In March of 2001, I traveled to the city of Shanghai, China on business. While there, and out on a walk, Heaven somehow led me to the Yuyuan Gardens, and to a most remarkable discovery.
There is a building in the gardens, opposite an opera stage, known as Dim Chun Tong (Dianchuntang). This hall was commonly translated as ‘Heralding Spring’ but the tour guide told me that in ancient times, ‘chun’ also meant ‘play’, and the name of the building, ‘Select Play Hall’, since it was there that they chose the beautiful plays and actors.
Entering the hall, I saw that it had become a museum of sorts from when it served as the headquarters of the Siu Do Wui (Xiaodaohui, Small Knife Society) during the time of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). And, though I could scarce believe it, among the weapons in the display case was a wu dip do, (xudie dao, butterfly knives), in the style used by wing chun kuen (yong chun quan), and nowadays commonly referred to as baat jaam do, (bazhan dao, eight slash knives).
A myriad of questions filled my mind. If dim chun, across from the opera stage, was ‘select play’, could wing chun, practiced by the opera performers themselves, be ‘recite play’? Could wing chun kuen, rather than the name of a legendary girl, ode to an apocryphal temple, or adapted rebel slogan, simply be ‘(the) fist (of those who) recite (the) play’, the first of the Red Junk opera performers, from whom all branches, one way or another, descend? I also wondered if there could be a connection between the knives of the Siu Do Wui, and the knives used by wing chun kuen, so identical they seemed?
While both groups played a role in supporting the Taiping Rebellion, one was in Shanghai and the other far away south in Foshan. There appeared to be nothing to link them together, until, on my third trip back to Shanghai, Heaven interceded again and took me to a bookstore. There I found the link in the story of two brothers who traveled from Guangdong to Shanghai, and one who traveled back to Foshan.
Between my trips and following the last one, I went through all my notes and my books, new and old, and worked with my wing chun kuen brothers, Robert Chu and Rene Ritchie, to see what else Heaven would reveal, so that I might share it with the greater wing chun kuen family.
- Hendrik Santo
During the Opium War (1839–1842), small successes by local forces in support of the Qing (such as in Sanyuanli in 1841), led to a new blossoming of heroic tales and oaths of brotherhood, increased reliance on braves and militia, and a general build up of moral. Following the defeat of the Qing at the hands of the British (and the ceding of Hong Kong), however, the dynasty was revealed as vulnerable. This fanned the flames of anti-government sentiment. From these flames emerged one of the largest rebellions the world has ever seen—the Taping (Great Peace)
The Taiping was founded in 1845 by Huayuan, Guangdong native Hong Siu-Chuen (Hong Xiuquan). After several failed attempts at passing the licentiates exams, and exposure to the translated bible tracts of Chinese Christian converts, Hong fell gravely ill and dreamt he was the second son of God, charged with driving the Qing demons from the land. When he recovered, her began a movement that spread rapidly among his own, Hakka people and on into the general population. The Rebellion began in 1850, and with it the attempt to establish the Taiping Tien Kwok (Taiping Tianguo, Great Peace Heavenly Kingdom). By 1853, the Taiping had seized the city of Nanjing, but failed to take control of nearby Shanghai. So, in August, the Shanghai Small Knife Society rose up to support them.
The Small Knife Society was first reported in 1742 in Zhangzhou, Fujian, roughly 20 years before Zheng Kai (Ti Xi, Monk Wan, Monk Hong Er) founded the Tien Dei Wui (Tiandihui, Heaven & Earth Society) in the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion, Gaoxi village. Their name was drawn from their weapons, carried for self-defense, and it spread through several places and incarnations in Fujian and Taiwan. In 1794, it was used for the first time as the name for a branch of the Heaven & Earth Society, organized by Fujian native and Taiwan resident, Zheng Guangcai in Fengshan.
In Shanghai, the Small Knife Society leader was Lao Lee-Chuen (Liu Lichuan). Lao was born in 1820 in Xijiao, Guangdong, and worked as a sugar broker (and reputedly as a smuggler). He was also a member of the Saam Hop Wui (Sanhehui, Three Harmonies Society, Triad).
The Three Harmonies Society began on January 4, 1812, in Shunde. Yim Kwai-Kiu (Yan Guiqiu), Yim Poi-Yuk (Yan Peiyu), and two others agreed to form a society for mutual protection. By January 9, they had 66 recruits, and adopted the Three Harmonies name. Yim continued to recruit, bringing 151 members into the society. They spread out and founded their own chapters until, by 1831, the Three Harmonies Society covered much of the south, divided into 5 fong (branches) - Fujian, Guangdong, Yunnan, Huguang, and Zhejiang.
In 1843, the Three Harmonies Society rose up under the cry of ‘Red Pole (leader) aboard the stage, acting in the opera (meeting the association), speaking the 36-mantras, cutting the finger and taking the blood-oath.’ They levied their own taxes and engaged in banditry to raise money, and feuded with the rival Sleeping Dragon Society. Under the watch of gun-wielding guards, they encouraged peasants, farmers, and eventually entire villages to join them. Police, magistrates, and others joined as well, and in 1844, they threatened to take control of the county seat. Only the intervention of gentry-raised militia, led by Zheng Guihong, stopped them.
Lao Lee-Chuen went to Shanghai in 1849, along with Zhou Lichun, Chen Alin, Pan Qiliang, and others, and set up his own organization under the Small Knife Society name. In 1853, they succeeded in seizing the walled section of the city, established the Dai Ming Kwok (Da Ming Guo (Great Ming Kingdom), and took the Yuyuan Garden’s Dim Chun Tong (Dian Chun Tang) as their headquarters.
The Yueyuan (Leisurely Repose) Garden was built in 1559, during the Ming Dynasty reign of Wan Li. The Dim Chun Tong originally drew its name from a line in an ancient Song Dynasty poem—’emerald green points to spring beauty’. ‘Chun’ is classically ‘sun causing plants to burst forth’, meaning ‘spring’, but characters have a way of evolving over time and place, through dialect and slang, to meanings both explicit and implicit. ‘Chun’ has also meant ‘lust’, and ‘wine’, and in Shanghai, in the Yuyuan Gardens, because the Dim Chun Tong was built across from an opera stage, its special meaning was ‘play’.
One of the knives used by those in the society was the wu dip do (huxiedao, butterfly knife) with the hooked guard, remarkably similar to those made famous a century later with the spread of wing chun kuen (yong chun quan). The butterfly knives came in two types, one with a heavier head optimized for chopping, and the other with a tapered head optimized for stabbing, in both dan (single) and seung (shuang, double) styles. Not a weapon of the regular military, many stories have tried to link them back to lion drummer knives or cook cleavers on the Red Junks. By the Qing dynasty, however, they were already spread through the Chinese coastal provinces, and favored by mariners, militia, and by people requiring easily concealed blades, such as rebels.
In 1854, Lao Lee-Chuen’s brother, Lao Doo-Chuen (Liu Duchuan), was sent back to Guangdong (which had been charged with paying 80.6% of the Opium War reparations) to help organize another uprising in support of the Taiping. There, Ho Lok (He Liu), a smuggler and society member whose brother was murdered in a prefectural purge, began to raise a band of men in search of vengeance. In June, helped by Lao Ying-Choi (Liu Yingcai), he prepared to attack the Dongguan county seat.
They moved on Stone Dragon Town. Thirty thousand members and six hundred boats worked towards the goal of ‘taking down the Dragon, lifting the tiger, dong yeung (dang yang, stopping the goat), pai Fut (pai Fo, bowing the Buddha), and reaching the Western paradise.’ In this code, ‘dragon’ signified the Stone Dragon, ‘tiger’ the Tiger Gate, ‘goat’ the Goat City (Guangzhou), ‘Buddha’ the Buddha Mountain (Foshan), and ‘Western paradise’ the province of Guangxi.
Ho Lok’s uprising began a chain reaction through the region and on June 11, 1854, Chan Hoi (Chen Kai) and Lao Doo-Chuen lead Heaven & Earth Society members to revolt in Foshan. On June 12th, members of the Kiang Fa Wui Goon (Qianghua Huiguan, Precious Jade Flower Union) were among those who joined the cause. They were led by Lee Man-Mao (Li Wenmao) of Heshan, who played the opera role of Yee Fa Min (Er Huamin, Second Painted Face) and practiced Bak Hok Kuen (Baihequan, White Crane Boxing).
The Precious Jade Flower Union was founded at Dajiwei in Foshan sometime during the 16th century, along with the King Fa Sui Bo (Qianghua Shuibo, Precious Jade Flower Pier) where the Hung Suen (Hong Chuan, Red Junks) were docked. The 17th century saw them move from common clothing to specialty costumes, and this overt form of disguise, coupled with their relative freedom of movement, made them an attractive refuge for rebels, including Cheung Ng (Zhang Wu), also known as Cheung Hin (Zhang Xin) who arrived sometime between 1723 and 1736.
The actual extent of Cheung’s rebellious activities remain uncertain, and range from his including anti-Qing comments in his songs, to expressing his dissatisfaction with the administration of the Qing Government through satirical plays. Cheung taught the Red Junk performers the traditional Gong Wu Sup Baat Bun, (Jiang Hu Shi Ba Ben, Eighteen Plays of River & Lake) and later generations regarded him as the “Great Teacher” and Zu Shi (Jo Si, Founder) of the modern opera.
Under Lee Man-Mao’s direction, the Precious Jade Flower Union took to the streets, in full costume, waving red banners. A few hundred at first, within a few days, tens of thousands of common people joined as well, showing their allegiance with red turbans. The Hung Gam (Hong Jin, Red Turban) Rebellion was born, and the Buddha was bowed.
The rebels burned the Qing offices, took control of the town, and ushered in the Dai Ning (Daning, Great Peace). Their troops came to be known as the Hung Bing (Hong Bing, Vast Army), with Chan Hoi as the Chan Nam Wong (Chen Nan Wang, Subdue the South King) and Lee Man-Mao as his second.
According to oral traditions, the Precious Jade Flower Union counted among their number several of the wing chun kuen ancestors:
Wong Wah-Bo (Huang Huabao), sometimes said to have been a native of Gulao, Heshan, is generally considered the senior of the troupe. He played the Mo Sang, (Wusheng, Male Martial Lead), and was particularly skilled in the roles of General Kwan and the Monkey King, and in the use of the kwun (gun, pole). Leung Yee-Tai (Liang Erdi) played the Mo Deng (Wudan, ‘Female’ Martial Lead). Dai Fa Min Kam (Dahuamian Jin, Painted Face Kam), also known as San Kam (Xin Jin, New Kam), and sometimes said to have properly been Lok Kam (Luo Jin) of Jinju, Sanshui, played the Mo Ging (Wujing, Martial Painted Face), or sometimes the villainous Chow (Chou, Clown). Yik Kam (Yijin, Wing Gold) played the Ching Deng (Qingdan, Proper ‘Female’), a virtuous leading role. Lai Fook-Shun (Li Fushun), also known as Siu Fook (Xiao Fu, Young Fook), played the Siu Sang (Xiaosheng, Young Male), the beardless scholar-lover. Cho Shun (Cao Shun), known as Dai Ngan Shun (Dayan Shun, Cross-eyed Shun), a native of Panyu, played the Siu Mo (Xiaowu, Little Martial). A former Choy Lee Fut boxer, he became a disciple of Yik Kam. And others, including mentions of Leung Lan-Kwai (Liang Langui), Go Lo Chung (Gaolao Zheng, Tall Chung), Fa Jee Ming (Huazi Ming, Flower Mark Ming), Fa Min Biu, (Huamian Biao, Flower Face Biu), Lo Man-Gung (Lu Wengong), etc. The Small Knife Society’s control of the walled portion of Shanghai lasted until 1855 when Lao Lee-Chuen was killed in battle at Hongqiao, and the Qing, aided by Western forces, drove them out. The take over of Foshan lasted until January, 1855 when, following mistreatment at the hands of some of the rebels, the locals joined forces with the Qing to route them. Following a failed siege attempt of Guangzhou, the group moved to Guangxi and established the Dai Sing Kwok (Da Sheng Guo, Great Achievement Kingdom), before dispersing and fading.
Lee Man-Mao died in 1858 in Huayuan County after fighting Chiang of Zhen Kuafan’s army. Chan Hoi died in 1861. The Taiping rebellion as a whole ended in dismal failure in 1864 with Hong Xiuquan dying in disgrace among his concubines, one of over 20 million deaths that occurred during the struggle.
In retaliation for their participation in the rebellion, the Qing sent Yip Ming-Chan (Ye Mingchen), Governor-General of the Liangguang (Guangxi and Guangdong provinces), to shut down the Precious Jade Flower Union. Yip slaughtered the actors, burned down the theaters, and outlawed the performances. Those that survived moved to other provinces to join other (still legal) troupes, became street performers plagued by market police and poverty, or hid in the towns and villages along their former routes and taught their martial arts to a few, carefully selected students. The ban lasted until 1871, when some returned to the opera, and others retired for good.
One chapter ended, but more began. Over the next century, the Boxer Rebellion raged, the Qing fell and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek and Sun Yat-Sen rose, only to give way to Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic. During these turbulent times, history was shaped and reshaped to back political visions and shore up popular support. Fable was mixed with fact, and fact bent until all but indistinguishable from fable; a trend that continues to this day.
Is there a connection between the Select Play Hall of Shanghai and the wing chun kuen art of Guangdong, between the blade of the Small Knife Society and the blades of the Red Junk Opera? History is not science; it depends on the interpretations of both the writer and the reader, the attitudes of both past and present. Perhaps Heaven intended to show a link between the two, or perhaps simply for one to inspire more thought on the other.
(Webmaster’s Note: This represents the first in a series of articles based on the almost 30 years of research of Hendrik Santo, student of the late Cho Hung-Choi of Malaysia. The next will focus on the potential origins of the wing chun kuen art itself, and its core of siu lien tao.)
References Origins of the Tiandihui by Dian Murray and Qin Baoqi, Hongmen Real History by Qin Baoqi, Secret Societies Reconsidered by David Ownby (Editor), et al, God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence, Historie de la Kiang Nan by A.M. Colombel, Twelve Years in China by John Scratch, Strangers at the Gate by Frederic Wakeman, and the oral and written histories of Cho Family, Sum Nung, Yip Man, Pan Nam, Gulao, and other branches of wing chun kuen.
About the Authors Rene Ritchie, Robert Chu and Hendrik Santo, between them, have written dozens of columns and articles for Inside Kung Fu, Martial Arts Masters, Martial Arts Legends, Martial Arts Illustrated, WingChunKuen, and other publications. Robert Chu and Rene Ritchie are co-authors, along with Y. Wu, of Complete Wing Chun, published by Charles E. Tuttle.
Rene Ritchie began studying the Yuen Kay-San/Sum Nung system of wing chun kuen under the guidance of Ngo Lui-Kay (Ao Leiqi) in 1990 and is author of Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen available from Multimedia Books/Unique Publications. He maintains the WingChunKuen site on the Internet World Wide Web, and is co-administrator of the Internet Wing Chun Mailing List.
Robert Chu has been involved in the martial arts since 1972, specializing in wing chun kuen and its weapons. Having learned Yip Man wing chun kuen from several prominent instructors (including his current teacher, Hawkins Cheung), and the Yuen Kay-San and Gualo systems from his good friend and teacher Kwan Jong-Yuen, he has also researched several other branches. In addition, he has a background in the weapons of Hung ga kuen and is a successor to Lui Yon-Sang’s flying dragon tiger gate combat pole in the United States. A licensed Acupuncturist / Chinese herbalist, he is available for consultation on pain management, sports injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, and internal medicine.
Hendrik Santo began learning the wing chun kuen of Cho Hung-Choy in Malaysia in the 1970s. Since then, he has spent much time researching both the nature of the art and the nature of Buddhism.