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]
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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.