By Benny Meng and Steve Rudnicki
Modern day misconceptions about Wing Chun Kung Fu have led to numerous controversies and debates about its origins, its looks, its training methods, its applications, and even its combat employment. It is the intention of the Ving Tsun Museum to present some of these misconceptions to the reader, followed by the latest research the Museum has conducted. This research is by no means complete at this time, nor have any final conclusions been drawn. The Museum simply presents its most recent discoveries and leaves the practitioner free to draw his or her own conclusions.
1. The Burning of the Shaolin Temple
Legend: The Qing Dynasty overthrew the Ming Dynasty. The Qing were a minority group (the Manchu) which succeeded in ruling over the majority group, the Han (the Chinese), but not with out a struggle. The remnants of the Ming Dynasty, together with the Shaolin monks, continued to fight against the Qing. The Shaolin connection to and support of the Ming Rebels was eventually discovered, which resulted in the burning of the Northern Hunan Temple. It is from this destruction that the Five Elders escaped. This is the popular legend.
Latest Research: It is true that the Shaolin Monks were involved with the anti-Qing movements when the Ming Dynasty was overthrown. The Northern Temple was not burned during the Qing Dynasty, in fact it was expanded during this time. It was, however, surrounded by Qing forces – both military and political – to ensure that it could not openly participate in rebellion. It was the Southern Temple in Fujian that was burned to the ground because of its open support of the Ming revolutionaries.
2. The Five Elders
Legend: There are many Southern Shaolin Systems that trace their roots, via oral tradition, back to the Five Elders, one of the systems is Wing Chun, although it is not so named at this point. In the oral traditions, Ng Mui, a nun and one of the Five Elders, is credited with teaching Wing Chun to the girl.
Latest Research: Oral traditions often date the Five Elders back to the 1800’s, implying that Wing Chun is only about 200 years old, when in fact it is older, having existed in the 1600’s. However, there is no recorded proof of who the Five were or if they were even people. According to the records of the Hung Mun (Secret Societies), reference is made to the Five Elders, which is how the legends may have entered into Wing Chun. It is possible that the Five Elders may be a reference to the evolution of different branches of the Secret Societies that arose during the conflict between the Ming and the Qing Dynasties or it may be a historical metaphor for variations of other Shaolin Martial Art Systems. Secret Society references may also point to the five political elders (with little to no Kung Fu experience) referenced in the book Mastering Kung Fu Featuring Shaolin Wing Chun by Gee, Meng, and Loewenhagen, Human Kinetics Publishing, 2004.
“Yat Chum” is another oral tradition. According to legend, the historically extant Cheung Ng learned his martial arts skills from a Shaolin Abbot named Yat Chum Dai Si.
3. Yim Wing Chun, her father, and her husband
Legend: The popular legend contends that one of the Five Elders, Ng Mui, taught a girl, named Yim Wing Chun, kung fu so that she could defend herself against an unwanted marriage. Some others state that the girl’s father was a disciple of Shaolin and wanted her to learn from the Shaolin Masters as well. After learning and mastering the kung fu, she then modified it after she watched a crane and a snake fight and then taught it to her husband. Her husband then named the Kung Fu System after her, and brought it to the Red Boats.
Latest Research: Like the Five Elders, there are no written historical records of Yim Wing Chun, her husband or her father. The problem with this version is that if there are no Five Elders, then the nun, Ng Mui, did not exist. If the Five Elders were the Revolutionary Leaders of the time, then being so, they were also marked, on the most wanted list. If she came forward either as a woman disguised as a man or as a revolutionary merely to teach Kung Fu to a young girl, she would have jeopardized her life, as well as her fellow elders, along with the life of the girl. Likewise, since the Qing military’s practice of executing ‘Nine Ancestors in Crime’ meant the death of all of her relatives out nine generations if she was discovered, it would have been most illogical for such a person to come forward to teach the girl kung fu simply because she was being forced into a marriage.
Anyone who studies Wing Chun knows that it is an advanced and sophisticated martial art. It is highly unlikely that one person developed such a complex system alone. Another point is that Wing Chun is based on efficiency. For the efficiency to work, the system has to be based on the movements and structures of human beings, not on those of animals.
If the mythical Yim Wing Chun invented Wing Chun, and then later on passed it to her husband, who later took it to the Red Boats, this places the time frame again in the 1800’s, creating a problem with the time frame in question. The Red Boats were in existence in the 1800’s and the Southern Shaolin Temple was destroyed in the 1600’s.This is a rather long time to be alive, especially back then. There seems to be nearly 200 years missing if the legends are true.
If we are to examine Wing Chun’s roots scientifically, then we must understand the etymology and logic of the phrase “Yim Wing Chun”. Weng Chun, as it was originally called, had a different meaning. The word ‘Weng’ means everlasting. Within the Shaolin Temple, the Weng Chun Tong is where the art was developed and practiced. After the destruction of the Southern Temple, the word changed from ‘Weng’ to ‘Wing’. ‘Wing’ means praising. This meant to pass on the art orally so that its details could not fall into enemy hands; this method of teaching is also consistent with Chan oral teaching. Shaolin teaching required one on one, Master to Student teaching for a more complete experience. ‘Yim’ was also added for the sum of ‘Yim Wing Chun’. ‘Yim’ means to be secretive. Now, the intent was to pass on the art both secretly and orally. The original intent was to return the name to Weng Chun upon the successful rebirth of the Ming Dynasty. Since such a rebirth never happened, the name remains Wing Chun today.
The burning of the Temple happened, but it was the Southern Temple. The Five Elders could be a metaphor that represents the combined effort of the Shaolin Temple and the Secret Societies. The Five Elders could also be different martial arts and/or secret society branches that came from the struggle to restore the Ming Dynasty. Yim Wing Chun represents the advanced system that was developed within the Shaolin Temple and passed on secretly to current times. The Wing Chun system remained hidden until it went public during the Red Boat Era. It was very convenient to have some cover story to hide the system’s true identity, thus preventing spies from obtaining any useful information due to skillful subterfuge.
4. Weng Chun is not related to Wing Chun
Misconception: Chi Sim Weng Chun looks very different than modern day Wing Chun that contains the Siu Nim Tau, Chum Kiu and Biu Ji forms, ergo the two are not related.
Latest Research: Within the Southern Shaolin Temple, there was a place called the Weng Chun Dim, the Everlasting Spring Great-Room. The style that was taught in this hall, called (Chi Sim) Weng Chun Kuen (Everlasting Spring Fist), represented one of the highest levels of Shaolin Kung Fu. This system is a Chan expression of martial arts meaning that it is complete; it deals with Chan Buddhism, all ranges of combat and, it also has complete Chi Gung training. It’s a system of fighting that is based on the concepts of Time/Space, Energy, and Gravity (Heaven, Man &, Earth).
A related system that also came out of the Southern Shaolin Temple was directly connected to the revolutionary societies, or the Hung Mun. (Hung Fa Yi) Wing Chun Kuen (Praising Spring Fist). It was developed in the Wing Chun Tong, or Praising Spring Hall, and is also based on Chan and the concepts of Time, Space and, Energy. However, the focus of Wing Chun is on the Economy of Motion, which created different sets of body structures than those found in Weng Chun. However, both systems share the same roots in Chan Buddhism and come from the Southern Shaolin Temple. They are considered sister arts. It is most probable that Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun gave rise to modern day Wing Chun, while Chi Sim Weng Chun most likely gave rise to modern day Hung Ga.
In summary, both systems came from the Southern Shaolin Temple, but from different places within the Temple. Both share the same roots and Chan tradition; however Wing Chun focused on the Sap Ming Dim (Formula), radically changing its appearance as compared to Weng Chun.
5. Wing Chun has no Chan Roots or connections
Legend: Most modern day Wing Chun lineages trace their roots through the Red Boat Opera, an organization that existed around the time of 1820-1850. This was about 200 years after the art left the Southern Shaolin temple. Many of the lineages of Wing Chun stemming from the Red Boat were taught without the inclusions of Chan Buddhism. Fighting ability is not dependent on knowledge of Chan Buddhism.
Latest Research: To the monks, martial arts were methods to cultivate their hearts and nourish their nature. In Chinese, the heart is equivalent to what the West refers to as the mind. In the Shaolin context, the mind spoken of is the Universal Mind. Nourishing its nature refers to the Buddha nature. This is the path used to seek enlightenment. When Wing Chun left the Temple, most of the people learning it were not doing so for the purpose of cultivating the heart or nourishing their nature. For students or teachers that placed an emphasis on self-defense or health, the Chan aspects of the art were left out of some lineages over time. Some lineages today carry on Chan traditions, maintaining a strong link to the origins of the art in the Shaolin Temple. A phrase often quoted by practitioners is, “Ming Sum Gim Sing (Understanding the heart, see the true nature).”
Today, there are at least two lineages of Wing Chun that maintain the Chan tradition, Chi Sim and Hung Fa Yi.
6. Wing Chun originates within the Red Boat
Legend: The Red Boat period was a sort of melting pot for many southern martial arts; numerous systems of today’s Wing Chun began to develop differently due to its environment and personal experiences. The ancestors of today’s well-known Wing Chun lineages, such as Yim Man, Yuen Kay San, Gu Lao, etc., originate from the Red Boats. For example, Yip Man’s lineage is from Chu Wa Shun, who learned it from Dr. Leung Jan, and Leung Jan was one of the first non-opera people to learn Wing Chun. According to oral tradition, he learned it from two opera members, Wong Wa Bo and Leung Yi Dai. So in this sense, Yip Man’s lineage did come from the Red Boats.
Latest Research: The point of the above discussions is that the Red Boat Opera members did not create the Wing Chun. Wing Chun was created in the Southern Shaolin Temple where it filtered to the Red Boat Opera through the Secret Societies, more than a century after it left the Southern Shaolin Temple.
7. Yi Ji Kim Yeung Mah
Legend: In Chinese, there are many words that sound alike, but which have different characters. Today, there are many people who translate YJKYM as “Two Adducting Goat Stance”, which means you use your legs and knees to adduct towards the center, as though you are capturing a goat between your legs. Due to this translation, the focus went to the placing of the knees on the center, which in turn led to very narrow spacing of the knees and feet.
Latest Research: Another translation of YJKYM is “Two Adducting Energy Stance”, meaning that you focus on joining the upper and lower body via the Daan Tien energy. Due to the misinterpretation of the word Yeung, it created two different meanings and structures.
8. Wing Chun dummies and weapons are taught only at the end of the system
Misconception: In modern day Wing Chun, you have to be an advanced student in order to qualify to learn the dummy and the weapons.
Latest Research: Wing Chun was a highly advanced system within the Shaolin Temple. Those students who were exposed to it were not beginner students, they had already been through previous martial arts training. In the Shaolin Wing Chun, such as Chi Sim and Hung Fa Yi, the weapons are taught right after the student demonstrates basic foundations and proficiencies in Wing Chun. Both systems focus on their core principles and concepts, which can apply to both weapons training as well as empty handed training. In the past, martial artists who were learning the Wing Chun system needed to learn the weapons immediately in order to survive. Learning the weapons at the beginning or end of the system is only a method, it is not a specified, set order. It depends on the master, the student and, the environment.
9. Wing Chun is an art that only deals with Trapping Range in that it does not have long kicks, strikes, or any grappling.
Misconception: Modern day martial artists at times need to learn two or three martial arts to learn the full ranges of combat. This is referred to as mixed martial arts. Some look at Wing Chun as one of the styles that specializes only in trapping.
Latest Research: Chi Sim Weng Chun is a complete system where it deals with all ranges of combat through its concepts of Heaven, Man and Earth. This concept addresses both where an attack is height and width wise as well as how long an attack is. Earth can be used to describe the lower area of the body (below the Daan Tien) as well as a body to body, close contact situation. Human can be used to describe a mid range attack with trapping and short striking. It can also be used to describe the middle area of the body. Heaven can be used to describe the upper portion of the body, from the solar plexus up, as well as a long-range combat situation involving kicking and long striking.
In Hung Fa Yi, the paradigm shifted due to its focus on the economy of motion. The efficiency of Hung Fa Yi is based on human structures utilized in human to human combat. It can effectively deal with all ranges of combat using these structures. These configurations allow the practitioner to make the most of time, space and energy in a combat situation. Only when the practitioner’s space is threatened, at his six-gate range, will his tools turn on. He will not go out of his way to hurt anyone. Once in this six-gate mode, all options are available to the defender; kicks, punches, traps and, throws, as well as being mobile or balanced and stable. This is one of the most versatile and dangerous postures for human combat. It is not due to personal style or the artistic desire to do something, it is a hard fact of combat.
A Note About the Author: Sifu Benny Meng is the principle founder and Curator of the Ving Tsun Museum. He has traveled extensively throughout the world researching the roots of the art, and studying the training methods and applications employed in virtually every lineage of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Benny Meng can be reached at the Ving Tsun Museum, 5715 Brandt Pike, Dayton, Oh, 45424, phone (937) 236-6485 and emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Rudnicki is an assistant instructor under Sifu Meng.