Wing Chun and the Hakka Arts: Is there a connection?

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.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Honey K Chi says:

    wow what a thorough research. please can you tell me wether what the actually story behind wing chun? and is it related with chuka? i know that wing chun was derived from the folk art of white crane. and what happened during the qing era when, they never even attacked the shaolin temple? and how true is the betrayal of the shaolin temple because the leow the nun and founder of chuka style? can you please tell me in simple and brief words? i am a comic artists and am making a story based on the shaolin warrior monks of qing era. what was the kind of living the monks did during qing dynasty. did they face any hardships? or did they never have any kind of problems and were peacefully living? was there any main hardship the shaolin had to face during qing era? please let me know. im in need of these answers. my career is based on this. and is there any source on origins of folk arts like hung gar, white crane and choy li fut? and how true is the existence of rebels like fong si yu, hung hsi kuan and shaolin monk san te? who are these people and were they really founders of these folk arts? am sorry for making such a big question, but please, at least answer the actual background behind the wing chun story and nun leow story. youre doing a great job. thankyou so much

    1. benjudkins says:

      Long story short, almost all of this stuff is totally fictional. We do not actually have a detailed history for Wing Chun or Chuka (or most other southern arts to be brutally honest) before the late 19th century or so. Some of these arts, like Bak Mei, were simply invented in the 20th century.

      All of the figures you are asking about are probably fictional (at least in their current form).

      So far as the history of Wing Chun goes, we don’t actually know much beyond the mid 19th century. In fact, there is a very good chance that the art was first developed in the mid 19th century. Maybe its the early part of the 19th century, but this probably is not a very old system. Now individual elements of Wing Chun might be much older. I have found some descriptions of southern arts from the late Ming dynasty that seem very much like Wing Chun (at least from the brief descriptions that we have), but no one called them that. Wing Chun as a social community is probably a product of the end of the 19th century.

      Leung Jan is the first individual in the Wing Chun genealogy whose existence can be independently confirmed by real documents and artifacts. He said that he learned from a couple of opera singers. That story sounds plausible, but in purely historical terms there is not a lot more to say as we don’t really know anything solid on these retired performers.

      The Yuen Kay-San lineage of Wing Chun is in a similar boat. We know about him, so we know a little bit about his teachers, but after that it all gets sketchy pretty fast and we appear to be back in the world of Kung Fu myth making.

      Shahar is a great resource for what was going on at Shaolin during the Ming and Qing eras (at least if we are talking about the temple in Henan). The Qing was certainly quieter than the Ming, but late imperial China was always a somewhat violent place, especially out in the countryside. The monks would have had to defend their economic estates against incursions by various sorts of bandits and rebels. Some of these guys came in small bands, others (like the rebel army that ultimately burned the temple down) were huge armies.

      Further, the Qing era is interesting as that is when Shaolin really started to become involved with unarmed boxing. Prior to that they were actually better know as a center for pole fighting. But in the Qing era emphasis shifts to boxing and stuff that looks more like “real martial arts” from our modern vantage point.

      The temple was at least tangentially connected to a number of important regional styles including Red Boxing and Plum Blossom. Some of these (Plum Blossom in particular) were later implicated in late Qing rebellions, though it appears that the temple itself remained basically loyal to the state through the 1911 revolution.

      None of this necessarily has any bearing on your comic book. There are two realities with the Chinese martial arts. There is the reality based on what historically happened, and then the one based on the culture of the martial arts themselves. This culture shapes people’s beliefs, perceptions and actions in profound ways. Did Wu Song really exist, and did he actually kill a tiger? God only knows. Probably not. But it doesn’t matter because everyone knows the story and it still effects how people think about the martial arts today. I personally believe that there is a lot of room for a careful treatment of both the history and the myths of the martial arts.

      Because of the academic focus of this blog I spend a lot of time trying to emphasize what is historical (or what we can prove to be historical) but that doesn’t actually make the myths less valuable.

      Hope that helps!

      1. Honey K Chi says:

        thanks! so bandit problem could be the main source of hardships the monks faced? i see. well that explains a lot. it helped me. well as for unarmed, i was reading on about the daoist monk who came to shaolin temple and developed the praying mantis system in various ways. one of those were plum blossom, 7 star and 8step. do you know anything on these? its said that he later on taught these to shaolin monks. and so they adopted this. and for unarmed combat, do you think the shaolin monks mightve used northern long and short fists or luohan fists? or like leopard and dragon fists of shaolin? perhaps this might also be understood about why the shaolin monks of today practice sanda? despite it is more of sportive aspect?

      2. benjudkins says:

        Yeah, I think local bandits and warlords would be a good way to go. Of course there is also the old stand-by of “rival kung fu schools.” One of the interesting things about Shaolin during this period that we do know was that some of the monks had local lay disciples, so they could have become embroiled in local rivalries.

        There is always the issue of corrupt local officials. That was just as much a problem in the late imperial period as it is today (actually maybe more so).

        And there is one more thing you might want to consider. Shaolin was not the only temple on that mountain. There were other Daoist and Buddhist temples up there. Some of the Buddhist ones were actually secondary shrines associated with (or originally funded through) Shaolin. While the government does not appear to have had serious doubts about the loyalty of the actual Shaolin monks, these secondary shrines were more of a problem. The government appears to have believed (probably quite correctly) that they were not maintaining monastic law and that they might become havens for undesirable characters like traveling martial artists and criminals. So that could add some dramatic story telling potential to your story.

        We don’t have a lot of detailed historical knowledge about what styles were being practiced at Shaolin early in the Qing dynasty. Shahar has done all of the heavy lifting on this so I will refer you to him. We know that some stuff was there (plum blossom, the ancestor of Lost Track Boxing, some sort of drunken boxing) but we are just not sure about a lot of other things (at least for the early periods, once you get to the 1920s-1930s we start to have more reliable accounts).

        As for Sanda, I suspect that they do it because its part of Wushu and the government gets to mandate what is taught at Wushu schools. Dengfeng is full of Wushu schools, many of which have some type of association with individual monks or the temple itself. A lot of what the monks teach to their performance teams is just straight up, government approved, performance wushu. They still practice other stuff, but the tourists want to see something spectacular and acrobatic…and Wushu is great for that.

        Plus Sanda is pretty popular in China. If you want to prove how good your Kung Fu is and how tough your students are, that is what you do. Maybe the UFC will change that in the future, but for right now I expect that there is a lot of Sanda at Shaolin because people like it. Its a good way to get some local recognition for your skills.

  2. Honey K Chi says:

    thanks a lot! that really helped. corrupt official and the problematic secondary buddhist temple are a good example and reference for my story. thankyou so much!

    1. ob says:

      theres a story that some of the Chu Gar family lineages have that a Leung Bak Chao practised Chu style and was meant to have been pretty good at it. Some Wing Chun lineage stories say he was a skilled martial artist prior to marrying Yim Wing Chun and learning her “style”. The WCK Leung Bak Chao in the stories supposedly named what he taught after his wife(after she had died) and this renaming hid any Chu connection as well as any others .
      These are all stories and need to be taken with a grain of salt but even stories that have been told many times if whittled down sufficiently have a core of truth…

      1. benjudkins says:

        Thanks! I had not heard those accounts before.

  3. Hello. When my Northern Dragon Shadow school closed down, I moved to a small country town where I met Sifu Adam Hall, who was the student of Sifu Wayne Viddler. Sifu Wayne had trained in Chow Gar and Wing Chun, and Sifu Adam taught me a blended style, as I am very thin, and was not considered able to handle pure Chow Gar conditioning jongs.

    My training was hard and in-depth, and many times the combinations and techniques were explained as “This is to overcome Mantis forward attacks” or “This will halt Wing Chun and destroy your opponent’s structure”.

    I find that the concepts of one combination being specific as a reply to another is very reminiscent of my prior learning in Northern Shaolin derived Dragon Shadow, eg. “Dragon plays with pearl defeats dragon snatches tiger cub”.

    On returning to my hometown, I signed up for Chow Gar (Under Sifu Stephen Parella, Sigung Paul Brennan, a recognised school with Hakka lineage), and found I could cope with the conditioning. Although I am focussing and improving at genuine Chow Gar Mantis, I am convinced that the melding of Wing Chun and Chow Gar is not only possible, but very effective. It is like two sides of a coin, and rather than dilution, I find the styles compliment one another and flow together very well when used in combat situations. I am also of the opinion that there are pieces missing from each style through secrecy of teaching and the animosity held by proponents of the styles toward each other. It’s as if one style starts fire by rubbing sticks, the other by banging stones, but neither will share that information. If the stone banger finds himself In a forest, or the stick rubber is trapped in a rocky outcrop, the knowledge they withhold one from the other would become valuable very quickly.

    I am these days committed to my Mantis training but I do not regret having been lucky enough to encounter Sifu Adam and Sifu Wayne, who’s understanding of the cohesive natures of Wing Chun and Hakka Mantis beyond tribal feuding, ethnic discord and traditional style rivalry has left a great and lasting impression on me.

  4. J says:

    I am a long time (10 year) Wing Chun practitioner and before that about 20 years in Ark Wong lineage Five Family (my specialty was the crane). After reading your new Origin of Wing Chun book and several of your history-related articles I have to wonder: Is it possible that the origin of Wing Chun as we know it can be as simple as Ip Man learned Fukien White Crane in China and then upon moving to a 500 square foot apartment in Hong Kong, and having to teach martial arts in said apartment, that he adapted the art (White crane) to teach in small spaces? I can honestly say that EVERY hand form, defense, offense and application I have learned in Wing Chun I also saw in Five Family. The difference is that in Five Family I had to learn 100 or so forms which took years. I learned some applications but scattered between several animals over years. Wing Chun seems to just cut to the chase. No fancy forms, just all of the footwork and applications contained within three forms for the user to attempt to grasp over years but a much shorter learning curve than trying to get through a Temple-refined martial system.

    My personal feelings about Five Family was that the Crane was the most complete system, followed by snake and dragon. But I felt that if one were to learn and apply the Crane that would be all anyone would ever need for health or safety. I feel like Wing Chun has/is completing my Crane training but that American Ip Man Wing Chun is just that…..a succinct version of White Crane.

    Comments appreciated.

    1. benjudkins says:

      Hi J,
      First off, thanks for taking the time to read and seriously engage with the book. Its always nice to see that a project of that size is finding an audience.

      As to the substance of your question, I am not a student of the Five Lineage, so I can’t speak directly to your observations there. On a technical level they sound entirely reasonable. However, on purely historical grounds we know that lots of other people besides Ip Man were doing Wing Chun in Foshan for at least a couple of generations before him. And Ip Man took the Confucian idea of honoring his teacher pretty seriously, so if he had actually learned White Crane from another master we would have heard about it. I think that this is especially true as White Crane is a name that would have carried a lot of weight in HK, where as very few people other than aficionados had heard of Wing Chun when he showed up in 1949. Nor would a move into much tighter real estate in HK necessarily explain the sudden emergence of Wing Chun, as all sorts of styles (including White Crane) were also being studied in that city’s small apartment schools, courtyards and on rooftops.

      However, as I discussed in the book, the martial arts of Fujian province had a profound affect on the fighting styles of Guangdong and the Pearl River Delta. While reviewing the various smaller case studies we saw that there was lots of immigration between these areas and that included martial arts teachers (coming from Fujian to teach in boxing associations further south). As a result I think that the parallels that you are seeing are real. But they are also older and more broadly based than your question implies. They influenced many of the martial arts systems of the Pearl River Delta, and not just Ip Man as an individual teacher or martial arts reformer. Hope that helps.

      1. J says:

        Thank you so much for your prompt reply. I admire your work as a martial historian and continue to look forward to your posts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s