The 5 Elders of Shaolin : the mythology of the Hung Mun styles


There are several classifications in Chinese Martial Arts. I mentioned it in the post What is Kung Fu ?

Regarding the Southern Martial Arts of China, we can be even more specific and define two additional categories : Hung Mun styles 洪門拳 and Hakka styles 客家拳.

“When discussing the indigenous arts of Guangdong (and to lesser extent Fujian) Province local commentators make a broad distinction between the “Hung Mun” and “Hakka” styles.” Benjamin Judkins [1]

Hung Mun styles are practiced by Cantonese communities. The vast majority of these styles have as their founding myth the burning of the Shaolin Monastery and the resulting anti-Manchu sentiment (most often with the motto Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明). The first Hung Mun styles were probably the styles of the 5 families that appeared in the second half of the 18th century : Hung Gar 洪家, Choy Gar 蔡家, Lau Gar 劉家, Lei Gar 李家 and Mok Gar 莫家 [2]. Later, other styles like Fut Gar 佛家, Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 and Wing Chun 詠春 also shared these myths. [1] [note].

Hakka styles do not share a common myth. They have their own legends and stories. However, they share certain technical characteristics with the styles of southern Fujian such as high narrow stance, triangular footwork, close range and lower and inconspicuous kicks. Hakka styles developed East of the Pearl River near Mt. Luofu 罗浮山. Several styles refer to temples of Mt. Luofu as the point of origin of the creation of their art. Among the Hakka styles are the Pak Mei 白眉拳, the Dragon style 龙形拳 (or Lung Ying Kuen), the different southern styles of the Praying Mantis 南派螳螂 and the Chuka Shaolin 朱家拳. [3]

 

In this post, we will focus on the common mythology shared by all the so-called Hung Mun styles, also called the legend of the 5 elders against the backdrop of the burning of the Southern Shaolin Monastery.

I would like to thank Maroussia Valin for the superb artwork of the 5 elders which illustrates this post. Enjoy her website and discover his different works 😉

 

The origins of the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin and the myth of the burning of the Shaolin Monastery

As I indicated in my post dedicated to Tiandihui, the secret society of Southern China, the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin is a plagiarism of the Xi Lu legend. This legend at the origin of Tiandihui 天地會, or Hung Mun 洪門, tells that at the beginning of the 18th century, the Qing were put in difficulty by a Mongolian community, the Xi Lu 西魯 or Eleuth, in the West of the Empire. The Qing asked the Shaolin monks of Southern Monastery for help in repelling the enemy. The monks emerged victorious from this conflict and greatly impressed the imperial power, so much so that Emperor Yongzheng 雍親 (1722-35) feared an uprising of the Shaolin monks against the Qing. In 1734, the emperor decided to destroy the Shaolin monastery, in order to prevent a possible insurrection of the monks. He plotted with a corrupt monk named Ma Yi Fu 馬儀幅, who burned down the monastery from inside, while Manchu troops stormed the building from outside. Over one hundred monks were slaughtered, thirteen managed to escape but only five of them escaped the Manchus : Choy Tak Chung 蔡德忠, Fong Tai Hung 方大洪, Ma Chiu Hing 馬超興, Wu Tak Tai 胡德帝 and Li Sik Hoi 李式開. [4]

The 5 survivors decided to form an alliance to take revenge on the Manchus and created the formula which later became famous Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明, which can be translated as “Overthrow the Qing and Restore the Ming”. [5]

Qing army attacks Shaolin Monastery. Source: drawing telling the story of Shaolin Monastery in Quanzhou, Fujian.

The Xi Lu legend of Tiandihui later evolved into the Chinese Martial Arts circle of Southern China, mixing with other folk figures and local narratives [6], to finally give birth to the legend called the 5 elders of Shaolin 少林五祖 (Siu Lam Ng Cho/Zou in Cantonese) whose story is quite similar to the legend Xi Lu, with some differences depending on the versions, this which very often leads to great confusion between the two myths. The big difference from the Xi Lu legend is the identity of the 5 surviving monks. In the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin (also called the 5 ancestors of Shaolin), the 5 monks are: Ng Mui 五枚, Gee Sin 至禪, Fung Tao Tak 馮道德, Pak Mei 白眉 and Miu Hin 苗顯 (names written in Cantonese, see [note]).

 

Wuxia, a literary genre for a legendary characters

From the end of the 19th century, the five monks Ng Mui, Gee Sin, Fung Tao Tak, Pak Mei and Miu Hin are found in traditional Chinese literature, in particular in the wuxia ; epic works of fiction where traveling heroes live extraordinary stories. These characters are mostly martial arts practitioners and very often fight for noble causes. Three literary works among the four classic novels of the Ming dynasty, are part of this literary genre ; Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and Journey to the West.

Front cover of one of the editions of the novel Everlasting. Source : curiosity.lib.harvard.edu

In 1893, in Guangdong, was published a novel titled Shengchao Ding Sheng Wannian Qing 聖朝鼎盛萬年靑, that we can translate by “the sacred dynasty’s tripods flourish, verdant for ten thousand years” often simplified by Everlasting [7]. This novel deal with the incognito journey of Emperor Qianlong 乾隆 in Southern China in the 18th century. At the same time, the novel recounts the exploits of the monk Gee Sin 至禪 (Zhishan in Mandarin) master of the Southern Shaolin Monastery. It is also in this novel that appears the myth of the training room with articulated wooden dummies that the monks had to pass as the ultimate test of the monastery [8]. The story of the novel focuses on the characters of Qianlong and Gee Sin who meet several other characters during their journey, such as Miu Hin 苗顯, Pak Mei 白眉 or even Ng Mui 五枚 (respectively Miao Xian, Bai Mei and Wu Mei in Mandarin, see [note]) [8]. In the last chapter of the novel Everlasting, Ng Mui and Pak Mei join forces with Emperor Qialong to destroy the Southern Shaolin Monastery and slaughter many monks, including Gee Sin.

Benjamin Judkins indicates that this novel had an impact on the further development of stories and mythology of martial arts in the region. [9]

Indeed, Everlasting popularized the legend of the 5 elders throughout Guangdong as early as the late 19th century. From the 1930s, several novelists, taking inspiration from Everlasting, revived the legends of the heroes of Southern Shaolin, while allowing themselves some modifications. In 1935, Jiang Diedie published Shaolin Xiao Yingxiong 少林小英雄, in English Youngs Heroes from Shaolin [7]. In this novel, the characters of Southern Shaolin are brought to the fore and Ng Mui no longer appears as a traitor in the service of the Manchu emperor. At the end of the novel, it is even put forward the marriage of one of Ng Mui’s disciples to the hero Fong Sai Yuk 方世玉, heir to the martial arts of Shaolin. It is this version of Ng Mui which is presented in the manuscript of Ip Man.

The origins of Wing Chun by Ip Man cerca 1965/66. Source : www.vingtsun.org.hk

 

Hung Mun styles and their mythology

The first styles to propagate Hung Mun mythology were the five great family styles of southern Chinese martial arts ; Hung Gar, Lau Gar, Choy Gar, Lei Gar and Mok Gar [note]. These styles were presumably created in the 18th century. Then, in the center of the Pearl River Region, they became really popular between 1790 and 1820, at the same time as the first Tiandihui rebellions and the myth of the burning of the Shaolin monastery appeared [2]. The name given to these five styles comes from the family name (gar 家) of the five founders who according to legend would all be direct students of Gee Sin 至禪, one of the 5 elders :

  • Hung Gar 洪家, founded by Hung Hei Koon 洪熙官
  • Lau Gar 劉家, founded by Lau Saam Ngan 劉三眼
  • Choy Gar 蔡家, founded by Choy Gau Yi 蔡九儀
  • Lei Gar 李家, founded by Lei Yau Saan 李友山
  • Mok Gar 莫家, founded by Mok Ching Giu 莫清矯 (the creation of Mok Gar is also attributed to Mok Ta Shi 莫達士)

Among the styles of the five families, the Hung Gar is undoubtedly the most popular and the one that has spread the most, especially with the lineage of Wong Fei Hung 黃飛鴻. Hung Hei Koon 洪熙官 the alleged founder of this style would have been a tea merchant from Zhangzhou, Fujian Province. He is said to have inherited Shaolin Martial Arts from monk Gee Sin and to have perfected his techniques, especially with his wife Fong Wing Chun 方詠春 (not to be confused with Yim Wing Chun 嚴詠春, I will come back to this in a future post), a White Crane style expert or Bak Hok 白鶴拳. Hung Hei Koon was also said to have been a member of the Tiandihui and a proven historical figure [10]. Note that Lam Sai Wing 林世榮, the most famous student of Wong Fei Hung, did not mention Hung Hei Koon in the Hung Gar genealogy. See my previous post on this subject. About Wong Fei Hung, he had the opportunity to learn about Mok Gar and integrate techniques into his art because one of his wives, Mok Kwai Lan 莫桂兰, was a descendant of the Mok Gar style. Indeed, this style has also been developed in a considerable way in Guangdong.

Chiu Wai 趙威 poses in an iconic Hung Gar posture.

For the other styles of the five families, they mixed more with other martial arts and gave birth to new hybrid styles.

“Circumstantial evidence indicates it was via this influence of these early arts that the central mythic motif of Hung Mun system was established and the legend of the burning of the temple [shaolin] was spread to later styles like Choy Li Fut and Wing Chun.” Benjamin Judkins [2]

Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛, created by Chan Heung 陳享 in 1836 [11], is one of these hybrid styles. It was synthesized from Choy Gar 蔡家, Li (or Lei) Gar 李家 and Fut Gar ou Fut Jeung 佛掌, Buddha palm [12]. Fut Gar, originally from Mount Dinghu 鼎湖山 in Guangdong, is said to have been created by a former Shaolin monk from Fujian, member of Tiandihui [13]. Chan Heung synthesized his knowledge and in honor of his three masters, he designated his style Choy Li Fut.

Lau Bun 劉彬, pioneer of Choy Li Fut in the United States. He opened a school in San Francisco in the 1930s.

Among the 5 elders (or 5 ancestors), we have mentioned so far, the styles descending from the lesser Gee Sin. Now let’s see the styles of the 4 remaining monks : Ng Mui, Miu Hin, Pak Mei and Fung Tao Tak.

Regarding Ng Mui 五枚, she is mainly known to be the founder of Wing Chun. Ip Man wrote in detail about the origins of Wing Chun circa 1965/66. Ng Mui, or rather Wu Mei according to the pronunciation in Mandarin (see [note]), is also known to have created other styles like Wu Mei Pai 五枚派, prevalent especially in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Malaysia) [14],  as well as Wu Mei Hua Quan 五枚花拳, a style from Mei Hua Quan 梅花拳, flower plum style [15]. According to Leung Ting, these styles are very close to Yong Chun Bak Hok 永春白鶴, White Crane style of Yong Chun town. It is also often said in Wing Chun that Ng Mui is an expert in White Crane style [16]. I will come back to this in detail in a future post.

Ng Mui 五枚, in partnership with Miu Hin 苗顯, is also credited with the Ng Ying Hung Kyun 五形洪拳. This style is one of the branches of the Hung Kyun, different from the Hung Gar of the Wong Fei Hung’s lineage. It is characterized by the imitation of 5 animals : tiger, snake, dragon, panther and crane. Ng Ying Hung Kyun would have been created by Ng Mui and Miu Hin, two of the 5 elders [17]. In the story of this style, Ng Mui transmits the Ng Ying Hung Kyun to his disciple Fong Sai Yuk 方世玉. As seen above, Fong Sai Yuk is a popular character in late 19th century novels [18]. This character will also be featured in several martial arts movies in Hong Kong cinema.

Ng Mui confronts Lee Pa Shan on the plum tree poles. Source : Five Pattern Hung Kuen (part 1), p18, by Leung Ting, 1980.

Pak Mei 白眉 is certainly the character of the 5 elders best known to the general public, thanks to the Hong Kong martial arts movies of the 70s 80s and more recently with the films tribute to this genre of cinema by Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill (volume 1 and 2). Tradition has it that after the burning of the Shaolin monastery, Pak Mei took refuge in Mount Emei, Sichuan. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the Pak Mei style appeared in Canton. [19]. Subsequently, the style spread mainly to the cities of Hong Kong and Foshan, in Guangdong.

Regarding Fung Tao Tak 馮道德, he is certainly less known than his peers. Indeed, only the Bak Fu Pai 白虎派/拳, White Tiger style, is attributed to Fung Tao Tak. I found very little information on this style, it seems that it belongs to one of the five Tiger styles of Mount Emei 峨眉派五虎拳. [20]

• Here a brief summary of the styles of Hung Mun mythology •

 

Conclusion

The mythology of the Hung Mun styles was a backdrop that anchored several styles of martial arts from Southern China into a common cultural identity. It is important to understand the evolution and construction over time of this mythology. First of all, this mythology is deeply imbued with the founding myth of the secret society Tiandihui, which historian Dian H. Murray calls the legend Xi Lu, which appeared at the end of the 18th century. Indeed, there are many points in common between the legend Xi Lu and the legend of the 5 elders ; the burning of a Shaolin monastery by the Qing, the flight of five surviving monks and the resulting anti-Qing sentiment, symbolized by the formula Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清復明, Overthrow the Qing and Restore the Ming. The backstory being established, the myth then evolved by absorbing characters and stories from local folklore (Pearl River region) and appeared for the first time in the founding stories of the styles of the five families Hung Gar, Lau Gar, Choy Gar, Lei Gar and Mok Gar, at the beginning of the 19th century. Subsequently, the myth spread to many styles of Guangdong and was maintained and fueled by Wuxia genre novels as early as the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as radio broadcasts from the 1930s to 1950s [21] and by post-war Hong Kong cinema.

From one style to another, there are differences in the details of the legend of the 5 elders. If we compare what Lam Sai Wing wrote in 1936 and Ip Man in 1965/66, the location of the Shaolin monastery and the time in which the facts take place are not the same. Lam Sai Wing set the story during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735) at the Fujian Shaolin Monastery, while Ip Man located the story during the reign of Kangxi (1661-1722) at the Henan Shaolin Monastery. Regarding the latter, historical sources specify that the Shaolin monastery in Henan was not burnt down by the Qing during this period (see post on Shaolin monastery in Henan). Moreover, most of the students of Ip Man who have relayed the history of Wing Chun, evoke the Shaolin monastery in Fujian, starting with Ip Chun, the eldest son of Ip Man [22].

Regarding the Hakka and Hung Mun styles, the classification is not always obvious. Wing Chun and Pak Mei link their origins to the legendary characters that are respectively Ng Mui and Pak Mei and both are therefore part of Hung Mun mythology from the point of view of their origins. However, the techniques, principles, strategies and postures used by these styles refer more to the Hakka styles. We can also found another Hakka style, named Chuka Shaolin 少林朱家 or Phoenix Eye Fist 凤眼拳, wich has a very similar history to Wing Chun and traces its origins to the Shaolin Martial Arts of the Fujian via a nun [23].

Finally, we can wonder if the Fujian styles share the same legendary origins as the styles mentioned in this post, mainly from Guangdong. Indeed, the Hung Mun mythology relates to the Fujian Shaolin Monastery, it seems relevant to consider that the styles of this province relate to Shaolin and its mythology. In reality, very little. Let us quote however, the Dishu Quan 地术拳, also called the Gou Quan 狗拳, ground boxing or dog boxing, which according to the legend would have been created by Fong Sai Yuk [24], a disciple of Ng Mui. Let us also quote the Luohan Quan 羅漢拳, more particularly a current of the Luohan Quan better known under the name of Xiang Dang Quan 香店拳, Incence Shop Boxing, who shares the myth of the burning of the Shaolin Monastery. Without specifying the name of the monk in particular, it is said that some of the monks of Shaolin (from Fuzhou Monastery, see my post on Southern Shaolin Monastery) the monks fled and took refuge in the store in Fuzhou, the monastery’s incense supplier. To hide from the Manchus, the monks passed on their art under the name of Incence Shop Boxing. [25]

Finally to remove any confusion, still among Fujian styles, Wu Zu Quan 五祖拳 (the boxing of the 5 ancestors), despite its name, has no connection with the 5 elders of Shaolin 少林五祖. Wu Zu Quan is a hybrid style consisting of techniques and principles of 5 styles which are: Taizu Quan 太祖拳, Baihe Quan (or Bak Hok Kyun in cantonese)  白鶴拳, Hou Quan 猴拳, Dazun Quan 達尊拳 and Luohan Quan 羅漢拳. [26]


Note 

The transcription of Chinese names is often confusing. The solution to this problem is however simple ; accompany the transcription of Chinese characters. This is what I try to do in my posts as much as possible.

In this post, I have used the most used spelling to transcribe Chinese characters, most often according to Cantonese pronunciation.

In order to avoid any confusion, you will find below the list of the different names of styles and characters mentioned in this article, with different writings that one can meet, without being exhaustive :

Regarding styles :

  • Hung Gar 洪家 can also be written in Cantonese Hung Ga and written in Mandarin Hong Jia.
  • Choy Gar 蔡家 can also be written in Cantonese Choi Gar and written in Mandarin Cai Jia, or Cai Jia Quan 蔡家拳.
  • Lau Gar 劉家 written in Mandarin Liu Jia, or Liu Jia Quan 劉家拳.
  • Lei Gar 李家 can also be written in Cantonese Li Gar, Lee Gar and written in Mandarin Li Jia.
  • Mok Gar 莫家 written in Mandarin Mo Jia, or Mo Jia Quan 莫家拳.
  • Fut Gar 佛家 can also be written in Cantonese Fat Gar and written in Mandarin Fo Jia.
  • Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 can also be written in Cantonese Choy Lee Fut, Choy Lay Fut, Choi Lei Fut… and written in Mandarin Cai Li Fu.
  • Wing Chun 詠春, I have already mentioned the different scriptures in the very first post of this blog.

Regarding the characters :

  • Siu Lam Ng Cho (or Zou) 少林五祖 written in Mandarin Shaolin Wu Zu. In English the Five Elders of Shaolin.
  • Ng Mui 五枚 can also be written in Cantonese Ng Moy and written in Mandarin Wu Mei.
  • Gee Sin 至禪 can also be written in Cantonese Gee Sim and written in Mandarin Zhi Shan.
  • Fung Tao Tak 馮道德 can also be written in Cantonese Fung Dou Dak and written in Mandarin Fong Dao De.
  • Pak Mei 白眉 can also be written in Cantonese Bak Mei and written in Mandarin Pai Mei or Bai Mei.
  • Miu Hin 苗顯 written in Mandarin Miao Xian.
  • Hung Hei Koon 洪熙官 can also be written in Cantonese Hung Hei Goon, Hung Hay Koon and written in Mandarin Hung Xi Guan.
  • Fong Sai Yuk 方世玉 and written in Mandarin Fang Shi Yu.

Source

[1] The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, p81, JUDKINS Benjamin, NIELSON Jon, ed. State University of New York Press, 2015

[2] Ibid, p84

[3] Ibid, p81-82

[4] The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association, p31, STANTON William, ed. Kelly & Walsh. 1900 and 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p15, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866

[5] 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p7-19, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866

[6] The Little Idea, Wing Chun compagnon book 2 : Siu Nim Tau, p25, RICHTER Alex, ed. City Wing Tsun, Inc, 2016

[7] Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel, p36, HAMM John Christopher, ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2006

[8] chinesemartialstudies.com and 116 Wing Tsun Dummy Techniques, p10, YIP Chun, ed. Leung’s Publications, 1981

[9] The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, p284, JUDKINS Benjamin, NIELSON Jon, ed. State University of New York Press, 2015

[10] Ibid, p86-87 and Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, p29 , LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung Ting Co, 2000

[11] The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, p92, JUDKINS Benjamin, NIELSON Jon, ed. State University of New York Press, 2015

[12] Choy Lay Fut Kung Fu The Dynamic Art of Fighting, p8-9, LEE Koon-Hung, ed. Lee Koon Hung Publishing Compagny, 1983

[13] taipinginstitute.com

[14] themartialman.com and wumeigongfu.com

[15] meihuazhuang.jimdofree.com and it.linkfang.org

[16] Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, p56 , LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung Ting Co, 2000

[17] Five Pattern Hung Kuen (part 1), p13-25, LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung’s publications, 1980

[18] Five Pattern Hung Kuen (part2), p29, LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung’s publications, 1981

[19] naamkyun.com

[20] whitetigerkungfu.com and baike.baidu.com

[21] chinesemartialstudies.com

[22] Wing Chun : traditional Chinese kung fu for self defense & health, p17, TSE Michael et IP Chun, ed. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998

[23] The Secrets of Phoenix-Eye Fist Kung-Fu, The art of Chuka Shaolin, p11-12, CHEONG Cheng Leong, WILEY Mark V., Ed Tuttle Publishing, 2000 et chinesemartialstudies.com

[24] taipinginstitute.com

[25] taipinginstitute.com and Karate Nerd in China (Ep. 5) (youtube channel of Jesse Enkamp)

[26] Quanzhou Wuzu fist (youtube channel of CGTN)


 

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