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.
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.
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.
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)