From Shaolin To Wing Chun

by Matthew Kwan


Ever since Wing Chun was introduced to the general public by Yip Man and was then later popularized by the international fame of Bruce Lee, Wing Chun has been spread around the world. Much of the history of Wing Chun is shrouded in myths of legendary characters that emerged some time after the burning of the Southern Shaolin temple in Southern China. The process of determining history requires that we listen to many legends and cross-check them with all available documentation. The knowledge gained from this process is then widely shared through professional publications so that other scholars may dig even deeper until maximum accuracy is achieved.

This article is about another courageous Wing Chun family that has stepped forth to share its history and legends so that additional research and verification can be done by the scholars. The historical occurrences alleged represent radical departures from today's commonly accepted legends. At best, they may lead to the real root of Wing Chun. At worst, they will generate a flurry of academic digging. Either result can only be beneficial to today's practitioners of this amazingly scientific art form.

For many generations of Wing Chun practitioners, fabled stories of a young woman named Yim Wing Chun have grown to take the mantle of being called the "origins" of Wing Chun without knowing that there were other histories that were passed down through other Wing Chun lineages. One lineage that was concealed throughout the decades due to the political climate of China was the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen history. It's history, traditions, and teachings were passed down verbally from generation to generation of family members until recently brought to the public by Master Garrett Gee (Chu King-Hung). Master Gee states his only purpose in stepping forward at this time is to preserve the knowledge of our patriotic ancestry and to commemorate the valiant practitioners who fought and died for their country against the Ching Dynasty and later against foreign powers. He is adamant that he is not interested in political controversy, but welcomes historical research into the following facts as his lineage believes them to be.

According to Hung Fa Yi Kuen traditions, the history of Wing Chun begins in the Shaolin temple with the culmination of hundreds of years of martial arts experience. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw a blossoming of Shaolin martial arts as never before. Almost all the residents of Shaolin took up Wushu and a powerful detachment of several hundred warrior-monks was organized. The Ming government treasured the warrior-monks, sending them on expeditions to border areas. After the Manchurians conquered China, the remnants of the Ming family encouraged export of the secret knowledge of Shaolin fighting arts to rebel troops to defend the Han nation and to try to restore the Ming regime. This time period was known as the Ching Dynasty.

The conquest of China by the Manchu in the 17th century and harsh actions created distrust among the people towards the Ching government. The Manchu, excellent warriors in their own right, kept the Ming dissidents under control, imposing on all the badge of subservience, the "queue" which symbolized for them a horse's tail. Animosity and discontentment towards the Manchurians became more visible. Many boxers joined various secret societies hoping to return the Ming to power. Formation of underground movements were the precursory events that brought Wing Chun and many other Chinese martial art styles in existence. Thousands from the north retreated southward to both southern China and Taiwan, disseminating their martial arts skills as they went. Although unsuccessful in their aims, the boxers seeking a return of the Ming did achieve a result. They spread the Shaolin boxing doctrines to all corners of China.

The Hung Fa Yi Kuen ancestors claim there were two significant people who set the stage for Wing Chun and many other Chinese martial art styles to flourish. The first significant person was a Buddhist monk from Northern Shaolin temple, his name was Chiu Yuen. In Hung Fa Yi lore, he played the leading role in keeping the underground Anti-Manchurian activities alive. Unknown to the Manchurians, Chiu Yuen's real identity was Chu Ming, one of the last surviving descendants of the Ming Dynasty Royal Chu family. It was his Anti-Manchurian activities, as well as his family ties to the old regime, that led to the eventual burning of the Shaolin temples by the Manchurian Soldiers.

The second person was known as Da Jung. Originally he was a Ming military officer from Northern China that was forced to flee south. Later he became a monk at the Southern Shaolin temple in Fukien. Da Jung's real name is unknown, but in the history of Chinese martial arts he is considered "Joi Si" or First Leader because he was the first person to extend Chinese Kung Fu to Southern Shaolin. Until his arrival, Southern Shaolin was not known for its martial arts. He organized what was called the Buddhist Hung Moon organization. This was a secret society formed in the Shaolin to overthrow the Ching Dynasty. The Buddhist Hung Moon was the first Buddhist political organization that was loyal to the Ming regime. This event is known in Hung Fa Yi Kuen as a milestone in Chinese Kung Fu because not only did he bring martial arts to Southern Shaolin (according to their lore), but he also bridged the gap between Northern Shaolin and Southern Shaolin.

Also during this time, Cheng Sing Kung, one of the last surviving Ming generals, fled to the island of Formosa taking it over from the Dutch in 1662. It was then that he established the revolutionary society Tien Dei Wui {Heaven and Earth society} which was the counterpart of the Hung Fa Wui {Red Flower Society} on the mainland. The Hung Fa Wui was an underground Anti-Manchurian society based in Shaolin. In Shaolin, the Hung Fa Wui had a special gathering place called the Hung Fa Ting {Red Flower Court}. This was a great meeting hall where Ming loyalists gathered and discussed political strategies to overthrow the Manchurians and the fall of the Ching Dynasty.

Early in the 1700's, during the reign of Emperor K'ang Hsi (1662-1723), the Manchurians became concerned about the Shaolin Temple's rebellious activities as well as their advanced fighting abilities and continued development of their martial arts system. Under the decision to eliminate the threat of these rebels and their rebel leaders, the Manchurians sought to exterminate the Shaolin monks to prevent them from spreading their martial arts skills and rebellious activities. Eventually the Southern Shaolin Temple was burned and destroyed.

The Shaolin Temple was not only a repository of martial arts knowledge and rigorous training academy but, as important, a stimulus for other marital art styles. Many of the systems today were born out of Shaolin roots. Prior to the destruction of the Shaolin Temples, a comprehensive and high level martial art system was developed which was formulated through multiple generations of Shaolin knowledge and experience. The Hung Fa Yi Kuen lineage believes the ultimate goal was to create a new system which could be used to defeat the classical styles. In pursuit of that goal, the elders shared their most advanced principles and strategies and work began on the new style. This martial art system latter became known as Wing Chun, named after the Wing Chun Tong {Everlasting Spring Hall} in the Shaolin Temple. As with all high level Shaolin knowledge, this new art was conducted under secrecy, a "Silent Code". In order to hide the new revolutionary fighting art's identity and origin, a fictional person named Yim Wing Chun and story were created to cover up the original nature of the art.

After the destruction of the Shaolin Temple and its Wing Chun Tong, the character of Wing used for this new art was changed from "Wing" meaning "always, perpetual, or everlasting" to "Wing" meaning "to recite, sing, praise, or chant." Chan Buddhism is based on oral communication to pass on its teachings. The character "Chun" meaning "spring, a time of new growth", stayed the same. The Han nation was seen by many as the spring of Chinese culture. By changing the characters, the Ming loyalists were reminded to pass on the tradition and secrets orally while working to rebuild the Ming government. The Chinese word "Yim" means "to prohibit or secret". By adding Yim to Wing Chun, the meaning was "to be discrete, secret, and pass on the revolutionary art orally". To insure that the art was not abused or to fall into the wrong hands, it was never documented.

During that time it was strictly forbidden to teach or reveal the art to anyone that didn't belong to the secret societies or were non-Han. Because of this reason, Wing Chun took on a mysterious persona. Many years later, a famous novel writer wrote a martial art fiction titled 10,000 Year Ching. In the novel, it talks about Ng Mui, Chee Sim, Hung Hei Goon, and Fung Sai Yuk. Many fairy tales and stories about Hung Kuen and Wing Chun were based on this novel. With each telling of the story from the novel, embellishments and exaggerations were added until the story reached the level of a fairy tale. Due to the nature of secret societies, these fictional stories and legends came to be the accepted truth as to the creation of Wing Chun.

After the destruction of Shaolin Temple, the connection between the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) and the Tien Dei Wui (Heaven and Earth Society) was opened up to the ordinary people in the involvement of overthrowing the Ching Dynasty. Their famous battle cry was, "Overthrow the Ching and Restore the Ming". New secret societies emerged after the Hung Fu Ting was destroyed. The three major secret societies that surfaced and gained public attention were the Triads {Three Harmonies}, the Gua Lo Wui {Brotherhood}, and the Dai Doe Wui {Big Sword Society}.

Of those who survived the Manchurian massacres, two Shaolin disciples escaped and were able to keep the Wing Chun system alive. The senior, a monk, was the twenty-second generation Shaolin Grandmaster, Yat Chum Dai Si. The other, his disciple, was named Cheung Ng.

Not much is known about the history of Yat Chum Dai Si besides the knowledge that he was originally a high level monk from Northern Shaolin which later migrated to Southern Shaolin to join the efforts to help restore the Ming Dynasty. Cheung Ng, unsurpassed in literature, military skills, and dramatic opera, was originally a native of Hanbuck in Northern China. It was said that he had come from a family of generations of military men serving the Ming regime until the Manchurians killed his family. Seeking refuge and fleeing persecution, Cheung Ng fled to Northern Shaolin to become a monk. After spending some time in Northern Shaolin, he heard of the gatherings in Southern Shaolin in a place called the Hung Fa Ting and that their purpose was to restore the Ming regime. He then left Northern Shaolin to join the rebels in Southern Shaolin where he met the Shaolin Grandmaster Yat Chum Dai Si. It was there that he began his studies of the art that was to become Wing Chun. Before the Grandmaster's death, Grandmaster Yat Chun Dai Si passed on his high level Wing Chun knowledge to Cheung Ng.

After the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple, Cheung Ng fled to Guangdong province. In order to keep his identity and Shaolin background from the Manchurian government, Cheung Ng founded the Red Boat Opera Troupe in Futsan. Known for its discipline and rules of conduct, the Red Boat Opera Troupe was an organization of talented stage performers who traveled in up and down the rivers of Southern China in red boats. This time period around the mid-to-late-1700s was known as the Red Boat Period.

During his travels with the Red Boat Opera Troupe, Cheung Ng soon became known as "Tan Sao Ng" from the Opera Troupe because of his skillful usage of the dispersing hand maneuver while he demonstrated his marital arts mastery to subdue opponents during challenges. ("Tan Sao" means "dispersing hand".)

Although the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) was destroyed, Tan Sao Ng continued his mission to unite the people against the Manchurians to overthrow the Ching Dynasty. He established the Hung Fa Wui Goon troop {Red Flower Union} in memory of the Hung Fa Wui (Red Flower Society) and the Hung Fa Ting which was destroyed at Shaolin Temple. The Hung Fa Wui Goon outwardly appeared as a traveling opera troop, but was actually a collection of secret society members that organized underground activities throughout China. Tan Sao Ng was very selective before he allowed any initiates to become a member. The initiates must prove themselves to be loyal and trust-worthy then after they must take 36 oaths and the 21 moral codes as well as the Secret Society Ritual of drawing blood.

The Hung Fa Wui Goon troop members had the perfect disguise. As an Opera troop performer, Hung Fa Wui Goon members were able to travel from place to place unquestioned by the authorities. By day, they would perform operas and by night, they would gather with local underground organizations to coordinate antigovernment activities. These were very dangerous and turbulent times for anyone connected to Shaolin or any underground society. If discovered as a member of any underground movement, the Manchurians would immediately execute him so keeping anonymity was very important.

Only select members of the Hung Fa Wui Goon troop were taught by Tan Sao Ng which were the first generation disciples of Wing Chun from the opera. Of those select students, few disciples were significant in the contribution to Wing Chun's history: Hung Gun Biu {Red Bandanna Biu}, Wong Wah Bo, Leung Yee Tei, and Dai Fa Min Kam {Painted Face Kam}. It is at this time that the art of Wing Chun continued to evolve, change, and adapt for several reasons. First of all, not all the disciples of Cheung Ng were members of the secret society. Due to the length of time spent with Cheung Ng and his need to keep the style hidden, not all his disciples shared the same experiences. Second, the Opera was a melting pot of both Northern and Southern Shaolin providing the performers access to a wide range of ideas, techniques, and training methods. This led some disciples to change and adapt according to their environment on the Red Boats and the influence of different martial art systems all present during that time.

Eventually the Manchurians suspected the Red Boat Opera Junks for supporting Anti-Manchurian activities. They began hunting for Anti-Manchurian collaborators. For Tan Sao Ng, it became very clear that it was time to change his identity once more and retreat into the security of the Secret Society underground.

Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai continued performing and were openly known for their Wing Chun skills. Dai Fa Min Kam left the opera troop some time later to teach Wing Chun privately. Hung Gun Biu, having been a distant relative of Tan Sao Ng, retreated with Tan Sao Ng into the underground. Hung Gun Biu continued being active in the Anti-Manchurian affairs as well as receiving the full knowledge of Wing Chun by Tan Sao Ng taught to him to its entirety and in full confidence. Hung Gun Biu's lineage followed a tradition to pass down the complete system only to family members who took a traditional ceremonial Shaolin vow of secrecy.

This lineage became known as Hung Suen {Red Boat} Wing Chun to the public, but it was referred to as Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun to the secret society of the past. The name "Hung Fa Yi" was used in reverence, as was the name the "Hung Fa Wui Goon" chosen by Tan Sao Ng, to remind the Wing Chun descendants of the direct connection from the Hung Fa Ting and the Hung Fa Wui than was established in Southern Shaolin.

A generation later, many of the Hung Gun Biu's Secret Society descendants banded together in secret to fight for their country against the eight foreign countries that had slowly exploited China during the 1800's and early 1900's. They were the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, British, Japanese, Russian, Germans, and the Americans. Many of Hung Gun Biu's descendants fought and died with dignity for their country during the Boxer Rebellion.

Hung Gun Biu's lineage continued during the early 1800's through his relative Cheung Gung, who passed on his knowledge and experience to his great nephew, Wang Ting. Wang Ting taught his son, Dr. Wang Ming of Saiquan, China. Dr. Wang Ming taught the entire system with its original concepts to only four disciples. One of these disciples was Garrett Gee. Sifu Gee comes from a family of great martial artist reaching back to the Song Dynasty. At the age of 5, Sifu Gee started his martial art training under the tutelage of his father. While attaining mastery of the various styles in his Kung Fu family lineage, Garrett Gee demonstrated an affinity and flair for swordsmanship. He is an accomplished practitioner and instructor of traditional Kung Fu weapons styles. At age 13, Sifu Gee impressed Dr. Wang as they became acquainted while training daily in a park. Sifu Gee became the last of Dr. Wang's four disciples who received full training in Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen. Sifu Gee has been teaching since his move to the US in 1975. Traditionally, Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen has been taught primarily from father to son and, until instruction of Garrett Gee by Dr. Ming Wang, was never taught outside the family. In order to preserve his art and to honor his Kung Fu lineage, Sifu Gee has decided to pass on his knowledge to students who have a dedicated interest in this Wing Chun style. This is the first time that Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen has been taught outside of China.

Note: The author of this article, Matthew Kwan, wrote this piece in 2006 before Grandmaster Garrett Gee publicly released more information on the HFY Wing Chun lineage regarding the Chan family role in preserving the art.













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