Two Cranes.
Two Cranes.


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.

Hing Chao.  Source: Timeout Hong Kong.
Hing Chao. Source: Timeout Hong Kong.

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.

Two White Cranes by Ohara Koson ca. 1910.  Source: Wikimedia.
Two White Cranes by Ohara Koson ca. 1910. Source: Wikimedia.

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.

"Crane," a work of Chinese calligraphy.
“Crane,” a work of Chinese calligraphy.

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.