Hong Quan (洪拳) is one of the most popular methods in southern China, and not only because of its famous practitioner Huang Fei Hung (黃飛鴻). There are numerous “village” styles of Hong Quan with only a tenuous relationship to Huang’s mainstream school. There was a “red fist” (紅拳) popular in northern China and both “洪” and “紅” are homophones in both Mandarin and Guangdonghua (Cantonese). Confusing Chinese characters was common in illiterate and semi-literate groups, of which most martial artists certainly belonged. However, it is more popularly suggested that the method derives its name from the association of “洪” with the first Ming emperor, Hong Wu (洪武).
Most Hong Quan schools credit Hong Xi Guan (洪熙官) as their ancestor or founder (師祖 Shi Zu). According to tradition, he was an anti-Qing revolutionary who had studied at the Fujian Shaolin monastery with Zhi Shan Chan Shi (至善禪師), one of the “five Shaolin ancestors.” Different traditions alternately say the school is named after Hong Xi Guan or in honor of the Hong Wu Emperor. Ultimately, the difference is inconsequential since Hong (洪) was not his real family name, he had taken it as his revolutionary name in honor of the Hong Wu Emperor. His original family name is said to be Zhu (朱).
The association of “洪” with the first Ming emperor also meant it was popularly used by the secret societies. In addition to the Hong League (洪門), we have the Hongyitang (洪義堂), the Hongxuntang (洪順堂) and Hongdetang (洪德堂). I observe another interesting fact, in the testimony of Yan Yan (嚴煙) he claimed one of the most important founders of the Heaven and Earth Society (天地會) also had the family name Zhu (朱).
There are interesting parallels here. The Hong Wu Emperor was not born with the family name Hong (洪). He was born Zhu Yuan Zhang (朱元璋), that is with the family name Zhu (朱). Most believe that Yan Yan’s Heaven and Earth Society was originally referred to as the Hong League. It is impossible to know the answer, but to attribute a person with the family name Zhu with the creation of the Hong League could have been a conscious construction to establish exactly such parallels.
Despite being attributed as the founder of one of southern China’s most popular traditions, Hong Xi Guan remains more of a legendary figure. Huang Fei Hung (黃飛鴻), Hong Quan’s most famous practitioner, does not even trace his lineage directly to Hong. Huang’s father was a student of Lu Ya Cai (陸亞采). Most people are familiar with the claim that Lu Ya Cai studied with Zhi Shan Chan Shi, making Hong his “older classmate” (師兄). Other traditions maintain that Lu’s original style was “Lu Hon subduing the tiger” (羅漢伏虎拳). Lu then met a Buddhist monk (an ever familiar motif) that taught him “Shaolin Hua Quan” (少林花拳). Some of these traditions then say he then attributed his new combined method to Hong Xi Guan.
For a tradition which is named after the Hong Wu Emperor, and whose founder was an anti-Qing revolutionary who escaped the burning of the Shaolin monastery, there is an interesting fact that is often left out of the discussion. Lu Ya Cai was the son of a Manchu, a member of the Qing banner garrison stationed in the south. This meant Lu’s father was one of the most unpopular figures in Chinese society, while Lu himself was living in a region with a particularly strong anti-Qing sentiment. An association with someone like Hung Xi Guan would certainly have been of great benefit in legitimizing Lu.
At this point, I want to be completely clear. I am not attempting to determine which of these legends are true and which are false. It is probably impossible to do so with so few documents regarding this sub-culture. As Joseph Esherick stated, many of the documents we do have are biased; they only exist because people engaged in behaviors that brought them to the attention of Qing officials. Rather, the point in reexamining these legends is to see what they suggest to us and what we might learn from them.
The martial arts practiced in villages were collections of techniques brought back by various men after their military service and/or of the various teachers that the village had hired over the years. They didn’t really have a lineage as we understand them today, and for many generations no one was concerned that they lacked one. However, as martial artists attempted to reposition themselves within society, respectability required them. It is not a stretch to suggest that many relied upon existing legends to create those lineages. The incestuous nature of these legends also suggests the martial arts community in the south was small and tight knit. They all knew the same legends, and perhaps over time they also created links between them.
Perhaps Huang Fei Hung’s (黃飛鴻) most famous student was Lin Shi Rong (林世榮). A book on the “Tiger and Crane Double Set” (虎鶴雙形拳) is attributed to Lin, but was mostly composed by one of his students. The book contains a story about Hong Xi Guan encountering and eventually marrying a woman named Fang Yong Chun (方詠春). Hong, one of the top disciples at the Shaolin monastery who had beaten dozens of the region’s best fighters with his hard fists and aggressive tiger claws, was not able to beat this woman. She is said to have practiced “White Crane” (白鶴拳), the presumption being the Fujian method.
Of course, Yong Chun (詠春) in Guangdonghua is pronounced “Wing Chun” and is the name of perhaps the second most popular method to originate in southern China. This method is attributed to a Yan Yong Chun (嚴詠春), same given name but different family name. This Yan Yong Chun is also tied to the Fujian Shaolin monastery, her teacher was another of the “five Shaolin ancestors” Wu Mei Da Shi (五梅大師). The similarity in names, especially for two women who were both said to possess extraordinary martial arts skills, has confused more than a few Western students over the years.
Finally, we have Fang Qi Niang (方七娘), a woman who not only shares the same family name “Fang” (方) as Hong Xi Guan’s wife but is attributed as the founder of Fujian White Crane (福建白鶴拳). Furthermore, there are almost identical stories about how both women were already skilled martial artists when they were inspired by an unsuccessful attempt to shoo away a white crane with a staff. Finally, Fang Qi Niang lived in Yong Chun county (永春縣) in Fujian. The county and the martial arts used slightly different Chinese characters but they are again homophones and would be easy to confuse if you were illiterate or semi-literate.
There is no doubt that there were many women skilled in martial arts. Yet similar names and overlapping details of their lives does raise questions. During the Taiping Civil War, we discussed Xu Sanniang (許三娘), Hong Xuanjiao (洪宣嬌) and Yang Xuanjiao (楊宣嬌) who raised similar issues. The most convincing historical explanation in the latter case was that there were really only two women. Xu Sanniang was a widow of extremely poor peasant origins who had been the leader of a bandit group before joining the Taiping movement. Yang Xuanjiao was the wife of the “Western King” Xiao Chaogui (蕭朝貴), confused for the blood relative of the Taiping leader (Hong) because they were “brother” and “sister” in the Taiping movement. Details of the two women’s lives were probably confused as well, making distinction even more difficult.
Hong Quan, Yong Chun Quan and Fujian White Crane lack equivalent historical documents. However, we know that in the Hong Quan tradition, Fang Yong Chun’s story serves in one sense to explain the origin of the “Tiger and Crane Double Set” (虎鶴雙形拳). According to the book, after their match Fang married Hong and taught him her white crane methods. Yet the set does not resemble either the old style Hong Quan that Hong Xi Guan would have most likely practiced nor the Fujian White Crane that Fang Yong Chun would have practiced. In fact, it is also commonly said that the set was created by Huang Fei Hung based upon the best techniques he had learned from the “Ten Tigers of Guangdong” (廣東十虎). In polite Chinese society though, it was far more fashionable to attribute something to an ancestor rather than claim it as your own. Fang Yong Chun could be a way to not only make the set much older, but also link it to the legendary founder of the system. She could potentially be a creation based upon one or both of the other figures.