This post is the third entry in our series examining the lives of female Chinese martial artists. While it is the case that the vast majority of hand combat practitioners in the 19th and 20th centuries were male, a certain number of women also adopted the art. We started by looking at the life and historical reputation of Woman Ding Number Seven and her contributions to the creation of White Crane Kung Fu in Fujian province. Not only did she make some critical technical contributions to the development of the local arts, but her memory served as an important touchstone for discussions of gender and hand combat throughout southern China.
Next we examined the life and contributions of Chen Shichao and her brother Chen Gongzhe. This dynamic pair was an important force behind the success that the Jingwu Athletic Association enjoyed in the early 20th century. Chen Gongzhe was instrumental in financing the group, while his sister worked tirelessly to promote female involvement in the martial arts on equal footing with men. This goal challenged strongly held norms and resulted in notable (often quite personal) push-back from more conservative elements in society. Yet ultimately the Jingwu Association succeeded in spreading the belief that women should have access to martial training and that this was an area where they could excel. It is unlikely that this social transformation would have been quite so successful without the pen and teaching efforts of Chen Shichao.
In the current post I would like to return our focus to southern China. Mok Kwai Lan is most often remembered as the fourth wife (or more accurately concubine) of Wong Fei Hung, the renown martial artists who is regarded by many as the father of modern Hung Gar. Yet Mok was also a martial artist and practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine before her marriage. Further, she maintained an independent and fruitful teaching career for more than five decades after Wong’s sad death in 1924.
Both Mok Kwai Lan’s life and career deserve more careful consideration than they usually receive. She is a figure whose influence spans generations. She was born in the final decade of the 19th century and her martial training likely started at the same time as the Boxer Uprising. She saw the rapid development and transformation of the martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s, before having her own career disrupted by the invasions of the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the postwar era she witnessed a fundamental transformation in the popular perception of the traditional arts, driven in no small part by her departed husband’s rise to fame as a local folk hero. Lastly she was still active and teaching when the “Bruce Lee Explosion” reignited global interest in the martial arts in the middle of the 1970s. It is hard to think of too many other figures whose careers spanned so many important eras.
Early Life and Training
Mok Kwai Lan was born in Kao-Yao Village (slightly to the west of Foshan and Guangzhou along the banks of the Pear River) in Guangdong. From the start her family life was somewhat unconventional. At a very young age she was given to her paternal uncle who was childless. He formally adopted the young girl and raised her as his own child even though her biological parents were still very much alive.
Mok’s uncle must have had a fairly liberal view on questions of gender and female education. The late 19th century saw a number of developments on this front, from anti-foot binding leagues in larger towns and cities, to the development of neo-Confucian schools of thought promoting formal education for bright young women of good families. These attitudes were by no means universally accepted. There was even push-back against them in some quarters. Still, these currents were in the air in the late 19th century.
It seems likely that Mok’s new guardians (and her uncle in particular) must have shared many of these ideas. Her Uncle (whose name I am still having trouble verifying) was a both a practitioner of Mok Gar Kung Fu and traditional Chinese medicine (where he specialized as a bonesetter). Soon after arriving in the family Mok Kwai Lan began her apprenticeship in both areas.
This path was not undertaken without some resistance. Mok reports that her Aunt forbade her to study the martial arts as she believed it would strip her of her feminine qualities (and probably make her unmarriageable). At that point her uncle decided to continue to train her “in secret,” though one wonders how private any such activity could actually have been in a household with only three individuals, one of whom was a child.
Mok Gar is rarely encountered today, but it contributed substantially to the development of the other regional styles. Unlike most southern martial arts it is highly regarded for its kicking skills. While still kept below the waist (which is true of the kick in most southern styles), the techniques of this system are said to generate devastating power. Mok’s uncle also introduced her to what was possibly a unique family set referred to as “snapping the iris.”
It is interesting to note that her training in both kung fu and bonesetting probably began sometime between 1900 and 1902. This was the era of the Boxer Uprising, and a time of major social dislocation around the country. The local governor shut down boxing schools and associations all over Guangdong in an attempt to prevent copy-cat attacks on foreign merchants. One has to wonder if the uncle decided to train his daughter as a diversion when other sorts of practice became impossible. On the other hand he may have decided to start her training only after one the general situation settled down.
In either case it is interesting to note that she began her training in Mok Gar at almost exactly the same time that Ip Man (also a young child) was being introduced to Wing Chun by Chan Wah Shun (also a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine) in the Ip clan’s Foshan temple. Similar historical events impacted the lives and future careers of both of these martial artists making their subsequent development an interesting comparative study.
Apparently Mok Kwai Lan was a good student. By her 16th birthday (1908) her training in bonesetting was complete and she had grown into an accomplished boxer (despite her aunt’s objections). At this point she had the basic skills that were necessary to start a career as a practicing martial artist. Nevertheless, slightly unconventional family arrangements would once again bend her career path.
Madame Mok Kwai Lan, Concubine of Wong Fei Hung
Mok’s adopted father was friends with a popular martial artist and doctor named Wong Fei Hung. Wong was remembered locally for a number of things, including his long and somewhat colorful career with the military in both Guangdong and Fujian. After leaving his army posts he settled down in the Foshan and Guangzhou area where he ran a local pharmacy and martial arts school. He was a frequent visitor in the Mok house where he would come to chat and enjoy tea with Uncle.
Wong Fei Hung is actually a somewhat difficult figure to write about. So often our problem in Chinese material studies is that we just do not have much to say about an individual. Unfortunately not a lot has been remembered or preserved about most martial artists.
In Wong’s case we face the opposite problem. From the 1930s onward his memory was actively (and quite consciously) transmuted into that of a larger than life folk hero. Stories were told about his exploits in dozens of newspapers, novels, radio programs and no fewer than 77 feature length films all produced before 1970. Hundreds of accounts surround his life, and it can be very difficult to determine which (if any) have some degree of veracity.
A full treatment of Wong Fei Hung’s life and career will have to wait for another post. Instead we will focus on those events that had the greatest impact on his relationship with Mok Kwai Lan and her subsequent life. Yet even here there are a number of colorful stories that require careful consideration.
Popular folklore relates that Wong Fei Hung first met Mok while his school was performing a lion dance on a local festival day. Wong was engaged in a particularly vigorous demonstration of a Tiger Fork routine when he lost a shoe in a kick. The shoe flew into the audience hitting a young woman (Mok) who had come to watch the display. The attractive young woman was furious at being struck and would not accept an apology, instead demanding that someone who claimed to be a “master” should pay more attention to the details of their performance.
Wong was immediately struck by the fiery spirit of the young woman as well as her beauty. After she left he resolved to meet her, and eventually the two were married.
In 1976 Mok Kwai Lan gave an interview to Leung Ting which became the basis of an article in Real Kung Fu magazine (“The ‘Tigress’ – Madame Mok Kwei Lan – Widow of the Late Wong Fei Hung.” By Andre Lam Volume 1 Number 7. pp. 49-55.) In her own account she did not mention anything about this story. Instead she relates that Wong Fe Hung was friends with her uncle and a frequent visitor in the house. Apparently he first noticed her in that context.
In 1909 he approached his friend to ask about marrying his adoptive daughter. This was a difficult decision. On the one hand Wong was a well-known, and well off, martial arts teacher and traditional doctor. But he was also in his late 60s and a serial widower. He had been previously married three times to women who died prematurely. In fact, popular folklore relates that Wong had decided that he was cursed with regards to marriage and had given up on the institution prior to meeting Mok.
Mok Kwai Lan’s Aunt was dead set against the match. She felt that Wong was much too old for the young girl (who was only 17-18 at the time). She further argued that arranging such a marriage would betray the trust of Mok’s biological farther, who was also her husband’s brother. Still, Mok’s uncle claimed that it was a good match as the couple (while mismatched in age) were well suited to each other. Two years later (in 1911) they were married.
Or more precisely, Wong Fei Hung accepted Mok as a concubine. This is usually explained in martial arts circles in terms of the previously mentioned “marriage curse.” By not naming Mok as an official wife it was hoped that she might avoid the fate that befell her three other predecessors.
Still, it seems likely that there is more to the story. Young martial arts students in the 1950s adopted a particularly puritanical view of Wude (or “martial virtue”) that one suspects would have been quite at odds with the actual lives of most of their heroes in the late Qing and early Republic period. Extreme self-control in the realm of personal relations became a hallmark of a “true master.” At the same time the trend towards “modernization” made the idea of a “second marriages” less palatable among Hong Kong’s society. Of course this is also the era in which Wong Fei Hung was being reimagined as a popular folk hero.
It is more likely that Mok was accepted as a concubine as that was her intended role. In the 1976 interview mentioned above she states that in the years directly after their union, Wong Fei Hung married two other women. Neither of them ended up staying in the relationship for more than a year. Mok gives no hints as to why they left. But in the end she was the one who ended up staying with Wong until his death and then caring for his surviving children.
While she may have entered what was a complex marriage situation as a concubine, she ended up playing the role of the “wife” and “mother.” This social transmutation is all the more remarkable as Mok never actually bore any children of her own. Of course for women producing sons has been the most common pathway to acceptance within the traditional Chinese family and clan structure.
It seems likely that the more flexible nature of Wong Fei Hung’s “martial clan” helped to facilitate this acceptance. Still, it is undeniable that in a certain sense Mok’s success in the Hung Gar community after the 1930s transcended the limitations of her actual family and marriage life. Her path cannot have been an easy one.
The years between 1911 and 1919 were a busy time in Mok Kwai Lan’s life. One suspects that they were also an era of immense personal and professional growth. Because of her own background and training she was able to join Wong as a professional partner. He trained her in his own martial style, and she assisted him in his medical practice. Interestingly the style of medicine that she practiced remained that which she learned from her uncle, even though she was beginning to innovate on the martial front.
Of course Mok also had to attend to all of the duties that were expected of a Sifu’s wife. She saw to the physical upkeep of both the home and the school, and she cooked meals. This was probably the most dynamic period of teaching for Wong and his wife reported in 1976 that at some points she was cooking meals for up to 20 employees and members of the household.
Interestingly Wong Fei Hung also appears to have been a generation ahead of his time with regards to gender and education. Like Mok’s uncle he saw no reason why women should not have access to martial arts training. He also objected to the traditional pattern of favoring boys over girls in family relations. While rarely remembered for his contributions to feminism, Wong was actually quite innovative. He was one of the first local instructors to offer classes for women, and he accepted female disciples (such as Dang Sai-King). Notice that all of this happening prior to the 1919-1920 opening of the Jingwu association branches in Guangzhou and Foshan. Wong’s success in this area shows that there was a demand for female instruction in Guangdong even before Jingwu started to make its own arguments to the local public.
Mok Kwai Lan was instrumental in making all of this possible. She was responsible for teaching the women’s classes (which were gender segregated). She also led Wong’s all female Lion Dance team. This is said to have been the first female Lion Dance team in the Pearl River Delta, and it predated the rise in popularity of female opera companies by at least a decade.
Mok Kwai Lan was a true pioneer in these areas. She enjoyed professional experiences that few other female martial artists of her generation could claim. Yet this did not relieve her of her responsibilities to hearth and home. Recounting the crush of these early years she stated: “I was the shop-keeper, the osteopathist and physician, the Kung Fu instructor and the cook. I had to cook food for some twenty employees of the Gymnasium. Sometimes I had to work all the night through. In short I performed all kinds of duties.” (Lam 50). While Wong Fei Hung loved to spend time at the local teahouses with his male students, Mok was too busy maintaining the business and home to join him.
Nevertheless, Madame Mok found other ways of establishing her own martial reputation about town. Over the course of her long career she has also accumulated a number of interesting stories, one of which I find particularly revealing.
Early in the Republic period Foshan and Guangzhou had a problem with “Red Turban” revolutionary soldiers. Their name referred to a red cloth that was worn on the head. Of course this symbol has a rich history in the annals of Chinese revolutions. It was probably particularly popular locally because of the “Red Turban Revolt” (the memory of which was being reimagined and rehabilitated in the light of the 1911 revolution) in the 1850s. Needless to say, the remains of the Red Turban army in the post-1911 period were poorly led and disciplined. One suspects that many of these individuals were basically criminals.
“On one occasion (the day of a festival), Wong was ready to give his usual public performance. At the time there were in Canton [Guangzhou] the so-called “Red Headed Soldiers” (soldiers with red turbans) who were “famous” for their ill discipline. They often robbed people of their belongings.
In Wong’s team there was a young woman who had just recovered from an abortion a month ago and who was taking care of the weapons used in the performances. This young lady had a lot of jewels with her. One of the soldiers had seen the jewels. He came up to her secretly and assaulted her in an attempt to seize her jewels. The young lady was knock down and suffered injuries. She called out for help.
When Madame Mok heard the scream, she came to her rescue. She saw that the soldier was trying to kick the young woman. “How dare you!” she shouted at the soldier who at first was taken aback. When he saw that the “wet blanket” was a woman, he was scared no more. He took up a staff and struck at Madame Mok. However, the “Tigress” seized it with her hand in a movement as quick as lightening and hit back with it at the head of the soldier. The “robber” bled terribly and fled for his life.
However, the “Tigress” would not let him go so easily. She overtook him and gave him a kick which caused him to fall to the ground. The other soldiers were also frightened away. The next day, the incident of the “Tigress” punishing the “robber” became the headline for all the newspapers in Canton.” (Lam 54).
There are many other stories about Mok’s career as a young woman that one could tell. She even received an appointment from the local military (probably sometime in the 1920s) to lead classes for female artists. Still, I think that this story is a classic tale as it emphasizes her interacting with and leadership of other female students in Wong Fei Hung’s organization. It also illustrates her famous resolve and fiery personality as well as the more mundane dangers that martial artists faced in the early Republic period.
Wong Fei Hung’s career started to come to a close in 1919 when his favorite (and best trained) son, Wong Hon-Sam, was killed under dubious circumstances. The younger Wong was an accomplished martial artist who fully inherited his father’s skills. He found employment as a security guard with the West River Medicine Sailing Company. Tragically he was shot by a co-worker who claimed that the drunken and out of control Wong had become a threat to the vessel. Stories have circulated for years that the shooting was in fact a conspiracy or a set-up, but all that we can say from this historical remove is that it probably involved large amounts of alcohol and a number of guns.
Upon receiving news of the death of his son Wong Fei Hung began to withdraw from the world. He stopped teaching martial arts and became ever more reclusive. He is said to have refused to train his remaining sons for fear that they too would fall victim of the needless deaths that claimed so many along the “Rivers and Lakes” of Chinese society. Mok Kwai Lan continued with her martial practices, and I have even read some accounts stating that she started to teach the two remaining sons (I cannot vouch for their accuracy). Yet this was the start of sad era for the once vibrant Wong clan.
Wong Fei Hung made his last public appearance later in 1919 at the opening gala of the newly established Guangzhou chapter of the Jingwu Athletic Association. Few people thought he would attend. When he took to the stage in front of the packed audience he performed a demonstration with the meteor hammer (flying plummet) that is still being discussed to this day. After that he basically vanished from the public view.
The situation in the Wong household took a decisive turn for the worse in 1924. In that year large parts of the city were burned to the ground during the Guangzhou Merchant Corp Rebellion and its violent suppression by a young military officer named Chang Kai shek. This is not the place for a detailed examination of these events, even though they are very important to students attempting to understand the evolution of Southern China’s social and political structures (as well as elite involvement in the local economy of violence.) I will try and address this incident at greater length in a different post.
For our current purposes it is sufficient to say that Wong was devastated by both the material and emotional losses that accompanied the destruction of his clinic and former school. He was 77 years old at the time of the fire and all of his material resources were tied up in his property. Suffering from a mixture of exhaustion and depression he was admitted to Chengxi Fangbian Hospital where he died on May 24th.
Mok Kwai Lan was left destitute at the time of her husband’s death. Wong’s funeral arrangements were organized and paid for by Dang Sai-King (one of his better known female disciples). In the early 1930s she and Lam Sai-wing once again extended their support to Mok, helping her and her two step-sons (Wong Hon-syu and Wong Hon-hei) move to Hong Kong and establish a new school dedicated to continuing Wong Fei Hong’s legacy.
The Hong Kong Years
Mok Kwai Lan was fortunate in that she already had extensive teaching experience when she established her new school in Hong Kong. She even had expertise in running the financial side of the business. Still, Hong Kong was a different place than Guangzhou and Foshan, and one can only assume that adjustments needed to be made. For instances, Mok Kwai Lan was now the head of the school and would need to lead male students.
The early 1930s was probably a good time for a Hung Gar instructor to move to the city. The efforts of instructors like Lam Sai-wing (a former disciple of Wong) had helped to establish the art’s reputation in the region. Further, one of Lam’s students, a writer named Chu Yu-chai, was just beginning to produce a series of novels dramatizing a fictionalized version of the life and exploits of Wong Fei Hung. These were published serially in local Cantonese newspapers.
These stories (considered somewhat crude by the standards of later Wuxia fiction) would have an immense impact on public perception of Wong Fei Hung. Prior to their release very few people in Hong Kong had ever heard of Wong or his school in Guangdong. But the novels were a hit, and he was rapidly adopted as a Hong Kong folk hero.
Nor was print the only media that Wong was destined to succeed in. Chu’s stories could be easily adapted to radio dramas, and that is exactly what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. This new development further inflated Wong’s memory, and it must have helped to attract students to his widow’s school.
Of course all martial arts teaching activities in Hong Kong came to an abrupt end with the Japanese occupation in 1938. We don’t actually have a huge amount of information about Mok’s early career in the city. But we do know that in 1944 she opened a new school called the “Wong Fei Hung National Arts Association” which was located on Gloucester Road in the Wanchai district.
This school remained open from 1944-1969. Two and a half decades is a decent run for any kung fu school, and it seems that Wong’s evolving stature in the public imagination contributed to the continued success of Hung Gar in Hong Kong.
In 1949 “The Story of Wong Fei Hung (Part 1): Wong Fei Hung’s Whip that Smacks the Candle” was released in Hong Kong. This was the first feature length film to feature Wong as a protagonist. It is also one of the most important martial arts films ever made as it helped to set the direction and define the potential of the Hong Kong Kung Fu film industry for literally decades to come.
While a fictional tale, the Hung Gar clan was involved in the production of this film at multiple points. The script was based on a popular radio dramatization of one of Chu’s original Wong Fei Hung stories. Interestingly the production studio brought Chu, Wong Hon-hei and Mok Kwai Lan into the project as “consultants.”
It seems that Mok was enthusiastic about the new development. Nor does she seem to have been concerned about fictional nature of these retellings. In fact, she even got herself cast in a fighting part in one of the sequels (“The Real Story of Wong Fe Hung Part 3: The Battle by Lau Fa Bridge”) which came out in 1950.
In totally 77 feature length films taking Wong Fei Hung as their protagonist would be produced between 1949 and 1970. Each film in this series stared Kwan Tak-hing as Wong Fei Hung and Sek Kin as his fictional nemesis. While the quality of many of these later films declined noticeably, they were still very popular with audiences. It might actually be impossible to overstate how important this series of films was in the process of elevating Wong from his station as a relatively unknown local martial artist to the ranks of a full blown “folk hero.”
Starting in about 1970 Mok Kwai Lan enjoyed another burst of popularity as a new wave of Wong Fei Hung nostalgia was felt in Hong Kong. She gave a number of interviews and demonstrations in this period, starting with a performance of her family’s Mok Gar forms on a Hong Kong Television show in 1970. Later in the decade she would again be seen on TV performing Hung Gar sets as part of a televised Wong Fei Hung story.
Nor does Mok shy away from publicity in the interviews that she gave in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the Real Kung Fu interview cited above she promotes the romanticized myth of the “death touch” (including a delayed killing effect that might strike up to a year later) and “lightness qigong.” On the one hand her portrayal of her former husband is remarkably down to earth. He seems to spend a lot of time napping in her stories, and then going out for tea with his friends. Yet she also appears to fully subscribe to the “myth” of Wong Fei Hung. It is an interesting tension.
At some point in the early 1970s Mok Kwai Lan established a new school. This one (also located in Hong Kong) was called the “Wong Fei Hung Physical Fitness Institute.” While advancing in age she headed the organization until its close in 1980. Mok taught a large number of students over the years. Probably her best known student is Master Lee Chan Wor who was actually her grandson-in-law. Lee is considered to have inherited her martial tradition and has maintained the lineage. Returning to a theme from earlier in the essay, he is also an interesting testament to the continuing influence that Mok had as a mother and then grandmother to her step-children.
On November 3rd, 1982 Mok Kwai Lan died in Hong Kong. She was 90 years old at time. Over the course of her long career she bore witness to the fundamental transformation of the modern Chinese martial arts.
Her life serves as an important reminder of the historical contributions of female practitioners of the traditional fighting styles. Most hand combat students in the late Qing and Republic period were men. Still, our brief examination of Mok’s life shows that there were important developments in popular culture throughout the second half of the Qing dynasty that helped to open additional spaces for female martial artists. Her accomplishments after 1900 would not have been possible except for the beliefs that her adopted father and future husband formed earlier in the 19th century.
It would be interesting to know more about the specific mental and cultural models that convinced these men that training female martial arts students was not only possible but desirable. Still, the important thing to realize is that those models were out there. Their roots seem to lay in simultaneous developments that were unrolling in both elite circles (neo-Confucian educational theory) and popular culture (changing themes in wuxia novels). No doubt the strong impulse towards social and national reform which gripped the Chinese people in the late 19th and early 20th century was also an important part of this story.
Mok Kwai Lan’s life is also an important testament to the role of the media (first print, then radio and finally film and television) in creating our modern understanding of the martial arts. The basic pattern that we see with the “creation” of Wong Fei Hung as a culture hero is very similar to that which would later play out with Bruce Lee and even Ip Man. This opens the possibility of a future comparative case studies that might reveal both interesting differences and continuities over time. While writing this biographical sketch I have become particularly interested in how surviving family members influence the translation of these “memories” from one generation to the next.
Wong Fei Hung was clearly an interesting person who enjoyed an influential career. The impact of his technical innovations, as well as the “social memory” that he has inspired, are still being felt in the southern Chinese martial arts today. It is a shame that there has not been a book length treatment of his life and career published in the English language. Still, a detailed study of Mok Kwai Lan might shed even more light on a greater number of important questions and I suspect that it would be every bit as interesting to read.