The Chinese martial arts have a history going back several hundreds of years. Most sources trace the origin to the Shaolin monastery in Hunan province, the birth place of the Shaolin School of Pugilism. The Shaolin style influenced most other branches of pugilism which is followed.
It is generally known and accepted that the origins of the Wing Chun system can be traced back to its founder, the Buddhist Nun Ng Mui, who was rumoured to have escaped from the Shaolin temple before it was destroyed. Ng Mui, although skilled in martial arts, devised a new system which was inspired by seeing a fight between a snake and a crane.
What is not generally known is that the origins of the Wing Chun system can in fact be traced a little further back in history to a Buddhist nun named Dok Bei Sun Lee, which literally translates into ‘one armed nun’. Dok Bei Sun Lee was originally a princess during a time of war in the Chinese province kung Ju. During this period in history her official title was Chung Ping Kung Ju which means princess of Kung Ju. The Emperor of Kung Ju was losing the war. Fearing the worst for his daughter, the princess, if she were to be captured by the enemy, he secretly ordered his general to kill her. The Emperor thought it was better that his daughter should die with dignity rather than be violated or sold into slavery. The general could not bring himself to kill her. Instead he cut off her hand and let her go free. He took the severed hand to the Emperor and convinced him that he had killed the princess as ordered.
The Princess although she lost her hand, still retained her life and took to hiding in the Shaolin temple in the Fujian province. It was here that she studied Buddhism and was taught by another nun a martial arts system suitable for use by a woman. The Buddhist nun Dok Bei Sun Lee developed this style to make it more suitable for use by a person with only one arm. This style used one arm to control two arms with simultaneous blocks and strikes employing all available parts of the human body as weapons to strike with and use as a source of energy. All aspects crucial to striking were developed to the highest possible level such as: fingertip first knuckle strikes; full knuckle strikes; use of wrist energy, then elbow energy, followed by shoulder energy and finally hip energy, with leg strikes and movements and footwork. Most of these features or principles can still be seen in the first form. Of course, principles developed for one arm were easily adapted for two arms with great effect.
At this point in history the martial arts system had no distinct name. Later on, the Buddhist nun Dok Bei Sun Lee taught a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui. It is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of the details in this story because history is not based, in the main, on documentary evidence, but on oral tradition passed down from person to person.
Ng Mui enrolled at the Shaolin Temple in Fujian, the centre of the Southern School of Shaolin pugilism, to study the Buddhist scriptures and learn martial arts. During her youth she studied pugilism and had extensive training. When she entered the temple she had the opportunity of the best instruction from the highest authorities in both Buddhist learning and the martial arts. She trained hard and excelled, becoming later the leading nun in the temple. The style of pugilsim she studied was the ‘hard and soft’ Shaolin pugilism.
Having learned what she could, she further experimented and devised a system of her own, which would, in particular, suit the female physique. Her art makes use of principles such as: using your opponents’ strength to counter them; close quarter-fighting; centre line defending and attacking; shoulder, elbow and wrist generated energy for handwork; waist, hip, knee and ankle generated energy for footwork. In particular the Buddhist nun Ng Mui devised 12 hand techniques with centre, left and right applications making 36 movements. When these movements were applied on high, middle and low levels as well, one had in total 108 movements. Again, these 108 movements could be expanded by varied usage according to the practitioner’s interpretation. These techniques were later acquired by the founder of the Wing Chun style for her three forms and wooden man form.
The Buddhist nun Ng Mui eventually met another young lady named Yim Wing Chun, who came from a family of martial arts practitioners. Ng Mui took an immediate liking for Wing Chun’s admirable standing in the martial arts, and her intelligence, and decided to teach her. The martial arts style up to now was suitable for the female physique, and is what is called woman’s style Wing Chun. At this point in history only women were involved in its development. Wing Chun spent a period of time under her tuition and later met and married Leung Bok Cho (Leung Bok Lao). As both Yim Wing Chun and Leung Bok Cho were martial arts experts, the couple spent their time practising, and exchanging and perfecting ideas on martial arts. Initially, Leung Bok Cho was reluctant to learn his wife’s form of martial arts, as he thought it was only suitable for women. However, having spent time practicing and sparring with his wife, he became greatly impressed with her martial arts style, and changed his mind and decided to learn it. In memory of his wife, Leung Bok Cho called the style Wing Chun Kuen. This style, which was suitable for use by the male physique, is known as man’s style Wing Chun. From this point in history onwards, Wing Chun was developed and influenced by men only. Leung Bok Cho taught it to Leung Lan Kwai, a performer from a travelling theatre troupe. The art of Wing Chun was then passed on to Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai, who were also theatre performers.
Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo went south from Fujian province with the troupe to Fatshan in Kwantung province. There they met a doctor who specialised in traditional Chinese medicine by the name of Dr. Leung Jan. The art was passed on to him and he became famous as a Wing Chun practitioner. His fame and reputation invited many challenges from experts in various other martial arts styles in the surrounding districts of Fatshan. Leung Jan never refused any challenges, for he wanted to make the Wing Chun style known far and wide. He was never defeated and as a result, his fame grew and he received many students. The pugilistic circle of Fatshan nicknamed him the ‘King of Wing Chun’. Leung Jan had two sons; Leung Chun and Leung Bik. His best disciple however, was Chan Wah Shun, these three promoted the art of Wing Chun.
Yip man as a youth initially studied under Chan Wah Soon and later under Leung Bik. Yip man was a man of great learning. He took the art of Wing Chun to Hong Kong and became the leader of the Wing Chun clan there. A man of fine character, Yip Man made great contributions to Wing Chun Kuen by promoting it extensively yet carefully. The art of Wing Chun became known world-wide through his students, namely Bruce Lee in the U.S.A. and Lee Shing in Europe. Lee Shing brought Wing Chun to Europe in 1956, and became The President of the Yip Man Wing Chun Organisation in Europe and the U.K.