Sunday March 1, 2009
Edited January 24, 2019
As Wing Chun practitioners, we all wonder where and how this amazing art originated. When Bruce Lee exploded into the martial arts scene and the silver screen, and the spectators learned that his pugilistic roots came from Wing Chun, the Hong Kong media sought out his master, my great grandmaster, Ip Man, and interviewed him, asking him the same question. GGM Ip Man told the interviewers that Shaolin-Abbess Ng Mui formulated the art while in hiding, from the Manchurian soldiers, in the Daliang Mountains of southwest China. The rest is history, as they say, and Ineedn’t repeat the story.
However, of late, the story has been disputed.
Doubts emerged when some of GGM Ip Man’s students claimed that their master had never related the story to them, and that they had never heard it until GGM Ip Man was interviewed.
Books and articles have since been written refuting Abbess Ng Mui’s involvement in the art, the existence of Lady Wing Chun, and any woman’s involvement in it. The authors put Wing Chun’s birth (the art) at the time of the Boxers’ Rebellion, on the Red Junk, fathered by the actors of the opera, who were also revolutionary fighters.
I have been studying Wing Chun since 1970. I have no doubt that the art sprung from the womb of a woman. I have no doubt that it came from Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun. Plus, I have no doubt about the veracity of GGM Ip Man’s story.
Of course, I don’t have documented proof nor eye-witnesses to verify my belief; but neither do the authors who dispute GGM Ip Man’s story.
I have no doubts because, from my experience and understanding of Wing Chun, the art is more conformed to a woman’s structure and mind than that of a man. For this very reason, men struggle to master the art or standout amongst other martial artists since GGM Ip Man, who was a small-framed man.
For example, Wing Chun’s horse (stance), Tansau, posture, and the concept of yielding, are all very strange and contradictory to male
structure and thinking. Women have no obstacles between their legs to comfortably squeeze their knees inward, or execute a Tansau with their naturally inward-bent arms, have different and stronger lordosis (lower vertebrae) than male to allow better posture and pelvis control, and yield easily without loss of ego … and come out winning.
Below is a picture of my daughter’s fully stretched arms; note how the radius (thumb) side of the arms are relatively straight while the ulna (pinky finger) side of the arms are naturally bent inward at the elbows. Also note how the palms turn naturally outward, making the Tansau more effective.
The other reason I stick to GGM Ip Man story is simply out of respect for him and the founders of Wing Chun. To doubt GGM Ip Man and refute his story of Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun is slapping to their faces. It’s a perfect example of biting the hand that feeds you. It’s like being given a box of treasure … taking it, and then denying credit to the givers.
The other theorists could argue that giving credit to Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun for the art would mean denying credit to the Red Junk actors, who developed it. I beg to differ. The story of Wing Chun, as told by GGM Ip Man, INCLUDES the Red Junk actors as developers of Wing Chun; whereas, the new theorists EXCLUDE Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun.
Since there is no clear documentation of whether Ng Mui and Wing Chun first developed the art or the Red Junk actors, wouldn’t it be better to credit them all?
Ancient histories were mostly passed down verbally; some of them may not have been wholly true, but the core of the stories wouldn’t have been far from the truth.
GGM Ip Man was not known to be talkative or boisterous. We have to realize that the relationship between masters and students in the old days was quite different from what it is today. We may have a buddy-type relationship with with our masters today, and chit-chat over beer; whereas masters of the past expected high respect and kept a distance from their students. Masters gave information to students only on a “need to know” basis. Students dared not ask questions, and only spoke when spoken to. So, it is not surprising that GGM Ip Man did not relate the story of Wing Chun to any of his students. Also, as a rule, students and people of that era were not interested in the origin of the art (for that matter, the origin of anything) as we are today. Perhaps, the first time GGM Ip Man was asked about the origin of Wing Chun was the time he was interviewed.
While some Wing Chun practitioners dispute the story of Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun, some of us are digging deeper into it. We’re asking, where in Daliang Mountain did Abbess Ng Mui develop the art and meet Lady Wing Chun?
Daliang Mountain is situated on the borders of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in southwest China. The question then is … was it in Sichuan or Yunnan?
GGM Ip Man hand wrote the history of Wing Chun, saying that Abbess Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun went into hiding at the Daliang Mountains, at the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. He didn’t specify which side of the mountain they went. However, when he commissioned GM Moy Yat to inscribe Wing Chun’s history on stone blocks, Yunnan was etched into the stones as the location of their hiding.
The truth may never be found; but we could try using the process of elimination and probability to bring us closer to the truth.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to rewrite the history of Wing Chun as some people are doing. Neither am I saying that I have factual proof.
So, without further ado … here’s what I have concluded from my investigation:
Abbess Ng Mui and Lady Wing Chun were in the Yunnan portion of Daliang Mountain.
Why Yunnan, and not Sichuan?
Yunnan would have been a better hideout for Abbess Ng Mui (escaping from Manchurian police and soldiers) and for Lady Wing Chun’s father (escaping from Foshan [Futsan] police) for the following reasons:
Yunnan translates to “South of the Clouds.” It was always, and is still, considered a faraway (thus named South of the Clouds) remote and inaccessible province of China by the Central Government. Until recently, the only means of travel on the narrow mountainous paths and torrential rivers were on mules, yaks, sheep-skin floats and hand-glides. It is inhabited by 25 major ethnic minorities, and 26 minor indigenous groups (China has 56 in total). (Read about Yunnan Minorities.) It was always ruled by fierce ethnic warlords whom the Central Government was unable to ever conquer or enslave. Even in recent Chinese history, it stands out as the last province to convert to Communism. Because of its isolation from the rest of China, it was often used as a place of banishment for political exiles and fugitives.
The Yunnan map below shows the population of ethnic minorities and the
Yunnan is located in the southern end of western China. It shares
borders with Tibet (when it was an independent country), Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam. Any fugitive, tracked down to Yunnan, could easily sneak cross to one of these countries unnoticeably; whereas, the police or the army couldn’t do so without proper authorization. Therefore, it became a good hideout for anyone dodging the Central Government. In fact, Yunnan was the escape passageway for Chiang Kaishek and the last of his Kuomintang army when they were defeated and hunted down by Mao’s Red Army.
Although International maps show only one name for the Daliang Mountain, the regional folks call the Sichuan section of the mountain Daliangshan (Large Cool Mountain), and the Yunnan section, Xiaoliangshan (Small Cool Mountain).
Daliangshan occupies the south-eastern part of Sichuan, and extends to
the north-western part of Yunnan, which the locals call Xiaoliangshan.
Here’s a closer look at the Daliang Mountain. Yunnan’s border marked in red.
In comparison, Sichuan is much easier to access from central and rest of
China. It is predominantly inhabited by Han Chinese, and was historically well connected with the Central Government. It wouldn’t have been a good place for Abbess Ng Mui, Wing Chun and her father to hide. Also, the Daliang Mountain in Sichuan was inhabited by an indigenous tribe called Lolo (known as Yi today), who often fought the Hans and the Manchurians. Abbess Ng Mui, a Han Chinese, would not have been welcomed in this region.
Now, here is a very interesting fact about Xiaoliangshan that makes me and some of my peers suspect that Abbess Ng Mui developed the art there, and that the story of Wing Chun occurred in this area.
In Xiaoliangshan, there is a village located by a lake called Lugu. It is inhabited by an indigenous tribe call the Mosuo. What is unique about the tribe is that it is a matriarchal society. In other words, women are the heads of the families and tribe. They don’t have marriages, per se, but have what they call walking marriages. Men do not live with the women, and only come at night and leave before dawn; they have no rights to property or the children they father. Google Moso or Mosuo.
Nowhere in the history of martial arts did any woman make a name for herself as Abbess Ng Mui and Wing Chun did. The art was always dominated by men. Shaolin Temple was ruled by male abbots. Abbess Ng Mui would have ranked lower than the abbots. Her prowess in martial arts would have been overlooked and unappreciated. So, it is highly feasible that Abbess Ng Mui was inspired by the women of Xiaoliangshan to develop a martial art specifically for women’s structure and attitude. It is very likely that Lady Wing Chun was inspired by the women of this region to learn martial arts and challenge her harasser. It is also highly possible that a matriarchal society, like the Mosuo, had a martial art of its own that was different from men’s, which they used to defend their families, community, and properties. It is highly probable that Abbess Ng Mui had learned, adopted, or borrowed their martial art to develop her own.
The Lugu Lake Village still exists today, and the Mosuo people still
practice the matriarchal system and the walking marriage. However, since
the ancient days, the Mosuo people have extended themselves to Suhe
(pronounced Su-huh), and Lijiang, about 200 Km south of Lugu. Through
migration and emergence, the Mosuo people have become Naxi people in
Lijiang. They practice an indirect form of matriarchy. Although men are
entitled to properties and children, women conduct business, labor, and
manage funds. Men usually leisure in art and music.
Having traveled to this region yearly for the past 16 years, I’ve seen how strong the women are physically and mentally. I’m convinced that the
atmosphere and attitude in the region would have inspired any woman to
go beyond the norm. Cantonese women, particularly in the past, were frail and submissive. Lady Wing Chun would have been so before coming to
southwest China. However, being around matriarchs would certainly have
given her the strength to stand up against men. If you recall the story … when Lady Wing Chun returned to Canton, and married Leung Bok, she
did not tell him of her martial arts ability. She acted like a submissive wife, and only revealed her skills much later. This story indicates that she played different roles in different regions. In northern Yunnan, it would not have been uncommon for a woman to challenge a man; whereas, in Canton, it would have been unlikely.
Below are a couple of movie clips of Lijiang women at work. One of them
(pictured below) is shorter than my daughter who had just turned 10 in
the picture. The women are carrying over 100 kg of stones and sand on
their backs and neck. They were doing this all day and everyday when building my house .
My interest in Yunnan did not begin as a search for Wing Chun’s origin.
I first went there to search my roots. My grandmother was a Kham
Tibetan, living in Zhongdian, now known as Shangrila (an autonomous
Tibetan region in Yunnan); and my father was born in Lijiang. However,
after meeting and learning about the Mosuo and Naxi women, I began
exploring the idea of the possibility of Ng Mui and Wing Chun being in
this region, and giving birth to the art.
I thought, if the two ladies wanted total anonymity, they would have hidden in the mountain itself; however, they couldn’t have survived just living in the woods; they had to interact with a township. As the story goes, Abbess Ng Mui often came down from the temple to the nearest town; that’s where she met Lady Wing Chun. So, what town was it? Was it Lugu Village, Suhe or Lijiang. I concluded that Lugu Village was an unlikely venue. Even today, it is quaint and remote, and is predominantly inhabited by Mosuo villagers, who would have quickly spotted the two as Han Chinese, and aroused curiosity. Also, the story of Wing Chun didn’t quite fit in this background.
The story relates that Wing Chun and her father sold bean curd in a market below the White Crane Temple. Obviously, they had to place themselves in a populated area to enable a decent business and living. Lugu Village was too thinly populated; so was Suhe. Lijiang would have been the most likely venue.
Lijiang has a history of over 800 years. It was always a bustling trading center in the region. It was part of the tea-caravan route that went to neighboring countries. It was also a place where Tibetans, Indians, Burmese and provincial Chinese came to trade.
The above map shows Lijiang at the end of Xiaoliangshang.
Apart from hiding in the mountains, the alternative way to be anonymous would have been blending into a crowd of travelers or multi-cultural population, where everyone was a stranger. Lijiang would have been an ideal place for Ng Mui, Lady Wing Chun and her father to go about unnoticed.
Now, why didn’t GGM Ip Man just tell the interviewer that Abbess Ng Mui
hid in Lijiang if it was the venue of the story? As I said earlier, he may or may have not known; his teachers may or may not have not known; or it may have been too bothersome to pin-point where Lijiang was.
Lijiang was only known by traders in the region. In fact, little was known about it until 1996, when a major earthquake occurred, bringing international attention to it.
Yunnan being so remote, was ignored by the Central Government in its
plan to modernize China. Very little funding went towards Yunnan, including its capital, Kunming. Anything beyond Kunming received almost
none, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because of the poor
funding, the ancient homes and streets were left untouched.
When the international community got involved in the rebuilding plan of
Lijiang after the earthquake, it discovered the uniqueness of this beautiful ancient town. UNESCO immediately inducted Lijiang into its
list of heritage towns.
Even the Chinese did not know that such an ancient town existed. The young generation of urban Chinese had grown up on concrete high-rises,
and had only seen ancient Chinese architecture in movies and museums.
Since the discovery of Lijiang, it has become the prime destination for
So … had GGM Ip Man asked his teacher where in Daliang Mountain did
Abbess Ng Mui live, and the teacher said Yunnan; he would have asked,
“Where in Yunnan?” If the teacher answered, “Lijiang,” Ip Man would
have asked, “Where is Lijiang?” The teacher would have said, “Go bring
me a map …” That’s as far as it would have gone because there were no
maps readily available in those days like it is today. Only the Government or military would have had such a thing. Even if he located a map, Lijiang would not have been on it then.
GGM Ip Man would have been in the same dilemma if he told the Hong Kong interviewer that Abbess Ng Mui was in Lijiang, Suhe, or Lugu Lake. That would have been as good as locating the Atlantis.
So … the best answer from Lady Wing Chun to Leung Bok, and Leung Bok
to … whoever thereafter … would have been the Daliang Mountains.
Although I may be wrong pinpointing Lijiang as the location of Wing Chun’s origin, I am convinced that it is within this region. So much so I was convinced of Wing Chun’s roots sprouting from here that I bought a property in Lijiang and built a Wing Chun school on it … dedicating it to the honorable ladies who gave birth to Wing Chun.
I had first passed my thoughts to my sifu, Nelson Chan. In the fall of 2006, he visited me in Lijiang to investigate for himself. He went back pretty convinced himself. We’d been discussing this matter ever since.
In March 2009, Sifu Nelson Chan returned to Lijiang, brining Sisook Lester Lau with him to explore the issue further. Sisook Lau was convinced as well.
The Cantonese Chinese may feel offended that I’m moving the origin of Wing Chun from Eastern China to the Southwest. They may feel protective of their Southeastern art. In my opinion … putting Abbess Mui and Lady
Wing Chun in Yunnan at the time of the art’s birth does not take away from the fact (or story) that they both came from Eastern China; the Abbess from Shaolin (debatably in Henan or Fujian), and Yim Wing Chun from Canton; nor does it take away the fact that the art was developed further by Cantonese in Guangzhou (Canton). My investigation and theory only serves to add another dimension to the story or, if you will, the history of Wing Chun.