Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part I.

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Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the later Jingwu Association, another liberal group seeking to use the martial arts to reform and “save” chinese society.


***Greetings!  This was my first entry in the long running “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series. Rather than just profiling the most famous martial artists I attempted to look at the actual life experiences of a wide range of individuals.  I took as my first subject the revolutionary poet Qiu Jin.  If you are unfamiliar with her legacy be sure to read on.  Also, click the link at the end for the second part of this essay.***


Anachronism and Misunderstanding in the Chinese Martial Arts


This is the first post in a new occasional series here at “Kung Fu Tea.”  These entries will provide brief biographies, and pose some thoughtful questions, about the lives of China’s martial artists.  Given my research interests a lot of these individuals will be from the South, but as the series goes on I hope to expand the scope of my expertise.


One of the basic problems when it comes to writing about Chinese martial culture is the very phrase “martial arts.”  These words are saddled with a lot of baggage in modern western society, much of which is uniquely unhelpful when it comes to understanding the vast range of past (or even current) practices.  Casual readers assume as a matter of course that they know what the “martial arts” are.  After all, they watch Kung Fu movies, they did some Judo in college or they drop their daughter off for her Tae Kwon Do “Little Tigers” class every Wednesday.  This erroneous assumption of expertise then leads to misunderstanding once they begin to seriously delve into questions of martial history or culture.


Much of what we do today has vanishingly little in common with what the east Asian martial arts actually were in most times and places.  This is especially true when one starts to think about the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Many of the outward trappings of modern commercial martial practice in America (crisp white uniforms, colored belts, discipline, militarism that “build character,” and franchised distribution) are actually artifacts of the Japanese post-Meiji Restoration renaissance in hand combat training.  These practices were exported to America after WWII, especially with the growing popularity of Judo, Aikido and later Karate.


American consumers have accepted this commercial ethos on such a deep level that it has almost become subconscious.  All martial arts must have colored belts and complex advancement tests…because that is what martial arts do, right?  Needless to say the traditional Chinese arts were usually taught quite differently.  Yet increasingly we are seeing Kung Fu schools (even within the style of Wing Chun-which ostensibly rejects such conventions) handing out colored sashes and on-line Sifu’s bragging as to what rank they have achieved in a grading system that was invented in California in the late 1990s.


In the world of commercial martial arts practice I find these trends to be merely irritating.  But when discussing history they are genuinely dangerous.  All of which brings us back to the essential purpose of this series of biographical posts.  We often have an artificially narrow view of what the traditional Chinese martial arts were and how they were expressed.  If it wouldn’t fit in a strip-mall storefront we don’t recognize it as part of the martial realm, even when wonderful examples of it are right in front of our eyes.


For instance, when was the last time that you saw a discussion of horsemanship as a critical skill in the traditional Chinese martial arts?  Or archery?  How about an ability to master the subaltern dialects and coded speech patterns of bandits and secret society members so that either negotiations or interrogations could be carried out?  Yet in the mind of most Ming and Qing era soldiers and martial artists these were the skills that basically defined the profession.  Clearly there is a need to broaden our view of who the Chinese martial artists were and the sorts of varied life experience they possessed.


My overriding goal in this series of posts is to demonstrate that the “Chinese martial arts” were never just one thing.  We need to better appreciate the richness of the lived experience of the “martial artists” that we find in the historical record.  Indeed, this may even necessitate abandoning the concept that there is any such thing as the “Chinese martial arts” as a singular, easily understood, category.  Instead what we actually see are a wide variety of martial practices adapted by different sorts of people for their own reasons at various times and place.  Rather than discussing “Chinese martial culture” in the singular it should be discussed in the plural.


Portrait of Qiu Jin, dressed in male Chinese attire.

Qiu Jin and the State of the Literature


Qiu Jin (November 8, 1875- July 15, 1907) is perhaps the most interesting martial hero to emerge from Southern China in the early 20th century that almost no-one in the west has ever heard of.  Even in martial arts and political circles I get mostly blank stares when I mention her name.  She is better known among the small circle of scholars that study gender or revolution in modern China.


The situation is all the more puzzling as she is far from forgotten in either China or Japan.  The Chinese consider her to have died a martyr to the 1911 revolution and a substantial body of folklore and legends have grown up around her life.  The government has even built a memorial and small museum in her honor.  Her life has also been the subject of a number of scholarly treatments in Japan.  These focus both on her revolutionary exploits and her poetry, some of which was quite accomplished.


Most of the best scholarship on Qiu Jin is actually published in Japanese.  I spent a semester going through it with a Japanese graduate student and the exercise was interesting.  However, its probably not necessary if one’s main interest in Qiu Jin is the martial arts aspect of her career.  Yamazaki Atsuko’s 2007 volume Shu Kin Kaen No Hito contained a brief but helpful discussion of her childhood exposure to, and training in, martial arts.


Perhaps the most reliable discussion of Qiu Jin’s life and revolutionary career in the English language literature can be found in the writing of Mary Backus Rankin.  In 1975 she published a conference paper and book chapter titled “The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch’ing: the Case of Ch’iu Chin.”  The piece appeared in Women in Chinese Society (Stanford UP, 1975) edited by Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke.  Also valuable is the discussion of Qiu Jin provided on pages 85-93 of Jonathan D. Spence’s The Gates of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolutionaries 1895-1980. Penguin. 1982.


Qiu Jin is an important figure to understanding both emerging Chinese nationalism and feminism in the late Qing period.  Her literary output needs to be better researched.  Also interesting is how her background in Chinese Wuxia novels and martial culture conditioned her behavior as a revolutionary.  Clearly we need a comprehensive English language biography on this figure.  While that is beyond the scope of any blog-post, it is possible to summarize what we know of her life and military career and to ask some thoughtful questions that might stimulate future research.


The Life of Qiu Jin: Feminist, Revolutionary, Poet, Terrorist, Martial Artist


Qiu Jin was born in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in 1875.  She was born to a mid-level gentry family that might have enjoyed a very comfortable existence, except of course for the decline of the Confucian trained bureaucracy that accompanied the end of the Qing regime.  Her family was relatively rich with degree holders, though not all of them got the best postings.  Her great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother all held various positions within the government, but her father never rose much above the level of local secretary even though he was probably a Juren degree holder.  As a girl she grew up at the family estate in Shaoxing in Zhejiang.  While she lived in number of places including Beijing and Japan, Qiu Jin repeatedly returned to northern Zhejiang and seemed to have considered the area home throughout her far ranging career.


Rankin points out that the family’s educational background was probably critical to Qiu Jin’s later development and unorthodox outlook on life.  Far from being stifling or overly conservative, the family seems to have been part of a minority Confucian school of thought that saw women as being capable of moral development, ethical behavior and excellence in education.  While by no means universally held, gentry families from this school tended to educate their daughters and even encourage their artistic pursuits in the areas of writing, literature, poetry and painting.  This certainly appears to have been the case with Qiu Jin who proved throughout her revolutionary career that, while she was perfectly happy to even engage in violent struggle, her pen was the sharpest weapon of all.


Qiu Jin seems to have been indulged by both her parents and other male family members.  Her feet were bound as a child, but not very tightly.  She is remembered as having an uncommonly active and athletic childhood.  She learned to ride a horse, to shoot a bow and at least some sword play.  She is also said to have developed the ability to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. (see Rankin 46 also Yamazaki).


Swords would play a reoccurring role, both in her life and literary work.  As an adult student in Japan, Qiu Jin is said to have carried a short sword and was even photographed with a long knife.  Other individuals remember her training with, or talking about, swords as an adult after her return to China.  How much of this was learned in her youth is open to interpretation, and there is not a lot of really detailed information on her early martial curriculum.


So, was Qiu Jin studying the “martial arts?”  From the point of view of a modern American reader the answer would probably be no.  There is not much here that we recognize.  She had no “style,” no “school” and no official and much beloved teacher.  There is no evidence that she ever studied unarmed combat of any kind, and the thing that seemed to illicit the most comment from her contemporaries were her skills on a horse.


Yet from the point of view of those around her Qiu Jin certainly was certainly studying the martial arts.  A family such as hers lived and died by producing young men who could pass the civil service exam and maintain the family’s place in the gentry-class.  Yet such clans rarely placed all of their eggs in a single basket.  While the civil-service exam was much more prestigious, the state also ran a military-service exam.  This system provided much of the nation’s officer corp.  These were also important jobs that paid a steady income and provided some social status.


The military service exams expected their students to have mastered the basic Confucian library but to also be familiar with a number of military texts including Sun Tzu.  Practical aspects of the exam included archery, horsemanship, strength and the ability to perform sword routines, often with blades of different weights.


Qiu Jin’s extended family was attempting to prepare some of their male children to take the military service exam and so they were teaching these skills.  Indeed, her cousin Xu Xilin (later a fellow revolutionary) spent most of his career at the margins of military and law enforcement circles.  Qiu Jin was indulged and allowed to study these more active subjects with her male peers even though these things traditionally lay outside the realm of propriety for female members of the gentry-class.


It is not really clear how seriously Qiu Jin took this training or what sorts of skills she actually achieved (though by all accounts she was an accomplished rider).  What was most interesting to the local community was that she was doing these things at all.  It is also known that as a literarily talented child Qiu Jin immersed herself in the tales, stories and novels of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  She was enchanted with stories about bandits and heroes who sacrificed themselves for the nation.


I suspect that from her point of view these novels were, in fact, the true heart of the matter.  To her the martial arts were not simply a style or a set of techniques.  Rather they were a set of philosophical commitments and a way of life.  To be a martial artist was to be a person who exhibited the qualities of martial valor.  These norms were very much at odds with the Confucian worldview that surrounded her, and they helped to shape much of her revolutionary career.  For Qiu Jin to be a “martial artist” was to live the life of a wandering swordsman.  She called herself a “revolutionary” because that was the terminology of the time and indeed, a revolution was brewing.  Yet what she really seemed to seek was justice on a personal scale.


For her, to be a martial artist was to be a “revolutionary.” Yet her definition of the later term has always seemed to her critics to be oddly primitive and apolitical.  She had no specific agenda or set long term goals for the state.  It seems that in Qiu Jin’s mind a “revolutionary” was simply a western gloss on the beloved knights-errant of her childhood reading.


Scholars have not fully grasped the degree to which Qiu Jin’s “revolution” was a sort of political-theater in which the military values of the heroic side of Chinese culture were scrupulously observed and performed.  Many of the more paradoxical elements of her life, such as her penchant for cross-dressing or her near suicidal death (in which she allowed herself to be captured knowing that she would be tortured and executed) can be better understood within the context of late 19th century martial novels and plays than most historians to date have realized.  Early 20th century feminist thought or western politically radical literature actually provides little guidance in these areas.


Qiu Jin repeatedly discussed her fascination with the story of Hua Mulan, another Chinese woman who cross-dressed, took up arms, and fought to save the nation.

Her educational background is important for another reason as well.  While certain styles of martial arts with names and well defined social boundaries did exist in China from at least the Ming onward, these things appear to have been the exception rather than the rule.  Most members of the gentry who studied martial matters did so in a private setting with certain concrete career goals in mind.  These schools had no names because they had no public function.  Their sole function was to advance the reputation and economic fortunes of a single local clan.  However, they very often employed talented scholars, retired military trainers and civilian martial artists.


Likewise when most peasants in the countryside studied martial arts it was to be part of a village militia.  Some of the Big Sword societies had a unique style that they taught.  For instance we know from Qing court records that Plum Blossom Boxing was popular throughout northern China early in the 19th century.  Yet most people studied what the local drill instructor taught and probably didn’t associate any special name or “style” with what they were doing.  Our insistent attempts to discover modern schools and lineage structures in the past (when they very likely did not exist) causes a lot of needless confusion and frustration.


The career of Qiu Jin illustrates this nicely.  It is precisely those questions about her background (what was the name of her style?) that demonstrates the shortcomings of our modern understanding of the Chinese martial arts in the 19th century.  While this is the time period from which the “modern” approach to the Chinese martial emerged, not everyone was part of these trends.  Rural peasants and gentry members, who were deeply steeped in the martial arts, tended to view of this material in ways that seems odd to modern sensibilities.


We will look more closely at Qiu Jin’s adult interests in the martial arts and her short-lived career as a political terrorist and revolutionary in the next post.


[Click Here To Continue To Part II]

Attack of the Wooden Dummies!

Porcine style boxing has traditionally favored the use of really big stone dummies.

***This was one of the more popular posts I wrote during the first year of KFT (2012).  I still love talking about, and training with, wooden dummies. What better training companion can you have in the middle of cold weather and COVID-19?  Also, the above image of pigs at the Ming Tombs remains one of my favorite photos ever posted on the blog.***

One of the most iconic images in the annals of Kung Fu training is that of the lone student, lost in the zen-like practice of his wooden dummy routine.  Dummies of various sorts and sizes have a long history in Chinese boxing.  Kang, in his timeline of the development of the Chinese martial arts, notes that legends and references to their use in military training date back to the 12th century BCE (Spring and Autumn of the Chinese Martial Arts, 1995. pp. 22).

In their simplest form a dummy might consist of a single living tree or planted pole which a practitioner can walk around (practicing entry), kick and strike.  If one accepts trees or simple posts as dummies then they are ubiquitous throughout the Chinese martial landscape.

However, legend also speaks of more sophisticated, or even diabolical, wooden combat machines.  A common story (dating to the second half of the 19h century) states that the southern Shaolin temple had a hall of ingeniously designed wooden fighting machines.  Rather than being totally reactive these machines could also take the offensive.  One could not graduate (and leave) the temple’s training program without being able to make it across the training hall.  This image of a training hall full of automated and dangerous wooden dummies lives on in modern folklore as anyone who has seen the recent children’s film Kung Fu Panda is aware.

A modern adaptation of the legendary Shaolin “Hall of the Wooden Dummy Men.”

In modern times (from the middle of the 19th century on) the wooden dummy has been markedly more popular in southern, and to a lesser extent coastal eastern, China.  Nor will we be surprised to learn that this is also where the legend of the Shaolin hall of the wooden dummy men first emerged (before being popularized throughout the Chinese cultural sphere—See Hamm (2005), Paper Swordsmen, chapter 1).  Most of this post will focus on those areas where the greatest number and variety of dummies are found.

Before going on it might be useful to develop a typology of dummies.  For the most part training dummies break down into two categories.  There are those that focus on stepping and balance, and those that emphasize striking (either to improve technique or conditioning.)

Watch Your Step: Plum Blossom Poles

Stepping dummies are more wide spread than their striking cousins.  While not all styles use them, “plum blossom poles” are currently seen in all regions of China.  They are often employed by Plum Blossom Boxers (Meihua quan) in Shandong, Henan and in the north. Additionally, they are also an absolute fixture in a number of styles in Fujian and Taiwan, as well as commonly encountered in Guangdong and Hong Kong.  The wide spread adoption of this technology probably says something about its relatively ancient origins and the ease with which such training devices can be constructed.

Traditionally a field of plum blossom poles (I am using the approximate English translation to avoid confusion as the Chinese name varies between dialects, regions and styles) was comprised of a group of two meter long posts, approximately 10-14 cm in width, that were set firmly halfway into the ground.  The number and pattern in which these are laid out can vary quite a bit.  Often in modern southern martial arts only five poles will be used, replicating the five blossom of a plum flower, but more elaborate fields of a dozen poles or more are fairly common.  Additionally the height of the poles is sometimes kept even and sometimes staggered depending on the requirements of a given school.  If the posts are made high enough it is not uncommon to see students also using them as a striking target (for both hands and feet) while they are standing on the ground.  In fact, I have often wondered if this wasn’t the actual origin of the three posted kicking dummy seen in some Wing Chun schools today.

A martial artists using a field of plum blossom poles.

Different sorts of “portable poles” have been constructed over the years.  Esherick (Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 1985) reports that in the late 19th century Plum Blossom Boxing instructors would travel between temple festivals and marketplaces in Northern China after the wheat harvest to demonstrate their skills, meet old friends and recruit students (pp. 148-149).  Small benches, pots and other mundane objects were occasionally employed in these demonstrations of martial and acrobatic prowess.

Training on the plum blossom poles is still common today in a variety of schools.  It has a number of benefits but the most obvious are better balance and greater precision in stepping and turning.  Working on the poles can also build leg and core strength.

The Invincible Training Partner: Striking Dummies

Striking dummies are also seen in the north, but probably less frequently than the plum blossom poles.  Certain Bagua schools for instance will walk circles around a tree that might occasionally be struck.  Others have been seen using a single planted pole for similar purposes.  Some of these practices even resemble the Japanese use of the makiwara.  This simple but effective training device was used in Okinawan Karate and may be of Chinese origin.

Gichin Funakoshi, one of the founders of modern Karate, using the makiwara. Simple striking dummies such as this one are fairly common throughout the martial arts.

More rarely Bagua schools might employ a pole with four arms radiating out from the top in the form of a cross.  These objects are struck in a free flowing way, and in that sense they are fairly different from the more rigorous set dummy forms that are practiced by folk styles further to the south.  The emphasis here appears to be on both conditioning and the initial approach of the target.

A simple striking dummy employed in some Bagua schools.

Not only do striking dummies become more common as one travels further south but, in the modern era at least, they also seem to become markedly more complex.  R. W. Smith, who studied various forms of Chinese boxing in Taiwan during his tenure there as a CIA officer in the 1960s, noted the use of dummies among some of his informants and provided helpful photographs.

His first photograph is of Tung Chin-tsan  (aka, the “Golden Dragon”) whom Smith first met on his tour of Southern Taiwan (Chiayi) in 1961.  Tung was a somewhat unreliable source.  He claimed a great martial heritage, having studied at Wudang, the Shaolin Temple in Henan (where he learned Plum Blossom Boxing) and the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian.  Given that scholars are now agreed that this last school never actually existed one must also doubt his other credentials.

What Smith did know through his law enforcement contacts was that Tung had a number of followers in the Black Dragon organized crime society.  He had also been imprisoned because of his own membership in the group.  While Smith found his Judo and boxing average at best, Tung Chin-tsan truly excelled in the realm of dummy work and Smith came away quite impressed.  So much so that he commissioned a replica of Tung’s dummy to be built at his own residence.

A few days later in Tainan, Smith was introduced to someone who actually was trained in Fujian.  Wu Ku-Ts’ai studied in Yong Chun County (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  Smith states that his style was simply “Shaolin.”  Evidently Wu was a believer in the importance of physical conditioning.  His students (all family members) would practice strikes on the post pictured here.  He also used iron balls (for hand strength) and contact sparing to condition his students.  It does not appear that Wu had a dedicated dummy form, at least not that he shared with Smith.

As we travel further South we hit Guangdong Province.  Many of the schools here have adopted various sorts of dummies into their practice.  Further, the actual use of the dummy is more likely to be systematized into a complex, even theoretical form, rather than a simple conditioning exercise.

Some of the first references that we have to dummies in southern China actually date back to the Cantonese Opera tradition.  We know for instance that members of the various opera groups used wooden dummies in training their younger members in the martial arts.  The Foshan Opera museum has a planted dummy (bottom half buried in the ground) that they claim is representative of what was often used.  However, this dummy is so similar in both size and shape to the sort favored by modern Wing Chun and Hung Gar players that it is hard to tell how authentic it actually is.  Period photographs of opera singers in training appear to show a much larger dummy and greater variability in the types of dummies used.

Late 19th century performers with a large wooden dummy, apparently on the deck of a boat.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century Choy Li Fut was the numerically and socially dominant martial art throughout the Pearl River delta marketplace.  Like Tung they seemed to favor more “mechanical” dummies.  There is also a lot of diversity in the sorts of training equipment that is seen in Choy Li Fut schools and this applied to their dummies as well.  Very often dummies from this style will have one upper arm that is either weighted, or attached to a spring (a more recent addition) that can be manipulated by the student.

Master Ho Ngau working on a type of dummy still seen in Choy Li Fut schools.

Traditionally striking dummies in Guangdong were planted in the ground.  However, unlike the plum blossom poles, which were supposed to be firm and unmoving, a dummy that is intended to be hit should have a little movement and spring.  As such dummies were placed in a hole and then secured with gravel, reeds or small shoots of bamboo so that it would have some natural springiness when struck.

Other regional styles also employed dummies.  Mok Gar seems to have favored a relatively simple striking pole, similar to what we already saw in Northern China.  Hung Gar and Wing Chun seemed to take a middle position.  Their dummies were more complex than the simple striking pole, possessing arms (usually three) and often a leg (one or none), but they lacked the more complex mechanics and moving parts favored by other regional practitioners.  Rather than being strength training and conditioning devices, the dummies favored by these schools were meant to correct a student’s angles of attack and entry.  They were always more concerned with geometry, posture and proper technique than strength.

Traditional Mok Gar dummy training from Guangdong.  Note the emphasis on conditioning.

The Advent of the Modern “Wing Chun” Style Dummy.

In the 1950s, a number of martial artists fled the communists on the mainland and settled in Hong Kong.  Ip Man (a prominent Wing Chun instructor) was one of these.  In 1952 he wished to resume teaching the styles  wooden dummy form in his school.  Unfortunately he lived in a multistory apartment building and it was impossible to install a standard planted dummy.  After thinking the matter over he asked a friend, Fung Shek, who was a talented carpenter to create a system whereby a dummy could be mounted on a wall.  Fung devised a system whereby the dummy is held in place by thin wood slats that act as natural springs giving the dummy more life and movement when struck than was ever achieved with traditional “planted” dummies.
Unfortunately Fung was not able to supply the Wing Chun clan with many dummies.  After making less than a dozen dummies his son was killed in a tragic car accident.  Most respectable citizens of Hong Kong took a rather dim view of the martial arts in the 1950s.  These pursuits tended to be associated with criminal and youth delinquency.  Evidently Fung felt conflicted about his association with Ip Man and concluded that the death of his son was divine retribution for creating devices that would train unreliable young men to better hurt one another, and other members of the community.  While Fung stuck with his vow and never made another dummy, his basic design was adopted by others and is now produced on a massive scale (Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger.  Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. Springville, Utah: King Dragon Press. pp. 47-50).  I mention this story not only as an interesting footnote in the modern history of the wooden dummy, but also because it nicely illustrates the ambiguous place that the martial arts occupy in modern Chinese society.  Even after all of the work of the reformers in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements, the martial arts still engender a level of suspicion that students in the west have a hard time fully comprehending.

Ip Man working on his dummy. Note the thin slats that dummy hangs on. This mounting system was perfected by Fung.

Fung’s new mounting system has succeeded because it is ideal for urban environments.  It was portable and could be easily installed in apartment buildings. Students responded enthusiastically to then new training tool and for the chance to work with dummies in an urban environment.  As a result the standard Wing Chun dummy, modeled on the one commissioned by Ip Man and produced by Fung, has become the most common wooden dummy seen throughout southern China.  This is the type of striking dummy that most martial artists will picture in their minds unless you specifically specify a different variant.

Further, the rising visibility of Wing Chun (due to the media presence of Bruce Lee and his teacher Ip Man) has led students in all sorts of styles to begin to experiment with different sorts of dummy exercises.  I think we can safely say that there are vastly more wooden dummies in use in the Chinese martial arts now than there ever were in the 19th century.  Further, they are more standardized in their size, shape and function than ever before.

In an era increasingly dominated by modern, scientific, equipment and training regimes it is interesting to watch the rediscovery, and even the spread, of wooden dummies to new areas of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  No doubt this reflects the growing affluence and media exposure of modern martial artists in China (and the west).  Yet it also speaks of a need to reconnect with the past, even if it is the imaginary past of the southern Shaolin Temple and its room of diabolical dummies.  I think for a lot of Chinese practitioners there is an odd, almost self-orientalizing, aspect in this rush to rediscover the dummy.  Of course it goes without saying that to beginning students in the west, the wooden dummy is always the most exotic and intriguing piece of equipment in the training hall.  It appears to be the absolute acme of Chinese martial mysticism.  This is why the humble wooden dummy is elevated to such heights in martial arts entertainment, including films like “Ip Man” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

These tendencies make me slightly uncomfortable.  I would prefer for practitioners to remember the past as it was, as opposed to how they hoped it would have been.  Still, as a student of the martial arts myself I can attest that a good dummy is a very useful bit of equipment with a lot to offer.  Maybe their wider adoption will ultimately end up improving the quality of practice in a variety of styles.  While not a complete history of wooden dummies (a project of that scope would require a book) I am always interested to hear more about traditional practice methods.  Feel free to share any photos or stories that you might have below.

Did Ip Man Invent the Story of Yim Wing Chun?

Ip Man not only brought Wing Chun to Hong Kong, he also passed on a rich body of lore and legend surrounding his art.

***Here is one of the first substantive posts that I ever wrote on Wing Chun for the blog back in 2012, about three years before my book (with Jon Nielson) came out. Wing Chun mythology is always a hot topic. Enjoy!***

Many of the debates in the Wing Chun world today focus on the question of lineage.  People want to know which expression of Wing Chun best captures its essential essence?  Which is truly “authentic”?  Often it is assumed that authenticity must be expressed in terms of history.  Some individuals then conclude that the branch of Wing Chun which is the oldest must the most “true.”

Needless to say this entire exercise is problematic.  There are too many undefined terms and leaps of logic in the foregoing statement to count.  Yet this sort of reasoning is what is driving a lot of the public conversation on Wing Chun these days, lacuna and all.  Side stepping the issue of “authenticity” for a moment (a topic complex enough to deserve a post in its own right), I have real doubts that the pure expression of anything is really linked to its oldest form (or better yet, our best attempt to recreate it). 

The truth is that things change for a reason.  Historically speaking, all martial arts, almost without exception, have been forced to reinvent themselves in every generation in order to survive.  Every true Sifu or Sensei instructs his or her students not just to be a clone, but to rise to ever greater heights.  And occasionally this actually happens.  As a result our arts change, grow and evolve over time.  They adapt to new markets and new economic conditions almost continually.  What was done in the late 1700s or the mid-Ming dynasty can never truly be replicated today.  Deal with it, and consider some other ways of defining “authenticity.”

The Wing Chun Creation Myth

Of course one of the first things that we need to do when approaching the history of any martial arts is to actually separate fact from fiction.  For instance, how should we think about the oral folklore that gets passed down in almost every hand combat school?  Do we dismiss it out of hand?

That is probably not a good idea.  Folklore is passed on precisely because it is meaningful to the audience.  The folklore of Wing Chun, or pretty much any other kung fu school, reflects the actual lived experience of those who have dedicated their lives to this tradition.  This material has immense ethnographic value.

But that’s not really what most participants in the Wing Chun wars care about.  What they really want to know is, does it have any historical value?  Will it lead me to locate a Wong Wah Bo or Leung Yee Tai in the cemeteries of Guangdong if I just look hard enough?  Did these stories really happen?  Do they contain some essential grain of truth sufficient to justify my faith in the art?

The sad truth appears to be “no,” at least for the historical questions.  The orthodox Wing Chun creation story was first recorded by Ip Man sometime in the early or mid-1960s for a proposed organization called the “Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship.”  This project never panned out.  In fact, the process of creating a home organization for his brand of Wing Chun was a long drawn out ordeal with many bumps along the way.

A page from the historical account of Wing Chun’s origins. This document was written by Ip Man but was never officially used during his lifetime. The complete account can be seen on the VTAA’s webpage.

This document, found with Ip Man’s papers after his death and now displayed by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA), contains the basic Wing Chun creation story that everyone is now familiar with.  It talks about the burning of the Shaolin Temple, the escape of the Five Elders and Ng Moy’s instruction of Yim Wing Chun to beat the marketplace bully.  It then lists the subsequent transmission of the art through the Red Boat opera company to Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun and ultimately Ip Man himself.  Interestingly enough, this 1960s era document is the oldest recoded version of this story that exists.  There is no physical evidence (actual documents, not simply a different lineage’s folklore which claims to be older) that this story was ever told in the late 19th century.

Many historical investigations of Wing Chun take this document as their starting point.  However, even a passing familiarity with the folklore of the martial arts of Southern China indicates that this will be a problem.  The burning of the Shaolin temple (either north or south) is a myth, it never happened.  The escape of the Five Elders is a motif drawn from gangster folklore.  Yim Wing Chun bears a suspicious resemblance to female martial heroes in both Hung Gar and White Crane legends (in fact I have argued elsewhere that she is probably derived from the latter).  Lastly is the issue of Ng Moy herself.

Situating Ng Moy in the Historical Literature

The famous story about Ng Moy (related by the sons of Ip Man) watching a battle between a snake and crane is identical to the older and better established Taijiquan tradition.  Taiji was first introduced into Guangdong during the 1920s.  The appearance of this story in the Wing Chun canon appears to be a clear case of borrowing.  That is important to Ng Moy’s origins for another reason as well.  The 1920s-1930s are the first time that she appears in local literature and storytelling as a heroine rather than as a traitor and villain.

Ng Moy made her first appearance in the written record in the last few decades of the 19th century in Guangdong province.  Unfortunately for those seeking to trace a lineage back through her, this first appearance was actually in an anonymously published popular martial arts novel titled Shengchao ding shen wannian qing (The Sacred Dynasty’s Tripod Flourishes, Verdant for Ten Thousand Years.)  Given its somewhat unwieldy title the story is usually simply called Everlasting in the English language literature.

John Christopher Hamm, in his study on Jin Yong’s martial arts novels (Paper Swordsmen 2005), spends some time discussing Everlasting and its impact on the evolution of the “old” and “new” school martial arts stories in Guangdong and Hong Kong (pp. 32-48).  Everlasting is of great interest as it was directly copied (often plagiarized) by a variety of other novels and it ended up providing almost all of the local Shaolin “lore” that ends up in subsequent films and radio plays produced in the region. 

This is a very important point to emphasize.  There is no evidence that there was ever a large body of Shaolin folklore that southern martial artists or story tellers drew from.  With the partial exception of the Triad story on the burning of the southern temple, these were not simply “folk characters” indigenous to the region.  Rather, one novelist wrote a book expanding on the escapades of the various Shaolin monks and the Emperor’s attempts to destroy them.  That book was so successful that it spawned dozens of copies.  It literally created a genera of storytelling that is still with us today.

Working class patrons of a stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels. This 1948 AP photo illustrates the importance of heroic martial arts tales in southern China, even for individuals with limited literacy.

Everlasting is very important to the question of Wing Chun’s origins as it is the very first time that Ng Moy is ever mentioned in print.  Unfortunately for us, this is not quite the same wise and loyal figure that Ip Man honors in his narrative.  The Ng Moy of the novel is crafty and prone to laying elaborate plans (a major point of continuity with her later figure), but she is also a traitor.  Along with Bakmei she betrays the Shaolin heroes to the state and ensures their destruction.  In fact, one of the underlying themes of this novel is the righteousness of Imperial authority against the lawlessness and chaos caused by the wandering, argument prone, monks of Shaolin.  Ny Moy is an agent of the order brought by the government.  She is quite literally the Emperor’s hand.  Clearly this is not the sort of character that a supposedly “revolutionary” art like Wing Chun would put at the head of its lineage.

Of course shifting assessments of “revolution” and its desirability run throughout any longitudinal discussion of martial arts folklore.  In the last few decades of the 19th century the Chinese Imperial government was actually pretty popular among most of the population.  Yes there were cases of corrupt officials and tax revolts, but for the most part the government was seen as standing up to landowners and hated foreign intrusions.  Neo-Confucianism was accepted as the official arbiter of public morality and order.  For instance the Boxer Uprising was not a rebellion against the government, but rather a massive popular uprising in support of it against foreign religious and commercial interests. 

Somehow in Kung Fu folklore “revolutions” is always a good thing.  Yet it is pretty clear that most people in China in the late 19th century didn’t actually think that way and had no plans to depose the Qing and restore the Ming.  Nor was aligning yourself with the hated Taipings or the criminal underground likely to improve your popularity around town.  That sort of rhetoric became markedly more popular and common around the time of the 1911 revolution.  It persisted through the 1940s due to the encouragement of both the Nationalist and Communist Party (both of which sought to use the social revolution to further their own political objectives).  Its ubiquity in martial arts folklore is really just one more piece of evidence that this is the oral culture of the 1920s-1950s that we are dealing with, not the 1820s-1850s.

While the stories of Everlasting were very popular, the end of the book (where Shaolin and the government simply could not be reconciled) seems to have troubled some readers.  Perhaps the destruction of the Shaolin Temple was too definitive.  It did not leave enough room for new stories or imaginative play in the here and now.  And that is what readers really wanted.  I suspect this is still what many martial artists actually want today, a chance to enter the story for themselves.  To experience what Mircea Eliade might have called “sacred time” in the guise of a Kung Fu story.

The novel was subsequently republished (or more accurately stolen) a number of times throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, occasionally without its bleak conclusion.  One of the most important of these rewrites was an undated novel published during the 1930s.  Jiang Diedie’s novel Shaolin xiao yingxiong (Young Heroes from Shaolin) put the foundations in place for the eventual creation of the Yim Wing Chun narrative. 

His work lacks originality.  Many sections of text are simply copied directly from the original book, published 40 years earlier.  However, in Young Heroes the story ends when Ng Moy is able to negotiate a truce between the various feuding factions of Shaolin monks.  Rather than destroying the temple and siding with the state (all of which happened much later in the original narrative arc), she is now left the savior of Shaolin.  More importantly, she comes to be associated with those values that the Shaolin monks of Everlasting stood for; independence, stubbornness, hubris, short temper, loyalty and a love of southern China.  In short, Ng Moy was for the first time transformed into a literary hero.  She became exactly the sort of figure who someone like Ip Man might have included in his narrative.  More than that, she became the sort of figure that martial arts students would have demanded in their pedigree.

The Story of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun continues to be popular today. It has even spread beyond the Wing Chun community. Yuen Woo Ping’s 1994 retelling of the story is considered a comedic masterpiece.

To recap, Ng Moy is not an old figure in the regions folklore.  In fact, she never appears in the folklore record at all.  Instead she is a fictional character that was invented for a written novel in the late 19th century.  Originally she was a problematic figure and was associated with the domination of the state over Shaolin (and by extension local society).  It was not until the 1930s that this perception of her changed as authors began to rewrite the classic novel in such a way that the stories would appear to be more open ended.  Now Ng Moy was free to use her plans for good and she joined the ranks of Shaolin’s heroes.

The Wing Chun narrative recorded by Ip Man shows no knowledge of the older, original view of Ng Moy.  In fact, it is conceptually dependent on versions of the Shaolin story that were circulating in the form of novels and radio programs in the 1930s-1950s.  The established literary record forces us to conclude that Ip Man’s story must have been composed in the 1930s or later.  QED.

If Ip Man didn’t Invent Yim Wing Chun, who did?  And why?

There is another aspect of this legend that must be considered.  Stories like this one were used to advertise a school.  While fictional they played an important social role in creating a group identity and conveying core values and experiences.  Ip Man was neither a professional writer nor was he a martial arts teacher in the 1930s.  He would have had no reason to compose this story at that time.  And by the time he was teaching in Hong Kong the narrative is already well enough established that it is repeated and echoed in the myth of other lineages.

Wing Chun students today tend to obsess over Ip Man, yet he and the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” were actually rather marginal figures in the martial arts landscape of Foshan prior to WWII.  A number of other people, largely forgotten today, were responsible for actually teaching Wing Chun publicly.  Further, the 1930s saw a massive expansion of interest in the art as the local branch of the Nationalist party government started to support it.  I suspect that this is when there was a sudden increase in demand for a creation story and the myth of Yim Wing Chun was invented.  It was probably stitched together using material borrowed from White Crane and Hun Gar, the novel Young Heroes of Shaolin and an older genealogical name list.

It still isn’t clear which of the local other teachers (or newspaper writers) composed the Yim Wing Chun story.  I would like to introduce their individual biographies in separate posts so that readers might get a much better feeling of what the social history of Wing Chun actually looked like.  Further, these biographies might give us some clue as to who the mystery author really was. 

Still, we can be relatively certain that the Yim Wing Chun narrative cannot have emerged before the 1930s.  This is likely when Ip Man first became aware of it.  In fact, he may have known enough local folklore to be suspicious of it.  I think the most overlooked aspect of this discussion is that while Ip Man may have written the story down, he never passed it on (at least not in its written form).  Remember, this manuscript was found only after his death.  He may have contemplated giving this to an earlier association, but he never gave any official history to the VTAA.

Some of Ip Man’s students are deeply steeped in the Yim Wing Chun tradition.  But for others it doesn’t appear to be central to their understanding of Wing Chun.  Consider for example Bruce Lee’s book The Tao of Gung Fu.  While it was never published during his lifetime its still an great source for students that are interested in his development from Wing Chun to Jeet Kune Do.

Ip Man and his young student Bruce Lee. As a truly global superstar, Lee is responsible for much of Wing Chun’s early popularity outside of China.

At the end of this book Lee provides his American readers with as much information as he probably can on the origins and histories of a number of different Chinese styles and master.  He also discusses his own teacher, Ip Man, in glowing terms.  What I have always found interesting is that Lee never relates the Wing Chun creation story.  Perhaps he simply dismissed it (like so much else) as “non-essential.”  Of course another possibility might be that the story was just not as meaningful and widely discussed by the young students of the mid 1950s-1960s Hong Kong based Wing Chun revival.

Uncovering the literary origins of this myth is not entirely a bad for Wing Chun history buffs.  In exposing its recent origins I think we create as many questions as we resolve.  For instance, was this story composed all at once, or is it modular in its construction?  I personally suspect that the genealogy of names at the end of Ip Man’s account is actually the oldest part of the story and the bits about Shaolin and Yim Wing Chun were added on later.   What did Chan Wah Shun tell his students about the history of his art, as it clearly wasn’t the story that Ip Man wrote down?   Finally, what about Leung Jan?  Would even the name “Wing Chun” have meant anything to him at all?  When did the art taught by Leung Jan come to be known as Wing Chun? Clearly we are in no danger of running out of research questions.

[If you are Interested in learning more about Yim Wing Chun and her place in modern Kung Fu mythology, be sure to check out this post as well.  Just click the link.]

A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of Kung Fu Tea. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.

Research Note: A Challenge Match in Hong Kong, 1890

Vintage Postcard (undivided back) dating to the late Qing dynasty. Source: Author’s personal collection.

Today’s post comes courtesy of Joseph Svinth who shared an intriguing, if brief, find with me a few weeks ago. Kung Fu legends revel in accounts of high stakes challenge matches. In a typical story a young martial arts instructor enters a neighborhood seeking to set up shop.  He is challenged by one or more members of the local establishment on the understanding that if he loses, he must close down his school and head elsewhere.  Such showdowns are the bread and butter of martial arts films and novels. Their memory even seems to affect the behavior of contemporary North American martial artists as I have, over the years, heard of a good number of challenges issued and received under various circumstances.

I suspect that casual brawling between rival martial artists was probably more common in the 1970s and 1980s, but a certain amount of this still happens. Of course, in the current atmosphere such standoffs may be more likely to end in police involvement than in the past.  Or maybe not.

The following article lets us take a close look at how one specific challenge match evolved between two martial artists in the Hung Hom neighborhood of Kowloon (Hong Kong) in the year 1890.  Not only do we get a glimpse of the truth behind the legends, but this account is interesting for two other reasons as well. First off, our would be combatants advertised their disagreements through a series of public placards, giving us a look at the sort of rhetoric that surrounded one of these events.  Unsurprisingly they attempted to hail the neighborhood, invoking its honor and making Hung Hom not just the prize, but a participant in their grievance. One wonders whether such a rhetorical strategy reflected the fundamental marginality of such figures and their attempt to claim a place within local society by loudly advertising that they alone could protect the neighborhood’s honor.

The second interesting thing about this fight is that it never actually took place. While our would-be participants felt that publicly posting placards was the appropriate way to go about airing their grievances, Hong Kong’s law enforcement officers strenuously disagreed. When the promised fight caused public excitement they swept in, removed the offending placards and apparently arrested Hok Lo Chun, the instructor who had more recently moved into the area.

This is a valuable reminded that the “good old days” were never quite so free as modern stories tend to imagine. Both the Qing Empire and later Western imperialists took a dim view of any type of public disorder, particularly episodes caused by martial artist in areas under their control. I wouldn’t say that challenge matches never happened, but they could and did result in serious legal consequences. It seems almost certain that we know about this aborted bout precisely because it generated a court case (and written records) that could be discussed by a Hong Kong reporter looking for a juicy story.

This brings us to the second point of significance. I am not yet sure which paper (or reporter) first published this account, but it quickly got taken up by a newswire service and was eventually republished around the globe in the autumn (August-November) of 1890. Joseph Svinth sent me a clipping from The Sportsman, an athletic newspaper published in Melbourne. A few moments of searching revealed that at least three other Australian newspapers carried the same story within a month of when the Sportsman ran it. It was also republished in the Boston Globe Weekly, the Times of Philadelphia and the London Evening News and Post.  I am sure that it made other appearances as well, but given how popular it clearly was, I did not feel like making a more comprehensive search.  I think it is sufficient to say that the account was widely read on at least four continents…in 1890.

To put this in a more historical context, a decade before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion we can already find stories about Chinese martial artists circulating widely in the global press. The ways in which they were reported was unflattering to be sure. Yet this suggests that the existence of unique forms of Chinese hand combat was not unknown to the reading public.

A few notes on the article itself may be helpful before going on. As is often the cases in news reports from this era, the romanization of Chinese names and places did not enjoy any universally agreed upon standard. The “Hungham” neighborhood that the reporter identifies is almost certainly Hung Hom. Likewise, I suspect that the Kwan Yun Temple of Hungham is a reference to Hung Hom’s Kwan Yum (or Guan Yin) temple, which was a prominent structure in the region at the time.

I haven’t located any information about the two martial artists discussed in the piece.  Lau A Kwan seems to have established a successful public school in Hung Hom sometime before 1890. Sadly, the article says nothing about his style.  Hok Lo Chun, who subsequently moved into the area, is said to have studied both boxing and fencing.  If anyone has insight into these two figures, feel free to contact me or leave it in the comments bellow.

A Chinese Boxing Professor’s Challenge

A Chinese professor of boxing and fencing in Hong Kong published, by means of placards, the following challenge:–“Having been informed that a man named Lau A Kwan, who keeps a place in Hungham, where he instructs pupils in the art of fighting and self-defence, boasts that he has no equal in his profession, and that he is a perfect Hercules in strength and offers an inducement in the shape of 10 dol. to anyone who has the courage to meet him at the manly art and bend his arm—his strength being equal to several hundred cattles [sic.]—now I, Hok Lo Chun, have traveled over many countries of the globe, but never met a man who was so boastful and proud of his superiority in his profession.  I also have some knowledge of fighting, and therefore write this and post it up, so that all men can see me challenge him to meet me at the spot in front of the Kwan Yun Temple, Hungham, at 5 p.m. this day, man against man, there to try with me his skill in fighting, and the results of the test will be to settle beyond a doubt who is the best man.  If this Lau Kwan refuses to come out, then he is a vain boaster and rank coward, and he must clear out of the place all together, for he is only an upstart, and, and when put to the test, a baby at heart, and therefore not fit to associate with respectable men. I hope all people will excuse me.  Dated this day of the 3rd moon. Hop Lo Chun.”

The placards were removed by the police after attracting much attention, and the pugilist himself was arrested and punished.

The Sportsman, Melbourne, October 29, 1890. Page 2.
Boston Globe weekly on September 6, 1890. Page 4.
The Times (Philadelphia), August 24, 1890. Page 7.
London Evening News and Post, August 5, 1890. Page 3.

Earliest Published Photograph and References to Wing Chun

The Problem with Being “First”

I am distrustful of attempts to locate the “first” instance of anything popular or famous. Generally speaking, these quests misunderstand the way that the social world works. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and when you really start to dig into claims of absolute originality you invariably find many other sources of inspiration. Within the Chinese martial arts these sorts of claims are doubly problematic as they tend to have more to do with marketing, or reinforcing the authenticity of some lineage, than actually understanding the past.

Still, when properly framed discussions of the earliest appearances of things can be helpful. This is particularly true when they shed light on how some obscure practice or community was initially understood by the rest of society. Such is our goal as we discuss three of the earliest printed appearances of the term “Wing Chun,” as well as an important photograph of early practice.

Readers will note that none of these passages were authored by Wing Chun students. All of our earliest published mentions of the art were provided by outsiders. This fact grants contemporary researchers valuable clues as to what was generally known about the style and how it was understood by other TCMA practitioners in the early and middle years of the 20th century.

It should also be noted that I am restricting this discussion to appearances of the name “Wing Chun” in commercially published and distributed works. This essay does not attempt to comment on hand copied documents or singular artifacts. The reasons for this are two-fold.  As Douglas Wile noted in his important discussion of “newly discovered” Taijiquan texts, it is typically difficult to establish the provenance and age of these documents. Often this requires a specific type of scholarly expertise and direct physical access to the manuscript in question. Dating is also difficult because martial arts students continued to make hand copied versions of texts up through the 1960s. As such, not all hand copied manuscripts are really all that old. Martial arts are also one area of popular culture in which forgeries are not unheard of. As such, the academic bar for accepting new document discoveries, especially on controversial topics, is high.

Yet beyond those specific difficulties, discussions that occurred among very small groups of people (perhaps only a single master and student in the case of certain fightbook traditions) are not as interesting as those that shed light on what the martial arts community as a whole believed. Establishing what “everyone” knew (or aspired to know), gives us a clearer glimpse into the world that gave rise to Wing Chun as a social movement, rather than the internal history of a single lineage or school. As a student of social history, these are the sorts of discussions that I find the most compelling. It is the main reason why I keep coming back to newspapers, magazines, novels and other sorts of ephemera when trying to understand the social origins of these fighting systems.

Xiong family with Wen Weiqin on the far right of the back row. Source and Translation: Brennan Translation Blog.

Wen Shengcai – Wing Chun’s Revolutionary Martyr

Our first reference to Wing Chun occurs in 1919, which fits with what we know about the development of the art. After declining in popularity locally during the 1910s, Wing Chun’s public profile really began to take off throughout the Pearl River Delta during the 1920s. This was the decade when the once small style became a fixture in the regional martial arts landscape.

More surprising is the venue in which its name appeared.  In 1919 the Shanghai based Jingwu Association published their tenth anniversary commemorative yearbook. Equal parts family album, ideological statement, and marketing tool, this work is a critical source for anyone seeking to understand the martial arts of the early Republic period.  It was extensively discussed by Kennedy and Gou, and Paul Brennan has done the field a great service by releasing a complete translation. Still, I don’t think anyone would accuse the sprawling work of being overly organized. One must read closely to spot the gems.  One of these occurs in Part VIII in a collection of short observations titled “Some Ink Spillings” by Chen Tiesheng, the group’s main mouthpiece and writer.  In a collection of snippets, many of which focused on social criticism or political topics, he noted:

“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].”

I have previously pulled together a short biography of Wen Shengcai, and a discussion of his career as a political terrorist. At the time I argued that this passage is important as it reminds us that the first Wing Chun student to be widely known on the national stage was not Bruce Lee or Ip Man, rather it was Wen Shengcai, one of the celebrated “Four Martyrs of Guangzhou.” While he has been basically forgotten in modern discussions of the art, and almost nothing specific is known about his training, his story is a fascinating one.

This passage is also critical as it is the very first published instance of the name Wing Chun that has so far been identified in the Chinese language literature. And its interesting to note that Wing Chun’s reputation building efforts were starting out right at the top. Anything that the Jingwu Association published in this period was sure to reach a large national audience.

Still, it must be remembered that Jingwu didn’t teach or promote the martial arts of Guangdong.  Their curriculum looked to the North for inspiration. The opening of chapters in Guangzhou and Foshan was even the source of friction with regional martial arts instructors as the two sides saw each other as both economic and cultural competitors. Still, Jingwu was not above invoking Wen’s exploits in their own attempts to polish the revolutionary credentials of the Chinese martial arts. Nor was it apparently necessary to explain to audiences what Wing Chun was, or from where it hailed. This is the oldest published reference that we are aware of, yet it suggests that at least some basic knowledge about Wing Chun was already in national circulation by the opening of the 1920s.

While this was the only direct reference to the name “Wing Chun” within the 1919 yearbook, the volume did contain a few additional hints about the art’s community. Wen Weiqin, son of Shengcai, reappears at a particularly important moment in the history of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.  Specifically, his employer was a Director and special guest of the Guangzhou Jingwu Association when they opened their branch.

The 10 Year Anniversary Book commemorated this occasion by reprinting some of the press coverage of the event.  In an article from the China News we read the following description of the opening ceremonies:

Then it was time to begin the performances (which are already listed above and thus are only briefly discussed here). Among the guests were Xiong Changqing’s sons and daughters, who performed various staff sets. Xiong family instructors Wen Weiqin (son of Wen Shengcai) and Li Zhenchang performed boxing and staff sets, which they are each experts in.

Xiong Changqing was a wealthy local businessman and martial arts enthusiast who helped to raise the funds necessary to open the Guangzhou branch. He hired Wen Weiqin as a private martial arts tutor for the family, and in that capacity he and Li Zhenchang were given an opportunity to demonstrate their skills on opening night. Sadly, the names of the sets they performed were not recorded previously in the article as this paragraph seems to suggest.  Still, for one evening Wen Weiqing shared the stage with the likes of Wong Fei Hung, who made his now legendary final public appearance at the same demonstration.

Given the questions that remain about Wen Shengcai’s training, one might have legitimate concerns as to whether his son was teaching something that readers today would recognize as Wing Chun. Luckily Xiong’s family reappears latter in the same volume in a collection of photographs taken in Guangdong during April of 1919.

Here we find two group portraits.  The first includes Wen Weiqing himself on the far right, along with his employer, Xiong’s family, and members the local Jingwu group.  In the second we see a number of Wen’s young students engaged in two-person exercises that will be immediately familiar to any modern Wing Chun student.  Thus the 1919 Jingwu yearbook unexpectedly leaves us with both the earliest published reference to the name Wing Chun, and possibly the oldest photographic documentation of its practice. It also provides us with clear evidence that Wing Chun was practiced by female student from at least the early Republic period.

The earliest published photograph of Wing Chun, courtesy the Jingwu Ten Year Anniversary Book. Translation by Paul Brennan.

More Light on Leung Bik

Wing Chun reemerged in print in 1926 and once again we have the Jingwu Association to thank. Rather than a national publication, this occurrence was published in the local newsletter published by the Association’s Foshan branch. In 2016 the Foshan Wushu Association began a project looking into the various lineages present in the city. One of their researchers, Zhang Xuelian, came across a 1926 issue of the Foshan Jingwu Monthly containing a series of biographies. One of these was published at the request of a then current member named Feng Chengjian. It recorded the story of their father, Feng Xiaoli, who had learned Wing Chun from Leung Jan’s son Leung Bik. By estimating the ages of the various individuals who were mentioned, Zhang concluded that this training probably began around 1883. This newsletter was the earliest local publication that the Foshan research team located using the term Wing Chun.

This piece is also important for another reason. When researching my book on the social history of Wing Chun I ran across a couple of individuals who hypothesized that Leung Bik either never existed, or that he never taught Wing Chun. The thought seemed to be the Ip Man fabricated his existence as a justification for either changing his techniques or attempting to shore up his lineage status (though it should be noted that Ip Man, being a good Confucian, never claimed any Sifu other than Chan Wah Shun). The appearance of Leung Bik in this 1926 article confirms that he was indeed active in the Wing Chun world and had taken on students prior to Ip Man.

Nima King Wing Chun School. Source: SCMP

Wing Chun as a Soft Style

Our third occurrence of the term “Wing Chun” is a bit later than the first two but in some respects it is even more interesting. In 1946 Huang Hanxun (Wong Honfan) from Shunde published Secrets of the Mantis Style Boxing Art in Hong Kong. In keeping with the theme of this essay, Huang was also a former Jingwu instructor and student of the Northern branch of Mantis.

The introduction to his manual reads like something from the 1930s and suggests that he had been working on it (or at least thinking about it) for some time. It repeats once popular arguments about using the martial arts to “strengthen the nation” in the face of foreign threats, but reframes them as an attack on the notion that the more popular internal styles were up to this challenge. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that what is needed is the unique blend of hard and soft found in Mantis Boxing.

“Our nation in recent years has not resigned itself to the slander of being the “sick men of Asia” and we have instead endeavored to use martial arts as a remedy for the fragile physiques of our citizens. Our boxing arts are numerous and varied. I have heard many among the older generation say that southern boxing arts emphasize hardness, whereas styles such as Wing Chun and Taiji emphasize softness. It is true that hardness has the stubbornness of hardness and that softness has the subtlety of softness. However, the passive and active aspects are paired together, for it is through their interactions that the universe was made, and thus qualities of hardness and softness are actually equals. Just think of the way that teeth and tongue protect each other. Therefore, boxing arts that use hardness and softness equally, such as Mantis Boxing, should not be casually dismissed.” [Translation by Paul Brennan, emphasis added].

This is the only occurrence of Wing Chun in Huang’s text. Nor is it much of a mystery how he would have come contact with the art. As a resident of the South and savvy martial arts professional, he would have enjoyed some exposure to the region’s styles.  Further, when the Jingwu Association in Foshan fell on hard times in the aftermath of WWII, at least one Wing Chun instructor rented space in its halls to teach his classes. Yet what is critical here is Huang’s assumption that a Hong Kong readership would also be familiar with the style. Further, he accepts a stereotyped vision of the art, classifying it as an exclusively soft style similar to Taijiquan.

It would be pointless to debate Huang’s assertions about Wing Chun’s essential nature. Still, it is fascinating to realize that by 1946 the style was well enough known that it could be referenced as a means of explaining other, more exotic, martial arts. Further, the art’s public reputation for softness was already fully formed by the end of WWII. Within lineage accounts it is not uncommon to hear the assertion that prior to Ip Man’s 1949 arrival in Hong Kong Wing Chun was unknown outside of Foshan. This is clearly not the case. While Ip Man’s young students in the Restaurant Workers Union many have been unfamiliar with his style, many readers had both heard of Wing Chun and formulated definite ideas as to how it related to other arts, both locally and nationally.


The fascinating thing about the sources which we have just reviewed is that they simultaneously reflected and informed the public imagination. In a few cases documents such as these can yield tantalizing clues about the development of the Wing Chun community itself.  For instance, we now know that Leung Bik took students in the final years of the 19th century. And it is incredible to have discovered what is perhaps the earliest datable photograph of Wing Chun techniques, and its practice by women.

Yet more commonly these types of documents teach us something about the society that shaped Wing Chun’s early years. In 1919 this was a community that was at least aware of the existence of the art. By the end of WWII it was one that had developed preconceptions about the system. This discussion was shaped by individuals with no actual experience in the system and little sympathy towards it, yet there does seem to have been a general curiosity about the style. All of this provides us with a more accurate understanding of the environment that Ip Man entered when he become a professional instructor in Hong Kong in 1950.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part I)