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Ng Mui 1

Ng Mui: Shaolin Nun and Heroine of China

Ancient Chinese history tells the tales of several women across the millennia who defied the traditional concept of male warriors in ancient warfare and helped mold the course of China's history. They included slaves, prostitutes, princesses, and Shaolin Buddhist nuns.

  

One such heroine is Ng Mui (Chinese Traditional: 五枚; Cantonese: Ng Mui; Mandarin: Wú Méi; c. 1700). Her name translates as "five plum," a poetic allusion to the five-petal plum blossom, which is also called the five-petal flower (五葉華 wǔyè huá). Plum blossoms flower in mid-winter to early spring. They are seen as a sign of winter and a forerunner of spring. They symbolize perseverance and hope as well as beauty, purity, and brevity of life.

The expression "five petals" is also connected with the transmission verse of Bodhidharma who foretold that five generations of Ch'an masters would follow him:

吾本來茲土傳法救迷情。
一花開五葉結果自然成。

I originally came to this country (China)
To transmit the Dharma and save deluded beings.
When the single flower opens into five petals
Then the fruit will ripen naturally of itself.

Five Petal Flower

According to one legend, Ng Mui was born into a noble family as the daughter of a general within the imperial court during the Ming Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644). Her social standing gave her access to the finest education and martial arts instruction of her time. She was regarded as a master of Shaolin martial arts (少林拳), Wudang martial arts (武当拳), and a style of Yuejiaquan (岳家拳) founded by the Song dynasty general Yue Fei and distinct from the Northern Shaolin Yue Chia style developed by the Henan Shaolin Temple (Shàolín Sì 少林寺) in northern China. Ng Mui was credited with founding several styles, including Wing Chun Kuen (咏春拳), Wu Mei Pai (吴梅派)/Ng Mui Kuen (吴梅拳), Southern Dragon Style (龙形摩桥), White Crane Style (白鹤派), and Five-Pattern/Five Animals Hung Kuen (五形洪拳). She is named in many folk tales, which contradict each other.

Ng Mui 2

In the Wu Mei Pai tradition, Ng Mui created her style while in the Forbidden City. She practiced on capsized logs or "plum blossom poles" (Chinese Traditional: 梅花桩; Mandarin: Méihuā zhuāng; lit. "plum pile") to cultivate balance and leg strength. She became renowned for her skill fighting atop "plum blossom poles." She was traveling when her parents perished during the conquest of the Ming capital city of Beijing in 1644 by the Manchu Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing gurun). The Qing Dynasty was founded in 1636 and ruled China proper from 1644 to 1912. She fled to the White Crane Temple (Báihè Sì 白鶴寺) in Guangxi province (Alternate Romanization: Kwangsi or Kwangshi) in southern China, bordering Vietnam. She became an anti-Qing rebel and taught her style within the White Crane Temple. Her style included rapid counters and slower movements from Qigong and Bodhidharma forms.

Ng Mui

Dragon style historians say that Ng Mui created the Dragon style at the Henan Shaolin Temple about 1565. She was one of the last members of that temple before its first destruction in 1570.

In the lore of Tibetan White Crane, though, Ng Mui is the Chinese name of a male Tibetan monk called Jikboloktot. He was of the last generation of students taught by Sing Lung, a martial arts master who sheltered at the Dinghu Temple (Dǐng hú Sì 鼎湖寺) in Guandong (modern Canton) during 1865.

According to Five Animals Pattern stylists, their system was jointly created by the nun Ng Mui and Miu Hin, an unshaved monk from the Siu Lam monastery (Southern Shaolin; Cantonese Yale: Siulàhm Jí) in Fujian (or Fukien) Province on the southeastern coast of China. Ng Mui and Miu Hin observed and imitated the movements of many animals, adapting the techniques for human limbs. The two masters were both among the Legendary Shaolin Five Elders (少林五老), who spread Shaolin martial arts across southern China.

Some traditions say that Ng Mui took as a student Fong Sai-yuk (方世玉), a possibly fictional martial arts master and folk hero during the Qing Dynasty who came from Zhaoqing City, Guangdong (formerly Canton) Province, a coastal province of southeast China. In these traditions, Ng Mui was part of a powerful clan named Fong. Ng Mui was said to have taught Fong Sai-yuk the Tiger and Crane form (虎鶴形) from the Fujian Shaolin Temple, which was the predecessor of the Hung Ga (洪家) style. Fong Sai-yuk was also associated with the Shaolin Five Elders and Hung Hei (洪熙官; 1745–1825), the founder of Hung Ga. Most Fong clansmen were said to have preferred the Crane techniques.

Shaolin Temple Destruction

Destruction of Shaolin Temple

In one Wing Chun tradition, Ng Mui was abbess of the Henan Shaolin Monastery (Shàolín Sì 少林寺), which was destroyed by Qing troops during the rule of the Kangxi Emperor (1662–1722) due to its anti-Qing activities. Ng Mui and the other Shaolin Five Elders survived the Temple's destruction around 1730.

Ng Mui and Shaolin Five Elders

Ng Mui and Shaolin Five Elders

She sheltered at the White Crane Temple, located in the Daliang mountains between the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan in southwest China. Legend says that during her time at the White Crane Temple, Ng Mui watched a crane and snake fight one another. Afterwards, she incorporated the principles of their movements into a new martial arts style she created that required quick arm movements and strong legs as well as softness via relaxation and the execution of techniques in a relaxed manner to best opponents. She had yet to give name to this new style, though.

Ng Mui Snake Crane

Ng Mui Watching the Crane and Snake

In a contradictory legend passed down to Wing Chun Grand Master Ip Man (葉問; 1893–1972), Ng Mui was the daughter of a Han Chinese Ming general who defected to the Qing Dynasty. Her father was one of eight Ming generals who helped the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1644–1661) ascend to the throne. The Shunzhi Emperor was the second Emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the first to rule over China proper.

After becoming emperor of China, the Shunzhi Emperor had his father Hong Taiji (r. 1636–1643), the founding emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the eight Ming generals killed in order to safeguard his power. Ng Mui was then known as Loi Sai Leung. To avenge her father, Loi Sai Leung killed the Shunzhi Emperor and went into hiding at the Shaolin Temple. Loi Sai Leung took the Buddhist Dharma name Ng Mui though she was actually a Taoist practitioner.

Ng Mui was already an accomplished martial artist from having studied at a Taoist temple in the Wudang or Mo Dong Mountains (Traditional Chinese: 武當山; pinyin: Wǔdāng Shān; Cantonese Yale: Móuh-dōng Sāan) under Master Wan Ho Lo Yan. At the Shaolin Temple, Ng Mui furthered her martial arts learning under Master Dook Bay Sun Lai. She became the most skilled elder of the Temple and she came to associate with the other Shaolin Five Elders.

Ng Mui later developed a martial arts style called Siu Bo Mui Fa Kuen (Traditional Chinese: 小博美髮館; pinyin: Xiǎo Bó Měifà Guǎn; lit. "Little Mouse Foot work, Plum Flower Fist") after watching a mouse as it walked. When she watched a snake and crane battle one another, Ng Mui further developed the style which became known as Sei Ho Bak Bo (Traditional Chinese: 西河白博; pinyin: Xīhé Bái Bó; lit. "Snake and Crane Eight Step"). Before fleeing the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, she continued refining the style and it was called Ng Bo Mui Fa Kuen (Traditional Chinese: 吳寶梅; pinyin: Wú Bǎo Méi; lit "Plum Flower Fist"). These three styles preceded what became known as Wing Chun.

The differing Wing Chun traditions generally converge to say that, as an elderly woman in hiding, Ng Mui purchased tofu frequently at a shop in nearby village. There she befriended a shop worker, a then 15 year-old girl named Yim Wing Chun, whom a local bandit leader was attempting to force into marriage. In one story, the bandit leader is called Wong. Around 1790, Ng Mui taught Wing Chun how to protect herself with her unnamed system, which Wing Chun could learn quickly over the course of a few months rather than years. Wing Chun practiced with an old tree trunk, which later formed the basis for the Wing Chun wooden dummy, the Mu Ren Zhuang (木人樁; Mandarin: Mù Rén Zhuāng; Cantonese: Muk Yan Jong; lit. "Wooden Man Post"; Wade Giles: Moo Jen Ch'wang).

Ng Mui Teaching Wing Chun

Ng Mui Sitai Teaching Yim Wing Chun

Ng Mui's system deemphasized the use of size and strength, favoring deflection over blocks and simultaneous defensive and offensive moves. Other basic principles were:

  • The shortest and fastest distance between two points is a straight line.
  • The essentialness of control and striking along the centerline (the plane between the center of one's body and that of an opponent's).
  • Executing 2-3 techniques simultaneously rather than one.
  • Receiving what arrives, following what retreats, and striking when open.

The annals of Grand Master Ip Chun (葉學準; born Ip Hok-chun; July 10, 1924), the elder son of Ip Man, recorded the following:

Yìhm Wing Chun 嚴詠春 had trained very hard and her soul had grown to a high level. Ng Mui Sitai 五枚師太 (Ng Mui Grand Master) was very pleased with her and knew that she was good enough to deal with those gangsters!

One morning Ng Mui Sitai called Wing Chun to her and said, "You have been here for months now. You have learnt so much and improved very quickly. It is time for you to go home. Start getting your things together. Tomorrow you will go back and see your father." Yìhm Wing Chun was sad and knelt down in front of her teacher. "Sīfú, thank you for teaching me and looking after me. I do not know how I can ever repay you. I will remember what you have taught me and I will always think of you. I would like to come back and look after you once I have finished my business with those gangsters."

Ng Mui Sitai smiled, "There is no need for that. You should have your own life. When the time is right I will come and see you."

The next day Wing Chun had packed all her things and came to say goodbye, but she still had one more question. "Sīfú, what is this Kuen* you have been teaching me?"

Ng Mui smiled and replied, "Think, what is your name?" Ng Mui did not answer her question, but asked her a question instead.

Wing Chun was confused. "Sīfú knows my name." She thought to herself. She did not really know what to say do simply said, "My name is Wing Chun."

Ng Mui smiled broadly and said, "Then this Kuen is called Wing Chun Kuen!" And from that day this is what the skill has been called.

*Traditional Chinese: 拳 ; pinyin: Quán; lit. "Fist"

Yim Wing Chun went on to defeat the bandit leader.

  

Yim Wing Chun versus the Bandit Leader

Ip Chun's annals record that when Wing Chun returned home, she found a letter left for her by Ng Mui:

Wing Chun 詠春 opened the letter and looked at the bottom, it was signed by her Sīfú.

Ng Mui Si Tai 五枚師太 wrote, "My dearest student Wing Chun, meeting up was fate. I don't have any other students you are the only one. I watched your family being bullied by the gangsters and this gave me an opportunity to teach you and I particularly wanted to teach this new Kuen style that I had created. You are kind, loyal and very smart. You have picked up my Kuen very quickly and have gained a deep understanding so fast. I didn't expect this but this has made me very happy. When you left with all the skill to return home and fight the gangsters I was watching. I was always nearby and I was so impressed with how you planned, prepared and took action. You are very structured and organised and I know you will be alright in the future. Now you have to take care of yourself and your father. I hope one day you will find somebody to pass the skill on to and keep developing it. It is time for me to go as there are more things in the country that I need to do. Maybe someday I will visit you again.

Yours sincerely,

Sīfú Ng Mui."

After reading the letter Wing Chun cried and as the tears flowed from her eyes she realised she may not see her Sīfú ever again, but inside she hoped, that perhaps someday day in the future, fate would let them see again.

Wing Chun never saw Ng Mui again.

Ng Mui journeyed across China to join with other Shaolin Temple elders to raise another revolt against the Qing dynasty. Ng Mui's final fate is unrecorded.

Wing Chun went on to wed her promised husband Leung Bok Chow. She taught Ng Mui's system to her husband. Some Wing Chun traditions say Leung Bok Chow named Ng Mui's system after Wing Chun following her passing around 1840.

Wing Chun Bronze Relief

Bronze relief in Ip Man Memorial Hall, Locun, Foshan, China

Little to no resemblance exists for the styles Ng Mui is associated with. Her contributions to each style show a development in her skills. As she set her own path in life, Ng Mui helped shape Chinese history and contributed to China's tradition of female martial artists. Both men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the Shaolin monks and nuns in Detroit and Madison Heights classes offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.

 

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