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Chinese women in history - soldiers, pirates, scholars, sages and rulers

Yan Yongchun and the Venerable Wumei - founders of the Yongchun (Wing Chun) martial arts system

Yongchun (more popularly known by its Cantonese name 'Wing Chun') is a martial arts system made world-famous by Bruce Lee.1 Bruce Lee first trained in Wing Chun as a young man before developing Jeet Kune Do later in life. The origins of Wing Chun have been passed down orally from master to disciple, resulting in at least 10 different versions of the oral tradition.2 Most of them involve a high-ranking nun Wumei and a female lay disiciple Yongchun.3 It was said that Wing Chun was a fighting system developed specifically with a woman's needs in mind - it emphasizes using technique over power to subdue a stronger opponent.4

In one version of the tale, Yongchun, a lay disciple of Shaolin, further developed her own version of the Shaolin system after observing a fight between a crane and a snake. Hence the system came to be known as Yongchun. A second version states that the nun Wumei created the Yongchun system after observing a crane battling a snake or a fox. In another tradition, Wumei passed the original system to Miao Shun, a member of the Shaolin clergy. Miao Shun in turn taught it to a lay disciple, Yong Chun's father, who then passed it to his daughter.5 The most popularly-known tradition concerning Wing Chun combines elements from all three previously-mentioned narratives:

The Venerable Wumei, a high-ranking Buddhist nun from Shaolin, came to live in a temple in Sichuan province. She purchased tofu from a family of tofu-sellers - Yan Er and his daughter Yan Yongchun, and soon became familiar with them. At that time, Yan Yongchun had already acquired a foundation in martial arts from her father Yan Er.6 Yongchun had long been engaged to a salt trader named Liang Bochou when she caught the eye of a local strongman. The local bully tried to force Yongchun to marry him, but she refused. The strongman sent his lackeys to capture Yongchun, but she eluded them and escaped into the mountains with the nun Wumei. Wumei taught Yongchun her formidable martial arts skills. Two years later, Yongchun emerged from the mountains to challenge the local bully to a duel. She defeated the bully and married her fiance Liang Bochou. Yan Yongchun taught her martial arts system to her husband, who became the first-generation Yongchun disciple. Her husband passed the art on to yet more disciples who further developed the system.7

As to how the Yongchun (Wing Chun) martial arts system got its name, some say that Yongchun developed the system after watching a crane fight a snake, and then asked her teacher to name it. Wumei told Yongchun she could name it after herself.8 Others say that Liang Bochou, Yongchun's husband and first-generation disciple, gave the system its name in memory of his deceased wife.9 A third theory states that it was later generations who named the system Yongchun to honor its founder.10

Written history makes almost no mention of the founders of the Yongchun martial arts system, except for a single sentence "The Yongchun martial arts system was established by Abbess Yichen, a disciple of the Song Mountain branch of the Shaolin Temple."11 Perhaps we will never know for sure as to whether this Abbess Yichen of written history is the same person as the Venerable Wumei of oral tradition. Even the exact time period during which Wumei or Yongchun lived cannot be determined (all that is known for certain is that they lived during the Qing Dynasty). Popular tradition places them in the 18th century.12

X.T.


Notes
  1. Bruce Lee and Hong Kong's Wing Chun succession (Chinese article)
  2. The History of Wing Chun (Ving Tsun) - Ving Tsun Research Association of China (Chinese article)
    Oral Traditions Concerning Wing Chun (Ving Tsun) - Ving Tsun Research Association of China (Chinese article)
  3. The Origins of Yongchun (Chinese article)
  4. Bruce Lee and Hong Kong's Wing Chun succession (Chinese article)
    Oral Traditions Concerning Wing Chun (Ving Tsun) - Ving Tsun Research Association of China (Chinese article)
  5. The Origins of Yongchun (Chinese article)
  6. 'Old Toothless', heir of Wing Chun, emerges from seclusion after 30 years (Chinese article)
  7. 'Old Toothless', heir of Wing Chun, emerges from seclusion after 30 years (Chinese article)
    The Origins of Yongchun (Chinese article)
  8. International Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do Web (Chinese article)
  9. Bruce Lee and Hong Kong's Wing Chun succession (Chinese article)
  10. 'Old Toothless', heir of Wing Chun, emerges from seclusion after 30 years (Chinese article)
  11. The Origins of Yongchun (Chinese article)
  12. Bruce Lee and Hong Kong's Wing Chun succession (Chinese article)