the marketplace for martial arts instruction at about the same time.  The 1930s really were the golden age of southern Chinese Kung Fu.