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Wing Chun's Link to Triads

Updated: Mar 22

wing chun

One of the most popular systems of kung fu in the world today is wing chun. It was cast into the international spotlight by Bruce Lee, whose formal training started in the art, but its popularity has exploded since Donnie Yen brought founder Ip Man to life in four blockbuster movies.

Despite all this exposure, many aspects of the southern Chinese system are not well-known outside of Hong Kong. One of them is its crime connection. That link is so prominent in the former British colony that wing chun is sometimes referred to as “gangster fist.”

This moniker came about because of the relationship the system had with the Chinese Triads, the secret societies known as saam hap wui. When Ip arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s to spread wing chun, the Triads were very active. One of Ip’s students was Jiu Wan. Jiu was schooled in the Chan Yiu-Min lineage in China. Chan Yiu-Min was the eldest son of Ip’s teacher Chan Wah-Shun. It was not widely known, but Jiu was also a Triad member. The gangster-fist nickname stemmed more from Jiu’s involvement than from anything Ip ever did.

One of Jiu’s students was Lee Hoy Sang, my first wing chun sifu. That makes Jiu one of my sigung. When I was a young student, I first heard that he was involved with the Triads — we all understood the meaning of “gangster” in this context. It was not until I’d completed two decades of subsequent research into wing chun’s origins that I learned there’s a second triad connection, one that has a completely different meaning than what’s generally understood by the public.

So what exactly is this obscure relationship between a triad and the martial art? If you search for answers, you won’t find any in the brand of wing chun that’s taught today. You have to delve into its traditions, even its origins. There, you’ll learn that triad refers to the core concepts and principles of the art.


The dictionary tells us that triad has three meanings: a group of three; a secret society that originated in China, typically involving criminal activity; and a chord of three tones related to the harmonic basis of tonal music.

The second definition, of course, is the obvious one that applies here. It refers to the social and political groups that have functioned in Chinese society for hundreds of years, with historical roots in secret societies and trade associations. They were organized for a variety of reasons: to protect territory, to support business, to raise dowries for weddings and to help with funeral costs. Some of them did engage in illicit activity, but many were created for mutual aid and the promotion of brotherhood. Some are still active to this day.

Criminal Triads functioned originally as political secret societies and flourished during the 17th century when they attracted Chinese who opposed the Qing dynasty. When the Qing collapsed in 1912, many of these members were enlisted by the Chinese Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang.

Over time, the political activities of some Triads faded as they began engaging in crime. In the early to mid-18th century during the Opium Wars, these Triads transitioned to organized crime. The original Chinese characters used to refer to Triads are tin dei yan, meaning “heaven, earth, human.” Sometimes the sequence was rendered tin yan dei, which means “heaven, human, earth.” These terms are as old as the Taoists, the group that originated the concept.


During the anti-Qing movement in the transitional years (1644-1683), the Southern Shaolin Temple was a hotbed of activity. Together with those loyal to the Ming dynasty, the Shaolin monks created a political secret society called the Faht Paai Hung Mun, with hung mun referring in general to anti-Qing groups.

Within this secret society, they developed an enhancement to their personal self-defense systems, which means they upgraded their warriors’ ability to defend themselves — more in terms of small-combat tactics than large-scale warfare. During this time, experts from the Ming military, the Shaolin Temple and the martial arts community came together to share knowledge. Each group contributed to the new system, which was based on the paradigm shift of maximum efficiency, the point at which nothing can be added or subtracted without losing efficiency.

Whether designing a new system or upgrading an existing one, improved efficiency is achieved by building a foundation that’s based on the laws of physics as applied to human anatomy. In the 17th century, the scientific method was not formally established in China, but the physics of combat was well-known. To discover a way to be more efficient in hand-to-hand combat, they focused on time, space and energy. In ancient China, these concepts were referenced using the terms heaven/time, earth/space and human/energy — also known as the triad. The Chinese reasoned along these lines:

When we look up at the sky, we see the movement of the sun each day and the moon each month; this gave rise to the concept of time. When we look down at the ground, we see different directions such as north, south, east and west; this gave rise to the concept of space. We have the ability to move physically through space and mentally through time, projecting future activities and remembering what happened in the past; this gave rise to the concept of human. Time-space-energy, heaven-earth-human — this is the reality in which we live regardless of context. From life-or-death combat to sending a person to Mars, we need to base our actions on the laws of time, space and energy.

For example, to improve a punch or a kick, we can look at the concept of economy of motion. By definition, this means accomplishing the same or more by using less energy in a shorter period of time while moving across a smaller space. The ancient Chinese took economy of motion and evolved it into a system that eventually reached what we call maximum efficiency, on which wing chun is based. The first form of the system teaches position (time) and structure (space). This form is known as siu nim tau, or “little idea in the beginning.” They designed the second wing chun form to emphasize maximum efficiency of energy. It’s called saam jin bou, or “three battle steps.”

benny meng

Benny Meng, author of this article, visits the Southern Shaolin Temple History Museum. The nearby display gives information about the political secret society created by the monks.


Wing chun as a fighting system was born out of the triad of time, space and energy in the secret societies of the Southern Shaolin Temple during the 17th century, guided by the concepts of maximum efficiency and economy of motion. One of the original concepts to emerge from the Southern Shaolin Temple was saam mo kiu, the “three connecting bridges,” used to help people understand the levels of awareness.

The first stage of awareness is fau kiu, or “wandering bridge,” the stage of confusion. Here, a person is at the wrong time, the wrong place and with the wrong energy. This is akin to a beginner in the martial arts attempting self-defense against a resisting opponent. The difficulties the beginner faces are less about his or her technique and more about a lack of experience that leads to use of the wrong technique, the wrong energy or the wrong timing.

The second stage is saan kiu, or “separate bridge,” the stage of awareness and understanding. Here, a person gains additional experience and understanding over time and begins to operate at the right time, the right place and with the right energy — but not always consistently or with all three connected simultaneously. This is the intermediate martial artist who has gained experience through training, with practical and effective technical ability that works against a resisting opponent.

The third and final stage is weng kiu, or “eternal bridge,” the stage of maximum efficiency. Here, a person operates consistently at the right time, right place and with the right energy with such precision that nothing can be added or subtracted without losing efficiency. This is the martial arts master who has fully internalized his or her knowledge, skill and experience. While the three bridges form a concept that was defined at the Southern Shaolin Temple, it’s a universal progression that applies to practitioners of any skill set.

wing chun positions

Left: three-gates/six-gates “heaven” fighting position. (Explanation: In this posture, a person turns sideways to enable maximum extension of and reach with the arms and legs. Sometimes called the three-gates or six-gates fighting posture, or long-short fighting posture. This typically focuses on kicks and strikes.) Middle: the nine-gates “human” fighting position. (Explanation: In this posture, a person is squared up to theopponent, allowing both arms and legs to engage simultaneously. The person can target to the right, left and center on the horizontal axis, as well as the head, upper chest and lower abdomen on the vertical axis. Combined, this creates nine gates. This posture allows the use of multiple limbs at once, as well as simultaneous offense and defense. This is typically for medium range, allowing kicks, strikes, traps, clinches, knees, elbows and controls.) Right: the six-gates “earth” fighting position. (In this posture, a person changes height and widens his or her base for grappling. By changing levels, the top three gates are removed as targets. This is sometimes called the six-gates fighting posture or the grappling fighting posture. This is typically used at close range, permitting catches, tackles, takedowns and transitions to grappling.)


To prevail against a faster and stronger opponent, you need to have a better position (time factor) and a superior structure (space factor), as well as be able to generate power from any position or with minimum distance (energy factor). The original two forms mentioned above also contain the wing chun formula, a concept for placing the human body in three-dimensional space to triangulate for maximum efficiency.

The three-dimensional space referenced by the wing chun formula is composed of length (the two-line concept), height (the three-reference-point concept) and width (the five-line theory concept).

Combined, these three concepts are referred to as the sap ming dim ( ), or “10 bright points,” which is the result of adding two, three and five. This formula is used by wing chun practitioners to screen all physical movements for economy of motion. This was the original intention behind wing chun’s siu nim tau form — to harmonize awareness of the body with the sap ming dim references.

This use of time, space and energy in fighting is an external application of the heaven, earth and human triad concept and is sometimes referred to as the external triad. It follows that there’s also an internal triad, one that’s composed of intelligent thinking (heaven), feeling and emotions (earth), and action and intention (human).

Within the Shaolin temples of the past, the warrior monks focused on achieving enlightenment and becoming self-actualized. They discovered that three things are essential for developing a person completely: how to think, how to feel and how to act.

Combined, these three factors form the aforementioned internal triad, which also can be thought of as attitude. For human development, these three powers are crucial because they are ultimately the only factors over which we have control. They are the factors we struggle to master. Thus, Shaolin kung fu is about mastery of self, not training to subdue an opponent. When we learn to control our internal reality, that ability can be extended beyond the self to influence and sometimes control situations around us.

wing chun

wing chun

Demonstration of the “separate bridge” of wing chun: The student (left) has broken his opponent’s structure/space but does not have his own structure available through the nine gates. The student lacks complete time and space control, which renders the takedown less efficient.

While we might physically subdue an opponent, we’re still not in control of the person mentally or emotionally. This is true in human development and especially crucial in crisis situations such as life-or-death combat. Untrained people, when presented with a crisis, tend to immediately think negatively. When negative emotions take over a person’s awareness, the physical body is also negatively impacted. This sequence leads to a confused mind, negative feelings and a stiff body. It’s possible for a person to be trained to perform a well-executed technique, but if the internal triad is undeveloped, the person’s skills won’t work under the stress of real-life applications.

wing chun

It’s clear that the wing chun triad refers not only to philosophical teaching (external triad) but also to the map to self-development everyone needs (internal triad). The kung fu system may have been born at the Southern Shaolin Temple and once been associated with criminal Triads, but in its current incarnation, it has nothing to do with the “gangster fist” and everything to do with living a more fulfilled life.

Benny Meng is a renowned wing chun instructor and researcher. He serves as curator of the Dayton, Ohio–based Ving Tsun Museum, which he co-founded in 1993. For more information, visit

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