Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

Who Invented Wing Chun? (The Woman Who Created Wing Chun)

So I was reading a bit about the Chinese martial art known as Wing Chun, and learning about its history. Interestingly enough, it seems there is some confusion on who created Wing Chun, and whether or not it was created by a woman.

So in this post I am going to answer the question: Was Wing Chun invented by a woman?

According to oral history, Wing Chun was created by a woman named Ng Mui, a nun who escaped the destruction of the Fujian Shaolin Temple. After relocating in the Daliang Mountains, Ng Mui taught her kung-fu style to a woman she met named Yim Wing Chun, to help her defend herself from a local warlord. Yim Wing Chun’s husband later passed down what he learned from Yim Wing Chun, making Wing Chun what it is today.

However, there are several oral histories revolving around Wing Chun, most of which are disputed by modern scholars. In the rest of the post, I will talk about the probability of the story above being real, as well as the more accepted theories on the origin of Wing Chun.

How Real Is The Story Of Ng Mui?

First, I must note that the only account of Ng Mui’s story is from the legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man. Ip Man’s account should not be taken as historical fact, as the story has been passed down over centuries, making it prone to changes. I am going to tell Ip Man’s full account of Wing Chun’s origin, and then debate its accuracy.

Ip Man’s History of Wing Chun

According to Ip Man, Mg Mui’s story starts at the southern Shaolin Temple in the Fujian Province. One day the temple was burned down, with only five people managing to escape, later becoming known as the Five Elders.

Among those five people was Ng Mui, who is said to have taken refuge in the White Crane Temple located in the Daliang mountains.

After living here for a while she met a man from a local town, who owned a store that she frequented. The man’s name was Yim Yee, and he had a daughter named Yim Wing Chun.

A depiction of Ng Mui, seen here practicing her Wing Chun on a traditional wooden dummy.
A depiction of Ng Mui, seen here practicing her Wing Chun on a traditional wooden dummy.

Around this time, Yim Wing Chun had become of age to marry, which attracted attention from local men. One of these men was a warlord, who tried forcing her to marry him by making continuous threats.

Ng Mui learned of Yim Wing Chun’s situation and offered to train Yim Wing Chun in her fighting style. After training with Ng Mui for a while, Yim Wing Chun became proficient in martial arts. Yim Wing Chun then challenged the man who was trying to force her into marriage and beat him.

She later decided to marry a man named Leung Bok Lau, a salt merchant from Fukien. Yim Wing Chun taught him the fighting style taught to her by Ng Mui. Leung Bok Lau then taught this Wing Chun style to one student, named Leung Lan Kwai.

Leung Lan Kwai then taught the style to the six members of the Red Boat Opera Group, a travelling group of opera singers that eventually led an uprising against the Qing Dynasty.

Those six members passed down Wing Chun over the years, and made it what it is today. This account dates the creation of Wing Chun in the early 1800s.

Historical Accuracy of Ip Man’s Story

Although there is not any direct reason to disbelieve Ip Man’s story, the fact that it was passed down orally makes it subject to various different accounts of the same history (one of which I cover in the next section). Also, there are several parts of the story which are yet to be confirmed by modern historians.

The majority of today’s branches of Wing Chun confirm that their style originated from the six Red Boat Opera Group members. This was confirmed by a Wing Chun student named Leung Jan, who was a student of Wong Wah-bo, one of the six Red Boat Opera Group members.

The first independent documentation of Wing Chun started during Leung Jan’s lifetime, during the 19th centruy.

The Wing Chun legend Ip Man had an oral history of Wing Chun passed down to him. He is seen here training Bruce Lee.
The Wing Chun legend Ip Man had an oral history of Wing Chun passed down to him. He is seen here training Bruce Lee.

Most of the branches of Wing Chun also concur that Yim Wing Chun was the first student, and that her husband Leung Bok Lau was the one who passed down the martial art. Any events before this are debatable in terms of accuracy.

For example, some stories state that Ng Mui was not the person who taught Yim Wing Chun martial arts, but that it was instead her own father. In this version of the story, Yim Wing Chun’s father was the Shaolin Temple disciple who taught her how to fight.

Even Ng Mui’s true identity in the story is debated. Some claim her real name was Lui Sei-Leung, and that she was the fourth daughter of a Ming Dynasty General, which would explain her position against the Qing Dynasty.

One theory suggests that the story of Ng Mui isn’t real at all, but that instead her story is just a different version of the origin story of White Crane boxing. White Crane boxing was also created by a female martial artist, named Fang Qi Niang.

This theory suggests that the story of White Crane boxing was retold as the origin story of Wing Chun due to the fact the White Crane boxing was the predecessor to Wing Chun.

Alternative Oral Histories For Wing Chun

There is an account of oral history that is different than Ip Man’s, which is told by Wing Chun practitioner Yiu Kai. The story is pretty similar in most parts, the main difference being the person that taught Yim Wing Chun how to fight.

Yiu Kai’s History Of Wing Chun

In this story (as was mentioned earlier) Yim Wing Chun’s father is Yim Sei, a disciple of the Shaolin Temple who is forced to flee after being falsely accused of committing a crime. He later taught his Shaolin Kung Fu to his daughter, Yim Wing Chun, who formed her own style based on elements taught to her by her dad.

Michelle Yeoh portrays Yim Wing Chun in the 1994 movie, Wing Chun.
Michelle Yeoh portrays Yim Wing Chun in the 1994 movie, Wing Chun.

In this story, her husband is the same person, Leung Bok Lau, but the difference here is that he is a former disciple of the Shaolin Temple. Yim Wing Chun teaches her husband her signature style, who then passes it down to what it is today.

A big difference in this story is the creator of Wing Chun, a title which would be attributed to Yim Wing Chun should this story be true. However, it is more likely that Ng Mui had some involvement with the origin of Wing Chun, mostly due to the fact that many modern branches of Wing Chun credit her as relevant to Wing Chun’s creation, if not the creator herself.

Last Alternate History

The last of the most popular theories on the origin of Wing Chun states that Ng Mui was involved with the creation of Wing Chun, but that she was not Yim Wing Chun’s teacher. This story starts with the same Ng Mui we know already, a Shalin Temple nun with skills in White Crane boxing.

However, instead of Ng Mui teaching her skills to Yim Wing Chun, she instead taught them to a man name Miu Shin. Miu Shin combined Ng Mui’s teachings with his own Snake Boxing style, to create the hybrid style known as Wing Chun.

Miu Shin was then the one who taught Yim Yee in martial arts, who in turn taught them to his daughter, Yim Wing Chun. From there, the story is the same as the previous ones, with Yim Wing Chun’s husband spreading the new martial art.

What Is The Earliest Verifiable History Of Wing Chun?

Wing Chun’s history can be accurately traced back to the Red Boat Opera Group, mostly due to the independent documentation created during Leung Jan’s lifetime, as he was the student of one of the Opera Group members.

The name of Leung Jan is Wong Wah-bo, who is the earliest verified practitioner of Wing Chun as we know today. Ip Man’s lineage descends directly from Wong Wah-bo’s students. This is because Leung Jan (Wong Wah-bo’s student) taught a man named Chan Wah-shun, who in turn became Ip Man’s master.

In conclusion, it is highly likely that Ng Mui was the creator of Wing Chun, and less likely that she played a small part in its creation. As we now know, she was not the only woman involved with Wing Chun’s origin, as the style was named after the first student, a woman named Yim Wing Chun.

If you’re interested in learning more about ancient martial arts, check out the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!