A Cantonese Opera performance in San Francisco, circa 1900.


On Legends and their Grains

Not all legends contain a grain a truth. Such an assertion is wishful thinking and sells short the remarkable faculty that is the human imagination. Still, grains manifest frequently enough that they keep historians and folklorists on their toes. When more than one appears in the same story they can become the source of creative confusion.

Consider the case of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This is one of those unique legends that weaves multiple truthful strands into an otherwise fantastic morality tale. The existence of these kernels has attracted a large number of researchers over the years. Sadly, one of them is that a large number of children really were lost from the town sometime in the late 13th century (some sources date the year of the catastrophe to 1284).

Second, a musical figure wearing colorful clothing does appear to have become something of a local hero at about the same time. Still, it seems improbable that he spirited away any children. The “Pied Piper” was revered in the 13th century, even being memorialized in a stained glass window in the local church.  Sadly, that structure was destroyed in a fire a few centuries later, but we still have some written descriptions of the original window.

Historians and genealogists have noted that there were multiple rounds of out migration from Hamelin as new areas opened to settlement in Poland, eastern Germany and Transylvania. (That last one, unsurprisingly, did not end well). These waves often featured an outflowing of children and landless youth who were either recruited from, or in some cases sold by, the town to brightly dressed recruiters and labor organizers.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his role as a professor of medieval literature, noted that creative individuals often drew on a wide variety of historical sources and combined, hybridized, reimagined, inverted or reframed them in an attempt to generate new stories that were engaging and meaningful.  When examining a legend historians or philologists can sometimes pick out identifiable fragments of what came before, but the important aspect of the process is the recombination, and what that suggests about the author’s creative world.

The story of the Pied Piper is simple enough that one can see the process that Tolkien described. Likewise, we can find these same mechanisms at work in the creation myths and subsequent legends that define the shared culture of the Chinese martial arts. The relatively recent vintage of many of these styles makes the process more transparent than if we were dealing with something from the classical past.

Consider tales of the Red Boat Opera’s political assassins, diligently seeking the overthrow of the hated Qing. A popular class of legends throughout Southern martial culture, and especially within the Wing Chun community, they focus on the marginal and mobile nature of the Cantonese theater companies that plied the waterways of Guangdong during the festival seasons, moving from one small village to the next and staying only a few nights in any location. Such craft were ubiquitous on the branches of the Pearl River, passingly mostly unnoticed by respectable society.

Actors really were trained in various types of martial arts which made up an important part of their performance skill sets. Even though they predated the historical Red Boats, which didn’t appear until the 1870s and would reach their zenith in the 20th century, there were also vague memories of the flamboyant role that opera performers had played during the Red Turban Uprising (which was essentially a tax revolt) during the 1850s. Vernacular opera was even banned in the area for a decade following the uprising as the government cracked down on all sorts of subversive forces.

Perhaps it was only natural that as Wing Chun gained popularity in the 1920s these earlier memories would be combined with the sudden growth of Chinese nationalism and anti-Manchu sentiment that accompanied the 1911 birth of the Republic. While many martial arts styles strenuously denied any link to theater, Wing Chun is unique in the degree to which it openly celebrated this, placing Leung Jan at the nexus of a shadowy past in which the style was spread by legendary actors, and the current era when historically verifiable (and often relatively affluent) students begin to appear. Given the popular enthusiasm for revolutionary heroes in the 1920s-1930s, it is not surprising that we begin to see all sorts of stories of anti-government actors murdering hated officials with their incredible martial skills before vanishing into the Pearl River’s crowded water ways.

The obvious issue with these stories, much like the Pied Piper, is their fantastic nature. As I have noted in several previous posts, the Chinese authorities were nothing if not bureaucratic and kept very detailed personnel records on the transfers, promotions, demotions or unexpected deaths of their officials. Any deaths, mysterious or mundane, generated a detailed investigation that would get passed all of the way up the chain of command to the throne itself. Needless to say, there is no historical evidence of politically motivated kung fu killers plying the waters of the Pearl River. The amount of real-life paperwork that such a campaign would have generated is mind boggling.

This should not be taken to mean that everything was peaceful, or that being a government official was necessarily a safe occupation. During the early 19th century pirate fleets of hundreds or even thousands of vessels burned small cities with an alarming degree of regularity. Later local clans fought small scale civil wars among themselves that sometimes-required government intervention. Secret societies, many of which had rituals promising to “Restore the Ming” were increasingly being implicated in all sorts of organized crime, and by the end of the century good old-fashioned banditry seemed determined to take up the slack left by the disappearance of the pirates. Nor can we forget the importance of salt and opium smuggling to the local economy. All of which is to say, there was no dearth of opportunities for young men seeking to “test their Kung Fu” in southern China during the tumultuous 19th century. But this type of violence tended to be apolitical and fairly well understood.

That would change in the early years of the 20th century.  This was the period when foreign diplomats began to send intelligence cables reporting rising levels of national consciousness within the Han population and violent revolutionary feelings among a minority of them. In 1905 Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren founded a genuinely political secret society named the Tongmenhui which attempted to recruit young intellectuals and revolutionaries at the same time that it combined the efforts of smaller anti-government groups.  The early 20th century would see a number of high-profile political assassinations of government officials. Sadly, politically motivated killings would remain a common feature of Chinese public life throughout the 1940s. Yet these acts were carried out with explosives, rifles and handguns rather than kung fu.


Wen Shengcai, 1870-1911, prior to his execution. Source: Wikimedia


Wen Shengcai, 1870-1911

Still, there seems to have been a natural confluence among certain individuals whose political beliefs attracted them to both martial arts practice and revolutionary terrorism. We have already discussed the important case of Qiu Jin. What is often forgotten is that the first Wing Chun practitioner to gain national notoriety within China was another such individual.

We do not have many details of Wen Shengcai’s life, but he is Wing Chun’s best-known revolutionary martyr.  Born to a poor family in the Meixian District of far eastern Guangdong in 1870, he lost his father at age six. When he was 14 (1884) Wen was abducted and subsequently trafficked as unskilled labor to a tin mine in Ipoh Malaysia where he was subjected to much abuse. Eventually he managed to escape and make his way back to China.

Wen stopped in Qinzhou (which was then part of Guangdong) upon his return. While there he studied a branch of Wing Chun. At some point in time he briefly joined the army but did not have much of a career.  In 1901 Wen Shengcai traveled to Taiwan where he stayed for about two years. After that he returned to Southern China, and then journeyed back to Malaysia to once again find work as a miner.  In 1906 Sun Yat-sen visited the area in an attempt to raise money for his cause and recruit followers. Wen was moved by one of his speeches and soon joined a branch of the Tongmenhui which was less interested in political philosophy than taking “direct action.” He is said to have been a very active member and organizer while in Malaysia.

In March of 1910 Wen returned to Southern China determined to carry out a high profile political killing. His initial plans were thwarted when he was unable to procure the types of explosives necessary to carry out a bombing, but he did succeed in acquiring a handgun.  His intended target was Li Zhun, a high-ranking officer in the Chinese Navy.

On April 11 Wen Shengcai went to a teahouse near the Yantang Airport. A number of government officials had gathered there to watch an aerial exhibition sponsored by the French. At the end of the event he rushed out of the teahouse firing at what he believed to be Li’s screened sedan chair.  In fact the vehicle was occupied by General Fu Qi who died after being shot in the forehead, temple, neck and torso. Fu Qi’s son, in the following sedan chair fled and raised the alarm as Wen Shengcai tried to escape the scene. But unbeknownst to him, Wen was followed by a plainclothes detective as he fled through a wooded area. After emerging on the other side, he was tackled to the ground and more police officers were called.

On April 15th Wen Shengcai was executed at the age of 41. He immediately came to be seen as a nationalist martyr and his exploits were reported in papers throughout the diaspora. Wen’s life even seems to have become the subject of opera performances throughout southern China. As near I can tell, very little of this political discussion mentioned anything about his study of the martial arts. We can verify nothing about his experience with Wing Chun through standard historical sources.

In the decade after his death this aspect of Wen Shengcai’s story was amplified by certain voices within the Jingwu Association.  What is not often appreciated is that while Jingwu originated in Shaghai, most of its founding members were actually expatriate businessmen from Guangdong. While they did not promote or teach the southern arts, they certainly took a keen interest in events in the area. This can be seen in their 10th anniversary commemorative volume published 1919.  In a section of miscellaneous thoughts (many of which focused on political or social criticism) Chen Tiesheng, Jingwu’s main propogandist and journalist recorded the following note:

“Wen Shengcai, the martyr who assassinated Fu Qi, was from Mei County, Guangdong. He was skilled in the Wing Chun boxing art. His son Weiqin is now a martial arts instructor in Wuyangcheng [another name for Guangzhou, Translation by Paul Brennan].”

This brief remembrance is significant as it is the very first published mention Wing Chun that I have been able to find.  Further, this was directed at a national readership, effectively recasting Wen Shengcai’s narrative in such a way that his association with the Chinese martial arts became his defining attribute. In so doing Chen Tiesheng sought to polish the revolutionary credentials of these practices at a time when they were increasingly coming under attack by the “May 4th” modernists.

Nothing lasts forever, not even revolutionary fame. Wen Shengcai has subsequently been all but forgotten in the modern Wing Chun community. I don’t think I have ever seen his story discussed in English language sources. To be honest, there isn’t much written about him in Chinese either. He is the sort of figure that gets short encyclopedia entries recounting his deeds, but not his life. Most of these focus only on the killing of General Fu Qi, totally skipping the trauma of his youth or experience with the martial arts.

Still, there was a time in the early 20th century when this part of his narrative was more widely known and celebrated. One cannot help but notice that this is roughly the same era when most of Wing Chun’s modern myths and legends were starting to come together. I wonder how much of Wen Shengcai’s memory, combined with older legends of the Red Turban uprising and the generally activist atmosphere of the time, has shaped our imagination of Wing Chun’s revolutionary past. One way or another, it is important to realize that Wen, not Bruce Lee or Ip Man, was the first Wing Chun student to become a nationally recognized figure in China.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part I.