Origins Of Wing Chun
This page presents an overview of the history and characteristics of the Wing Chun Kung-Fu style in general. The specifics of my own approach – called the Federation Wing Tsun System – can be found on the rest of this website.
Wing Chun Kung-Fu originated in Southern China under the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722). It began in the border region between the provinces of Yunnan and Szechwan, which was a rich source of martial arts development during the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644-1912. This period of history is commonly known as the Manchu Dynasty.
The oral history of the style states that one of the Five Elders of the Shaolin Temple – a female Abbess named Ng Mui – developed the founding principles of the art following her completed studies of the more traditional, animal-influenced Shaolin styles and the Fujian White Crane style of Kung-Fu.
Her own experiences during both armed and unarmed engagements vs. more powerful male combatants led her to revise these existing fighting methods, developing a more intelligent approach that emphasised superior technical skills instead of brute force, thus being ideally suited to the physically smaller, less powerful person.
Allegedly, Ng Mui had cause to teach her new, as yet unnamed method to a young woman named Yim Wing Chun to help her overcome the attentions of an unwanted suitor. Yim proved to be an excellent student, mastering the principles sufficiently to emerge victorious from her challenge match and thus uphold the honour of her family and her teacher. In recognition of her effort and dedication, Ng Mui chose to name the new style after her student, and so the history of Wing Chun Kuen – literally “Wing Chun’s Boxing”, began in earnest.
History & Spread Of Wing Chun
From the conception of the art until the early 19th century, we only have oral histories to study. These inevitably contain many variations and discrepancies, and are widely interspersed with folklore, legend and embellishment.
However from the 19th Century onwards we encounter the first written histories of the style, beginning with Dr. Leung Jan (1826 – 1901) and the historically significant Red Junk Opera Company. There are many ongoing discussions concerning the validity and content of Wing Chun’s historical documentation, from this period until the late 1960’s, however they are not really useful for the purposes of this article. You can read & contribute to the discussions yourself right here if you are so inclined.
From around 1970, the Wing Chun style began to come to the attention of a wider audience largely thanks to the career of the world-renowned martial artist & screen actor Bruce Lee, and subsequently the work of fellow martial artist, actor, producer & director Sammo Hung. Already enjoying widespread popularity throughout Asia, the style began to spread and be studied across Europe, the USA and the Western nations.
Before his travels to the USA and his subsequent rise to fame through his groundbreaking movies, Bruce Lee spent a short period studying Wing Chun under Ip Man who was, and still arguably is, the most famous Master of the art to date.
In 2008 the story of Ip Man (Yip Man) was adapted into a superb movie series featuring many stars of martial cinema, some wonderful fight choreography, and the excellent Donnie Yen playing the role of Grandmaster Ip Man. The second part of the movie was released in April 2010, the third part in late 2015 – featuring none other than the ex-world champion boxer Mike Tyson in a villainous role. The final instalment of the series arrived in 2019.
Although Bruce Lee went on to explore his own path via his Jeet Kune Do philosophy, these developments drew heavily upon the Wing Chun style. This is not to detract from his many achievements – indeed without his huge contribution the world of martial arts would be in a very different situation today – a situation which finds the art of Wing Chun Kung-Fu enjoying enormous popularity and development within the martial arts world, not least here in the United Kingdom.
Why The Many Different Spellings?
You will have noticed that there are many different ways of spelling the same art. These include: Wing Chun, Wing Tsun, Ving Tsun, Wing Tyun, Weng Chun and Yong Chun. Although these terminologies all refer to the same style of Kung-Fu, the spelling and pronunciation can often cause confusion.
Some differences in spelling are because of the way the various Chinese languages and dialects are translated (or “romanized”) into English and other European languages; for instance the letter “W” is pronounced as “V” in German, and vice-versa. The actual sound of the Chinese character lies somewhere between the two, and so this situation often leads to the Wing / Ving difference. A similar problem exists with the “T” and “C” sounds of Chun / Tsun.
Another reason is that besides Wing Chun, the letters “WC” are also used to abbreviate Water Closet (i.e. a toilet) in some Western languages. This meaningless coincidence has led to the spelling Tsun to grow in popularity. Humans are like that.
Additionally, some of the more well-established approaches and family lineages within the style have adopted a particular spelling in an attempt to differentiate themselves, or carve out a niche within the marketplace. Examples of this include students of the popular Wong Shun Leung method using the Ving Tsun spelling, whilst students of the widespread Leung Ting system adopt the WingTsun spelling (without a space) to refer to their approach to the art.
The Many Branches of Wing Chun
Quite naturally, the “tree” of Wing Chun has grown numerous branches throughout its long history; some large, some small. Inevitably some of these branches have withered and died, existing now only in historical documents. Some branches have ceased to grow and develop, and so are in slow decline. However some branches are still very much alive, exploring, developing, progressing the art, and teaching new generations of students.
I am extremely fortunate to have personally studied many of the different branches of Wing Chun, both popular and unorthodox. I have also taught a great many students who were experienced in different approaches too. Despite their previous training and viewpoints, they all stayed with me for many years to study and explore my unique, strategy-based approach to the art.
I have been told many times that despite being relatively recent (I began sharing it in 2005), my branch is one of the most comprehensive, adaptable and effective ways of Wing Chun that exists. This is high praise coming from such experienced people, and I remain eternally thankful that they understood and shared my vision.
A complete listing and discussion of all branches of the Wing Chun style is beyond the scope of this page, but can be found right here for those who are interested. However there are some characteristics that all branches have in common, and I’ll look at these shared features next.
Common Wing Chun Characteristics
Earlier in this section (see What Is Wing Chun Kung-Fu? ) I drew an analogy between martial arts and motor vehicles. Continuing this, consider that just as all cars possess an engine of some description (regardless of the exact design) similarly all styles of Wing Chun Kung-Fu include the general training methods listed below, despite considerable variation in the content and implementation of each method.
No matter which branch of Wing Chun you study, you’ll be exposed to these general training methods. However the devil is in the detail, and the training methods of some branches are more fit for purpose than others. Just like cars, you have to drive a few before you find one that suits your requirements.
These are short sequences of movements containing all the required tools of Wing Chun Kung-Fu. Unlike Kata (Japanese, Karate) or Hyeong (Korean, Taekwondo) they are not a prescribed series of techniques performed against an imaginary opponent, but rather a compact toolkit or alphabet illustrating all the necessary concepts and movements used in fighting.
The actual number of forms used will vary depending on the approach to the style. Some Wing Chun methods teach six or more forms, whilst others use as few as three. The same is true for the reasoning and actual content of each form. Some methods possess very well-developed, detailed, precise and coherent forms, whilst others seem to lack design, understanding and any real purpose.
Pronounced Chee-Saow, this is a series of exercises used to develop a keen tactile awareness, or ‘sensitivity’ to the direction & amount of pressure applied to the limbs.
When in close-contact with an opponent, things may happen too quickly to be able to rely solely on visual reactions. Tactile reactions are far quicker, and turn the three-step process of see-think-move into the two-step process of feel-move.
Once again, the actual quality & depth of Chi-Sao training will vary depending on the approach. Some Wing Chun methods have very systematic, detailed Chi-Sao programmes covering all limbs, whilst others prefer just a few short, traditional drills.
> Practical Applications
This is when the combat reactions developed within Chi-Sao and other drills are applied in sparring exercises with a live opponent.
Consider the difference between learning mathematics in a classroom, and then applying the same skills in the real world. Money is a good example – children often get their first taste of applied mathematics when trying to work out the correct change they should receive after a transaction. The techniques of adding and subtracting numbers, which they have mastered on paper, suddenly feel very different when standing at a checkout in a queue of impatient customers.
Chi-Sao is wonderful, but applied Chi-Sao is what Wing Chun is all about. You have to be able to apply your skills in real situations.
> Wooden Dummy
Training on the wooden man or Mook-Yan-Chong is common to all branches of the style, although huge differences exist concerning when, how and even why such training is done.
The Wooden Dummy is a very versatile training aid unique to Wing Chun Kung-Fu, and is used in many ways. Some consider it the ultimate strong opponent, forcing you to adapt yourself to immovable positions. Some use the “rebound” force the dummy generates when struck as an impulse for further movement, and some use it as a way of conditioning their limbs to be resilient to impacts.
The Wooden Dummy can be profitably used at ALL stages of Wing Chun training under the guidance of an instructor, however it is usually only at the advanced stages of the art where regular, constant training takes place using this specialised piece of equipment.
You now know more about the origins and history of Wing Chun. You know that many different branches of the same stylistic tree still exist, and you know some of things that characterise ALL branches of the Wing Chun style, despite differences in spelling and lineage.
Now discover more about my own specific style – a unique, strategy-based approach to the art of Wing Chun Kung-Fu, called the Federation Wing Tsun System.