The beginning is a good place to start a story. As it is in practically all of the histories of martial arts systems there are elements of fact and fiction. The history of Wing Chun weaves many differing elements into its fiber and there is no way of separating the wheat from the chaff. This story begins at the Shaolin Temple. Where many of the monks did not agree with Manchu government policies and often covertly worked against them. The Manchu government decided to stop the revolutionary activity going on at the temple. So, they set fire to the monastery. As the story goes, the monks and many of the disciples fought bravely, but were eventually overwhelmed. Many of them died in the struggle, but some were able to escape and teach their martial arts to the populace at large. It was their hope that the people would be ready to fight when the time for a future uprising came.
Among the survivors were the five elders, each of which was a master of a specific martial art style. Among them was Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun and the only female survivor of the five. After the burning, Ng Mui went to live at the White Crane Temple. While practicing her Buddhist activities, she was also in deep meditation about her martial arts experiences. She saw the need for a less complex and more direct martial arts system. One that would be as powerful as the Shaolin system, but easier to learn. A system that would also be useful for those that were limited in their physical abilities. This system had to be useful not only in fighting, but it had to be easy to learn and adaptable to armed combat. While developing this system, Ng Mui saw a fight between a fox and a crane. She distilled the essence of this combat and incorporated this essence into a new martial art. This martial art not only incorporated the essence of the fox and crane but it was easier to learn than other styles. It was less complicated, method was more important than brute strength, and it was developed solely for fighting. All techniques were simple and direct with no fancy or flowery techniques to mistify the art.
Ng Mui taught her art to Yim Wing Chun who was the daughter of a bean curd merchant. Yim Wing Chun used the art to defeat a dangerous bully and thus became famous. Yim married and passed the system on to Leung Bok Chau. One story has Yim defeating her husband in many matches until he was convinced to learn her style of fighting. After learning her style he called it Wing Chun in honor of his wife. Leung Bok Chau passed his system to Leung Lan Kwai, a physician.
Leung Lan Kwai passed the art to Wong Wah Bo who was a performer on the Red Boats. Most of the performers in the Red Boat troupe were martial artists and many were involved in anti government activities. Because of the itinerant nature of the work and the make up and costumes used, the Red Boats were a perfect hiding place for anti government forces.
Wong Wah Bo taught and learned from an accomplished Shaolin practitioner Leung Yee Tai. It seems that Leung Yee Tai wanted to learn the Wing Chun system, while Wong Wa Bo wanted to learn the long pole and the butterfly Knives. They taught each other and this is how the pole and the knives were incorporated into Wing Chun. Leung Yee Tai passed his art to Leung Jan, a physician from Fatshan, Canton.
Leung Jan taught Chan Wah Shun otherwise known as Wah the Money Changer. Wah was not a scholar, but he was a hard worker and had a lot of opportunity to apply the practical aspects of the art. He soon became famous and also made the name of Wing Chun famous. He taught his son Chan You-min and his wife. Towards the end of his teaching career, he took one of his final disciples while teaching in Fatsan.
Grandmaster Yip Man was one of the last, if not the last, disciple of Chan Wah Shun. He started his learning of Wing Chun as a teenager and practiced and promoted the art until his death. Grandmaster Yip developed many influential students who eventually spread Wing Chun to all cultures. Among his students was the famous Bruce Lee who without a doubt is the best known martial artist in the world. Bruce Lee is not only well known, but he was instrumental in changing our perception of what a functional martial art is. Grandmaster Yip passed away on December 2, 1972