The Snake and the Crane Legend
The origin of Wing Chun is explained by a legend that involves a fight between a snake and a crane. According to the legend, a female Kung Fu master, Ng Mui, who was associated with with the Shaolin Temple*(1), chanced upon a fight between a snake and a crane, where normally the snake would be considered the underdog, yet the snake, biding its time and taking measure of the crane and the crane's method of striking – and taking care not to be struck by the crane, of course, since, were the crane to connect (literal sense!) with the snake, it would be curtain time for the snake! – itself struck at the propitious moment, killing the crane.
*(1) Some insist that the temple in question was the renowned Shaolin Monastery in the town of Dengfeng, Henan Province (which is indeed famous today for Kung Fu Wushu, including Wing Chun), but, according to the legend at hand, the monastery in question was deliberately burned by the Qing government, which saw in Shaolin Monastery a hotbed for Southern Ming (CE 1644-62) Dynasty sympathizers who were using the monastery as a base of sorts against the Qing govenment, but since the Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province was quite likely never burned in the period in question, it has been suggested by others that the Shaolin Temple in question was a different temple altogether, one that was located in Fujian Province, which would also better fit with the Wing Chun references to "Southern Shaolin Temple", unless the "Southern" in question is to be taken to mean the Southern Ming Dynasty (Henan Province cannot be said to belong to "Southern" China, and the town of Dengfeng lies near the capital, Zhengzhou, which lies in the north of the province). Quite confusing, but perhaps deliberately so!
Shaolin Monastery in the town of Dengfeng was burned by a warlord in 1928 during the early years of the Republic of China (1912-49), where various parts of the republic were under the rule of local warlords. However, it is alleged, though not documented, that Shaolin Monstery near Dengfeng, Henan Province was burned by a rebel leader, Li Zicheng, in 1641, as part of one of many such factual rebellions – most of them having their origin in floods or famines – against what was seen as an increasingly inept, corrupt and callous Ming government which, though it provided little in the way of services for its citizens, was not shy about imposing burdensome levies and taxes upon them, levies and taxes that hit the poor hardest and which therefore inspired popular rebellions among peasants in particular (indeed, the gates to Beijing were willingly opened to the invading Qing forces by disgruntled peasants who had had enough of the excesses of the Ming government).
It is perhaps this alleged 1641 burning of Shaolin Temple, which, as indicated, is quite likely more fiction than fact, that later evolved into a tale about the burning of Shaolin Temple either in 1674 (one version of the tale involving the Qing government) or in 1732 (the other version of the same tale). It would not be the first time that one feather, thanks to fanciful embellishment, became five hens, as it were! (The reference is of course to the tale by the Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75).)
This David versus Goliath duel so inspired Ng Mui that she developed a special style of Shaolin Kung Fu modelled after the notion of a physically disadvantaged fighter pitted against a fighter of superior physical strength, but where the disadvantaged fighter uses his own strengths to best advantage while taking advantage of the weaknesses inherent in the opponent's manner of fighting. The result of this adaptation of Kung Fu Wushu to the snake-and-crane duel would later be called Wing Chun, after a village maiden by this name, which begs the question, Who is Yim Wing Chun?
There are even more legends about Yim Wing Chun and her involvement in the Shaolin Kung Fu style bearing her name than there are legends about the burning of Shaolin Temple! The two main legends about Yim Wing Chun and her involvement in the branch of Shaolin Kung Fu that would be named after her are legends with a so-called lineage, i.e., once hatched, they acquired followers/ devotees who perpetuated the story and who, in some cases, are claimed to have been descendants of the principals in the original tale (whether myth or reality) and who further developed the discipline in different directions, sometimes with the emergence of sub-lineages that developed the discipline in even more nuanced directions. The two main lineages of Wing Chun legends are as follows:
The Yip Man Wing Chun Legend Lineage
Having escaped from the Southern Shaolin Monastery (the one that is alleged to have existed in Fujian Province) in the nick of time, i.e., just before it was destroyed by Qing forces near the end of the 17th century, Ng Mui made a beeline for the jungle area of southwestern China, namely, the Yunnan-Sichuan Province area that was not very firmly under the control of the Qing government (the last vestiges of the Southern Ming had also fled to the same area... curiously, the Kuomintang, or the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek, would, some two centuries later, flee to Chengdu in Sichuan Province where they would make their last stand before escaping to the island of Formosa, aka Taiwan, where the Kuomintang would establish itself as a rebel government, though the government of the PRC would continue to view Formosa/ Taiwan as a province of mainland China).
It was here, in the jungle-like area of Yunnan-Sichuan Province – in particular, in the Daliang Mountains – that Ng Mui observed the unequal duel between the snake and the crane that would so profoundly influence her thinking about Shaolin Kung Fu. Even larger-than-life Kung Fu masters are no larger than life than that they have to eat, and Ng Mui, it turns out, was fond of bean curd, or tofu, which she would buy from the local tofu shop, owned and operated by a certain Yim Yee.
Yim Yee had a very pretty daughter, who, for some inexplicable reason, refused an offer of marriage from the local warlord. Tofu dealers were pretty poor; at best, they eked out a subsitence living, while a warlord was, by comparison, as wealthy as a governor! But perhaps this particular warlord was sinfully ugly, or maybe just very old. The legend, though it does dwell on details as mundane as Ng Mui's fondness for tofu, doesn't dwell on the more relevant detail of what could possibly have been behind the refusal of the daughter of a simple shopkeeper to marry a man who was as wealthy as a governor!
The tofu merchant's daughter, Yim Wing Chun, knew that the warlord was not likely to take no for an answer, and was therefore understandably distraught, since she did not care to wed the warlord, yet saw no way out. Fortunately, Ng Mui got wind of the affair and suggested to the tofu merchant's daughter that she be the first to learn the new Shaolin Kung Fu style that Ng Mui had developed based on her observation of the mismatched duel between the snake and the crane. Having, one supposes, few options (fleeing would probably have been the only viable alternative option) Yim Wing Chun accepted the offer to become Ng Mui's apprentice, and a plan wss hatched whereby the warlord, once Yim Wing Chun was ready, would be challenged to a duel between himself and the pretty tofu maiden, an offer which the warlord, when it was eventually made, found ludicrous, but accepted, confident that the victory over Yim Wing Chun would be a piece of cake – uh, make that a piece of tofu!
Well, as we of course know (else the sport would not have become a rage), the pretty tofu maiden whupped the big bad warlord and lived happily ever after with her Ng Mui... just pulling your leg – homosexuality was not the stuff of legends in those days either! Actually, the pretty tofu maiden married the handsome boy-next-door with whom she had been in love all along (which probably explains why Yim Wing Chun wasn't interested in marrying the big bad warlord in the first place, rich or not), a certain Leung Bok-Chao, who also learned Wing Chun, which is the name that was given to the new Shaolin Kung Fu discipline developed by Ng Mui in honor of the pretty tofu maiden (you'll have to see the 1994 Hong Kong Wushu movie, Wing Chun, starring Michelle Yeoh, to learn about Leung Bok-Chao's profession before he too became a Wing Chun master alongside his pretty tofu maiden of a wife, since the English-language version of the legend provides few details about Leung Bok-Chao, other than the fact that he was Yim Wing Chun's beau and that he too learned the art & science of Wing Chun).
Wing Chun was accordingly passed on from master to disciple down through the ages, one of the most famous disciples cum masters in recent times being Bruce Lee, the Chinese-American Hong Kong martial arts actor who went on to transcend, as it were, Wing Chun in favor of what he felt was a better, less structured martial arts discipline that he called Jeet Kune Do ("The Way of the Intercepting Fist"). Bruce Lee's teacher was Yip Man, in case you were wondering about the connection between this particular legend lineage and Yip Man, who name is sometimes written as Ip Man. Ng Mui would probably have approved of Bruce Lee's later heterodoxy, given that she herself had been open to new ways of thinking about Shaolin Kung Fu when she arrived in the Daliang Mountains and observed a certain mismatched duel ending in an unorthodox outcome.
The Yiu Kai Wing Chun Legend Lineage
The Yiu Kai lineage of the Wing Chun legend is anchored, time-wise, in the early 19th century, i.e., about a century later than the Yip Man Wing Chun legend. According to the Yiu Kai Wing Chun legend, Wing Chun was the daughter of Yim Sei, a Shaolin Kung Fu master also at the "Southern" Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province, an alleged temple whose actual existence has yet to be established. As in the Yip/ Ip Man Wing Chun legend, the temple was attacked and burned by Qing forces, and similarly, Yim Sei and his daughter, Wing Chun, escaped in the nick of time, then plotted, not a course for the Yunnan-Sichuan Province area, but a course for Guangxi Province (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), sandwiched in between Yunnan Province to the west and Guangdong Province to the east, the latter of which is a coastal province, near whose southern (southwestern, actually) extremity lies Hainan Island (and Province)... and note that xi means "west" and dong means "east", while guang means "vast expanse"; therefore, Guangxi and Guangdong translate to "Western Expanse" and "Eastern Expanse", respectively.
Also as in the Yip/ Ip Man legend, Yim Sei ran across a duel between a snake and a crane, which the snake, against all odds, won and which greatly impressed Yim Sei – so much so, in fact, that he worked out a special new Shaolin Kung Fu discipline with his daughter, Yim Wing Chun, which the father of course named after his daughter. Unlike in the Yip/ Ip Man legend, there is no warlord suitor who asked for the hand of Yim Wing Chun, though the latter did indeed marry a childhood sweetheart, a disciple to her father, namely, Leung Bok-Chao. The young couple became good at the new sport and moved eastward to Guangdong Province where they opened a martial arts school in the city of Zhaoqing in 1815, teaching – what else?! – Wing Chun!
Oddly, we never learn what exactly is the connection of Yiu Kai to Yim Sei and his daughter, Yim Wing Chun (this in contrast to Yip Man's connection to the Wing Chun lineage bearing his name and which produced Bruce Lee, i.e., with Yip Man as Bruce Lee's teacher). Perhaps Yiu Kai was a later master who played an important role in the perpetuation of Wing Chun after the demise of Leung Bok-Chao and Yim Wing Chun (think: an essential link between the distant and the recent past). Not even the official flow chart (borrowed without permission from Wikipedia) depicting the main lineages of the Wing Chun legend (see below) list Yiu Kai. Hmm, well, absent the facts, one can only speculate – which I neatly leave to you, the reader, to sort out!
Fig 2: Main lineages of Wing Chun Kung Fu
An Epilogue (to All of the Wing Chun Legends)
There are a multitude of variations on these two legends, which might suggest that the tale at the heart of the story is pretty much myth, which is the usual conclusion in such situations. And in a sense, it doesn't really matter much whether the legend is more fiction than fact; what matters is the merit of the discipline itself, though it certainly increases the allure of a system of martial arts if it claims to be able to teach a runt how to better a giant, or claims to be able to teach a mere wisp of a girl how to better a hulk of a man!
However, an alternative, somewhat foolproof *(2) notion was put forth to explain the plethora of variations on the Wing Chun legend, namely, that it was done to confuse the enemy, the enemy being the various Qing governments; if no one could determine who was the actual originator of the discipline, then it would be harder to root it out, and though this seems, on the face of it, a bit silly, some people seem to have an obstinate penchant for believing in myths – and often the more far-fetched, the better!
*(2) That is, "foolproof" as in non-falsifiable, or possessing the property of being definitionally insulated from the scientific requirement of Falsifiability (refutability) as put forward by Karl Popper... note that the pronouncements of an ayatollah or a pope are definitionally insulated from Falsifiability.
Other potential sources for the origin of Wing Shun have been suggested besides that of the anti-Qing, Shaolin Monastery origin, though I note that the Shaolin Monastery of Henan Province remains to this day the main seat of Kung Fu Wushu in China. Two such suggested alternative sources are the infamous Triads, who would have had all the motivation one could have desired for being able to disarm an opponent at close quarters without attracting the kind of attention that a gunshot would produce*(3), and the Hakka people of southern China, who are known for their Hakka Kuen system of martial arts that is also closely related to the Fujian (Province) system of martial arts (some of the first non-Bai Yue folk to inhabit the southern regions of China were the Hakka, and living as solitary groups among the native Bai Yue, they may have had good reason to learn martial arts – indeed, I seem to recall that these Hakka built not just villages in the south of China (which, at the time, was in fact south of China), but fortresses, i.e., they surrounded their villages with high walls that were built as defensive works capable of repelling invaders and other unwelcome visitors, including, perhaps, the locals).
*(3) Note that one of the justification theories for the development of Wing Chun rests precisely on the notion of being able to overpower an opponent at close quarters where one might simply have been detained by a member of law enforcement rather than having been killed on the spot (assuming that one wasn't armed, or at least not visibly so). That is, following the assumption that Wing Chun was designed as a weapon against Qing Dynasty authorities, it was felt that if one was merely detained by a policeman (the 17th to 19th century version of a policeman, that is) for appearing "suspicious", then a technique that would enable the anti-Qing Wing Chun Kung Fu fighter to make short shrift of the policeman in question, even with one's bare hands only, was very valuable indeed.
However, the same inconspicuous, short shrift qualities that would endear Wing Chun to an anti-Qing revolutionary movement would quite naturally appeal equally as much to a 20th century drugs, prostitution and racketeering ring such as those of the Triads.
Read the next section here, The Guiding Theory of Wing Chun.