When westerners think of Chinese martial arts, the term kung fu generally comes to mind. The word kung fu is a compound of (gōng) meaning work and (fū) merit, and refers to any skill that is acquired through learning or practice. Kung fu is often misunderstood by outsiders to be a single fighting style. In reality, it is made of several hundred styles or schools, and legend has it one of them was founded by a woman.
Ng Mui was born in a noble household in China in the seventeenth century and her life is a mixture of fact and legend. In some stories she is the daughter of a general in the Ming imperial court, in others a princess, but because of wealth and family influence, she had access to an extensive education and the best kung fu teachers of the time. In her younger years, Ng Mui mastered several Shaolin martial arts and even developed a new training regimen on upturned logs to develop balance and leg strength, a practice she later incorporated into her own fighting style.
Her transformation into a warrior woman began in a bloody coup. The Manchus defeated the Ming dynasty and took over the rule of China. Ng Mui parents, fervent supporters of the Ming, were killed. Fortunately, she was away from home when the purge started. She escaped to Kwangsi Province and took refuge in the White Crane Temple. Due to the Shaolin’s support for the Ming, the monks and nuns faced great danger, so had to remain on alert for attacks.
Ng Mui became a Buddhist nun. Although highly proficient in the existing styles of kung fu, she felt it was possible to devise a more effective fighting method which didn’t rely on brute strength or require years to master. Her story has several versions, but the one I like says one day, she watched a fight between a stork and a snake. The stork used its wings and legs to deflect and counter-attack at the same time. Inspiration struck Ng Mui. She adapted the technique to create a unique new martial art that emphasized a delicate but natural self-defense style and transcended size, weight and gender. The movements required little force to block and could strike effectively and efficiently.
At first, her new technique had no name. Then Ng Mui met a beautiful young girl named Yim Wing Chun. Her fiancé was away fighting with a rebel force and a bandit warlord tried to force her into marriage. She refused and he threatened her and her family. Yim Wing Chun feared she’d have to yield to his desires, but Ng Mui convinced the girl to give her six months for training. By the end of six months she mastered the new the art of self-defense and then challenged the warlord to combat. She defeated him. Her fiancé returned and was impressed with her new skill. She bested him, too, and he begged her to teach him the fighting style. He named it Wing Chun in her honor. It translates as “everlasting springtime” which sounds pretty soft for one tough cookie.
Ng Mui became one of the Five Elders of the Shaolin Temple, the most respected marital artists of the 1700s. Because of the Shaolins’ support of the previous Ming dynasty, the Manchu eventually attacked and destroyed the temple. The elders escaped and scattered in different directions. Ng Mui and her followers supposedly went into hiding in the Himalayan foothills where she became part of a rebel force and continued to teach kung fu.
Wing Chun was reintroduced in the twentieth century by Grandmaster Ip Man, regarded as the greatest and most insightful teacher of Wing Chun. He moved to Hong Kong in 1948 and became the first master to teach the fighting style to the general public and spread the popularity of Wing Chun around the world today.