Wing Chun history is shrouded in mystery, what we know about origin and development of this beautiful art cannot be considered as a fact. There are so many versions of wing chun history , some are contradictory at some points while others are completely different and unique, what is common for all these version is that in none of them can be found even one piece of information which would be the same and represent the starting point for future research . Every lineage has its own “history”, even more, every style from same lineage has somewhat different interpretation of the style’s origin and development. There is one more interesting fact about this matter, usually in historical research, as we go further in the past information and sources we have become less reliable. In Wing Chun history case information and sources are equally unreliable not matter of the time period, and it is the same for the modern period or even present time.
This mish mash of “histories” causing a lot of confusion for serious researcher, even more some someone who has just a genuine interest in history and development of the art. Often, unbelievable things are presented as true facts, therefore we have people who lived more than 200 years and sometimes had supernatural powers . Different lineages and different styles have different time frames of their creation and development and sometimes it is not possible to determine a real life span or time frame in which some of the old masters lived and worked. Sometimes , depends of the version and lineage , old masters change roles so in one lineage one person is a teacher and other is a student while in other student becomes teacher of his teacher . Places of birth ,death , number of students , children , schools are impossible to determine , every lineage, every style has its own set of data and each and every one of them is true and original , often “only true and original”.
This situation causes not only a lot of confusion, it causes a lot of dispute and argument among wing chun practitioners .
There are several reasons for this situation and as we understand them better the more truth will come out and less confusion and reason for argument will exist.
Let’s start with a term “history”. We have to be aware that in Chinese traditional martial arts “history” has not a same meaning as it has in scientific circles , or in general . While “history” in general has a purpose to present true facts of the past events, based on the evidence and research, in Chinese martial arts purpose of the “history “ is different. History of one particular style is much more than presenting the facts of the past events, actually it is everything but that. In Chinese martial arts term “history “ is used in absence of some better term , these “histories” are actually origin stories and they are rely on true historical events and figures as much as on myth and legends. Style’s history is an inspirational story for students, it is a source of ethical norms, often holds a hidden political message and at the end or maybe a the beginning its purpose is to give a style a prestige. As we can see it is everything but presenting true historical facts.
In old times people were mostly illiterate, whatever they needed to remember they memorized, written documents, especially about martial arts are very, very rare .
Sometimes, to memorize something easily people created songs and stories which in time , without proper explanation or because purpose for remembering was lost , became myths and legends .One other thing is important , on the south of China people use more than 20different dialects , often same tones have different meaning on different dialect and that made even more confusion in data transmission. We all know how memorizing and recalling memorized data can be tricky and big amount of information can be lost. Unfortunately that happened with wing chun history, great amount of information was lost or corrupted due to oral transmission.
It is important to know that real historical research regarding wing chun creation, origin and development, conducted by real historians and archeologists was need done . What we have as a history today are just origin stories, often not more than myths , Real scientific research includes certain procedures and validation process which allows gathering and presenting the facts with the best possible certainty . In wing chun case we do not have that and everyone is allowed to interpret, write and present information in any possible way for their own purposes.
Another reason for such confusion and diversity of information is a fact that many of the founders and first generation master of the art were involved in anti-government activities and were members of secret societies. It is commonly known how severe were punishments for such activities, therefore it is not surprising all the secrecy and intentional misleading of the government in any possible way. Giving wrong or partially wrong data could and did save someone’s life. In time, reason for such a behavior cease to exist but wrong information stayed without any more explanations. Covering names or pseudo names were commonly used as well. Only people involved in some secret organization understand true meaning of special code names and identity of the people who used them. After one or two generations, especially after fall of the Qing dynasty people involved in such organizations died and the original names or meaning were totally lost, while cover or pseudo names were passed to the following generations until they became the truth and that process is still ongoing even today.
Financial moment and marketing are maybe the most significant reason for such diversity in origin stories today. There are a very few people who do not claim their styles are the best, the oldest and the most original ones. For example if some master in the past became popular almost anyone who even spent a couple of weeks in training with that particular master later became a “grandmaster” and the most valued, often “close door” student. All these people have stories about their time spent with a master, different events, fights etc. If we gather all these stories together and count the time needed for all these events some teachers should have lived at last 150 years or more. Most of these people are telling the stories about “secret underground” fights and their tremendous martial ability, they never lost a fight . These “secret underground” fights stories are very convenient because there is no way to prove them right or wrong, we have to believe (or not). In this struggle to reach a wider market space we can witness how histories are changed over the years and how different people and different events replace previous ones.
Media also have tremendous influence on history, at last in creating popular believes among wide population of wing chun practitioners. Take Yip man’s movies for example, his historical role changed completely and form a man who had to escaped from Foshan in order to avoid execution he became a national hero , freedom fighter a person who can be compared with heroes of the past like Yue Fei. In same manner, popular pulp fiction stories during the republican period made Leung Jan a hero and the best know wing chun practitioner of all times.
Current fashion in thinking leads to disregarding a true source of information which can be found. Lesser known lineages, like Law’s family art, “Snake Crane Wing Chun(SCWC)” and Poon Yu Village branch of the Cho’s family Yik Kam art, today named “Ban Chun Wing Chun”, still hold a precious documents and artifacts of the past times which can shed more light on true history of wing chun. For more than a century public opinion is influenced from only two sources , pulp fiction novels about Leung Jan and “history” written by his grand student Yip Man . Until recently most of the people believed , and on the west still believe that Leung Jan- Yip Man lineage is the only wing chun lineage that exist today .
Due to sudden popularity of Bruce Lee Yip Man’s style was and still is the most popular and the most influential Wing Chun style of all times. For a very long time only available history was the one written by Yip Man. Whole world knew about Leung Jan , his art , life (well, certain parts of his life), and for a long time it was wildly believed that Leung Jan’s –Yip Man’s lineage is the only one that exists . Yip Man shaped public opinion and his version of history educated generations of wing chun practitioners.
Although there are some independent researchers today who are trying to find more truth about real wing chun history and some of them are doing really good job ,still all these new data are greatly influenced with Yip Man’s version of history . Seems like most of the research goes in a way to prove Yip Man’s story true .
Even before Yip Man , Leung Jan was the most famous Wing Chun master , and while it was known other lineages exist, representatives of those lineages seldom showed them self publically , and no one taught openly besides Leung Jan’s descendants . Leung Jan, actually his teachers, Wong Wah Bo and Leug Yee Tai first and later Leung Jan and his students after him were the only lineage who taught openly and publically. For more than 150 years, Leung Jan’s art spread openly and shaped public opinion on wing chun as well as on the history of the art. There are several reasons for this situation.
All wing chun came from the Red Boat Opera company. Who created it and when we probably never know but it was complete art in the middle of 19th century. We know there was more than a couple Wing Chun maters among Red Boats but only two of them taught Leung Jan openly while others were scattered who knows where and if taught they taught in secret .
In 1851 the Taiping revolution started, and in 1854, members of the Red Boat Opera led by Le Man Mao joined the revolution. In 1855, Le Man Mao established a small kingdom in Guang Xi and the headquarters of Red Boat opera , Fine Jade hall was burned along with all red boats. Red Boat Opera was banned for next 15 years and members of the troupe involved in the revolutionary activities were forced to escape and spend time in deep hiding. In 1864, the revolution was crushed.
The fact that Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai, from Red Boat, taught openly clearly states that these two wing chun masters didn’t have any connection with Taiping uprising so they could operate without fear or any problems from the government. Although, 15 years later opera ban was lifted and opera troupe started to work again, old rebels were still forced to hide and work secretly. Opera worked under strict government control and old revolutionaries were still wanted for their crimes against the ruling dynasty. They still couldn’t teach openly and they preserved their arts by passing them secretly , far from the eyes of the public and especially government. Leung Jan died at the beginning of 20th century and soon after he became a popular character of pulp fiction novels. In 1911 Qing rule was replaced and republic was established. In republican times Leung Jan’s popularity reached its peak and his descendants were the only who had public schools .Only publically known master of some other lineage was Yuen Kai San and he had only one student and he never taught openly . Republican period was a time of great political and military turmoil. Japanese were seizing a country piece by piece while Kuomintang and communist parties fought among them self. Second World War came in 1941 and after that civil war. In 1949, Kuomintang moved to Taiwan and new China was founded. During 1950s, there was a Great leap forward, Flourishing period until 1967,when cultural revolution started. A lot of traditional martial arts people were died during that time and a lot of them left China to Hong Kong. After 1967, almost all traditional martial arts practice in China was prohibited, and many masters were killed, with those masters , great deal of information about the past was lost. Not only traditional martial arts practice was stopped but also old tradition and customs and many documents were lost. What was saved, it was saved in Hong Kong because most escaped to Hong Kong before the revolution. Cultural revolution destroyed thousands of years of history , culture ,art and almost completely destroyed martial arts . Martial artists who weren’t killed and couldn’t escape to Hong Kong simply stopped to practice their arts, they couldn’t practice , not even in secret and they couldn’t pass their arts to the next generation . In 1979, China reopen the door to the world.
While in China people couldn’t practice wing chun (or any other styles), in Hong Kong, Yip Man using his connection in media created a popular story about wing chun . While other lineages of wing chun were still in hiding, Yip Man seized the opportunity and made his style the most popular one. Even more, Bruce Lee made Yip Man and his style internationally famous.
All these are reasons why we have only one sided view on Wing Chun history today. Although China is now opening to the world and kung fu is not prohibited any more, what was lost during the long decades after cultural revolution cannot be restored or found again.
On the other hand , in recent years , some old family styles decided to teach publically and not only they bring a diversity from a technical point of view they also hold a significant documents from the past , documents that can explain and give information about earliest period of wing chun history and also give more information about all these people who were forced to hide and teach their arts in secret .Most significant sources of information in recent years were and still are Snake Crane Wing Chun and Poon Yu village Cho’s family Ban Chun Wing Chun lineages.
What we need today is an independent research , conducted by professionals who will examine all possible sources of information and hopefully give correct and accurate information about history of the art we all love.