History of Wing Chun

(The Quanzhou Shaolin Temple in Fengze Qu, Quanzhou Shi, China.)

The common legend as told by Yip Man involves the young woman named Yim Wing-chun during the period after the destruction by the Qing government of the Southern Shaolin and its associated temples.

Having rebuffed the local warlord’s marriage offer, Yim Wing-Chun said she’d reconsider the proposal if he could beat her in a fight. She soon crossed paths with a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui, who was one of the Shaolin Sect survivors, and asked the nun to teach her to fight. According to legend, Ng Mui taught Yim Wing-Chun a new system of martial art that had been inspired by the nun’s observations of a confrontation between a Snake and a Crane. This then-still nameless style enabled Yim Wing-Chun to beat the warlord in a one-on-one fight. Yim Wing-Chun thereafter married Leung Bok-Chau and taught him the style, which was later named after her.

Since the system was developed during the Shaolin and Ming resistance to the Qing Dynasty, many legends, perhaps including the detailed story of Yim Wing-Chun, were spread regarding the creation of Wing Chun in order to confuse enemies. This is often given as a reason to explain the difficulty in accurately determining the creator or creators of Wing Chun. Various motives have been proposed including at least plain sexism (casting ambiguity on two women as the originators of the style), causing authorities to regard women as threats and lose support by over-reacting or over-restricting them, or to so regard smaller men, and to suggest a connection between Buddhist resistance to Qing and current political resisters. The film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon explores these themes of hidden feminine power and the co-mingling of romantic urges with deep respect between martial masters – its title refers to a place of unnoticed masters.

The history of Wing Chun has been passed from teacher to student verbally rather than through documentation, making it difficult to confirm or clarify the differing accounts of Wing Chun’s creation. Some have sought to apply the methods of higher criticism to the oral histories of Wing Chun and other Chinese martial arts. Others have attempted to discern the origins of Wing Chun by determining the specific purpose of its techniques.

Wing Chun started to appear in independent third-party documentation during the era of the Wing Chun master Leung Jan, making the subsequent history of Wing Chun and its divergence into branches more amenable to documentary verification.It is believed that a woman had been a spectator to a fight between a snake and a white crane and, from this fight, combined with her knowledge of Shaolin kung fu, she developed the key elements that is known as the Wing Chun kung fu. Over time, more famous names such as Yip Man and Bruce Lee made the martial art known worldwide.

Ip Man Wing Chun

The oral history of the Yip Man branch of Wing Chun dates its creation to the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1662–1722) in the Qing dynasty. After escaping the destruction of the Fujian Shaolin Monastery by Qing forces, the Abbess Ng Mui fled to the distant Daliang mountains on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. One day, she came upon a fight between a snake and a crane (or other animal). ​

She took the lessons she learned from observing the fight between the two animals and combined them with her own nowledge of Shaolin kung fu to create a new style. Ng Mui often bought her bean curd at the tofu shop of Yim Yee. Yim Yee had a daughter named Yim Wing Chun whom a local warlord was trying to force into marriage. Ng Mui taught her new fighting style to Yim Wing Chun, who used it to fend off the warlord once and for all. Yim Wing Chun eventually married a man she loved, Leung Bok-Chao, to whom she taught the fighting techniques that Ng Mui had passed onto her. Husband and wife in turn passed the new style on to others. ​

It has been said that the style was developed for fighting on narrow boats, hence the stance being similar to stand up paddle board riders, the lack of footwork, and linear attack of a single target directly in front of you.

Yiu Kai Wing Chun

The oral history of the Yiu Kai lineage dates the creation of Wing Chun roughly a century later, to the early 19th century, and names Yim Wing Chun’s father as Yim Sei, a disciple at the Fujian Shaolin Temple who avoids persecution by fleeing with his daughter to Guangxi. Yim Wing Chun learned the Fujian Shaolin arts from her father and, from their raw material, created a new style after being inspired by a fight between a snake and a crane. She eventually married Leung Bok-Chao — a Shaolin disciple just like Yim Wing Chun’s father—and taught her fighting style to her new husband. The young couple began teaching Wing Chun’s fighting style to others after moving to Guangdong Province in 1815, settling in the city of Zhaoqing.


Other origins for Wing Chun have been suggested, typically involving connections to the Triads, revolutionary groups (often anti-Qing), or the Hakka people of southern China.

​Almost all extant lineages of Wing Chun, with the exception of the Pao Fa Lien branch, and Hek Ki Boen branch claim to descend from the members of the mid-19th century cohort of the Red Boat Opera Company.

​Another legend has it that Wing Chun’s lover, Leung Bok-Cha (who was a student of Choy gar) did in fact help to shape the style of Wing Chun. If so, then this is probably why the stances, and the short centred hand techniques have similarities in Choy gar and Wing Chun.

Espionage and Assassination

According to one theory, opponents of the Qing Dynasty used the Red Boat Opera Company as a cover to disguise themselves as a troupe of travelling entertainers. Their identities as Chinese opera performers provided a cover for martial arts training; however, the flashy moves of opera style martial arts were not suited to the activities of espionage and assassination, which required specialized skills. Even though assassinations themselves would be carried out using poison or knives, their targets were usually protected by bodyguards who, on discovery of an intruder, would seize the person, call for help, and disable the person to be held for interrogation. Therefore, according to this hypothesis, Wing Chun was designed to deal with an opponent who seized rather than struck and to silence that opponent immediately. This would explain certain technical aspects of Wing Chun, such as its emphasis on close-range combat and its many strikes to the throat and diaphragm.

Several other Chinese martial arts come from Yongchun and the surrounding area, most notably the Fujianese style of White Crane, one branch of which is even called Wing Chun Bak Hok Kuen, or Wing Chun White Crane boxing. Li Wenmao, a historically verifiable opera performer and leader in the 1854–1856 Red Turban Rebellion in Foshan, is said to have been a Wing Chun White Crane practitioner.

There is a story that Wing chun was created by the five elders of the Shaolin temple whose systems included white eyebrow, white crane, shaolin, hung gar and choy li fut. The story of Ng Mui and Wing Chun were just legends that never existed, due to having no records of their existence.

Oral history aside, the technical similarities of Wing Chun and Fujian White Crane suggest that the two are related. As Yip Man’s student Leung Ting put it, “Wing Tsun System is derived from the Fukien System of kung fu. Their common features are that during fights, pugilists of these systems prefer short steps and close fighting, with their arms placed close to the center, their elbows in and behind the arm and kept close to the flanks to offer it protection. Another characteristic of these two systems of kung fu is, unlike those of Kwangtung Province and Northern China, their boxing forms are rather simple”.

(Leung Jan)
(Leung Bik)
(Leung Jan)
(Leung Bik)

The Origins of Wing Chun

Leung Jan is as far back as the lineages that descend from him—Yip Man, Yiu Kai, Pan Nam, Tam Yeung, Fung Sing—can reliably verify their genealogy. He was a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine in the city of Foshan in the 19th century. Leung Jan is said to have learned from Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai, respectively the male and “female” martial leads of the Red Boat Opera Company, each of whom is said to have been an expert on different aspects of Wing Chun. According to legends from the Yip Man lineage, Leung Yee-Tai was a poler, that is, he used a pole to steer the Red Boat away from rocks and shoals, and was therefore chosen by the legendary Shaolin master Jee Shimhimself to learn the six-and-a-half point pole. Leung Jan’s students included his sons Leung Chun and Leung Bik as well as “Wooden Man” Wah and Chan Wah-Shun nicknamed “Moneychanger Wah”, from whom the Yip Man, Yiu Kai, and Pan Nam lineages descend.

However, the Leung Jan lineage is not the only branch of the art. According to the traditions of the Cho family, Wong Wah-Bo and Leung Yee-Tai had as many as 11 peers in Wing Chun among their colleagues at the Red Boat Opera Company. For example, “Dai Fa Min” Kam, who played the role of the martial painted face, is the ancestor of the Way Yan lineage. The Yuen Kay Shan and Pan Nam branches descend from both Wong Wah-Bo and “Dai Fa Min” Kam. Gao Lo Chung (“Tall” Chung) and “Hung Gun” Biu, also of the Red Boat Opera Company, both passed the art on to relatives, respectively, his son-in-law Yin Lee-Chung and the Wang family. Outside the Red Boat Opera Company, a monk who had taken the name “Dai Dong Fung” is named as its ancestor by the Pao Fa Lien lineage of Wing Chun.

In this cohort of the Red Boat Opera Company, the role of the virtuous “female” was played by Yik Kam, better known as “Ching-Deng” Kam because of the role he played. Cho Shun, who played the “Little Martial” role, was a student of Yik Kam. By passing the art on to his son Cho Dak-Sang, Cho Shun established the Wing Chun lineage of the Cho family of Panyu village.

Recent History

Yip Man was the first Wing Chun master to teach the art openly in “Hong Kong” on a school fee basis. His students and their students therefore make up the majority of the practitioners of Wing Chun today (see his article for the outline of a family tree). Yip Man died in 1972. However, there is also a story that Yip Man gave money to Chan Wah Shun so that he could learn from him. Officially making Chan Wah Shun the first to teach the art openly on a school fee basis. However, Chan Wa Shun was military/ security based who was employed by Yip Man’s father.

Recently four movies were made about Yip Man starring Donnie Yen, Ip Man Zero, Ip Man 1, Ip Man 2 and Ip Man 3. ​

Yuen Kay Shan a senior to Yip Man who was credited with winning 1000 death matches was known as Yuen the fifth of Foshan and had never been defeated. Though he never started a school himself, Yuen’s lineage of Wing Chun was continued by his only disciple Sum Nung and the subsequent generations of students that descend from him such as Felix Leong who is alive and has been teaching for over 30 years at the same kwoon in Adelaide, Australia.

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article, History of Wing Chun, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.