The name Wing Tsun (Wing Chun/Ving Tsun)
means "Eternal Springtime" or "Springtime Praise", but that doesn't really tell
us much. Depending on where you look and who you talk to, you will find
variations in the spelling, i.e. Wing Tsun, Wing Chun, Ving Tsun, etc. The truth
is, it's all the exact same thing. There is no standard Romanization of the
transliteration of the Cantonese language into English, so the English spelling of
the name and names of the techniques may vary from school to school. Often times
the name spelling may be changed to identify a specific
lineage, such as Grandmaster Leung Ting’s Wing Tsun, or "WT", spelling. But
what is Wing Tsun really?
Wing Tsun is a concept based martial arts
system that operates on a set of core principles to govern effective combat. It
is considered a "soft style" martial art, but don't let that fool you! Martial
arts are considered "hard" or "soft" depending on how they deal with incoming
force. Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do are hard styles, as they block the incoming
force (meet force with force). This can work, however you are limited to the
physical strength and conditioning of your body. If your opponent is much
stronger and larger than you, you might find yourself at quite the disadvantage
with this approach.
In Wing Tsun, we do not oppose the force
as it comes. Instead, we control the flow of energy by deflecting, absorbing,
and redirecting it, effectively neutralizing incoming attacks and using our
opponents own energy against them. In that sense, you have taken size and
physical strength out of the equation, allowing you to deal with much larger and
stronger opponents with minimal effort. As a matter of fact, we do not "block"
at all; we employ techniques that offer both defensive and offensive properties
simultaneously. You never find yourself on the defensive because none of your
techniques are purely defensive in nature; every one of your movements is an
attack, and your attacks offer a defensive cover to protect you from counter
Wing Tsun is designed to be effective and
efficient. There are no unnecessary movements, wild spinning kicks or
back-flips, things you see in the movies that look cool but would seriously
compromise your safety in a real life or death situation. Our attacks are fast,
strategic, and artfully brutal. The idea is to neutralize a threat as quickly as
possible, not to stand there and trade blows. If someone attacks you, you don't
"fight" them, you "attack the attack" and viciously destroy them without mercy.
By design, this gives you a tactical advantage over bullies, muggers, rapists,
or anyone else that has the intention of harming you or your loved ones.
Now that we have a brief understanding of what Wing Tsun is, the next question is "where did it come from"? As with many ancient styles of martial arts, history can become skewed. Poor documentation, conflicting information, legendary exaggerations passed down through generations of oral transmission, it can sometimes sound like a fairy tale. The truth is, the history of Wing Tsun is shrouded in mystery and no one can say for certain. I will however tell you some of the more popular theories, and some of my own theories as well.
The Origins of Wing Tsun
*Most* believe that it originated in some
fashion at the
Southern Shaolin (Siu Lam) Temple of Mt. Sung in the Henan province of South China, some 300 or so years ago. It was said to
be a secret style, so secret that it did not even have a name. It was for the
very elite. The style was devised to be able to defeat all of the other Shaolin
styles. It was geared towards maximum brutality with minimal effort. This was a
very turbulent time in China, riddled with war and oppression. All of the
flowery inefficient movements were stripped away. It was a concept based system
that operated on a set of very scientific principles and a very unique way of
dealing with incoming force, allowing one to easily deal with a much larger and
stronger opponent. Refined to the bare essentials, one could become very
proficient with this new system in a very short period of time, as opposed to
the decades of training required of some of the other styles. Like most Southern
styles, Wing Tsun is a close quarters combat system, as opposed to the Northern
styles that featured a lot of high kicks and long range, wide circular movements.
The most popular tale told of Wing Tsun
history is that of a Buddhist nun or Abbess from the Southern Shaolin Temple
named Wu Mei (Ng Mui in Cantonese). It is said that she is responsible for the creation of the system.
The Southern Shaolin temple had a reputation for being a revolutionary center.
The Abbott refused to become a member of the emperors army and train their
troops, and would not take orders from the ruling faction. In an effort to crush
the growing Ming rebellion, the Qing Manchurian army attacked the monastary. Wu Mei was rumored to have been one of the legendary Five Elders
(Wu Mei, Jee Shim, Pak Mei, Fung To Tak, and Miu Hin), who were the
five survivors of the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple by the Qing
(Manchu) Dynasty during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722). A master of
many styles of Kung Fu, including WuDang and Shaolin, she is credited as being
involved in the founding of several styles. Legend has it that one day she was
down by the river, and she observed a battle between a snake and a crane. She
studied the movements of these creatures and used that as the basis of the new
style of Kung Fu/Wushu that she created. When the temple was destroyed, she fled to
the White Crane temple on Mt. Tai Leung (Chai Har) to seek refuge. I must note
here that different branches and lineages, and even other systems, have a
discrepancy of whether she fled to the White Crane Temple in the Henan province
in the north, or the White Crane Temple in the Fujian province in the south. Some versions of this story refer to a
snake and a fox, A crane and a fox, or some other combination of animals, although the most
prevalent is that of the snake and the crane. This is important, as I will
address this later on.
It was at this time that she met a young
teenage girl by the name of Yim Wing Tsun. There was a local bandit group that
was terrorizing the village, and their leader was trying to force Yim Wing Tsun
to marry him. Yim Wing Tsun was a feisty girl who had learned Shaolin Kung Fu from her
father, and had no interest in being wed to the thug. Seeing the predicament
that the girl was in, Wu Mei took her under her as a student and taught her the
secret unnamed system that she had developed. Armed with this style of combat, Yim Wing Tsun challenged the vicious warlord to a fight. If he won, she would
marry him, but if she won, he was to leave her alone. The bandit accepted the
challenge thinking the young woman didn't stand a chance, however she easily
defeated him. Proud of her victory, Wu Mei then named the new style of Kung Fu
after her student, Wing Tsun. Some iterations of the story claim that when Yim
Wing Tsun finally later married a man named Leung Bok-Chau, she taught the
unnamed system to him and he named it Wing Tsun Keun (Wing Tsun Fist/Fist of
Wing Tsun) after his wife.
There are several different variations of
this story depending on who you ask, however the gist of them are all the same.
No one can say for sure how much of that is accurate, or if Wu Mei and Yim Wing
Tsun even actually existed at all. I take it all with a grain of salt, and I
will expound on some of my interpretations of the snake and crane story shortly.
Other common and more logical origin stories exist. After the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple, some monks fled and hid amongst the common folks in the villages. At this time, Kung Fu was not allowed under the oppression of the Manchu rule. During the late 1700's, a Shaolin Monk named Jee Shim sought refuge working as a cook with the traveling Red Boat Opera Troop. The Red Boat Opera Troop was used as a cover for a rebel organization that was fighting against the Manchus and sought to reestablish the Ming Dynasty. The style was passed down through the rebels of the Red Boat Opera. It was streamlined so it could be mastered quickly by the common folk, including women and children, to fight against the well trained soldiers. Unlike other styles, it wasn't meant to be pretty, but effective and efficient. More than for fighting, it was for brutal life and death combat, when a dangerous, often well trained and armed opponent (or group of opponents) needed to be neutralized very quickly.
Some believe that Yim Wing Tsun wasn't the name of a person
but the name of a rebel group that was rising up against the Manchu. The name
Wing Tsun, or "Eternal Springtime", was code that stood for "Eternal-Ming Dynasty forever,
Springtime-rebirth of the Ming Dynasty". Some sources actually believe that the
Red Boats are the true origin of Wing Tsun, as this was a melding pot for
underground Kung Fu of many styles, and crawling with rebels. Whether or not
this was the actual birthplace of Wing Tsun or not, it is commonly accepted that
at some point after its creation, the Red Boat Opera is where the long pole was
introduced into the system. Our 6 and a Half Point Long Pole form bears many
striking similarities to the Baji Quan 6 Harmony Great Spear form, the Shaolin spear form,
and the Hung Gar Eight Trigrams long pole form, and makes use of a wide and deep
side stance and 50/50 weight distribution not found elsewhere in the system.
Some accounts state that Jee Shim encountered the Wing Tsun system after he joined the opera troop and he is credited with the addition of the Six-and-a-half Point Long Pole to the system. Other accounts credit both Wu Mei and Jee Shim with founding the system together, basing the movements from the snake and the crane encounter, and Jee Shim is the one who brought it to the opera troop. Jee Shim is also credited for founding the very similar, yet slightly different sister art "Weng Chun", which depending who you ask is a totally different art, or a distant elder branch of pre-Yip Man Wing Tsun. Either way you look at it, "Weng Chun" has more in common with mainstream "Wing Chun" these days than some actual real "Wing Chun" branches do.
Others attribute our system as an offshoot of Wu Mei Kung Fu, a very secluded soft/internal Southern style that bares the name of... you guessed it: Wu Mei, the legendary founder of Wing Tsun according to lore. The system runs many parallels in its concepts, principles, theories, forms, and techniques/applications with the other "Wu Mei styles" of White Crane and Wing Tsun. In their slightly different version of the Wu Mei biography, she was either of the Ming royal family, or the daughter of the imperial general of the Ming army. When the Qing took over, the royal family was executed. However, instead of chopping off Wu Mei's head, the cut off her arm instead and let her go. From there, she fled to WuDang mountain, and eventually found her way to the southern Shaolin temple. While developing her Kung Fu, she secretly organized and trained factions of rebel freedom fighters in the underground to fight against the Ming/Manchurians. Because of this, the Qing emperor sent an army to the south to destroy the Shaolin temple and exterminate the rebellion. This style has many overlaps in the origin story; basically after the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple and the escape of the Five Ancestors, Wu Mei sought refuge in the White Crane Temple in Henan in the north. The name Wu Mei means "Five Plum", which is the reason for the five petal plum blossom symbol used frequently throughout the Wing Tsun community. The plum blossom also refers to the footwork in Wing Tsun, which is often trained on plum blossom posts.
interpretation of the "Snake & Crane" part of the story took on new meaning as I became a
practitioner of Wing Tsun and immersed myself into all things Kung Fu. I believe there is some truth to the snake and crane story,
albeit purely allegorical.
Wing Tsun bares a striking resemblance to Fujian White Crane Kung Fu, another deeply internal style that is attributed to Wu Mei and the legendary Five Elders. White Crane is also the name of the Temple that Wu Mei is said to have fled to in most versions of the story, but according to White Crane tradition, she fled to the Southern White Crane Temple in the Fujian province, not the northern White Crane Temple in the Henan province. But there is no dispute that looking at White Crane forms being performed has a surreal familiarity to our own. Some of the movements and techniques are shared. One of Wing Tsun's core techniques is the Bong Sao, which translates to "Wing Arm". A lot of the core elements of energy management are common among the two. Also noteworthy is the fact that a lot of Southern Chinese folklore also credits Wu Mei with the creation of the White Crane style as well at a Southern Shaolin Monastery in the Fujian province where displaced monks sought refuge after the destruction of the Henan Shaolin temple.
It is also evident that some of our "soft style" methods, techniques, and fluidity of movement come from the 5 subsets of the Southern Shaolin Snake Fist (Green Bamboo Viper, Water Snake, Shadow Snake, Golden Snake, and King Cobra styles). This becomes even more evident once you get into the Biu Tze toolset of Wing Tsun. The Southern Shaolin Temple in Henan was also sometimes referred to as the Snake Temple. There are also many overlaps and ties with Xing Ye Quan Snake style, which is an internal WuDang Snake style that was integrated into Shaolin teachings.
Both Fujian White Crane and Snake Fist Boxing are Southern Shaolin "soft/internal" styles. So when the legends say that the snake and the crane were studied and their movements were used to base this new system on, I believe that means that both of these styles of Kung Fu were studied and reverse engineered, blended and streamlined to use as the framework to create this new style of Kung Fu called Wing Tsun. Since the birth of Wing Tsun was during the Shaolin and Ming resistance to the Qing Dynasty, many stories were spread to confuse adversaries and protect the sources. Also at this time, martial arts were being suppressed, so it went underground and was practiced in secret. Civilians were forbidden to carry weapons, so the only way to fight the oppression was to turn the human body into a deadly weapon capable of dealing with any threat that would arise.
Another less prevalent narration revolves around a man named Yim Yee, the father of Yim Wing Tsun. As with the others, there are several versions of this story as well, but the common thread through most of them is that Yim Yee was a disciple of the Fujian Shaolin Temple, as well as a member of the Hung Mun society's military Red Pole sect. After being discovered as a "double agent" and rebel when the Shaolin raids were taking place, he fled to Guangxi province with his infant daughter and opened a tofu shop. At some point, he met up with another Shaolin disciple named Miu Shin. Yim learned Miu Shin's system, which was said to be a hybrid of Ng Mui's Weng Chun Bok Hok, and Shin's Snake Boxing. From there, depending on who you ask, Yim Yee taught the style to his daughter and named it after her. Another version of this tale starts off similarly, with Yim Yee as a disciple of the Shaolin temple, and a master martial artist, who developed the style himself and named it after the the place where he sought refuge, the Yong Chun (Mandarin)/Weng Chun (Cantonese) county, in the Fujian province.
This is all of course taken with that grain of salt. I am no professional historian by any means, and the information gathered here is not only conflicting and confusing at times, but very difficult to validate. It's a very tangled web, and if you aren't confused yet, read it again because you must have missed something. What we do know for sure though is that Wing Tsun works, and that is the most important thing... and really all that matters.
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