Hawkins Cheung and the Making of Modern Wing Chun History

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    Regrets As many readers will already know, Master Hawkins Cheung Hok Jin passed away on Sunday February 3rd 2019, in Los Angeles.  Within the martial arts community regrets take many forms.  One of my great regrets is that I… Continue Reading →

Local Resistance and Guoshu: The Foshan Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association

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The images in this post are taken from Daniel Mak and Alex Jung’s excellent documentary “The Origins of Macau Wing Chun.” Its well worth watching and you can read more about it here.




Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta

In a recent post I attempted to move away from the triumphalist rhetoric that accompanies many popular discussions of the Guoshu movement and ask how its institutional limitations (rather than its strengths) shaped the spread of Northern martial arts styles in the Pearl River Delta region during the 1920s and 1930s. That essay addressed events in one small region as in my research I have found that to really understand any social movement it is often necessary to move away from national level narratives. While helpful in understanding a movement’s goals, such discussion can obscure the reality of how reforms were actually implemented (and co-opted) at the local level. That can, in turn, lead to the uncritical acceptance of politically inflected historical narratives and a bad case of selective memory.

For instance, while investigating attempts to establish “official” Guoshu chapters in the Guangzhou area, we discovered that the success of these efforts were very much dependent on the support of the governor’s office. Yet in an era characterized by unstable and quickly shifting politics, such political alliances often proved to be a liability.  Ambitious efforts to rebuild Guangdong’s martial arts culture through legislative fiat were doomed by the KMT’s constant internal upheavals. Northern masters found considerably more success in spreading their styles once they were freed (partially) from political patronage structures and able to establish commercial schools that could compete in the economic marketplace.

This essay expands on that discussion by asking two additional questions.  First, Andrew Morris has noted that all sorts of modernizing groups (New Wushu, Jingwu, Guoshu), while typically successful in China’s major cities, tended to have trouble penetrating the countryside.  That was a significant problem as the vast majority of China’s martial artists lived far from the large cities. Given the geographic limitations of the Republic era’s hand combat reform movements, what do we see in the Guangdong case?  Was the Guoshu movement able to establish branches outside of the sophisticated and well-connected provincial capital of Guangzhou?  If so, how did these organizations function?

Our second question is closely related to the first.  Given that Guangdong had a vibrant martial arts subculture prior to the importation of the Guoshu movement in the late 1920s, in what ways did local martial arts groups attempt to resist or co-opt this new expression of Chinese identity through martial practice?  Elite reformers saw the Guoshu movement not just as a way to promote mundane public health goals. They sought to use a single, centrally controlled, program of physical training and competition to increase nationalism, militarism and loyalty to the party.  Yet the Chinese martial arts had traditionally been a vehicle for the expression of much more local and regional identities. How were local groups able to capitalize on the weakness of the Chinese state to use such centrally sponsored reform efforts for their own ends?

The following essay begins by shifting our focus away from Guangzhou to Foshan, a nearby market town and manufacturing center.  It examines the rise of the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association. Perhaps the second most important regional martial arts organization between the 1920s and the 1940s, a close examination of developments in Foshan suggests that while the Guoshu movement looked quite strong on paper, in actual fact its unifying and centralizing agenda faced stiff opposition.  Ironically, the Guoshu label was even used to empower the sorts of local, traditional, secretive and sectarian identities which its national level rhetoric vocally opposed and claimed to have supplanted.





Given Guangzhou’s status as the political capital and cultural center of Guangdong Province, it is only natural that the Central Guoshu Institute would concentrate their reform efforts there.  But how far out into the countryside did these measures penetrate?  The case of Foshan, an economically vibrant market town only a short distance from the capital, suggests the level of complexity that may have been encountered. Still, given Foshan’s wealth, rapid economic modernization and long history as a center for hand combat development, one would think that if the Guoshu movement could succeed anywhere, it would surely find a foothold here.

The development of Foshan’s “Guoshu” related efforts (and we must use that term carefully) began shortly after the failure of the Liangguang Guoshu Institute in Guangzhou (discussed here) in the 1929-1930 period. Yet rather than importing a group of distinguished Northern instructors, as the Governor did in Guangzhou, Foshan moved in a radically different direction.  Instead of creating a new organization, the locally prominent network of “Yi” schools, whose teaching curriculum focused almost entirely on Hung Gar and Wing Chun, were reorganized into something more official with closer ties to the local KMT party structure.

While much has been written about the history of both Wing Chun and Hung Gar, the social significance of the Yi network has been largely neglected in favor of more traditional lineage and instructor specific biographies. That sort of rhetoric is historically problematic as it both lends itself to hagiography and obscures the ways in which martial arts groups interacted with the larger community. In fact, even before their formalization at the end of the 1920s, the Yi network of martial arts schools were an important force in the local community and the increasingly violent debates that accompanied the emergence of an independent labor movement.

Still, it was not the largest alliance of schools and instructors in Foshan at the time.  That honor was held by the various Choy Li Fut schools organized through the Hung Sing Association.  We previously discussed the creation and significance of this group at length in our volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. For the purposes of the current argument it is enough to note that by the 1920s the Hung Sing Association was recruiting much of its membership from the ranks of Foshan’s handicraft sector and the newly emerging industrial working class. In addition to hand combat training Hung Sing also provided a means for workers to network, organize and look for employment. All of this quickly drew the association into relationships with more radical elements of the local labor movement including trade unions and organizers from the Community Party.

In contrast, the Hung Gar and Wing Chun schools organized by the Yi network often (though not always) recruited their membership from the ranks of skilled local workers or small business owners. Such individuals were better positioned to benefit from the global shifts in trade, investment and economic structure that typically threatened the livelihoods of less skilled workers. It should not be surprising to discover that many of the Yi schools were financially backed by the region’s more conservative “yellow trade unions” who opposed the types of the demands that the more radical (“red”) labor movement was making.  Indeed, the Yi Schools and the Hung Sing Association clashed (sometimes violently) throughout the 1920s. Much of what has been preserved in lineage histories as “ancient rivalries” between competing martial arts styles should probably be reframed as local expressions of the sorts of class conflict that gripped the entire industrialized world during the 1930s.  But how did the Yi Schools first emerge?

That question has proved difficult to answer as, after 1949, the Communist government classified the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association as a violent right wing group with a “special historical background.”  As such local society went to some lengths to suppress not just the membership of the group but its historical memory as well.  Nevertheless, two local historians, Xiao Hai Ming and Zou Wen Ping, have been able to reconstruct some key facts about the organization.

During the final years of the Qing dynasty a resident of Zhangcha Village (now a part of Foshan’s urban sprawl) named Zhao Xi organized the “Xing Yi” martial arts school.  Sadly, Xiao and Zou were not able to discover much about Zhao’s background.  But it is clear that he was a Hung Gar instructor and his schools were the first in the Foshan area to bear the “Yi” suffix.  We might also surmise that Zhao was a talented businessman and he found ways to franchise and leverage his personal reputation.  Eventually six schools appeared (Yong Yi, Xiong Yi, Qun Yi, Ju Yi, and Ying Yi) all associated with the initial Xing Yi location.  This set of schools is said to have constituted the core of the larger “Yi” martial arts system.  Xiao and Zou noted that both Hung Gar and Wing Chun were taught within this network, though they were not able to reconstruct a full list of instructors.



As is typically the case, things are most opaque during the early years of the Yi network.  We have more information on events which occurred in the 1920s and 1930s.  But our best information stems from the 1940s, just prior to the victory of the CCP. As we review this period Wing Chun students may even begin to spot some familiar names. Jiu Chao (1902-1972) taught Wing Chun at the Zhong Yi Association branch located at Kuai Zi Lane after 1945.  Like Ip Man, he came from a wealthy local family.  He learned Wing Chun from Chan Yiu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun (Ip Man’s first instructor).  Jiu also opened another martial arts school in Zhongshan and is said to have had over 100 students between his two schools.  Perhaps his best-known disciple was Pan Nam.

Jiu’s career might also offer us some insight into the relationship between Wing Chun and Hung Gar within the Yi network.  While an acknowledged Wing Chun master, Jiu appears to have been most famous within the local community for his excellence with a wide variety of weapons that are more typically associated with Hung Gar.  These included the multiple varieties of iron chains, single and double swords, sabers and the eyebrow staff.  That certainly suggests a degree of cross-training.

Cheung Bo (1899-1956) may also have taught for the Zhong Yi Association. Rene Ritchie notes that Cheung Bo’s lineage is not totally clear and that he likely learned both Wing Chun and bone setting from Wai Yuk Sang, who was a doctor employed by the Nationalist Army.  Cheung became a chef at the Foshan Tien Hoi Restaurant and was close friends with Yuen Kay San. In addition to his “restaurant class” he may also have taught at the “Hui Yi” martial arts school.  Cheung was responsible for the early training of Sum Num who he later introduced to Yuen Kay San.

It was during the 1920s that the Yi schools more closely aligned themselves with local business interests, “yellow” trade unions and the rightwing of the provincial KMT leadership. They clashed repeatedly with the more radical Hung Sing Association over the various strikes and pickets promoted by the leftist organization.  It appears that at times they may even have been used as strikebreakers.

As Guoshu activity began to accelerate in Guangzhou, only a short distance away, the Yi schools decided to formally unite and organize themselves as the Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association.  The new group had about a dozen branches (all in Foshan) during the early 1930s.  Its official membership has been estimated at about 1000 individuals, making it about one third the size of Hung Sing at its 1927 peak. It should be remembered that this later organization was closed by the KMT during the crackdown on Communists that followed the Northern Expedition and the Shanghai Massacre in the same year.

Of the many ways of expressing “martial arts,” the Zhong Yi Association adopted the term “Guoshu.” Still, it remains unclear what sort of relationship (if any) the group had with the Central Guoshu Institute. There is no evidence that they adopted the standardized Nanjing curriculum meant to unify the Chinese people behind a single set of (mostly Northern) practices. Nor did this group attempt to pursue the sorts of radical ideological reforms of the martial arts sectors that the short lived Liangguang Guoshu Institute had demanded. Indeed, the Zhong Yi Association was composed of exactly the sorts of regional, traditional, sectarian and secretive styles that national Guoshu reformers so desperately sought to eliminate. It is thus reasonable to ask whether, or how, this group functioned as an extension of the Guoshu movement.

Perhaps the clearest answer to this comes when we look at the organization’s leadership flowchart. The first thing that we see is that its president was none other than Zhang Qi Duan, the KMT Party Secretary for Nanhai County.  Indeed, prominent local citizens and KMT functionaries filled all of these leadership roles.  While there is no evidence that the Yi schools adopted any of the substance of the national Guoshu reform movement, it does appear that local elites consciously decided that they were more interested in having political control over the local martial arts community (particularly at a time when it was embroiled in frequent violent clashes with the labor movement) than the details of what styles were to be taught.  It was easier and more efficient for local leadership to co-opt a preexisting group, rebranding it as part of the Guoshu movement, than to create yet another competing school staffed with imported martial artists.

If this interpretation of the historical facts is correct, the choice to simply work with the Zhong Yi Association represents a telling concession to the realities of the local martial arts marketplace.  Given the intensely local nature of most schools, it seems that the top-down, state centric, model of martial arts reform promoted by the Central Guoshu Institute during the 1930s was doomed to fail. Even a few miles outside of a provincial capital it proved almost impossible for the state to assert its control over the vast networks of private schools and associations that had grown up since the end of the Boxer Uprising.  Such an undertaking was only possible when the local political and military leadership was strongly committed to the project.  But in Foshan it was precisely these officials who instead decided to rebrand a preexisting network that they already depended on and exercised some control over.  Rather than the Guoshu banner being one that united a common (and progressive) national culture, in Foshan it was a tool for local martial artists to express an entirely different (and more conservative) vision of how modern China should function.




One lesson to be drawn from this is that historians must approach the written sources (policy statements, manuals, yearly reports, newspaper articles, etc…) generated by reformist groups with a fair degree of caution. This material is relatively easily accessible to us today as one aspect of the Republic era modernizing agenda was to establish a robust written record, thereby combating the popular perception that the martial arts were practiced only by rustic illiterates.  Yet the substantive claims made by these organizations about the state of the Chinese martial arts were often deeply misleading.

In their public statement during the 1920s and 1930s they constantly claimed that the Chinese martial arts were dying, that they had become irrelevant, corrupted or ignored. They proposed various schemes for the resurrection of these arts through a process of purification, modernization and state sponsorship.  The irony was that the local martial arts were not dying, certainly not in Guangdong, and probably not in most other areas of the country.  New commercial schools and organizations were growing at a dizzying rate, so much so that outside regulatory efforts found it essentially impossible to control the local supply of martial arts instructors.  While there were starts and stops, the interwar years saw a steady rise in interest in the martial arts.

Newspapers in Guangzhou, Foshan and Hong Kong all began to carry serialized novels glorifying local martial artists from the recent past.  New radio programs, and later early films, hyped martial strength. Urban individuals became involved in these traditions in record numbers. The simple reality is that the Chinese martial arts were more popular, and practiced by a wider range of groups, in the 1920s and 1930s than ever before.  The Guoshu movement was never going to “save” the Chinese martial arts as, in reality, these arts and the social structures that supported them, were doing quite well on their own.  Rather, the various reform movements of the 1920s and 1930s are better understood as attempts to get out in front of trends that were already highly developed and threatening to pass by a relatively small group of elite activists and their backers in the government.

The situation in Foshan is instructive as it suggests two issues which probably slowed the substantive spread of the Guoshu movement.  While there was an immense demand for martial arts training in this period, local martial artists expressed little enthusiasm for the centralized reforms, training regimes and tournament structures that a handfull of national level reformers sought to promote.  Instead martial arts groups continued to focus on local issues, identities, power structures and conflicts.

Secondly, with the help of local government officials, the Guoshu name and framework could be appropriated to promote exactly the sorts of parochial, traditional and sectarian martial arts practices that the national reform movement was actively preaching against. Rather than weakening these groups, the expansion of the Guoshu program actually provided them with a platform from which to promote their own, radically different, vision of what “New China” should be.  While Foshan’s Zhongyi Martial Arts Athletic Association has been all but forgotten by modern Hung Gar and Wing Chun practitioners, this short discussion suggests that it still has much to teach students of martial arts studies.



A note on sources:  Anyone interested in a fuller account of this period (as well as the relevant footnotes and citations) should check out chapter 3 of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.


The Modern Roots of ‘Ancient’ Martial Arts

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I have just arrived back in Ithaca after spending Sunday driving rather than typing.  Still, I have two items that I want to share. The first is a short interview I did with the Rochester Review after The Creation of Wing Chun was released by SUNY Press.  I thought it came out rather well, so enjoy!

Second, have you submitted your proposal for the upcoming Martial Arts Studies meetings in California?  If not, time is running out fast.  Lets get those proposals sent in before Friday.  Abstracts are easy to write, all you need is 200 words and a dream!

Click here for all of the details



Click here for a link to the web version (hopefully easier to read).


Rethinking Wing Chun’s Opera Rebels

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Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900. Chinese Opera and Popular entertainment has been linked to the martial arts since at least the Song dynasty. Even in the Han dynasty military performances were a central part of the “Hundred Events.”


***After a quick return to the blog earlier this week, I have directed my attention back to my other ongoing project.  The good news is that this manuscript chapter just a couple of days from completion. There is a definite light at the end of the tunnel! The other good news is that we will be revisiting a fun essay I wrote back in 2013 in the mean time.  I should be resuming my normal posting schedule very soon.  And that is a good thing because essay ideas are starting to literally pile up on my desk.  In the mean time, please enjoy this meditation on the Wing Chun/opera connection.***




In September of 1850 a Major in the Imperial Army stationed in Guangdong took his own life.  Records indicate that he was older and struggling with a chronic illness.  Given the state of medicine in the middle of the 19th century one can only guess that he was probably in substantial pain when he died.

In the grand scheme of things this individual tragedy was of no historical consequence.  Yet when I first ran across records of it in the index to the old Guangdong Provencal Archives (seized by the British Navy during the Opium Wars and taken back to London) it had a profound impact on how I thought about the origins of Wing Chun.

A Major is an important figure in the provincial military, but they are far from irreplaceable.  The archives are full of notices regarding the promotions, retirements, punishments and training of various military officers.  Clearly these people came and went, and the replacement of a single Major was basically routine.  As such, it was fascinating to read how much attention this unfortunate event generated.

On September 24th there was a flurry of activity at the Yamen.  The first item of business was a report filed by Hsu Kuang-chin (the archive index still uses the Wade-Giles Romanization system so I have kept it here) of the Major’s death.  Next a number of other recommendations for promotion were filled to fill the now vacant post.

The only thing outwardly odd about these reports was the identity of their author.  Hsu Kuang-chin was the Imperial Commissioner of Southern China.  One would not normally expect such an important civil official to be taking on questions of human resource management.  The reason for such high level involvement would become clear three months later.

On December 19th of 1850 Hsu Kung-chin and Yeh Ming-chen (the Provencal Governor, and one of the most important individuals anywhere in the Chinese civil service) filed a joint report to the imperial household following up on the Major’s death.  It would seem that in the intervening months they (or their staffs) had been conducting a more detailed investigation into events surrounding the suicide.

This was a tense time in southern China.  Civil and international battles had already been fought, and more (including the Red Turban Revolt) were expected in the future.  The influence of rebel factions and organized crime were growing.  Apparently there had been some fear that the Major’s suicide had not been what it seemed.  What if he had been compromised?  What if he took his own life to prevent himself from being blackmailed or used against his will?

With notable relief the report concluded that no outside factors were implicated in these tragic events.  The suicide was what it had initially appeared to have been, the death of an old sick man.  One can almost imagine the relief in the final report.

Yet what do these events tell us about the state of governance in southern China?  There was certainly tension, and a number of imminent security threats.  Large scale international and civil war were on the horizon and both the Governor and the Imperial Commissioner knew this.

Yet this was not an uncontrolled frontier.  When you skim over the notes in the archive, it becomes clear that the government and its security apparatus was immensely watchful.  Any major crime committed in an urban area was investigated immediately, and even seemingly mundane events, such as the death of an old sick man, could trigger a long and detailed investigation.

I find it useful to keep events such as this in mind when thinking about the folklore of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Many of these systems tell stories that describe an almost “wild west” situation.  We are told of mysterious masters who killed multiple opponents in market-place challenge matches, or wandering Shaolin rebels bent on the assassination of local officials.  But how plausible are any of these stories?  Not very.

Killing someone in a challenge fight was very explicitly against the law.  There were no exceptions to this, and no contract could be signed that would actually relieved the other party of responsibility.  Such actions would lead almost inevitably to one’s own arrest and execution for murder.  In a few extraordinary cases the sentence might be commuted to years of imprisonment.  Kung Fu legends notwithstanding, this was behavior that the state did not tolerate.

Likewise, if the suicide of a single military officer who suffered from a known chronic illness could touch off a three month counter-intelligence investigation led by the two highest ranking Imperial figures in the province, is it really realistic to assume that there were packs of Shaolin trained revolutionaries prowling around the capital, carrying out assassinations, and no one noticed?


The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it. The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan’s Ancestral Temple.



Wing Chun and the Red Boat Opera Rebels


If one is to believe the folklore that is popular in many Wing Chun schools the answer is a resounding yes.  Wing Chun (like all other Cantonese arts) claims to originate at the Southern Shaolin Temple.  The monks of the Temple were opposed to the Qing, especially after they burnt their sanctuary to the ground and scattered the few survivors.  Some of these individuals (in the case of Wing Chun the Abbot Jee Shim and the nun Ng Moy) are said to have passed on their fighting arts along with a solemn charge to “oppose the Qing and restore the Ming.”

The standard Foshan/Hong Kong Wing Chun lineage states that the teachings of both Ng Moy (via Yim Wing Chun) and Jee Shim ended up being transferred to (and united by) members of the “Red Boat Opera Companies” in Foshan.  These individual made a living by traveling from temple to temple, performing Cantonese language operas during village holidays.  These performances often required great martial skill.  Then as now Kung Fu stories were popular with audiences.  Nevertheless, the opera singers themselves were members of a low status caste and were often marginalized and ignored by the more powerful members of society (at least when they were not on stage).

According to Rene Ritchie (1998) their highly transient lifestyle, combined with extensive training in costuming and disguise, made the Red Boat Opera singers the perfect revolutionaries.  Robert Chu, Rene Ritche and Y. Wu (1998, here after Chu et al.) also noted that the compact boxing style of Wing Chun could well have evolved in the cramped quarters of a ship.  These nautical origins notwithstanding, it would have been the ideal system to carry out revolutionary activities in the only slightly more spacious alleys of Foshan and Guangzhou. (For a summary of much of this literature see Scott Buckler “The Origins of Wing Chun – An Alternative Perspective.” Journal of Chinese Martial Studies.  Winter 2012 Issue 6.  pp. 6-29)

Of course there is one big problem with all of this.  There is a total lack of evidence to support any of it.  There is no concrete evidence that anyone did Wing Chun prior to Leung Jan, and while second hand accounts state that he studied with a couple of retired opera performer (probably during the ban following the Red Turban Revolt) he did not give us a detailed accounting of their prior activities or political involvements.  In fact, all of the more detailed accounts of the lives of the opera singers that we now have come from individuals who were active during the Republic era (1920s-1940s), at the earliest.  Other accounts date from the 1950s or even the 1990s.

This actually makes a lot of sense.  Other important elements of the Wing Chun mythos (such as the character Ng Moy) either emerged or underwent significant transformation in the Republic period.  The chaotic word of political intrigue and street assassinations which the opera rebels are said to have participated in actually sounds much more like the 1930s than it does the relatively stable  late 19th century (say 1870-1890).

Of course, Wing Chun was never actually taught as a public art until the Republic era.  Almost by definition this is when most of the discussions of its origins and history would have been produced and packaged for public consumption.

Nor would this be the first time that we have discovered that some landmark of southern China’s martial arts culture may be more of a product of literary innovation than history.  There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Southern Shaolin Temple itself never existed, at least in the form that most Kung Fu legends claim.  The entire theme of the Red Boat Rebels is actually something of an appendix to the larger Shaolin myth complex.

If there really had been packs of killer theatrical agents plying the waters of southern China, fomenting local revolts and assassinating Imperial officials, the government would have taken notice.  The proper reports would have been filed followed by extensive investigations and more reports.  That is simply the reality of how the Imperial government worked.  The fact that there is no mention of a campaign to foment revolution or conduct political killings in southern China during the relevant decades is pretty strong evidence that 1) such a thing never happened or 2) the Opera Rebels were stunningly ineffective.  While silence in the historical record can never really rule out any hypothesis, the first alternative seems to be the much more likely scenario.

I do not mean to imply that martial artists were never involved with political violence.  They certainly were. That is one of the reasons why I find their history to be so interesting.  And there were rebellions and targeted political killings throughout the 19th century.  But historians have a pretty good grasp on the forces behind most of these (the Taiping Rebellion, the Eight Trigram Rebellion, the Boxer Uprising) and their narratives have little in common with the myth of the Red Boat Rebels.


“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.



Violence and Radical Politics in the Cantonese Opera Community, 1850-1911.


In most cases I would be content to treat such accounts as examples of “local folklore” and move on.  Yet in this instance some caution is in required.  To begin with, the plays staged by various Cantonese Opera troops often focused on heroic feats that required their actors to be highly skilled martial artists.  Opera troops actually competed with one another to be the first to demonstrate a new style, or to stage the most spectacular battles.  As such, they really were an important source of innovation in the southern Chinese martial arts.

While the mythology of Red Boat Rebels may be highly historically implausible, the earlier (and less embroidered) account of Leung Jan studying Wing Chun with two retired performers in the wake of the Red Turban Revolt is actually somewhat plausible.  We may not be able to confirm the existence or life histories of Leung Yee Tai or Wong Wah Bo to the same degree as Leung Jan, but there is nothing about their involvement with the martial arts that challenges credulity.  While a little shadowy, it is entirely possible that such individuals did have something to do with the development of Wing Chun and, truth be told, quite a few other southern martial arts.

It is also hard to simply dismiss the tradition of the Red Boat Rebels out of hand.  Opera companies in the Pearl River Delta did occasionally involve themselves in local political controversies.  Some of these events even assumed a stridently anti-government and violent character.  While these actions never actually took the form of anything described in the Wing Chun legends, it is pretty clear that later story tellers and “historians” had a lot of good material to work with.

I propose that our current tradition linking Cantonese Opera singers to both the creation of Wing Chun and to the prosecution of a violent anti-Qing revolutionary campaign came about through the fusion of two separate half-remembered historical episodes.  These were brought together by later storytellers during the middle of the 20th century.  The older of these two traditions focused on the role of the Cantonese Opera companies in the siege of Guangzhou and conquest of Foshan during the Red Turban Revolt in 1854-1855.  I suspect that many of my readers will be at least somewhat familiar with these events.  They have been mentioned in the Wing Chun literature for years, though they are rarely treated in the depth that they deserve.

The best historical discussion of the Red Turban Revolt available can still be found in Frederic Wakeman’s classic text, Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861 (California University Press, 1966).  It would not be hard to write a book on these events, but they are usually overshadowed by the larger, more destructive, Taiping Rebellion which was happening further to the north at the same time.  At some point I hope to do a series of posts focusing on the Red Turban Revolt, but I have yet to find the time get started on that project.

It is often assumed that the uprising in Guangdong was simply the local expression of the larger Taiping Rebellion which was gripping much of central China.  That is certainly what local officials in Guangzhou argued as they sent reports back to the throne.  But as Wakeman and others have demonstrated, this was not the case.  The Red Turban Revolt was for the most part an independent uprising that resulted from local mismanagement.  It actually started as a simple tax revolt which spiraled badly out of control.

One of the dozen or so main leaders of this group was an opera performer named Li Wenmao.  He managed to put together a large fighting force that had at its core a number of the region’s many traveling opera societies.  Li is remembered for entering the fight in full costume, something that B. J. ter Harr reports in a number of other uprisings in the middle of the 19th century.  As Holcombe has already pointed out, the moral and political rhetoric of the theater proved to be an effective means of rallying the masses in more than one late Qing uprising.

The image of costumed opera singers fighting the government evidently left a great impression on the local countryside.  It also made a real impression on the Governor who promptly banned the performance of public vernacular opera and ordered the rebel opera singers to be arrested and executed.  The survival of the local government seemed in doubt in 1854.  Yet following their eventual victory the political and economic elite of the province unleashed a white terror that saw the execution of nearly one million rebels, secret society members, bandits and opera singers.

It took decades for the Cantonese Opera community to recover from Li Wenmao’s disastrous and ill planned revolt.  Still, these events help to frame some of the facts that we do know.  Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo may have been living with Leung Jan and teaching him martial arts precisely because Cantonese Opera performances were illegal and it was dangerous for former performers to be out and about.  The very fact that they survived the revolt (and did not follow the retreating opera army to their new “Taiping kingdom” in the north) would also seem to be pretty strong circumstantial evidence that they had never really been swept up in the violence (the repeated assertions of modern folklore not withstanding).

Still, the Cantonese Opera community demonstrated that they were quite dangerous as a group and capable of impressive levels of violence.  In retrospect these individuals have been remembered with something like awe.  Yet at the time they were probably best remembered for the immense destruction and loss of life that they helped to foment.

One of the most important things about the Red Turban Revolt that modern Wing Chun students usually overlook is its spontaneous and almost apolitical nature.  In retrospect it is easy to see this event on the horizon.  The government’s revenue collection tactics (Guangdong’s taxes were the only funds available to finance the Qing’s war with the Taipings) along with other sociological forces had turned southern China into a veritable powder keg.  Still, it was impossible to know when the explosion would occur or the form that it would take.

Unsurprisingly mounting taxes turned out to be the spark that ignited the bomb.  The violence started by pitting secret society members involved in the gambling trade against the government.  It quickly spread through a series of bloody reprisals and counter-strikes to include more or less every secret society chapter and bandit group in the country.  These groups coalesced into loose armies intent of sacking various towns and cities, and in the process they recruited tens of thousands of desperate peasant “soldiers” who were looking for economic relief and a change in management.

Kim (“The Heaven and Earth Society and the Red Turban Rebellion in Late Qing China.” Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences.  Vol. 3, Issue 1.  2009) provides a good overview of the various major “chiefs” of the movement.  However the one thing that really stands out about the revolt is their relative lack of coordination, or even a common purpose.  Some elements of the rebellion were driven by a familiar brand of peasant utopianism, while others seem to have been in it mainly for the money.  While the secret society chant “Oppose the Qing, Restore the Ming” was heard throughout the uprising, no one appears to have had any plan for actually fulfilling the second half of the couplet.

While we see Cantonese Opera performers resorting to violence and lashing out against the government in the Red Turban Revolt, they are not the politically motivated, highly dedicated, undercover organization described in the Wing Chun creation story.  This was an outbreak of community violence more in the mold of Robin Hood than James Bond.

This would not be the last time that the Pearl River Delta would see opera performers taking an interest in radical politics and the promotion of revolution.  Opera companies were commercial undertakings and they succeeded by telling the sorts of stories that people were willing to pay to hear.  Most of these scripts focused either on martial heroics or love stories with happy endings.  For reasons that I cannot fathom popular sentiment seems to have demanded that love stories in novels end in tragedy but those on the stage must resolve into a haze of bliss.

Nevertheless, opera companies would occasionally find some success by running a politically motivated play that tapped into an important public conversation.  The anti-opium and anti-gambling crusades of the late 19th and early 20th century found expression in new Cantonese plays that went on to enjoy some popularity.

In the last decade of the Qing dynasty a group of young revolutionaries and students took note of this phenomenon and decided to use it to their advantage.  With the backing of the Tongmenhui, Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary group, about two dozen new “political” opera companies were formed to spread the gospel of nationalism and revolution throughout southern China.

Historians from both the nationalist and communist parties have tended to valorize the efforts and success of these groups.  They certainly did help to raise the consciousness of the masses in southern China.  While very few of their techniques were totally unique they did help to popularize certain innovations, such as singing librettos in modern vernacular Cantonese and they experimented with the staging of western style spoken plays.  The best short discussion of this movement can be found in Virgil K. Y. Ho’s volume Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period(Oxford University Press, 2006).

Like other sorts of opera companies these “revolutionary troops” traveled from place to place.  Often this happened in Red Boats.  While traditionally associated with Cantonese Opera in the popular imagination, the iconic Red Boats were actually something of a late innovation. B. E. Ward (“Red Boats of the Canton Delta: A Chapter in the Historical Sociology of the Chinese Opera.” Proceedings of the International Conference on SinologyAcademia Sinica: Taipei, 1981.) notes that the first reports of specially constructed Red Boats do not occur until the 1850s.

Given the decades long prohibition of Cantonese Opera in the middle of the 1850s, they cannot have become common until the more peaceful late 19thcentury.  Ho indicates that the boats actually reached the peak of their popularity in the 1920s, and then rapidly declined in the middle of the 20thcentury.  On those grounds alone it is clear that the strong association between Wing Chun and the Red Boat Opera singers is more likely a product of the 1920s-1930s than the 1820s-1830s as it does not appear that this symbolic complex would have meant as much to individuals from the earlier period.

The revolutionary opera companies of the early 20th century were a very short lived, if memorable, phenomenon.  Most of these companies seem to have appeared around 1905, and few survived much past the actual 1911 revolution.  Going to the opera was a popular form of diversion, and audiences (quite reasonably) expected to be entertained in the fashion to which they were accustomed.  This meant loud music, vulgar lyrics, predictable plots and impressive costumes.  What they did not want was to pay good money to listen a political lecture.

The revolutionary troupes had another problem.  The Cantonese Opera Guild in Guangzhou refused to accept them as members.  This appears to have mostly been a reflection of their chronic inability to attract large audiences or sell tickets.  As a result they were actually prohibited from playing on any stage associated with the Opera guild.  Of course this included most of the venues that could raise a decent crowd.

Lastly, while these individuals were “revolutionary” in their politics and ideological orientation (many of the companies explicitly backed Sun Yat Sen) they were much more conservative in their methods.  These troops were dedicated to the pen rather than the sword.  They sought to spread the revolution by educating peasants, not by assassinating local officials.  They were drawn to the stage because of its propaganda value, not its association with costumes, disguises, gangsters or ducking out of town under the cover of darkness.

Again, this is not to say that secret societies were never involved in the revolutionary project.  After all, Sun Yat Sen’s Tongmenghui itself was a secret society.  Nor do I want to imply that political killings never happened.  The late Qing and early Republic eras saw an uptick in assassinations and political murders.  But once again, these attacks were carried out by terrorist, mercenaries and government agents using very modern guns and bombs.  Revolutionary opera companies were not either side’s weapon of choice.


A temporary stage erected for the Monkey God Festival, 2006. Almost all operas at temple festivals were traditionally performed on temporary stages like this one. Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.



The Red Boat Revolutionaries: Creating a Legend


A very interesting picture has emerged from the preceding conversation.  There are at least two periods in the late Qing and early Republic era when factions within the Cantonese Opera community became very visibly involved in radical politics.  Both of these eras were short, but highly visible.  In fact, they were exactly the sort of thing that was likely to imprint itself on the popular imagination.

The first of these occurred in 1854-1855 when Li Wenman led a large number of companies into an open uprising against the government (and helping to lay siege to Guangzhou) in the midst of the Red Turban Revolt.  Far from being covert, most of this violence occurred on the battlefield.  The political motivations of the major leaders of the uprising were far from unified.  One group escaped the government’s victory in Guangdong to establish their own Taiping Kingdom in the north.  Other factions, including many of the bandit and secret society chiefs, appear to have been motivated mostly by the promise of spoils.  The tens of thousands of peasant recruits who filled out the various armies were motivated mostly by physical hunger and economic desperation.  While highly destructive and dedicated to the overthrow of the local government, the Red Turban Revolt was in some respects surprisingly apolitical, especially in comparison to the ongoing Taiping Rebellion in central and northern China.

If you skip forward 50 years another group of radical opera singers appears.  These individuals are dedicated political revolutionaries.  They are ideologically and politically sophisticated, and they seek to spread their radical agenda through the many small theaters and stages that they visited.  Like everyone one else along the Pearl River Delta they journeyed by boat, often in the Red Boats that signaled the arrival of a traveling opera companies.  While never very commercially successful, they made their presence known throughout southern China and then they disappeared, almost as rapidly as they had emerged.

We now have all of the pieces to begin to build a new theory of origins of Red Boats Revolutionaries in the Wing Chun creation myth.  I should point out that this is just a theory and one that probably needs additional refinement and revision.  Given the nature of the discussion I can only marshal circumstantial evidence in its favor, but it may be an idea worth considering.

As Wing Chun started to gain popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s it became necessary to repackage discussions of the art’s history and origins in ways that were compatible with the basic pattern of the Hung Mun schools (all of which claimed an origin from Shaolin) and the expectations of potential students (who wanted a story to tell them what this new art was all about).  Story tellers in the 1930s and 1940s (individuals like Ng Chung So) would have been alive during the final years of the Qing dynasty and may have remembered the revolutionary opera companies on their Red Boats, spreading radical ideology in their wake.  Most of their students, however, would have been too young to have any firsthand knowledge of these events.

In an attempt to bring the story of Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo into conformation with the highly popular Shaolin ethos, the distant memory of the violent 1854 uprising may have been conflated with the more recent revolutionary opera companies to create the vision of a group that sought to use violent means to overthrow the government while “staying undercover” in their daily lives.  Stories of such groups, often with reference to various secret societies, were rife in southern Chinese folklore and were particularly common in the martial arts tales of the “rivers and lakes.”  In fact, given the fading memories of these two sets of radical opera performers, it seems rather natural that they would fall into this commonly available archetypal pattern.

Adopting this new synthesis would also have the added benefit of giving both Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai (and hence modern Wing Chun) some real revolutionary credibility.  This could only be helpful given how popular “revolutionary” rhetoric was in the 1930s.  It might also have helped to provide Wing Chun with some rhetorical cover since anyone who examined the art would immediately discover that it was dominated not by the working class (like the more popular Choy Li Fut) but by wealthy property owners and conservative right-wing political factions.


A model of a Red Boat of the type that carried Cantonese Opera companies in the late 19th and early 20th century.



The provincial archives of southern China contain no evidence that would point to a campaign of targeted political killings and other subversive activities by revolutionary Cantonese opera companies because such groups did not exist.  Most opera companies were more concerned with eeking out a living, and those that may have been associated with secret societies appear to have been smarter than to go around murdering local leaders.

This does not mean that these groups ignored politics.  In fact, there were two very notable periods when they became involved in the political process.  The current myth of the Red Boat Rebels may be a mid 20th century conflation of these two memories into a single event.  This new construction allowed Wing Chun to connect itself more fully to the revolutionary rhetoric of the southern Chinese martial arts even though the system has a history of reactionary associations and behaviors.  It also provides additional evidence that the Republic era (from the 1920s-1940s) was a critically formative period in the creation of the modern Wing Chun identity and mythos.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: The Red Spear Society: Origins of a Northern Chinese Martial Arts Uprising


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