Kung Fu’s incestuous past: Part Two
subtitled: When legend, illiteracy and confusion cross paths
For many students of Chinese martial arts, their first source of information on their systems might have been the popular Shaw Brothers films. In fact, a book purporting to be a Hung Ga history that circulated in the early 1990’s in the United States was based almost entirely upon the Lau family’s many Hung Ga themed movies as sources. As absurd as that might sound, the harsh reality is that the stories which teachers held in their lineages and even many of the published books contained stories no less fanciful and no more authentic.
Chinese martial arts stories, I avoid using the term “history” here and will explain why shortly, first and foremost will always be subject to the fact that they originate and were contained in a subculture that was at best semi-literate and poorly educated. A prime example is how they often attempt to validate themselves with reference to imperial reigns only to contradict themselves in the process. In my own lineage, we hear stories about Sing Lung (聖龍) arriving in Southern China during the reign of the Daoguang Emperor (道光) and facing the pirate Cheung Po-Tsai (张保仔). Our ancestors didn’t have easy reference to Google, nor a library most likely, or they wouldn’t have made such obvious errors.
Another, perhaps less obvious, observation about Chinese martial arts stories is that they are not history. Not in the modern, academic sense. They are literature and propaganda. They are more concerned with spreading a tradition, validating it, bringing it fame and honor. So, keeping this all in mind, consider some of the stories we have been given about our traditions.
Hung Hei-gun (洪熙官) is said to have originally been a tea merchant with the name Jyu (朱). Chinese martial arts stories tell us he studied at a/the (?) “Shaolin monastery” in Fujian province, with one of the legendary Shaolin elders Jee Sin (至善), until the temple was attacked and destroyed by the Qing Dynasty. He then became involved with anti-Qing movements and is credited as the founder of the Hung Ga system.
This short summary already confronts us with several problems. First, and perhaps the least problematic, is how most Hung Ga lineages trace back not to Hung Hei-Gun but to Luk Ah Choi (陸亞采), who may or may have not studied with Hung Hei-Gun, depending upon which story you have heard and/or want to believe. However, by far, the more problematic issues revolve around the lack of substantiation of any Fujian Shaolin temple, nor any evidence of the Qing Dynasty attacking or destroying one. Instead, we have much more documented and detailed accounts of how secret societies made up stories about a Fujian temple as a recruitment tool and justification for their existence. These same secret societies also associated themselves with the name “Hung,” raising questions of the actual origins of the martial arts tradition.
Hung Hei-Gun is said to have met and married a woman named Fong Wing-Chun (方詠春), who practiced crane style kung-fu. In the book “Tiger and Crane Double Form” written under Lam Sai Wing’s supervision by his pupils; Hung, who had beaten dozens of the best fighters with his hard fists and aggressive tiger claws style before, was not able to defeat the weak lady with her soft and elegant style. Fong offered to teach Hung her crane style in exchange for helping her to avenge her father’s death. Thus, the core part of the famous “Tiger and Crane Double Form.”
At this point, I suggest you make sure you are comfortable in your seat, perhaps pour yourself a nice coffee or tea, and prepare for all the problems associated with this story. Let’s begin with the ambiguous “crane style” that is purported to be the basis of the “Tiger and Crane Double form.” We know beyond a reasonable doubt that material from Wong Yan Lam, the Hop Ga/Tibetan White Crane/Lama Pai lineage teacher, made its way into the set. We find Wong Yan Lam’s material not only in the long arm fist strikes, but even in the crane techniques. In other accounts, we also find versions of stories that state that in fact, the “Tiger and Crane Double Form” is in fact a composite of several different traditions; techniques Wong Fei Hung (黃飛鴻) absorbed into his curriculum. Should we not ask, is the story of Fong Wing-Chun just a “nicer” way to validate the “Tiger and Crane Double set”? A story that makes the set older and attributing it to the founder of the system?
A story about a woman with the family name Fong and “crane” kung fu also divert our attention to Fujian white crane kung fu. Fujian white crane kung fu credits as its founder a woman named Fong Chat-Leong (方七娘). Both the Fukien white crane story and the Hung Ga story describe a woman who had already studied martial arts, but is inspired by an unsuccessful attempt to shoo away cranes with a staff. But wait, the story gets complicated further…
For others, a female martial artist with the name “Wing Chun” divert our attention to Yim Wing-Chun (嚴詠春) and the Wing Chun system. Yim Wing-Chun is also associated with a fabled Fujian Shaolin temple, in this case through another of the legendary Shaolin elders Ng Moi (五枚).
Wait! Want to blow your mind? Wait for it, wait for it….. In Fujian white crane lineages, we are told that Fong Chat-Leong eventually marries a respected martial artist and moves to…. are you ready? Wing Chun county, Fujian Province….
What exactly are we seeing? Confusion in which details of different traditions and persons are crossing over? The same master narrative, but broken up by traditions that only had partial information? Or perhaps, cynically, the creation of characters to suit an agenda, the details of such creations borrowed from a real but unrelated person? Any or all of the above more likely in my opinion.
Tomorrow, in part three, I will continue this story and follow a tenuous thread to real, verifiable martial arts history.