Yongchun/Wing Chun (Martial Arts)

Yongchun (perhaps better known outside Asia by its Cantonese name wing chun) is a Chinese martial art that is classified as a boxing system because of its reliance on striking techniques utilizing either hands or feet. The name yongchun or wing chun (alternatively wing tsun, ving tsun, or youngchuan), following oral tradition, is commonly translated as “beautiful springtime” in honor of the first student of the art. In general, Chinese fighting arts are classified as “external” (relying on muscular and structural force) or “internal” (relying on an inner force called qi [chi]); wing chun is a member of the former category. Wing chun originated in and remains most popular in southern China (particularly in the Hong Kong area). This martial art employs proportionately more punches than kicks and teaches the stable stances and closer fighting distances consistent with favoring hands over feet. Therefore, yongchun is characterized by economical movements, infighting, and defensive practicality.

As is the case with many traditional martial arts, the origins of yongchun come to us via oral history rather than written documentation. Oral transmission allows for the addition of legendary material, particularly concerning the earliest periods of the system. In addition, the secrecy imposed on students of the art and the existence of autonomous local cadres of yongchun practitioners, as distinct from a central organization, render impossible the contemporary reconstruction of a lineage that would be both definitive and scientifically documented.

Oral traditions of yongchun maintain that the system was invented by a Buddhist nun named Wu Mei (Ng Mui) who escaped the Shaolin Temple in Hunan (or in some versions, Fujian) province when it was razed in the eighteenth century after an attack by the dominant Manzhou (Manchu) forces of the Qing (Ching) dynasty (1644-1911), which officially suppressed the martial arts, particularly among Ming (1368-1644) loyalists. After her escape and as the result of witnessing a fight between a fox (or snake, in some histories) and a crane, Wu Mei created a new fighting system. This system was capable of defeating the existing martial arts practiced by the Manzhou and Shaolin defectors and, owing to its simplicity, could be learned in a relatively short period of time.

At this time, Ng lived on Daliang Mountain (Tai Leung Mountain) and regularly traveled to a village at its foot, where she befriended a local shopkeeper, Yan Si (Yim Yee), and his daughter, Yan Yongchun. On one of her trips to the village, the nun learned that the pair was being bullied by a local warlord who had announced his intention of marrying Yongchun, with or without her consent or her father’s permission.

Wu Mei offered Yongchun sanctuary on Daliang and instruction in her new method of fighting. After, by the standards of the day, a remarkably short period of time (given as from one to three years), Yongchun returned home, challenged her unwelcome suitor, and defeated him soundly.

Yongchun later married Liang Botao (Leung Bok Chau), who was himself a martial artist. After seeing her fight, he came to respect her so much that he learned her system, which he named yongchun in her honor. Despite the secrecy surrounding the art, it was taught to select students through subsequent generations. During this period, the exchange of fighting knowledge between teachers of yongchun and students who had previous martial arts experience led to the addition of weapon techniques to the empty-hand skills created by Wu Mei. There was a particularly close connection between yongchun practitioners and the traveling Chinese opera performers known as the “Red Junk (Malay; ship) People” after the red junks that served as both transportation and living quarters for the troupes. These troupes reportedly served as havens for Ming loyalists involved in the resistance against the Qing rulers and offered refuge to all manner of martial artists.

At any rate, Liang Erdi (Leung Yee Tai), a crew member of one of the Red Junks, became an heir to the yongchun system, which he passed along to Liang Zan (Leung Jan), who resided in the coastal city of Fuzhou. With Liang Zan and his students, the transition from legend to documented history begins.

Noting that the earliest solid evidence of yongchun places it in the coastal regions of southeastern China, alternative early histories of the system consider the ecology of that area, the cultural adaptations required for this environment, and the historical record. In general, these rationalist arguments maintain that the system developed from the fighting styles that were practiced in coastal Fujian province. Rather than originating in the Shaolin heritage of a single martial artist, as the Wu Mei legend maintains, martial arts knowledge that passed along through the coastal provinces of southeast China led to the development of the precursor of the contemporary art. Thus the creation, transmission, and refinement of practical fighting techniques by successive generations of anonymous individuals eventually produced yongchun. The argument that the mechanics of yongchun and other martial arts systems found in the south were ecologically determined goes as follows. The balanced stances and sliding footwork patterns and the low, focused kicks of the system are particularly suited to stability on treacherous terrain—the marshlands between the rivers and tributaries of southeastern China, the mud of a riverbank, the swaying deck of a boat. Also, the infighting preferred by the yongchun stylist lends itself to close quarters and tight spaces, just the situation one might encounter on a junk. Therefore, we see in the rationalist histories of yongchun a sense of geographic determinism, an argument that ecology, coupled with the needs of self-defense, have here produced an appropriate response. Although widely accepted, this argument is not universally accepted, by any means.

A less orthodox, but intriguing, rationalist theory espoused by Karl Godwin attributes the origin of yongchun to the introduction of Western bare-knuckled boxing to the southeastern coastal region of China during the nineteenth century. This argument draws evidence from the technical and structural similarities between European and American boxing of the latter half of the nineteenth century and yongchun, as well as from the historical records of European commerce in the area. Godwin further suggests that Western boxing was modified by the introduction of (push-hands) from taijiquan (tai chi ch’uan, the most widely practiced internal boxing system) to create yongchun’s distinctive chi shou (sticky hands) techniques.

During the late nineteenth century a traceable record emerges surrounding the education and martial arts career of Grand Master Yip Man (Cantonese; Mandarin Ye Wen; 1893-1972). This record begins with Yip’s master, Liang Zan (Leung Jan). Liang Zan, a traditional physician and pharmacist who was heir to a yongchun system, established a medical practice in the coastal city of Fuzhou. He taught his sons, Liang Chun (Leung Chun or Leung Tsun) and Liang Bi (Leung Bik), and a few other students in his pharmacy after closing. Next to the pharmacy was a money changer’s stall run by Chen Huashun (Chan Wah Shun; Wah the Money changer). Chen learned elements of the art by peeping through a crack in the pharmacy door and, after repeated appeals, eventually obtained formal instruction.

Chen gained a national reputation and passed along the art to sixteen disciples. The sixteenth was Yip Man, the son of a prominent Fuzhou landowner. Yip Man, at the age of 16, after he had studied for three years with Chen, was sent to Hong Kong to continue his formal academic education. Soon after his arrival, he challenged and was soundly defeated by an elderly man whom he later discovered to be Liang Bi. Thereafter, he was taught by Liang until Yip returned home to Fuzhou at the age of 24. There he remained until the end of World War II.

The Japanese conquest of southeastern China left Yip Man in financial difficulty. With the takeover of the country by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, his fortunes degenerated further, compelling Yip to move his family to Hong Kong. During this unsettled period, he turned for the first time to teaching yongchun for his livelihood, initially as instructor for the Association of Restaurant Workers and later opening a series of his own schools and privately instructing scores of students. As the result of these actions, Yip is credited with removing the veil of secrecy from the art and making yongchun available for public instruction. Since the 1970s, yongchun has grown to become one of the most popular of the Chinese boxing arts.

The style of yongchun introduced by Yip Man and popularized by his students consists of three principal unarmed sets (sequences of martial arts movements): Sil Lim Tao (Cantonese, Little Idea; Mandarin xiaoniantou), Chum Kil (Cantonese, Seeking the Bridge; Mandarin xunqiao), and Bil Jee (Cantonese, Flying/Thrusting Fingers; Mandarin biaozhi). In addition, there are two weapon sets: one that utilizes a long staff and one that utilizes a pair of broad-bladed, single-edged swords, approximately 20 inches long. Chi shou (sticky hands) techniques are the cornerstone of yongchun. These techniques, which teach students to come into contact with and adhere to opponents in combat, are practiced with partners and in a form using a wooden dummy, mok yan jong (Cantonese, also muk yan jong; Mandarin mu ren zhuang). The sticking concept is extended to legs and to movements of the staff set, also.

Following Grand Master Yip’s teachings, contemporary yongchun principles call for closing with an opponent and utilizing the ability to stick to and trap limbs. The centerline theory posits a vertical line drawn down the center of the body, intersected by three horizontal lines dividing the body into six gates. One defends this centerline and gates while attempting to launch an attack by “entering” an opponent’s gates. The ability to “stick” and launch centerline attacks is augmented by the basic yongchun stance, which calls for feet shoulder-width apart with the toes and knees turned in at 45-degree angles. The system favors flowing with an opponent rather than meeting force with force and deflecting strikes with one’s own strikes at such an angle as to simultaneously block and attack. Therefore, yongchun is well suited for use by a smaller, weaker person against a larger, stronger one.

Finally, yongchun, unlike the overwhelming majority of Asian martial arts and many non-Asian ones, is notable for its absence of ritual. The primary example of this is the fact that the yongchun sets begin without the formal bow that precedes the forms of most other martial arts.

Yongchun systems exist that developed parallel to Yip Man’s. Since the 1970s, however, Yip’s system has enjoyed overwhelming international popularity. Some of this is due to Grand Master Yip himself; he developed an effective system and introduced it to the public before his rivals. More importantly, though, he taught film star Bruce Lee (1940-1973) yongchun in the mid-1950s. Lee vocally acknowledged his debt to Yip throughout his career. As a result of these factors, Yip’s students, such as Hawkins Cheung, Leung Ting, William Cheung, and others, have successfully perpetuated the Yip system of yongchun.

During the 1960s, Bruce Lee developed his own martial systems, which expanded on and departed from the yongchun techniques he learned from Yip Man. For example, Jeet Kune Do translates as “intercepting fist way”; the intercepting fist is also a principle of yongchun.

In Hong Kong, Leung Ting has sought to systematize and popularize Yip Man’s yongchun by introducing a highly structured curriculum, a ranking hierarchy, uniforms, and diplomas under the auspices of the Wing Tsun Leung Ting Martial Arts Association.

Yongchun systems, unlike many other martial arts, show no sign of developing into sports. Their compact movements lack the spectacular acrobatics that have caused other arts to capture public attention. As a practical defensive art, however, the international popularity of yongchun continues undiminished.

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