Hing Chao has been getting a lot of good press lately. If you keep up with Chinese martial studies and are at all interested in the southern hand combat traditions, you have probably heard his name. He was the co-author of Hung Kuen Fundamentals, a new English language Kung Fu manual which has generated more publicity than any non-Bruce Lee related book on the CMA that I can remember. I have yet to receive my copy of this work, but I can’t wait to take a look at it. He has also been an organizer of the Hong Kong International Kung Fu Festival and is a driving force behind the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies (which seems to be on a temporary hiatus).
I recently had the good fortune to run across a translation of a short essay that Hing wrote. It really reinforced my impression of him as a thoughtful and talented researcher. The entire piece is important enough that I would like to share it with my readers here at Kung Fu Tea. My understanding is that Hing has included a longer discussion of southern martial arts history in his recent volume, but I think that this essay is a good place to start. It is a very accessible introduction based on a solid understanding of real economic and social history, and it is a good first step in understanding the development of the southern Chinese martial arts.
Still, questions remain as to how far one can push these understandings, especially when we attempt to apply them to explaining the origins of specific styles modern styles, rather than simply painting a fuller picture of the environment that these schools arose out of. Even the limitations of this particular essay provide us with an important opportunity to think about what we can really hope to accomplish in the field of Chinese martial studies and what our goals should be.
While I conclude this post with a list of specific objections I should point out that I actually agree with the vast majority of what the author had to say. But simply saying “I agree, that was a great point” does not make for a very interesting blog post. Readers may want to sit down with a copy of Hing’s original essay before going on to read my discussion of certain aspects of his conclusion. These criticisms notwithstanding, it is clear that the field of Chinese martial studies is lucky to have a researcher like him. I suspect that Hing’s voice could be an important one in shaping this emerging literature.
My own discussion starts with a brief review of the structure of his argument and a discussion of a few of his key points. I then turn my attention to his examination of the relationship between the emergence of Guangdong/Hong Kong style Wing Chun and White Crane Boxing from Fujian province.
There are actually a much larger number of theories of Wing Chun’s origin than Hing alludes to in his article. In my manuscript on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts I group these various approaches into four different schools, depending on where they locate the original impetuous behind the art.
For instance, proponent of the “Northern Theory” often focus (incorrectly in my view) on the northern Shaolin temple or operatic rebels who fled to the south. Leung Ting has articulated a “Western Theory” which seriously looks at martial arts parallels in the Yunnan and Szechuan areas (as well as in Thai Boxing) to explain Wing Chun’s unique character. The “Eastern Theory” (favored by researchers like Stanley Henning and Hing Chao) seek to draw connections between Wing Chun and White Crane Boxing.
Lastly the “Southern Theory” (my personal favorite) takes it for granted that the martial arts of Guangdong will have been influenced by events elsewhere in China. In truth no style exists in a vacuum. Instead it seeks to explain the emergence of Wing Chun as an independent art, clearly distinguishable from other systems it may have borrowed from, as a function of the Pearl River Delta’s unique history and sociology.
In his essay Hing makes a pretty good argument for the Eastern approach. Better yet, he does this in such a way that we learn something not only about Wing Chun, but also about the movement of peoples and cultures across the region during the late imperial period. Still, I suspect that this discussion is over-thinking the problem. While it is helpful to understand something about the background relationship between Fujianese and Cantonese boxing, at some point it becomes even more useful to focus on their unique characteristics.
Southern Boxing: The Martial Arts of Guangdong and Fujian Province.
In the 2308th issue of the Ming Bao Weekly Hing Chao published an essay titled “Southern Boxing and Close Fighting: A Summery.” I suspect that this piece would have totally escaped my notice (I don’t live in Hong Kong), except that Bernard K. provided a discussion and translation of it over at his blog, Be Not Defeated By the Rain. If you have not seen this blog before you should really head over and check it out. It features a number of interesting discussions on a wide range of martial topics. Hopefully his translation will make this little essay available to a much wider audience.
The essay starts off with a brief discussion of the concept of “southern boxing.” The author notes that this term is usually applied to the fighting styles of Guangdong and Fujian Province. Later Hong Kong became a center for the preservation of various southern lineages and skills. Yet there has always been a certain fluidity to the concept. Obviously the ideas and techniques of the southern martial arts have been influenced by developments in neighboring areas. Nevertheless, the author concludes that there really is something distinct and empirically verifiable in the “southern” schools.
He then goes on to divide these into “long” and “short” fighting styles. Long styles include arts like Hung Keun, and Choy Li Fut. He sees these as showing more northern influence, and they are not the major focus of this particular essay. Rather he chooses to focus on short styles like Wing Chun, White Eyebrow, Southern Mantis and White Crane. In his mind these styles are more representative of a pure “southern theory of boxing.” Whether that is a good thing or not is left for the reader to decide.
It is always hard to know how to approach the question of classification in the martial arts. This is where most scholars depend on their conceptual arsenal to guide their choices in grouping like or different things together. Yet as I have argued in other recent posts, Chinese martial studies has yet to go through a period of rigorous conceptual development.
“Long” and “short” boxing are both traditional terms. I am not sure that either of them are actually all that well defined despite the fact that practitioners have been debating these ideas since at least the middle of the Ming. Complicating matters is that fact that most southern fighting styles are actually “complete arts” when you get right down to it. Wing Chun may have developed a reputation as a short range art, and Choy Li Fut is often looked at as a prototypical example of long boxing, yet the actual reality is that experienced fighters from both systems routinely work in all ranges.
Yet I have to admit that there is something to the categories that Hing has constructed. Wing Chun, Southern Mantis and White Crane do share a number of similarities, both in terms of their techniques, training methods and even their respective bodies of folklore. While I suspect there may be better reasons to group these arts together than simply their reputations for short boxing, I do think that these categories might generate some fruitful observations. It does however narrow the range of combat philosophies that Hing includes in this relatively short article. Presumably he will provide us with a more comprehensive discussion in his book.
The author begins his discussion by noting that while the southern Chinese martial arts are in some senses ancient, we have only a few sources on them during the Ming dynasty and practically nothing before that. Still, if we consider what was going on in more general historical terms, it is possible to make sense of the material that we do have.
Following standard theories of southern China’s economic development, Hing’s discussion starts in Fujian province during the Ming dynasty. He notes that this was a era of rapid change. The state was relatively weak and villages were often forced to rely on their own domestic means of defense and law enforcement.
Still, there were a number of positive economic trends in the era. Agriculture and trade were both doing well (at least in most years). As the economy grew the population of southern China increased. Large clans began to organize themselves into potent economic and social forces. They used their influence to buy land and control local markets.
A combination of falling wages and rising land prices and rents led to more frequent civil strife within communities. It also contributed to the growing problems of banditry and piracy. In an attempt to find a better economic environment large numbers of individuals form southern Fujian began to migrate south into Guangdong. This area was less densely settled and a little less economically developed in the mid Ming. The same basic pattern of out-migration from Fujian continued through the 20th century. Guangdong remained a popular destination for travel through the 19th century.
Of course it should also be noted that these two provinces both boasted a number of important trading ports and were united by common market forces. Inland mountains isolated both Fujian and Guangdong from the rest of China and insured that the sea would be a major avenue of travel in the south. As such they were always in frequent contact with one another.
This pattern of East-West migration had an important impact on the development of Guangdong’s martial arts in the Qing dynasty. For instance, the myth of the burning of the Shaolin Temple is now a shared hallmark of all of the Hung Mun schools in Guangdong. Yet researchers currently believe that this story originated in Fujian (or possibly Taiwan) in the closing years of the 18th century. It was likely brought to the south by both secret society members and traveling martial artists.
This is not to say that Guangdong’s entire martial heritage was colonized. We just do not have enough information to say much with any certainty. Some elements of its martial culture, such as the six and a half point staff form, seem to be very old and to predate all of this. Yet it is hard to deny that Fujian, with its greater population density and larger markets, developed an advanced martial arts subculture and market prior to the emergence of similar structures in its southern neighbor.
The existence of professional boxing instructors with unique styles, possibly related to ones that still exist today, is well attested in Fujian by the mid Ming dynasty. Hing Chao spends a considerable portion of his essay discussing General Qi Jiguang’s thoughts on boxing as recorded in the concluding chapter of his now famous military encyclopedia. Hing notes that many of his troops (and presumably instructors) came from the mountains of Zhejaing, just north of Fujian. Further, he provides brief references to a number of styles (e.g., Song Taizu and Monkey) which are still seen in the region today.
So does that mean that we have found the antecedents of the modern southern boxing styles? I think substantial caution is called for here. Hing Chao is actually very careful and resists the temptation to rush to any conclusions, but I must admit that I am probably even more pessimistic about establishing a connection than he is. The literary record is just too fragmentary and those correlations that we do have are often far from 100%. As Hing points out, Qi Jiguang discusses Taizu as a form of long boxing, yet in the modern era it appears to have taken on an entirely different character. It is now a leading close-combat school.
Hing suggests that this is something that researchers should ponder, but he then goes on with the rest of his arguments before drawing any conclusions. I would like to offer two suggestions that might explain the discrepancy. The first and most obvious possibility is that these two arts are actually unrelated except for a shared name and perhaps a few general techniques.
A number of TCMA were named for famous historical characters. It is not all that uncommon to find two unrelated arts which both share a name or possibly claim the same pseudepigraphal author. The fact that a given name or creation myth has been used in the same region over a 500 year period might demonstrate the strength of the area’s martial culture, but it says little about the content of the actual fighting systems.
The second possibility is that the Taizu of the current era and the Ming dynasty really are related, but that they have undergone a radical change. How could this happen? Quite easily as it turns out.
During the middle of the Qing dynasty a fierce debate raged across China’s martial arts community in which advocates of “long” and “short” boxing strategies squared off against each other. Meir Shahar actually reviews a lot of that material in his discussion of the evolution of civilian boxing styles in the area around the Shaolin the temple so I won’t go over it again. But for a period of time, short boxing seems to have gained the upper hand in a debate that influenced the way that a lot of martial arts were practiced and discussed. It seems entirely possible that a Taizu teacher might have decided to emphasize different elements within his art (recall if you will my opening remark that most traditional fighting styles are actually “complete arts” anyway). If his students went on to find greater career success than those of other teachers, this certainly could have changed the face of the art.
But is it still the “same” art? All arts evolve. We expect them to. Yet at some point the techniques, methods of practice, strategy and body of oral culture becomes so distinct that what you are dealing with appears to be a new art. Is that what happened in this case? It is impossible to tell. The historical record is just too thin. But it is a question we should consider as we move towards to the conclusion of Hing Chao’s discussion.
If Qing era Taizu did become a new art what drove it? Was it an expression of the expansive martial genius of the original ur-system? Did Taizu mark 1 simply give rise to Taizu mark 2? Or was this instead a matter of agency? Was it an invention of a specific individual in response to specific problems or opportunities? In short, are we better off combing Qi jiguang in an attempt to understand this turn towards short boxing, or should we look at historical, social, economic and cultural factors instead?
In any event, Hing Chao’s discussion demonstrates a few important points. The first of these is the importance of the early development of the martial arts market in Fujian. It clearly influenced events from Guangdong to Okinawa during the Ming and Qing periods. Further, we actually have some idea what was going on. Contrary to popular belief, it is not all oral folklore. There actually are a handful of important accounts that historians can rely on. Still, there are real limitations to what we can know, especially when attempting to tie modern fighting styles to their ancient antecedents.
White Crane, Wing Chun and the “Softness Revolution” in Southern Boxing
The preceding discussion, while interesting, has created something of a dilemma as Hing attempts to discuss the emergence of modern short boxing styles in southern China. The ancient Ming records that he examined don’t seem to show much evidence of popular modern practices. I would argue that there might be one or two other places where we might find a hint of it, but again, the sources are so brief and widely separated that it is really hard to speak on this subject with confidence.
For the sake of argument we will follow Hing and restrict our discussion of Ming sources to Qi Jiguang. He does talk about short range fighting in his chapter on boxing, but the sorts of movements and strategies that he demonstrates are very different from how arts like Wing Chun or Southern Mantis approach these same problems today. All of the modern Southern short boxing arts have adopted a pronounced emphasis on “softness” in their approach to hand combat, yet that seems to be absent in the Ming sources describing what was available in the region. So where might this revolution in southern boxing have come from?
Hing contend that the turning point was reached in Fujian province, probably some-time in the middle of the 1700s, with the development of White Crane. Unlike Guangdong, we actually have a number of older sources which paint a decent picture of what was going on Fujian’s boxing subculture.
One of the things that I quite liked about this article was that the author took the Bubishi seriously as a historical source. This book is actually a collection of shorter works. Together they form a 19th century Fujianese training manual that was preserved in Okinawa where it subsequently became a foundation text for Karate.
This text is the only published and widely available example of a southern boxing manual form the Qing manuscript tradition that we currently have. Given all of the historical and social discussions of these arts I am genuinely surprised that it remains so little known or discussed. If one were looking for a “bible” of late 18th century southern Boxing, this would be it.
As it is currently arranged the Bubishi starts off with an extended account of the creation of White Crane Kung Fu. Better yet, this legend may even be based on a real person whose story can be found in local gazetteers from the period.
Leaving the question of historicity aside, the more symbolic aspects of the creation myth focus on the encounter of woman named “Lady Seven” and a white crane. As she was mourning the death of her father (a martial artist murdered by local bandits) the crane appeared and refused to leave. She attempted to drive it off by various means, but each time she was defeated by the cranes postures and shifting evasive movements.
This gave the grieving woman the inspiration she needed to modify her style and perfect it to a high art. Eventually she gained a sense of peace and gave up her need for vengeance, instead becoming a local boxing instructor. The introductory sections of the book then goes on to discuss a number of other subjects including the importance of softness in the art, lineage transmission, self-cultivation and proper behavior.
White Crane became a very popular art. It developed a number of different styles within Fujian and it managed to spread itself to both Guangdong and even Okinawa. Of course all of this was happening at the same time that individuals were leaving Fujian and looking for economic opportunity elsewhere in China or Asia.
This inevitably brings us back to the short styles of Guangdong province. Hing Chao notes that Wing Chun, Dragon, White Eyebrow, Southern Mantis and White Crane all share certain specific movements and techniques. More than that, they all have certain strategic and philosophical ideas in common. Nor does it take much imagination to see the reflection of Lady Seven in the Shaolin nun Ng Moy or the young girl Yim Wing Chun. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that these stories are basically modification of the original Fujianese myth.
Conclusion: Why Does Wing Chun Need to Come From Anywhere?
Hing notes that there have been many questions as to where Wing Chun came from, and he thinks that he has finally found the answer. Ultimately Wing Chun is derived from Yong Chun White Crane Boxing. Of course he notes that there are limitations to this to this theory.
Perhaps Wing Chun also contains older local Cantonese material that White Crane cannot account for. For instance he acknowledges that the weapons systems (and I would add the wooden dummy) are quite different from anything seen in Fujian. The six and a half point pole form in particular seems to be an important part of Guangdong’s regional martial arts heritage.
Still, the implications are clear. Wing Chun is a form of “short boxing” (except when it is not). Southern short boxing appears to be a byproduct of the “White Crane Revolution” (except that Shahar has already demonstrated that similar ideas were floating around all over northern China), therefore Wing Chun is descended from White Crane. QED.
Overall I quite liked Hing’s article, but I genuinely do not know what to do this one aspect of his conclusion. It seems forced given the small number of sources that we actually have to work with. Of course Hing is not the only one to suggest this. Stanley Henning made a similar connection in an article for Classical Fighting Arts Magazine a few years back. Yet this entire line of reasoning has always seemed somewhat problematic to me.
To begin with, I think Hing Chao is giving Wing Chun too much historical credit. Despite mythology to contrary, there is no evidence that this art existed prior to the middle of the 19th century when a couple of local opera performers started to work with Leung Jan a local (historically verifiable) medical doctor who was interested in boxing. Leung Jan worked with no other teachers after this period. Further, Wing Chun was not publicly taught at all until his student, Chan Wah Shun, opened a school at the dawn of the 20th century.
What does this actually mean for Hing’s theory? Most of the Fujianese influence that he is interested in seems to be happening in the late 18th or very early years of the 19th century. That is when you see disruptive population movements and the importation of the myth of the Shaolin temple. Yet this is not when Wing Chun was created, at least not as the modern style that we know today.
What we currently know as Wing Chun is a pretty modern art. It would not appear in a verifiable form for almost another two generations after the importation of the myth of Shaolin, and it would not be publicly taught to students for another two generations after that. Nor would it gain any degree of public acknowledgement until the Republic period.
I am just not sure the art is really old enough to be fully subject to the cultural currents that Hing is interested in. And by the time it does develop many of these “Fujianese” ideas (such as the importance of softness or “cotton boxing”) have not only been adopted but also transformed by the Guangdong martial arts community. In short, I am not really sure if the version of “softness” advocated by Wing Chun is the same as that favored in White Crane. By the time Wing Chun actually started to gain a following in Foshan, Taiji had already been imported from the north and was being publicly taught at the local branch of the Jingwu Association. That would also be a great place to look for the origins of the current rhetoric on “softness.”
The issue of the weapons systems is also very interesting. I disagree with the implication that Wing Chun is fundamentally a boxing style where the pole and swords were borrowed from a different martial culture only to be appended at the end of the system in a haphazard way. My Sifu decided some time ago that Wing Chun is fundamentally a fencing art, and that many of its unarmed tactics are actually derived from its blade work.
Obviously this is the sort of subject that deserves a post (or an entire series of them) in its own right. But consider this. Where, in the Wing Chun system, is the footwork of the art actually taught? Obviously not in Siu Lim Tao. The second and third form introduce more of it. But only in the sword set is all of the footwork (including the long-step) actually used. In fact, the entire “theory of movement” in Wing Chun is derived from fencing and then applied to boxing.
Of course this is the great irony of Bruce Lee’s martial arts career. He never went past Chum Kiu in the Wing Chun system and hence he (quite correctly) found the footwork to be lacking. Interestingly he turned to western fencing to fill the gap, where as if he had stayed in Hong Kong he would have eventually been introduced to Chinese fencing (with its much more dynamic footwork) instead.
This is one of the reasons why I am wary of simply accepting the argument that “of course” Wing Chun is a “short range boxing art.” Last time I checked there was nothing “short” about engaging an enemy with a three meter long pole or a pair of swords. This is an absolutely vital part of the Wing Chun system and it’s strategic outlook. One cannot simply dismiss the weapons as an appendix to the art, especially if you wish to have a historical discussion.
Yet in the end I think my objections to this sort of exercise are more philosophical than anything else. The truth is that the martial arts of the Pearl River Delta (and that is what we are really discussing with Wing Chun, Southern Mantis, White Eyebrow and Dragon) are just not the same as the arts from Fujian. Yes, some things are very similar. There are certainly shared movements, but there are many others that are distinct. Some training methods are similar, but again, others (such as the dummy) are quite unique. While Wing Chun shares certain concepts or principals with some Fujianese arts, most of its thoughts on these matters are its own.
In fact, Wing Chun resembles White Eyebrow and Southern Mantis much more than it does anything else. Rather than attempting to explain where in China it “actually” came from, why don’t we just accept the obvious conclusion. All of these arts are a product of the martial genius of the people of the Pearl River Delta. This was a dynamic and dangerous area. There was a lot of trade and a great need for martial arts systems.
As a result the people of this area combined what they inherited from the past with what they were exposed to by their neighbors (particularly those moving to the area to do business) and created some very interesting fighting styles that are not exactly like anything else in China. White Crane is a great art. It is probably one of the most sophisticated arts in southern China. But Wing Chun is not White Crane. Neither is White Eyebrow. When you focus on these very deep structural relationships you are in serious danger of losing sight of all of the unique local history that made these practices different. That is where they actually “originated.”
And it is also what this exercise is actually about. At the end of the day no one outside of a small segment of the martial arts community really cares where Wing Chun came from. Wing Chun’s history is important to the field of Chinese Martial Studies in so far as it tells us something interesting and new about the development of popular culture in the Pearl River Delta between 1850 and 1950.
The remarkable thing to me is actually how much an examination of Wing Chun reveals. A deep study of the martial marketplaces of Foshan, Guangzhou and Hong Kong leads one to ask all sorts of interesting questions that historians and social theorists might not otherwise ever have an opportunity to ask. Not only does having a rich understanding of local society lead us to do better martial history, but by increasing our understanding of these fighting systems we can enrich our entire view of what local society was really like.
This is the great promise of Chinese martial studies. This is why I feel that it is an academic field that is worth promoting and investing myself in. Yet when we succumb to the temptation to explain a puzzle by simply “explaining it away” (in this case by rolling all of southern China’s “soft” boxing styles into a single moment of innovation) we lose our ability to see the past more richly.
For the record I should state that I do not disagree on a material level with most of what Hing Chao found or claimed. Did the martial arts of the Pearl River Delta borrow techniques and concepts from Fujian? Absolutely. Was Wing Chun inspired by the story of “Lady Seven?” I don’t think there is any doubt about it. In fact, I think it is pretty clear that they stole “her” in an attempt to create their own origin myth.
Yet they did not steal her all at once. Ng Moy probably only entered the mythology of the Wing Chun system in the 1930s. Further, her character was first invented (or adapted) by an anonymous Cantonese novelist some 40 years prior for the book Everlasting.
By the time Wing Chun students encountered any of this material it had already been reworked and transformed many times. The concepts and stories had been worn smooth on the stones of the Pearl River. So in the final analysis, where did Wing Chun really come from? Did it emerge from the coastal waters of Fujian in the mid 1700s? Or did it rise up out of the warmer waters of the Pearl River one hundred years later. I suspect that one can make at least as strong an argument for the later thesis as the former.
July 12, 2013 at 7:54 am
Sorry to ask, but is Hing Chao Kantonese? I only can find a Zhao Shiqing as editor of th JCMS, which driving force seems to be Wong Yuen-Ming of HKK, no?
July 17, 2013 at 9:17 am
Hi, Ben. I am a huge fan of your work and have been reading your articles for months. I have read almost all of them. Fantastic work you’re doing here.
I just want to point out a few things though. I’ve noticed that you keep referring to Leung Jan as a reference point. There are quite a few students from his ‘generation’ (e.g. Fok Bo Chun and Fung Siu Ching) who have learnt from opera performers other than Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai (e.g. Yik Kam and Dai Fa Min Kam). I think that maybe Wing Chun might have been created in the earlier 19th century rather than the mid 19th century.
Also, have you tried looking into characters such as Li Wenmao (Lee Man Mao)? He’s associated with the Tiandihui (fairly high ranked) and apparently was also associated with the King Fa Wui Goon (the opera troupe where these supposed performers are from). Also, rumour has it he’s trained in Yong Chun White Crane.
Here’s an article on the Red Turban Rebellion that I think you might find really useful.
Click to access 1473.pdf
Thanks a lot for your blog. Keep up the good work.
July 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm
Thanks for the kind words and the valuable feedback. I am a big fan of Kim’s article and think that the breakdown of the leadership of the (highly splintered) Red Turban movement is particularly valuable.
You are correct that I see the genesis of the modern art with Leung Jan. Nor am I unaware of the creation myths and folklore of the Yuen Kay-San clan or the other, non-Ip Man, Wing Chun movements. There are a number of reasons that I approach the history of Wing Chun in this way. To begin with, in historical terms, we know some things about Leung Jan that we do not know about these other individuals. In fact, he is a historically verifiable figure to a degree that the rest are not.
That does not mean that stories or “memories” of the rest are not widespread. They certainly are. Ip Ching remembers (or to be more accurate, remembers hearing) stories about Fung Siu Ching for instance. Yet these figures tend to be really hard to deal with in actual historical and academic terms. Why? Because of the nature of the creation myths in all of these lineages. Most of these stories are an attempt to differentiate a clan or affiliation from the Ip Man line. Yet the creation narrative of his lineage probably only dates to the 1930s. That means the rest of these stories, explicitly reacting against it, are even later (at least in their current form). While these figures may have existed, pretty much everything I know about them is folklore (sometimes pretty late folklore).
There may have been other students doing something similar to what Leung Jan was doing in the mid 19th century. Indeed, nothing happens in a vacuum, so that seems rather likely. But not only do I not have any actual verifiable historical information about these figures, I don’t think there is very much that is knowable about them at all. Even Leung Jan is interesting in this regards. We have evidence of his existence, but how much hard proof (not folklore mind you, actual publicly accessible contemporary documents) do we have that he was a martial artists prior to the Republic period? The answer is that we have basically nothing.
Now I certainly believe that he was a martial artist. I don’t know if he was actually aware that the art he practiced was named Wing Chun or not. Remember, most martial practices at the start of the 19th century did not actually have names (thats one of the odd things about this story). But what we know about Leung Jan comes either from Ip Man’s reminisces of what Leung Bik and Ng Chung So said, or Republic era pulp martial arts stories. Would historians consider either of these to be trustworthy sources? No.
And the situation is generally downhill from there. The Opera singers? We don’t have any idea if any of these figures actually existed. It seems like a plausible story. There were certainly unemployed opera singers in the area (at least some escaped the White Terror that followed the Red Turban uprising). But any particular story about any given singer? Impossible to verify. This is the big reason that I try to focus my discussions on the historical environment (things that are knowable and useful no matter what your lineage) and not get into discussions taking the various lineage legends as concrete facts.
On a certain level, none of this really matters. The Wing Chun that we practice now is pretty distant from whatever happening in the 19th century. When is the first time that the name Wing Chun, in conjunction with a martial arts style, actually appears in a document? A reader asked me that question recently and its pretty late.
The art was massively reformed and gained its initial public character during the 1920s and 1930s. This is critical as it is how we all know Wing Chun, as a public commercial martial art. And without Ip Man (and Bruce Lee) expanding its appeal and modernizing the system in the 1950s, we would not be having this discussion right now. So when I sit down to talk about the origins of a modern practice, where should I look? Obviously I look to the lineage that succeeded in making the art a mass phenomenon, and I try to stick as close to the verifiable sources as I possibly can.
I realize that this may seem unfair or one-sided to practitioners from other lineages, but again, I want to explore the martial milieu of the period. That is actually my job as a academic blog. Not all that many people are interested in the history of Wing Chun in isolation.
I want to talk about the evolution of China’s martial culture in broader terms. The historical study of Wing Chun is really only useful or interesting so far as it sheds light on important questions about the development of popular culture in southern China more generally. Ip Man managed to impact that environment in a way that Yuen Kay-San (who remained a lone practitioner) never did for instance.
“Also, have you tried looking into characters such as Li Wenmao”
For what purpose? In terms of basic historical research? Yes, I have looked at him in a fair degree of detail. My academic book manuscript (still under review) spends a couple of chapters on the Red Turban Revolt and its aftermath.
In terms of Wing Chun? To be totally honest this is where we start to get into trouble. Wing Chun really appears to be a product of the aftermath of the Red Turban revolt, not one of the things that helped to incite it. Lets say that the Opera singers in the various creations myths were real, and that their teaching was an important part of what would become Wing Chun. All of this teaching is supposed to be starting (or still happening) in the 1850s. What was going on at that point in time?
To begin with the government was rounding and butchering anyone associated with the revolt. How many people did they kill? Hundreds of thousands, by some estimates up to 1 million people in the Pearl River Delta alone. And at this point almost all of the surviving opera rebels had left Guangdong to form their own “Taiping Kingdom” a little to the north-west which would survive for years. We know where most of those guys were, and it wasn’t in Foshan (which would have been suicidal).
So what do we know (circumstantially) about figures like Wong Wah Bo or Leung Yi Tai? To begin with, they were not dead (which is sort of surprising, I have a theory about that but its so speculative I will keep it to myself). And secondly, they were not fighting to support the new kingdom with the rest of the actual rebels. Instead they were sitting in still smoking ruins of Foshan, looking for someone to support them.
What does all of this mean? Its almost impossible to say, which is why I like to stick to real history. But if I were to push it, I would probably conclude that there are two possibilities. Either they were super secret rebel agents who were refusing to leave, or they had nothing to do with the uprising (which was at heart a tax revolt) and everyone around them knew it. For a variety of reasons the second possibility seems vastly more plausible.
Remember, the governor had given the local gentry of Foshan and other areas large quotas of “rebels” and other undesirables that they had to turn over for execution or face punishment themselves. That is why there were all of those 100,000s of executions. If there had been even a shred of evidence connecting the Opera stars to the rebellion it seems unlikely they would have survived the purge. Even if they had any important enemies they probably would have ended up in a mass gave in Guangzhou. Remember, many, probably most, of the people who were being executed by the end of this period were simply local undesirables. The actual rebels had died, fled or melted back into the mountains at the end of the uprising.
During the late 19th century rebel figures tended not to be as popular as they later became, and people avoided associating themselves with these causes. Too many individuals remembered what had happened and they blamed the rebels for nearly destroying the country. Martial artists have a hard time accepting this fact, but the government was actually fairly popular in the late 19th century, especially when it was seen as standing up to (or being victimized by) foreigners. The Boxer Uprising, for instance, was an uprising in support of Beijing, not opposing it. Actually that is a good example of what I am talking about. In the immediate aftermath of that disaster people tended to blame the Boxers (and even martial artists in general) for what had happened, not the government.
There have always been stories about righteous rebels in Chinese literature (see “Water Margin”) but this stuff really came to the fore in the wake of the 1911 revolution, and then again in the 1920s-1930s. This is when there were powerful social and political forces promoting the idea of “revolution,” romanticizing it, and filling popular culture with it. This is when people started to get all misty-eyed when discussing the “opera rebels” (as opposed to “those dirty thugs”).
So yeah, when I hear these stories about “Opera Rebels” and the origins of Wing Chun, they sound pretty anachronistic. They reek of the 1930s (and the 1950s). Most of the very small number of people who were actually doing Wing Chun in the 19th century (Leung Jan, Fung Sun Ching, Chan Wah Shun ect…) were pretty much establishment types, and not the sort you would expect to go in for treason or assassination. While I am certainly aware of Li Wenmao I don’t associate him all that closely with the creation of Wing Chun.
As a matter of fact, for as far back as we have solid data, Wing Chun is a martial art that has been associated with the wealthy and powerful. Its the kind of thing that was studied by the sons of business owners and landlord. If you looking for something with a little more possibility for rebellion and class conflict I would go with Choy Li Fut. The Shaolin inspired stories of righteous rebellion are a constant across the martial arts of Guangdong. Each and everyone of the Hung Mun stories simply has a slightly different varient of the same basic narrative. What is interesting about Wing Chun is the degree to which it breaks out of this mold. In an era when most martial arts were associated with poverty and “working class” individuals, Wing Chun was an establishment art. I think that this is the much more interesting mystery to solve.
I guess that ended up being a more extensive answer than I had planned on giving, but hopefully it better illustrates the position that I am coming from in these posts.
July 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm
With regards to the more specific question of whether we should think of Wing Chun as pre or post 1850. Again, this is really tough. There are so few verifiable sources that almost anything that you say will end up being an “argument from silence.” There are really very few sources available to contradict anything, so practically any date or theory becomes “plausible.” This is exactly how we ended up with so many theories of Wing Chun’s origins in the first place. A lot of the discussions of Wing Chun’s origins that you find seem to be an attempt to open a space for rational belief of a theory that some group already holds. The silent nature of the historical record makes that possible.
Of course another name for arguments like this is “apologetics.” That is what we would call them if we were discussing religion, and its something that I am explicitly trying to avoid. This can be hard. I am very interested in Cantonese opera and its historical association with the martial arts. I would love to be able to use Wong Wah Bo, Painted Face Kam and Leung Yee Tie in all sorts of conversations. Part of me would like them to be a solid part of Wing Chun’s history, rather than a mere suggestion. But most of the things I have thought about saying about them end up being just different types of apologetics. This is a different type of exercise than historal or social scientific discussions.
Apologetics is not bad in and of its self. It can be quite useful. There are college professors who do this sort of thing professionally. But apologetic arguments are different from historical ones, and its important to keep that distinction at the forefront of your mind when writing about a topic like this.
Obviously there is stuff in the Wing Chun system that predates the mid 19th century. The six and a half point pole would be a good place to start. As would the swords. We perform that form with butterfly swords now but my Sifu believes (and I think he has good reason to assert) that it has many movements that work much better with two sabers (inverted guards, complex bridging ect) and hudiedao. I am trying to get him to write a guest post on that, and I may yet succeed.
So yeah, there is clearly a lot of material here that is much older than the mid 19th century. These styles evolve through time, and assigning a start date (“ok, from this point forward it will be called…….”) is always a sort of arbitrary act. As I have argued in another post, the boundaries between styles are basically socially constructed. They are certainly never as firm and fast as our current “lineage framework” makes things out to be.
I have attempted to explain above why I focus on Leung Jan as a starting point for historically grounded discussions of Wing Chun. When you take his life in isolation from a lot of the other folklore, and you look at his age, career, his father, local events and all of that, a start date in the mid. 19th century seems most plausible (at least it does to me). When you start to add in other elements of Wing Chun folklore, especially stories about the Opera Rebels, yeah, that pushes things back a decade or two. But I don’t think we can actually use these stories as independent witnesses. Specifically, many of them seem to have been composed with the explicit aim of critiquing the “received wisdom.” That means they post-date said wisdom. From a historical standpoint they seem like dangerous sources to lean on. No professional historian would rely on them to try and make definitive statements about the period. And if you can explain something about the development of Wing Chun without them (at least in a certain area) that seems to be the safer thing to do.
I hope I have addressed all of your questions. Thanks for taking the time to read and engage with my posts.
October 29, 2016 at 8:22 pm
As a practitioner of wing chun (Snake Crane Wing Chun) and white crane (Zonghequan) I can say these two arts have exactly the same basic foundation . Body structure and power generation are identcal, chi sao platfoms like small huen sao and big huen sao platform as well, If I have to describe, in words ,basic prcinciples and strategies of both arts , they would be exactly the same .This leads me to believe (among other things) that at least Snake Crane Wig Chun and Zonghe quan have same origin , that they came from same mother art ,whatever that art may be .