The origins of Wing Chun are shrouded in mystery. We seem to like it that way. It is the reason that people are drawn to them. Who can resist the urge to throw back the curtains and reveal a hidden past? The impulse to plumb the depths of history is all the greater when our current discourse privileges questions of “authenticity,” “lineage” and “tradition.” For many modern practitioners Wing Chun is an extraordinary treasure, so it just makes sense to assume that it must have emerged from an equally extraordinary set of circumstances. We try hard to attach it to mythic temples, poorly understood rebel movements and operatic culture heroes.
Paradoxically this same enthusiasm does not extend to the more recent periods of history. In the late 19th century Wing Chun was an obscure local style practiced by a handful of individuals. By the 1930s it had become a more popular regional style taught in a variety of settings, including public schools and private clubs, by a number of individuals along the Pearl River Delta.
Who were these teachers and how did Wing Chun really emerge as a public art? What was the martial arts marketplace of Foshan actually like in the 1920s and 1930s and what role did Wing Chun play in this unique local subculture? How can researching the modern history of the Chinese martial arts help us to better understand the development of “civil society” in southern China during the early 20th century? In my humble opinion, these are actually the much more interesting historical questions.
While one loses the opportunity to discuss the various creation myths, and the supporting theories that have grown up around them, we gain access to some actual historical sources. This information allows us to paint an accurate picture of the milieu that modern Wing Chun arose from. That in turn may reveal something about the fundamental nature of the art that so many of us practice today.
It is also critical to remember that what Ip Man was doing in Hong Kong in the 1950s was in large part a response to the perceived successes and failures of what he had seen in Foshan during the 1920s and 1930s. If you wish to understand contemporary Wing Chun the most important thing to study is not its ultimate origins, but rather the modern historical environment that these approaches emerged out of and reacted against.
When thinking of Wing Chun during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, one name stands out from the rest. Ng Chung So was probably the single most influential public figure in Wing Chun from the time of Chan Wah Shun’s retirement until the advent of Ip Man’s public teaching career in Hong Kong. For much of the 1910s and 1920s Ng Chung So was the only figure actively teaching in Foshan.
More than that, he was very much the public face of the art. Ng Chung So trained an entire generation of Sifus who would go on to advance the art in the 1930s. He provided a central location where Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi (later styled the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” by local newspaper writers) could meet, relax and practice with other students whom Ng had trained.
The social disruption that befell Guangdong’s martial arts community with the Japanese invasion in 1938, the Communist take-over in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s left Ng without a large lineage of direct students. Most Wing Chun practitioners today look back to either Ip Man or Yuen Kay San as the founders of their school. As a result, Ng Chung So is rarely remembered in historical discussions. When he does come up he is often relegated to the status of a supporting character of no particular interest. Not only is this inaccurate, it diminishes the history of the style in some fundamental ways.
In subsequent posts I hope to shed light on some of the other neglected Wing Chun figures of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet before that we must set the stage by discussing the life and career of Ng Chung So. We will also need to know a little bit about where he (and the early Wing Chun students) fit into Foshan’s larger marketplace for hand combat instruction.
Foshan’s Martial Arts during the 1920s
Foshan had been one of the richest and most commercially successful towns in all of China early in the 19th century. It was blessed by a confluence of geographic factors. It was situated on multiple branches of the Pearl River making it a natural point for manufacturing and shipping. The town had vibrant markets in a number of products and produced most of the handicraft goods consumed by the larger city of Guangzhou. Close proximity to iron deposits also made Foshan a center for metal work. In fact, it held the imperial iron monopoly, ensuring that merchants from across the region would have to travel to Foshan multiple times a year to buy its products. The local economy also benefited from a number of other industries including sericulture, pottery and papermaking.
Unfortunately things changed later in the 19th and early 20th century. Multiple local waterways silted up making the region less convenient for trade. The opening of new port cities along the eastern coast of China resulted in Guangzhou losing its monopoly on foreign trade. This depressed economic growth in the provincial capital and hurt employment across the region.
Increased trade with Hong Kong helped to sustain the region, but by the 1920s Foshan was a sleepier place. The economy was still dominated by handicrafts and what we might now call “light industrial manufacturing.” In the countryside complex systems of agricultural landownership contributed to the growth of a wealthy class of landlords. As a result, Foshan’s contained both prosperous “new gentry” families, who tended to be merchants, as well as a variety of semi-skilled workers who lived substantially different lives.
This emerging pattern of class stratification was replicated in the martial arts of the region. The most popular martial art practiced in Foshan was Choy Li Fut. The Hung Sing Association was one of the oldest and best established Choy Li Fut schools in the region. Its many branches and Lion Dance associations boasted thousands of members. Most of the students of this style came from the large class of semi-skilled workers that drove the local economy. The Hung Sing Association was big enough that it even became an important force in local politics, until it was suppressed in the anti-leftist campaigns of the Nationalist Party in 1927.
The next largest institutionalized player in the local martial arts landscape was the Foshan branch of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association. While the arts it taught were transplanted from northern China, the Jingwu Association really took root and bore fruit in the south. This organization fell apart in most areas of the country after a series of bad investments in the 1920s, yet it continued to thrive and grow in Foshan and Guangzhou throughout the 1930s.
Unlike the Hung Sing Association, Jingwu concentrated on recruiting educated, middle class individuals who had a modern outlook on life. It presented a modernized and sanitized vision of the traditional arts where old superstitions were done away with and the latest scientific training methods were adopted to promote the strength and salvation of the nation. The Jingwu Association was very well connected to the local merchants and the commercial sector, but it tried to stay out of national politics.
These were the two big players that dominated the local landscape in Foshan during the 1920s. Where they had thousands of students, other styles and associations claimed hundreds, or perhaps only dozens, of followers. Smaller local players tended to include the more “traditional” southern arts such as White Crane, Hung Gar, the family styles and of course Wing Chun.
This is a critical point. When thinking about the entire marketplace of martial arts in Foshan during the 1920s, we must remember that Wing Chun was just a minor style among many other (usually much larger) associations. The challenge facing Ng Chung So, Chan Yiu Min and other early practitioners of the art was to carve out a social space in which Wing Chun could thrive. To do so they had to both demonstrate the art, but also make alliances with economically and politically connected actors in the local environment.
The Legacy of Chan Wah Shun
Chan Wah Shun, a student of Leung Jan, was the first individual to attempt to open a public school. His experiment was only a partial success. He had the misfortune to find himself teaching at the turn of the century and in the years directly following the upheaval caused by the Boxer Uprising. These were dark times for the traditional Chinese martial arts, which were explicitly blamed and held accountable for the disastrous events of 1900-1901. The truth is that the traditional hand combat systems came closer to extinction in these years than at any other time during the modern era.
Needless to say, the audience for Chan Wah Shun’s art was not as large as it might have been had he opened his school a generation earlier or even as late as the 1920s, when boxing started to regain its popularity. His high tuition rates probably did not help matters.
Still, it is important to note that in the late 19th century most people who studied the martial arts did so because they hoped to find employment as a soldier, night watchman or some type of guard. People from rural regions tended to study boxing either as a means of personal advancement, or because they were involved in a local militia or crop watching society. The idea that the martial arts could be a part-time hobby for middle class individuals was just barely starting to take root in the early years of the 20th century.
While Chan Wah Shun’s tuition seems outrageous from a modern perspective, it was really more comparable to paying for an associates degree or some sort of accreditation program that would help you to get a job in the future. Between the general funk that all of the martial arts were experiencing at the turn of the century, and the high cost of instruction, it is not surprising that Chan Wah Shun is said to have only had about 16 students. While he succeeded in making the art “public” (to those who could afford it) Wing Chun had yet to gain the backing of an independent and thriving body of students.
Chan Wah Shun did more for Wing Chun than to simply train a small core of apprentices. He went out into the community and interacted with other martial artists. Over the years he gained a reputation as a talented fighter and a competent master. He personally earned respect for the Wing Chun system in the local area. The reputation that he built turned out to be important because it helped to advance the careers of a number of his students. Other Wing Chun players from his generation, such as Leung Bik, tended to be more circumspect and were not as eager to put themselves out in the marketplace as public figures. In commercial terms this probably granted a certain advantage to Chan Wah Shun’s students.
Chan Wah Shun’s most successful student, and the one that assumed this public role, was Ng Chung So. Chan Yiu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun, inherited his father’s medical knowledge and went on to open at least two martial arts schools of his own. He is an important figure in his own right, but an exploration of his career will have to wait for another post. Ng Chung So was really the first of Chan’s students to emerge as a successful public teacher. He became the public face of Wing Chun in Foshan in the nineteen-teens and twenties.
Ironically much of Ng Chung So’s basic biographical data is poorly understood. The Ip family generally states that he was born sometime in the 1860s and died in the 1930s. An alternate tradition preserved by Yiu Choi’s descendants claim that he was not quite that old. They guess that he was born in the 1880s and may have lived up through the 1950s. If Ng Chung So did die during the 1950s then it should be possible to sort this out with the help of local documents and other primary source materials. I am not aware of anyone having tackled this question yet.
Fortunately we do have some good details about other aspects of his early life. Ng Chung So was born into a fairly well off family that was connected to Foshan’s handicraft industries. His father was the owner of a prosperous ceramics shop. Rich deposits of local clay made Foshan a natural center for the ceramics industry. In fact, pottery is still produced in some quantity in the region today. As a young adult Ng Chung Sok would start his career in the same industry.
His father was on friendly terms with Chan Wah Shun (who at the time was likely practicing traditional medicine). When Chan Wah Shun started to teach, he immediately enrolled his two sons Ng Siu Lo (the older brother, and Chan’s first disciple) and Ng Chung So (the second son, and Chan’s second disciple). Multiple sources indicate that in the earliest phase of his career Chan actually taught the boys in their own home.
This practice was not all that uncommon. Occasionally wealthy individuals might hire boxing instructors for their sons either as a source of exercise if they seemed sickly, as a form of diversion, or to prepare them to take the military service exam as an adult. Home-schooling such students was a common practice for a number of reasons. There were not all that many suitable commercial or public spaces in southern China, especially if one lived in an urban area. Occasionally temples were rented by martial artists, but for wealthier individuals it was more common to either support an instructor as part of their household, or to at least have the instruction carried out within their own walls.
According to the Ip family tradition, Chan Wah Shun was unable to publically teach while Leung Jan was still active in the area. The older master had no desire to teach and so his student was constrained by social convention not to. Leung Jan may have retired around 1895. All martial arts instruction in the region was disrupted by the Boxer Uprising (1900), and was specifically prohibited by the local government for a few years after that. Local officials in Guangzhou feared that copy-cat attacks on British merchants and tourists would be used as a pretext for the British Navy in Hong Kong to seize the entire Pear River system, so they enforced this ban quite rigorously.
It seems reasonable to guess that Ng Chung So received his initial period of instruction between 1895 and 1900. Of course these dates are just approximations, and are very dependent on which family history you accept. They should be approached with some caution.
By about 1905 a sense of normalcy was restored and multiple martial arts institutions (including the Hung Sing Association) reopened their doors in and around Foshan. It was at this point that Chan Wah Shun approached Ip Oi Dor about renting the Ip clan temple for use as a school space. This was where Ip Man would first become aware of Wing Chun and would later become a student of Chan Wah Shun himself.
It seems that both of the Ng brothers resumed training with Chan Wah Shun after he reestablished his school in its new location. Nevertheless, it would appear that it was the second son who was either the more dedicated or successful student. As his teacher’s health began to deteriorate towards the end of the Foshan phase of his career, Ng Chung So handled more of the class instruction. He was responsible for teaching the younger disciples, including Ip Man, much of the system. When he finally retired (apparently after having had a stroke) Chan Wah Shun entrusted the continuing education and care of his youngest disciples to Ng Chung So. At that moment the informal leadership of the public aspect of Wing Chun in Foshan passed into his hands.
Ng Chung So: The Forgotten Face of Wing Chun
It is commonly asserted that Ng Chung So was the only individual (or possibly one of a very small number) to teach Wing Chun in Foshan for some years after the death of Chan Wah Shun. It appears that Ip Man continued to study with him until 1908 when he left to attend high school in Hong Kong. Ip Chun reports that upon his return Ip Man discovered that Ng Chung So was one of the few disciples of Chan who was still active and the only one who was publically teaching.
We do not know very much about this early period of instruction. Ng Chung So apparently followed the family business and had a ceramics store of his own as a young man. Perhaps that gave him the monetary and spatial resources he needed to finance his interest in Wing Chun and continue to teach the art?
We have more information about the later phase of his teaching career in the 1930s. Unfortunately it can be difficult to parse fact from rumor when discussing these years. Leung Ting claims that from about the mid-1930s onward Ng Chung So taught out of the backroom of an opium and gambling den located on Shi Lu Tau Street (“Entrance to the Rocky Road”) in Foshan.
This establishment may either have been a joint venture between Ng Chung So and Yiu Choi (his student), or it might have actually been owned by the latter’s elder brother, Yiu Lam (also known as “Bird-fancier Lam”). Again, one must be careful with accounts like this. The liberal use of opium fits into many romantic reconstructions of life in China during the 1920s and 1930s.
Of course by the middle to late 1930s morphine and heroine were causing much more serious drug problems. Leung Ting dismisses the social relevance of the rumor that he himself passes on by noting that in the 1930s opium use was legal, and so this was not a big deal.
Of course the situation, if true, would be much more complicated than that. Opium was legal in some respects, but only if it came from certain sources and its distribution, use and the treatment of addicts were all nominally controlled by the state. The Nationalist Party leadership made deals with certain gangs granting them the right to distribute certain quantities of narcotics in return for set fees. Of course it was not uncommon for various criminal organizations and the state to violently clash over these agreements. The questions of legality notwithstanding, there were strong social prohibitions against the use of opium. Anti-opium leagues were vocal in the south, and the Nationalist army in Guangzhou had even executed a number of soldiers for opium use.
The social significance of drug use, or an association with the drug trade, was very much dependent on what sort of patronage networks you happened to be part of. At the very minimum, if Ng Chung So was operating out of a known opium den in the 1930s it might indicate that he was connected to important local political factions who benefited from this trade. In fact, the Wing Chun community of the 1930s and 1940s had a number of connections with local Nationalist Party (GMD) officials, but that is a topic for another post.
Despite his surroundings, or perhaps because of them, Ng Chung So was successful in attracting a number of students. Following the pattern established by Chan Wah Shun tuition was high and most of his followers came from well-off merchant families. Among his best known students we find He Zhao Chu (the son of a wealthy bakery owner), Li Shou Peng (a prominent local doctor), Zhang Sheng Ruo (son of a wealthy hardware store owner), Li Ci Hao, Luo Huo Fu (owner of a successful restaurant) and Liang Fu Chu (treasurer of the Ping Xin Restaurant). Additionally, the so called “Three Heroes of Wing Chun,” Yuen Kay San, Yiu Choi and Ip Man, all either associated with, or studied at, Ng Chung So’s school.
It is now possible to say something about the socio-economic profile of Wing Chun and its place in Foshan’s martial arts community. Ng Chung So was in direct competition with the Jingwoo Association for young, modern, educated students. However, where Jingwu promised modernized, scientifically reformed, boxing subordinated to the goal of “national salvation,” Wing Chun remained a firmly traditional and local style. It existed alongside local power structures and its goals were parochial rather than national in scope. In fact, this tension between localism and nationalism, or regional versus national control, was one of the defining social cleavages of the entire Republic of China era. Foshan’s martial arts history is interesting precisely because it throws these larger struggles into such sharp relief.
Like Ip Man, Ng Chung So also suffered financial setbacks in the 1930. Local lore related by multiple sources indicates that Ng was not an effective money manager. Reportedly he squandered his fortune feasting and drinking with his friends and Kung Fu brothers.
Again, it is hard to know exactly what to make of these accounts. Chinese folklore is full of stories of wandering swordsmen who disregard wealth but value loyalty and hospitality above any other virtue. This creates a two-fold problem. Actual martial artists apparently felt some pressure to live up to the norms of the “Rivers and Lakes.” In some cases this may have contributed to their eventual impoverishment.
Still, almost all of these accounts come from the students and friends of a given master after they have passed on. The stories that these students tell are always so similar in their basic structure that one suspects that these norms may have also been affecting how a teacher was remembered, quite apart from his actual personality. In short, the image of the spendthrift swordsman is a common stereotype in martial arts hagiography.
Of course there are also a number of other reasons that a formerly wealthy individual might lose a lot of money during the 1930s. The great depression affected China as well as the rest of the world, and many previously promising investments failed. The local economy was stagnant during much of this period, and the government instituted a variety of extraordinary tax programs to pay for it its military expenditures. At least some of these taxes more or less took the form of wealth confiscation. In this sort of economic environment, hunkering down and consuming your capital rather than investing it is not an irrational strategy. We should at least remember these background factors when considering Ng Chung So’s financial difficulties.
Money problems aside, Ng’s efforts to promote and strengthen Wing Chun were a success. During the 1920s and 1930s he personally trained many of the Wing Chun Sifu’s that would go on to prominence in the local community. These same students were also able to provide some level of financial support to their teacher as his economic situation deteriorated. Ng retired from public instruction sometime in the 1940s (possibly during the Second World War) and moved in with Yiu Choi who continued to support him as a “private tutor.”
Conclusion: Ng Chung So’s Place in the Wing Chun Community
As the popularity of Wing Chun has exploded, both after Bruce Lee’s death and the latest spate of Ip Man movies, there have been numerous attempts to paint one individual or another as the “leader” of Foshan’s Wing Chun clan, and the true “inheritor” of the system. Many of these arguments are transparently political, placing one lineage against another, and more recently, martial artists on the mainland against those in Hong Kong. Unfortunately most of these accounts promote a partial or unrealistic vision of the martial arts in Foshan. That is a problem, because Foshan actually has much to teach us about how the Southern Chinese martial arts developed and interacted with the broader social community.
In actual practice, Wing Chun does not appear to have had specific “inheritors” and “leaders.” Yet if it did, the “leader” of the Wing Chun clan during these years would have been Ng Chung So. While Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi are remembered as the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” for their remarkable fighting prowess, it was actually Ng Chung So who built the schools, trained the students and kept the public face of the art alive.
This is critical because at the end of the day the martial arts are a voluntary social systems. They require regular investments of both human and social capital if they are to thrive. Ng Chung So appears to have understood this, and so he continued the work that Chan Wah Shun had started.
Unfortunately the social structures that underpinned the entire martial arts community of Foshan were badly damaged by the events of 1949 and later the Cultural Revolution. Ng Chung So’s students seem to have been hard hit. By in large, they did not return to the art. His memory does not enjoy the active support and promotion of any major lineage today.
Further, each lineage has a very understandable tendency to rewriting history in its own image. As a result the real contributions of Ng Chung So to the Wing Chun community are largely forgotten. He is rarely mentioned in current discussions and when he comes up he tends to be cast as a strictly supporting or subordinate figure. Yet that is not how he was perceived at the time. Coming to terms with Ng Chung So’s contributions and legacy is a necessary first step in exploring other forgotten aspects of the Wing Chun community during the 1920s-1940s.