Wing Chun is arguably the most famous single style within the Shaolin system. It was made known to the west by Bruce Lee and James Lee in the late 1960s in what was the single most influential introduction of Chinese Gung Fu outside China (one might equate Bruce Lee's bringing of gung fu to American television in 1964 with the arrival of the Beatles in America two years earlier). Despite Lee's rapid evolution of a personal style away from traditional Wing Chun, his association with that style was a major factor in its continued success over the years. More recently, the style has received new publicity following the death of long time grandmaster Yip Man as at least three of his senior disciples have waged an acrimonious conflict over who would inherit the supreme mantle for the style.
Despite the ongoing politics of the "upper echelons" of the style, Wing Chun remains an efficient, popular form of martial art. Novices mistake the small amount of material of the style (three unarmed kuen, or forms) for ineffectiveness, but seasoned martial artists appreciate the streamlined and highly simplified combat material offered. There are three major origin stories connected to this style, the most famous of which will be added to this web site at a later time. All three agree that the style was developed by (or with the input of) Shaolin "nun" Ng Mui, a senior gung-fu practitioner who was interested in combining the best techniques from the broad array of traditiona Shaolin gung fu into a simple, master style. Within Wing Chun techniques will be seen numerous elements from Snake, White Crane, Dragon, and Tiger (the former two mainly as offensive techniques, the latter two defensive). Eventually, the style was taught to a young woman named Wing Chun (translated as Beautiful Springtime), for whom Ng Mui named the art.
The three forms of Wing Chun begin with Sil Lum Tao (or Siu Nim Dao). The name means "little imagination", and refers to the need for the practitioner to use his or her imagination in the practice and application of techniques. Most moves are repeated three times, the primary attack is a sun fist (thumb facing upward on impact), and a variety of arm parrieslblocks employed. There is no footwork. This form is well-illustrated in a variety of books (see the books section), though each technique has several applications, most of which remain unpublished.
The second form is Chum Kil (or Chum Kiu), meaning" bridge-seeking". Chum Kil adds a few new moves to a skeleton of techniques from Sil Lum Tao, but adds more sticky-hands and bridge techniques. Bridge techniques are extended arm moves that intercept and redirect incoming attacks without using the brute power required in blocking. These techniques take advantage of the physics of swinging objects, in that there is very little force generated by an object the closer one moves towards the point of origin (e.g., it is much easier to stop a kick by intercepting it above the knee than below) of the attack. Additionally, this form introduces the three basic kicks, all aimed at the knees or lower, of Wing Chun. The last form is called Bil Jee (or Biu Gee), "thrusting fingers". This is a primarily offensive form, using finger thrusts/spear hands in a variety of ways. There is more footwork, including a sweep, low kicks, and stance shifts. There are several versions of this form being taught, with each instructor claiming that his is THE authentic version. In reality, Wing Chun has evolved under the many different practitioners since its inception in the 1770s, and each version is "authentic" in its own way.
About two hundred years ago, there lived in China a beautiful young woman whose name was Yim Wing Chun. Her name suited her admirably, since it meant "Beautiful Springtime." She was the daughter of a food merchant, who sold beancurd from a marketstand. She was betrothed to the man she loved, Leong Bok Chao. Her father, however, could not resist boasting of her beauty and gentle character. One day, news of this beautiful maiden came to the ears of an infamous warlord of the Yunan province. He journeyed to her town, and upon seeing her, was immediately struck with a consuming desire to possess her, and, as often the way with rogues, decided to get his way by force. He ordered Wing Chun's father to his camp and told him that unless the maiden was given to him in marriage, he would kill them both.
The father, his heart full of fear and confusion, and horrified at the warlord's cruel tactics, left the warlord's encampment to return home to tell his lovely daughter of her fate. There seemed to be no alternative, since the rogue was well known for his brutal atrocities and powerful gang of bandits. Calling young Wing Chun to him, the father told her of the warlord's ultimatum.
"Your name will be honored in our family and you will be esteemed as a revered ancestor", he said, struggling for words to make the idea more palpatable. "Who knows, you may be able to soften the warlord's heart and maintain yourself with pride as his wife, if not with the love I know you have for Leong Bok Chao.
The maiden was at first simply shocked speechless at the demand, but soon her mind tired of imagining impossible plans for escape. She settled into a dulled acquiescence. However, Date, or the Tao, or Kimset, or whatever Force rules the moments of chance encounters in our lives, intervened. While working at the foodstand, she met a Shaolin nun, Ng Mui. The nun asked the young woman what was troubling her and soon Wing Chun found herself unburdening herself to the nun.
Ng Mui was a Shaolin nun, who had lived for many years in the great southern temple of Fukien. Some years earlier, this refuge of the contemplative life had been destroyed during a rebellion against the Manchu dynasty. Ng Mui was one of the few that had escaped the holocaust. She was an adept of the Shaolin fighting arts of dragon and crane. These arts had been developed to allow the priests and nuns to protect themselves from wild animals and wilder men, who would seek to destroy the peaceful way of the Shaolin order.
When Ng Mui heard of the dilemma that Wing Chun found herself in, the nun sat quietly in meditation, thinking of a way which, in accord with Shaolin principles, would cause the least pain and hurt to all. How could bloodshed be avoided? How was the young woman to avoid becoming a sacrifice to the lustful appetites of the warlord?
"Where is your betrothed?" Ng Mui asked at last, opening her eyes.
"He is on a journey to the south, to Fukien, and has been delayed by the civil disturbances which caused the burning of your temple", Wing Chun answered, as she sait with bowed head and overburdened heart. "There is no way to reach him in time, and even if I could, I would not save myself by his death at the warlord's hands. Yet I fear that he will attempt to rescue me when he hears and will die and perhaps cause my father to die, in an attempt to rescue me."
"There is perhaps a way to avoid this death and destruction", the nun said quietly. "It will demand great courage on your part. If we can delay the wedding to the warlord for a while, I can teach you how to defeat him in single unarmed combat. First, would you be willing to face him in battle?", she asked? "Better that I should die than others for my sake. Besides, it would be worth it just to try something." "It is well. Now we must devise a stratagem to delay the warlord's demands for a year and then pique his pride by announcing that you have sworn not to marry any man who cannot defeat you in combat. Being a boastful braggart, he willl not want to appear to fear you and will agree to the duel. Your father must tell the warlord that that you have agreed to his demands but ask a delay while a letter is sent to Leong Bok Chao, formally breaking your existing betrothal. Since the country is in such turmoil, a year is not an unreasonable length of time," the nun explained. "He will also believe that preparations for such a grand ceremony will be lengthy."
All went exactly as the nun predicted. The warlord granted the delay of a year, certain of possessing Wing Chun at the end of that time.
Wing Chun and Ng Mui left town for the nun's training place at Pah Noh temple. Ng Mui drilled the young woman daily for a year on the Shaolin techniques of unarmed combat, concentrating on those which were most direct, effective, and useful to women. She taught her how to neutralize any incoming blows without extending herself off balance beyond her reach. She showed her how to redirect the opponent's force so that the harder someone tried to hit her, the more devastating would be the return blow.
The year passed and the two women returned to town. Now the second phase of the plan went into operation, as the father went to the warlord and told him that his daughter had studied gung fu since childhood and would feel humiliated to marry someone not her equal in hand to hand combat. The warlord agreed to the duel with much laughter and lewd comment.
"A spirited woman is more interesting to tame", he snickered.
On the day of the duel, the hopeful bridegroom, magnificently dressed in silks, stepped into the village square, ready to inflict public humiliation on his bride-to-be. Wing Chun stepped forward, clad in sober black tunic and trousers. The warlord, shouting to his entourage, aggressively charged Wing Chun, intending to knock her unconscious with his fists. She evaded his attack and returned his force against him, knocking him down. Getting up, he charged her again. The harder he attacked, the harder he fell when she hit him. Finally, bruised and bloodied, the warlord dragged himself away from the young woman who had barely moved from her initial stance. Humiliated and defeated, he was borne away by his gang.
The victorious young woman left the town with Ng Mui for Kwon How Temple in Kwantung Province, where she awaited the arrival of her beloved Leong Bok Chao. There they celebrated their long-delayed marriage, with Ng Mui's blessings. In later years, Wing Chun taught her husband what she had learned, and he in turn taught others this gentle art of life, now named Wing Chun in honor of the courageous young woman who first used it in her desperate gamble for happiness.
NOTE: This story is a recreation of the story of the initial development of the Wing Chun style. Now famous as one of the most effective, practical styles of the Shaolin, it was originally developed with no time or energy to waste on flourishes. The dialogue obviously was recreated with the help of a little imagination, but all times, places, and names are as accurate as Shaolin oral history can be.