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yim wing chun

yim wing chun – legendary female martial arts master

yim wing chun (traditional chinese: 嚴詠春; simplified chinese: 严咏春; cantonese yale: yìhm wihng chēun; pinyin: yán yǒngchūn; c. 1775–c. 1840) is renowned as the first master of wing chun kuen (traditional chinese: 詠春拳; cantonese yale: wihng chēun kyùhn; pinyin: yǒng chūn quán; lit. "wing chung fist"). the style of wing chun fist bears her name, which can be translated variously as "spring chant", "eternal spring", "singing spring" or "eternal spring."

eternal spring

永春 "eternal spring"

yim wing chun was born late during the reign of the qianlong emperor (r. 1735–1796) of the manchu qing dynasty (traditional chinese: 大清; pinyin: dà qīng; manchu: daiqing gurun). the qing dynasty was founded in 1636 and ruled china from 1644 to 1912.

shaolin martial arts are called shaolin quan (traditional chinese: 少林拳; pinyin: shàolín quán; cantonese yale: siulam kyuhn); more precisely, shaolin chuan fa, or quan fa (traditional chinese: 少林穿法; pinyin: shàolín chuān fǎ; wade–giles: shao lin ch'üan fa; cantonese yale: siulam kyun faat; literal: "shaolin fist technique"). the term chuan is the chinese transliteration of the sanskrit term mukti (मुक्ति; "clasped hand"). the suffix fa is the chinese transcription of the sanskrit word dharma (धर्मा; "teachings of the buddha"). when reverse translated back into sanskrit, chuan fa means dharmamukti (धर्मामुक्ति; "closed hand of the dharma"). shaolin chuan fa became part of what came to be called ch'an (chinese zen) martial arts (traditional chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: chánzōng wǔshù; cantonese yale: simzung mouseot) which combined ch'an philosophy with the martial arts of the shaolin temple.

wing chun kuen is a style of southern shaolin chuan fa which can also be called a nanquan (traditional chinese: 南拳; pinyin: nán quán; cantonese yale: nàahm kyùhn; lit. "southern fist") or a nan pai (traditional chinese: 南派; pinyin: nán pài; cantonese yale: nàahm paai; lit. "southern school"). it is classified as a family (traditional chinese: 家; pinyin: jiā; cantonese yale: ) style.


different versions of yim wing chun's tradition exist, but they mostly share a similar sequence of events, which begin with the origin of her master who had the dharma name of ng mui (五梅; c. 1700). ng mui sitai (五梅師太 ng mui grandmaster) or ng mui dashi (五梅大師 ng mui great master) was a shaolin buddhist nun and abbess who survived and fled the destruction of the shaolin temple (shàolín sì 少林寺) in henan province in northern china by the qing government. the temple's destruction is variously said to have taken place in 1647 under the shunzhi emperor (r. 1644–1661), in 1674, 1677, or 1714 under the kangxi emperor (r. 1661–1722), or in 1728 or 1732 under the yongzhen emperor (r. 1722–1735). the qing government destroyed the temple for harboring han chinese revolutionaries who sought to restore the ming dynasty (traditional chinese: 明朝; pinyin: míng cháo; 1368–1644).

according to the history passed on by wing chun grand master ip man (葉問; 1893–1972), ng mui was abbess of the henan shaolin temple. she was living and studying at the temple when it was destroyed by qing forces during the reign of the kangxi emperor. the qing government had little success in countering revolutionary activity at the temple until chan man wai (陳文慧), a recently appointed official seeking favor, hatched a plot with a group of renegade shaolin monks led by ma ning yee (馬寧怡). ma ning yee and the others agreed to betray the pro-ming revolutionaries at the temple for pay. one of the other conspirators was ng mui's former teacher. according to ip man, ng mui's teacher was master dook bay sun lai (德灣新來). in other wing chun accounts, her teacher was master lee pasun (李·帕松).

ma ying yee provided the temple plans with its secret passages to qing authorities. when the temple was attacked by qing forces, ma ying yee and his conspirators caused further confusion within by setting fires and attacking the other monks.

destruction of shaolin temple

destruction of shaolin temple

some records say a southern shaolin temple was demolished in addition to or instead of the temple in henan province. chinese author xu ke (traditional chinese: 徐珂; pinyin: xú kē; 1869–1928), who wrote an "unofficial" history of the qing dynasty, the qing bai lei chao (淸稗類鈔) in 1917, recorded that the southern shaolin temple in fujian province was leveled around 1730.

the destruction of the temple, whether in henan or fujian, led to the spread of shaolin martial arts across china by five fugitive monks and nuns called the five generals or the five elders of shaolin (chinese: 少林五祖; pinyin: shàolín wǔ zǔ; cantonese yale: siu lam ng zou). ng mui was said to have been one of the surviving five elders.

ng mui and shaolin five elders

ng mui and shaolin five elders

ng mui fled to the daliang mountains on the border between yunnan and sichuan provinces in southwest china, where she sheltered at the white crane temple (báihè sì 白鶴寺). ng mui was famous for her skill fighting on top of "plum blossom poles" (traditional chinese: 梅花桩; pinyin: méihuā zhuāng; lit. "plum pile"). ng mui used her time in seclusion to create a new martial arts style from the existing snake and crane styles of shaolin chuan fa. ng mui created the new system to suit a woman or other fighter who lacked size and strength. in one legend, it's said that after watching a crane and snake fight one another, ng mui 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 crane snake

ng mui watching the crane and snake

ng mui was now an aged woman. she purchased tofu regularly at a shop owned by a merchant named yim yee (嚴二) in a village located in liancheng county in the region of longyan, a prefecture-level city in southwestern fujian province, bordering the coastal province of guangdong to the south and the landlocked province of jiangxi to the west. in some legends, yim yee was a shaolin chuan fa martial arts master who opposed the qing dynasty during the rule of the jiaqing emperor (r. 1796–1820). yim yee fled from quanzhou, a prefecture-level port city on the northern bank of the jin river by the taiwan strait in southern fujian province to liancheng. yim yee took refuge with his family living in liancheng and made his livelihood as a tofu merchant. he raised his daughter yim wing chun, whom he secretly trained in martial arts since early childhood.

as a teenager, yim wing chun grew to a small stature and became renowned for her beauty. she fell in love with her future husband leung bok-chao (梁博儔), but before they could be married she caught the eye of a fierce local bandit leader when she was about 15 years old. in one legend, the bandit leader is given the name wong (黃). the bandit leader made numerous advances, which she rejected. he then made a surprising offer: he would take back his marriage proposal if she could defeat him in a match. yim wing chun agreed and yim yee negotiated for time to train. the bandit leader granted her time until the next spring to ready for the fight and to become his wife.

when news of the match spread around the village, ng mui took on yim wing chun, whom she had befriended at the tofu shop, as a disciple. ng mui taught yim wing chun the essentials of the unnamed art that could be absorbed in a few months instead of a few years to ready herself for her match with the bandit leader. learning traditional northern shaolin chuan fa styles like yuejiaquan (岳家拳) took as long as ten to fifteen years. wing chun did not have that much time to ready herself.

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.
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wing chun practiced with an old tree trunk, which eventually formed the basis for the wing chun wooden dummy, the mu ren zhuang (木人樁; mandarin: mù rén zhuāng; cantonese: muk yan jong; wade giles: moo jen ch'wang; lit. "wooden man post").

in some histories, ng mui left yim wing chun during her training for a period of time. ng mui departed to settle accounts with her former teacher, whether named dook bay sun lai or lee pasun. the two fought a match atop plum blossom poles with sharpened stakes set beneath. ng mui defeated her former teacher, who died. she then returned to wing chun and continued wing chun's training. wing chun completed her training under ng mui around 1790.

ng mui vs former master

ng mui vs dook bay sun lai/lee pasun atop plum blossom poles

in the annals of grandmaster ip chun (葉學準; born ip hok-chun; july 10, 1924), the elder son of ip man, it is recorded:

yìhm wing chun 嚴詠春 had trained very hard and her soul had grown to a high level. ng mui sitai 五梅師太 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.

ng mui trains wing chun

ng mui sitai teaching yim wing chun

in some wing chun traditions, yim wing chun faced the bandit leader before the entire village and demonstrated ng mui's new unnamed art. yim wing employed the bandit leader's mass and strength around him, gliding and passing around his attempts to strike or grab her. despite a weight difference of about a hundred pounds (forty-five kilograms), she directed her whole bodyweight into specific targets that unbalanced the bandit leader and left him open to multiple strikes. when the bandit leader fell unconscious at wing chun's feet, a cheer went up from the watching villagers.


yim wing chun versus the bandit leader

ip chun's annals record that wing chun traveled instead to the camp of the bandits. she disabled several individual bandits until she encountered the bandit leader:

yìhm wing chun 嚴詠春 watched the leader. he was taller and stronger than all the other bandits, but she knew what to do. her sīfú 師父, ng mui si tai 五 枚師太 had told her, "when your enemy is bigger and stronger, do should not get too close to them. instead you should use footwork to move around them. never face them head on because this is their best position. it is better to attack them to the side where you can use both your hands to against one of theirs, while their other hand cannot reach you!"

wing chun remembered all these principles. she was a woman and so not as physically strong as a man and so she had to use special footwork and angles.

wing chun calmed herself and did not move, and put her baat jáam dōu 八斬刀 short knives to her waist. she stayed perfectly still and just watched the leader. seeing this, the leader thought that wing chun was afraid of him since he was so big and strong! he moved closer to her and tried to grab her! he still thought she could be his wife! so he did want to punch her hard. he reached out his arms to grab her body and thought he had her when wing chun suddenly moved to his right. this was another fighting principal she had learnt, if the enemy does not move we do not move, but once they move we move faster. the leader found he had grabbed nothing and almost lost his balance! luckily for him he was strong and could regain his footing. but as he did so he was suddenly struck twice in the face each time with a very loud "whack!" he was confused and did not know what had happened! wing chun had struck him twice at the same time as she had moved.

it was too fast! the leader was struck twice on each side of his face! fortunately for him he was strong and he did not fall, but his face was red! in a rage he swung his right arm across to wing chun 詠春 who stepped back a little bit, just enough to avoid his swing! he tried again, but he could not touch wing chun at all! he forgot though, every time we attack at the same time we are open and there is a weak point. so as the leader swung and missed, wing chun moved in and punched the centre of his chest three times! each punch was powerful and she only used power when her fist was close to his chest. she was so accurate and hit his centre of gravity with three powerful punches! the leader fell to the floor! he could not believe that a little girl could knock him down in front of all of his gang! at that moment he completely lost face and was totally humiliated! in a blind rage and no longer caring, he jumped up and grabbed the nearest sword that was lying on the ground and raised it up to chop down on wing chun's head. he was so close to her how she could escape!

the sword swished down very fast towards wing chun's 詠春 head, but she was even faster! she stepped back to the side and using dāng téui 蹬腿, she kicked the leader's front knee and at the same time used yan jéung 印掌 to palm the elbow of the leader's sword arm! he screamed in pain, fell to the ground and the sword flew away. he could not get back up his knee and his elbow with both broken. wing chun had seen his attack coming and at that at that moment realised he was trying to kill her. so this time she used a more deadly strike, but she still controlled herself and her technique was still only a punishment rather than a deadly blow. the leader had lost and all his gang was silent. no one said a word or moved an inch.

wing chun glared at them and said, "if any of you come to da liang mountain 大凉山 again, i will come back and break all of your arms and legs!"

suddenly all the gangsters dropped down to their knees and sobbing, one of them cried out, "we do not want to be bandits! we just don't have any jobs and so we just wanted food and shelter! we will not go to da liang mountain again. we want to follow you! become our leader! can you accept us?"

suddenly the leader shouted out, "please be our leader! we will do whatever you say!" this surprised wing chun.

wing chun 詠春 thought about it, "what should i do with all these people?" she asked herself.

after a while had an idea and then said to them with a very serious look on her face, "i will be your leader, you will listen to me and follow and do exactly what i tell you. otherwise you can leave, but if i hear or see you doing anything criminal, i will find you, and you know what will happen."

all the men bowed and shouted, "yes, boss!"

wing chun nodded, "now go back to your rooms there is nothing for you to do now. if you are still here in the morning this means you agree to follow me and i will be your leader. i will then introduce you to the villagers on da liang mountain 大凉山 and you will be given jobs and so you can work for your food and shelter." all the men listened to wing chun and then returned to their rooms.

wing chun left the camp and returned home to see her father. when she arrived she saw there was a letter on the table. she opened it and found that it was from her sīfú 師父.

wing chun 詠春 open 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 traveled across china to meet with other elders of the shaolin temple, and together they began another rebellion against the qing government. ng mui's final fate went unknown.

yim wing chun settled down to care for her father. she help the defeated gangsters settle down in her village on daliang mountain as well. yim wing chun was respected by all in the village.

ip chun's annals record that one day wing chun's father urged her to go to fujian province to finally visit her fiancé leung bok-chao. wing chun and her father left the village to the sadness of all. she arrived in fujian province with her father. she met her fiancé and eventually they were married.

leung bok-chao became a salt merchant and yim wing chun taught him the fighting techniques, which ng mui had passed to her. yim wing chung was credited with inventing the chi sao or chi sau (traditional chinese: 黐手; cantonese yale: chī sáu; pinyin: chī shǒu; lit. "sticking hands") exercise. chi sao is used for the development of automatic reflexes upon contact and "sticking" to an opponent (also called "sensitivity training"). the intention is not to "stick" to an opponent at all costs, but to protect one's centerline while simultaneously attacking the opponent's centerline. ip man is quoted as saying: "chi sau in wing chun is to maintain one's feeling of opponent's movement by staying relaxed all the while keeping in the strength to fight back, much like the flexible nature of bamboo".

yim wing chun and her husband established a secret school to teach those who wanted to learn ng mui's art. some wing chun traditions say that after the death of her father, yim wing chun and leung bok chao left the village and settled in zhaoqing, a prefecture-level city in guangdong, a coastal province of southeast china. when yim wing chung passed away around 1840, leung bok-chao called the art "wing chun kuen" (traditional chinese: 詠春拳; cantonese yale: wing cheun kyuhn; pinyin: yǒng chūn quán; lit. "wing chung fist") in his wife's honor.


leung bok-chao passed the new style on to leung lan-kwai (梁蘭桂). leung lan-kwai taught six members of the red boat opera group around 1850, and present-day wing chun descends from the six opera-group members: yik kam (益錦), hung gan biu (洪幹標), leung yee tai (梁二娣), wong wah-bo (黃華寶), dai fa min kam (大花面錦), and law man kung (羅文功). the red boat opera group was a troupe of traveling cantonese opera singers who toured china in the late 1800s and early 1900s. they were essential in forming and leading a popular revolt against the qing dynasty, using wing chun to defeat government soldiers.

leung yee tai and wong wah-bo both taught leung tak-wing (梁德榮; 1826–1901). leung tak-wing served as the teacher of ip man. ip man went on to become the first teacher of lee jun-fan (李振藩; 1940–1973), who is commonly known as bruce lee (李小龍).

wing chun bronze relief

bronze relief in ip man memorial hall, locun, foshan, china

the figure of yim wing chun is a part of china's tradition of female martial artists. men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the shaolin monks and nuns in martial arts classes offered by the michigan shaolin wugong temple.


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