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SHAOLIN STUDIOS 5: Ten Tigers of Shaolin Part 3: Special Guest Fong Wing Chun

Lily Li as Fong Wing Chun in Executioners from Shaolin

When it comes to the 10 Tigers of Shaolin, one account of their story speaks about one of the most famous female martial artists that has ever lived. Her name is closely associated with Bruce Lee, which might explain her increased importance since the early 1970’s. I’m of course talking about the possible founder of Lee’s martial arts foundation style as taught to Lee by Yip Man. Let me introduce to you, come on with a martial arts cheer…Wing Chun. The controversies of her past and namesake kung fu style are much debated among martial arts historians. One narrative of the Ten Tigers of Shaolin includes Wing Chun as the only female member. Although I found no in-depth corroboration of this in the literature, yet because of her importance to martial arts history, her ties to the Five Elders and Ten Tigers of Shaolin and cinema history, I have included her in the discussion. Another version notes that if someone perhaps believed one of the Ten Tigers perished at Jiu Lian Shan Temple, maybe Wing Chun was a historic replacement. Fong Wing Chun (Cantonese romanization, where here Wing means forever) was born in Zhao Xing, Canton, and was the niece of one of the most famous Ten Tigers Fang Shi-yu. Also known as the Third Lady of Wing Chun, she purportedly was the only female student of the Five Elders of Shaolin, Zhi Shan, and she specialized in white crane martial arts, which she learned from the lone female Five Elder Wu Mei. When Wing Chun later married Hong Xi-guan, another significantly famous 10 Tigers of Shaolin, it is believed she taught Hong white crane and Hong combined the moves with his tiger fist to produce Hong's patented tiger-crane style. The film Executioners from Shaolin (1977) features Lily Li playing Hong’s wife Fong Wing Chun who was a kung fu street performer, how they met, married and gave birth to a boy named Wen Ting. The main plot centers around Hong’s attempt to kill the Five Elder and Shaolin traitor Bai Mei. However, in the film, Hong refused to learn Wing Chun’s white crane and as a result dies. To avenge Hong’s death, Wen Ting learns white crane from his mum, combines it with his dad’s tiger style to kill Bai. Historically, Hong learned Wing Chun’s white crane, died at 93 in 1821 and the Five Elder Feng Dao De killed Bai. Another story claims that the Third Lady of Wing Chun was a nun who taught Hong the tiger-crane fist so he could perform an act of revenge. A third legend contends that after the Jiu Lian Shan temple burning, a disciple named Fang Hui-shi escaped and went into hiding. He (or maybe she) taught his skills to his/her daughter Fang Chi-niang, who in turn founded the white crane fist by observing a white crane. Chi-niang later became a nun, assumed the name Wing Chun, where here Wing means to sing or chant. However, some variants stated the belief that Fong Wing Chun, Fang Chi-niang and nun Wing Chun may be the same person. Beyond the dispute that exists regarding whether Wing Chun existed or not, there is also a major controversy surrounding the development of her martial arts style, Wing Chun kung-fu. One story dictates that Wing Chun's first teacher Zhi Shan created the style. When Hong Xi-guan returned from Canton he told Zhi how narrow the streets were. Northern Shaolin martial arts are characterized by broad sweeping motions that may not be applicable in confined spaces. Hong and Zhi subsequently set out to develop stances and hand techniques that could generate similar power within the confines of a four-brick tile space. Since these techniques were perfected within the monastery's Wingchun Hall, the style was called Wing Chun. Another story reveals that Zhi Shan consulted with Hong's wife Fong Wing Chun and so named the style after her. Yet another lineage explains that the art's founder was not Fong Wing Chun, but a completely different lady named Yim Wing Chun. This Wing Chun was never at Shaolin, didn't know monk Zhi Shan, and was not the husband of Hong Xi-guan. However, most legends agree that a lady named Wing Chun learned martial arts either directly or indirectly from Wu Mei. After the Jiu Lian Shan Temple burning, Wu Mei escaped the Manchus by finding refuge at Bai He Shi (White Crane Temple) atop Er Mei Mountain in Sichuan province. While there, after observing a fight between a snake and a crane, Wu was inspired to create a form of white crane kung fu (there are several kinds of white crane kung fu with different origins). The direction of the story now takes different paths. One account alleges that Wu taught her martial arts to monk Miao Shun who passed it on to anti-Ching revolutionary Yim Yee who had set up a tofu shop in Guang Xi with his daughter Yim Wing Chun. Yee taught Wing Chun the art created by Wu Mei, and upon Wing Chun's death, her husband, Leung Bok-chau called the martial art Wing Chun so her legacy could live on. Another popular version explains that Yim Yee set up his tofu shop at the foot of Er Mei Mountain, a shop that nun Wu Mei often visited to buy tofu. One day, after a bully threateningly forced the aging Yim Yee to have his daughter Wing Chun marry him, Wu Mei was incensed and instead of beating up the bully, she secretly taught Wing Chun martial arts, who three years later easily defeated the bully. Wing Chun married Leung Bok-chau and he did indeed use her namesake to coin the art. Director Yuen Woo-ping followed this version of the tale in the Michelle Yeoh starring Wing Chun (1994) as Yim Wing Chun. Silver screen legend cameos one kung fu screen queen, Cheng Pei Pei as Wu Mei and Donnie Yen as Leung Bok-chau. A point of interest to toss into the fire of speculation. Wing Chun martial arts is based upon using one's opponent's energy to redirect the attack, where blocking punches is more of a matter of deflecting and parrying the strikes rather than meeting them head on (like in karate). Furthermore, one of Wing Chun's exclusive pieces of training equipment is the Wing Chun wooden dummy, where to toughen the hands and arms the practitioner forcibly and rapidly strikes a wooden log vaguely shaped like a man, with protruding wooden arms. It was known that when one breaks an arm, the healed bone was stronger at the point of the break, but weaker on either side of the break. So the idea of striking the wooden dummy was to repeatedly hairline fracture the bones and use special medicine to promote healing. Over a three-year period, one's arms would become hard. As previously discussed, one of the most famous and closely guarded secret chambers of Shaolin was the Luohan Hall, a corridor that housed 18 wooden dummies. It seems that for someone to create a training device based on a secret Shaolin method had to either be at the temple or was taught by someone with intrinsic knowledge of the wooden dummies. Wu Mei's white crane martial arts does not use wooden dummies for training so which ever Wing Chun (Fong or Yim) the art is named after, it makes sense that she would have had some sort of intimate tie with the Shaolin Temple. Although we cannot negate the possibility that Yim Wing Chun was not ambitious enough to independently invent the wooden dummy, the Shaolin tie-in perhaps gives more credence to the Fong Wing Chun versions of the legend and her relationships with monk Zhi Shan and Hong Xi-guan. Furthermore, would a lady over 200 years ago in China be willing to smash her arms against wood for three years just to fight a bully? It seems plausible that only a man back in those days would include such bodily harmful methods into his daily training regimen. Next up, the Ten Tigers of Canton and a film title that is the most misleading film title in martial arts cinema, yes, worse that a certain Bruce Lee film.

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