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In the popular 1994 Hong Kong film Wing Chun, Michelle Yeoh plays the titular character Yim Wing Chun, a young woman well-versed in martial arts who defends her village against bandits. In the film, Yim’s teacher was former Shaolin abbess Ng Mui, and it is said that Yim’s husband passed on her techniques to his disciples, evolving into the Wing Chun style we know today.

While this is just one of the many legends surrounding the founding of Wing Chun, the story of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun is given extra attention because one version of it came straight from the writings of famous Wing Chun master Ip Man. However, there is much debate on the story’s historical accuracy, including whether Ng, or even Yim, was a real person.

Wing Chun Master Ng Mui

wing chun ng mui

One must tread carefully when addressing such issues, as the book Complete Wing Chun states that since characters like Ng Mui have been “romanticized in radio stories, newspaper articles, television series and movies, they are well-known throughout Southern China. They have become so much a part of the culture that, in some circles, denying their existence is considered blasphemous.”

Anyway, we will try. Ip’s tale begins with the destruction of the Shaolin Temple in Henan under the orders of the Kangxi Emperor, who ruled from 1661 to 1722. Ng was one of the “five elders” who escaped, taking refuge in a temple near Yim’s house in southwestern China. Upon hearing that a local bully was trying to force Yim into marriage, Ng decided to teach her how to fight.

The martial arts system took on Yim’s given name and was passed on for several generations until an herbal doctor from Foshan, Leung Jan, “grasped the innermost secrets of Wing Chun and attained the highest level of proficiency,” Ip writes. And Leung’s disciple, Chan Wah Shun was Ip’s master.

Before Ng left the area, she told Yim to strictly honor the Kung Fu traditions and “to help the people working to overthrow the Manchu government and restore the Ming Dynasty.”

Ng Mui did Exist

wing chun ng mui

The Ancestral Wing Chun Kuen Research Institute maintains that Ng Mui did exist, although she might have not been a nun but merely a cover for an anti-Qing revolutionary from the 1600s. It also suggests that she could have been the daughter of a Ming Dynasty general who tried to assassinate the Qing emperor “using very advanced martial arts skill.”

The institute further suggests that she was not the originator of the martial art system, instead likely being a fifth-generation practitioner of “Yongchun County White Crane Fist.” She refined the system and taught it to lay monk Miu Shun, who created his own system using Ng’s teachings and may or may not have passed it on to Yim Wing Chun’s father, Yim Yee.

The name of Ng’s supposed original art, which still exists today, further complicates things as Yong Chun is pronounced “Wing Chun” in Cantonese. Although the first Chinese character is different, it is too much of a coincidence that Ng’s only disciple in Ip’s story, (who lived far away from Yongchun County), would have an identical-sounding name.

Was Wing Chun Founded by other People?

wing chun ng mui

Other versions of the story state that Wing Chun was founded either by a woman who lived in Yongchun County or a monk from Yongchun Temple, hence the name. But both tales do not involve Ng Mui at all.

Benny Meng, curator of the Ving Tsun (an alternate spelling of Wing Chun) Museum in Ohio, published an article with Steve Rudnicki addressing some of the questions behind the legend. Meng trained with Moy Yat, one of Ip’s disciple.

Meng and Rudnicki state that there is “no recorded proof” that the five elders were real people, and oral traditions about them date back to the 1800s, while Wing Chun has existed since the 1600s.

“It is possible that the Five Elders may be a reference to the evolution of different branches of Secret Societies that arose during the conflict between the Ming and Qing dynasties or it may be a historical metaphor to variations of other Shaolin martial art systems,” they write.

They further question the existence of Yim, of whom there are also no historical records: “If there are no Five Elders, then the nun, Ng Mui, did not exist. If the Five Elders were the revolutionary leaders of the time, then being so, they were also marked on the most wanted list. If she came forward…merely to teach Kung Fu to a young girl, she would have jeopardized her life, as well as her fellow elders, along with the life of the girl.”

“It would have been most illogical for such a person to come forward to teach the girl Kung Fu simply because she was being forced into a marriage,” they conclude.

Similar Folk Stories

wing chun ng mui

Other Wing Chun masters also dismiss their existences. Keith Mosher of Columbia Martial Arts Health and Fitness writes on his blog that Ip’s tale was a “promotional story, cobbled together from a few popular tales.”

The writers of Complete Wing Chun agree with this notion, stating that figures like the five elders arose from a variety of similar folk stories set during the Qing Dynasty, becoming popular through the anti-Manchurian sentiment of the Han Chinese as many of the characters – like Ng Mui – sought to overthrow the Qing.

“In these times, if one’s art was connected to one of these five quasi-deities, it would be considered excellent and unsurpassed, lending it great credibility,” the book states. “Since so many connections to the various folk heroes occurred during this history of Wing Chun, it’s likely that the art’s history became distorted with the addition of these fables.”

This likely explains why in addition to Wing Chun, several other martial arts systems claim Ng as their founder. It seems to be very unlikely that Ng, if she really existed, could have done so much while on the run from the Qing authorities.

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