The Northerner Master versus the Wing Chun clan of Fatshan


In this post, I would like to revisit an event that happened in Fatshan 佛山 (Foshan in Mandarin) in the 1920s (or early 1930s), an event that was heavily fictionalized in Wilson Yip’s 2008 film Ip Man with the clash of Kam Chan Chau (Jin Shan Zhao in Mandarin) versus Ip Man. I titled this post “The Northerner Master versus the Wing Chun clan of Fatshan” and not “versus Ip Man” because there are different versions of this story where Ip Man is not the person who faced the Northerner Master.

Let’s first go back to the sources that tell of this epic event, which occurred in Fatshan almost a century ago now. There has not been, as far as I know, any official document relating this account, by which I mean, no document drawn up by any administrative authority. Nor was there any “in live” written document at the time of the event. The documents that we remember today are testimonies of this story that has become almost legendary, from people who have heard of this story. In other words, these are testimonials told from person to person that were written more than 70 years after the fact. We must therefore take a step back with this story and not establish an irremediable truth…

Here are the sources used to write this post in their order of publication :

– Ip Ching’s interview of Black Belt magazine July 1995 [1]

– The book Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen History and Foundation by Rene Ritchie published in 1998 and an article by the same author in www.wingchun.org [2]

– The book Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun by Leung Ting published in 2000 [3]

– The book Ip Man – Portrait of a Kung Fu Master de Ip Ching published in 2001 [4]

 

Pratical Map of Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province by Shang Wu Yin Shu Guan, 1915. Source : BNF Gallica

The historical context of the 1920s/1930s

In 1912, China established a new political regime, the Republic of China, which succeeded the Qing dynasty. Regarding the martial arts, it is a prosperous period and in the grip of development. Peasants flock to cities and join martial arts schools in search of mutual protection, support and reaffirmation of their local and national identity [5]. It is in this spirit that the Jingwu 精武 school was founded in Shanghai in 1909, by the famous Master Huo Yuanjia 霍元甲. After its success in Shanghai, the Jingwu school gradually developed in other regions of China, such as Guangdong, with the opening of a first school in Guangzhou 广州, in the spring of 1919. Masters from the mother school in Shanghai were sent to Guangzhou to promote the Jingwu Martial Arts, such as Lu Weichang 盧煒昌, one of the most talented students of Huo Yuanjia [6] [7].

Photo of the members of the Guangdong Jingwu Association welcoming Lu Weichang [shown in second row, sixth from left] – Oct 23, 1919 [6]. On the right, portrait of Lu Weichang [7].
The Guangzhou school was very successful, so other Jingwu branches were planned to be developed in Guangdong. The Fatshan branch was created in 1920 and Masters of the Shanghai Jingwu school were sent there as instructors, experts, among others, in Eagle Claw style, Praying Mantis style and Taijiquan. This didn’t please the local population at all, who were strongly influenced by local martial arts, in particular Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 [note] very common in Fatshan at that time. [8]

During this period, Wing Chun began to grow in Fatshan, notably under the leadership of one of the leaders of the style : Ng Chung So 吳仲素, the first student of Chan Wah Shun 陳華順, who took over teaching around 1910. A handful of practitioners, mostly from middle-class backgrounds, trained under the direction of Ng Chung So. This one worked for Yiu Lam 姚霖 who runed an opium den with gambling, located in Sek Lo Tau 石路頭 “The Entrance of the Rocky Road”. Ng Chung So teached Wing Chun in the back room of this opium den. Between 20 and 25 Wing Chun practitioners from Fatshan attended his informal classes, among them Yiu Choy 姚才 (Yiu Lam’s brother), Tong Kai 湯繼, Lai Hip Chi 黎協池, Yuen Kay San 阮奇山 and Ip Man 葉問. [9]

Ng Chung So was the Sihing 師兄 of Ip Man, his older brother in the martial art tradition. They had both the same Sifu 師父, Chan Wah Shun, but it is very likely that Ng Chung So was the main instructor of Ip Man. These relationships are recounted in the manuscript written by Ip Man. [10]

Opium Den, Canton,1902. Source : photograph by Carleton H. Graves. www.getty.edu

 

The challenge issued by the Northerner Master

Kam Chan Chau, the Northerner Master in the 2008 film Ip Man, travels to Fatshan to challenge the martial arts Masters of the city and is ultimately defeated by Ip Man. This confrontation is inspired by an event that really took place. Ip Ching exposed this story twice once in an interview given to Black Belt magazine in 1995 [1] and a second time in the book Ip Man – Portrait of a Kung Fu Master in 2001 [4]. The Northerner Master is an instructor from Shanghai Jingwu School sent to Fatshan Jingwu School [note] to teach his Kung Fu there. Ip Ching did not mention his name but called him Master of the Eagle Claw style in 1995 and Master of the Praying Mantis style in 2001.

The Eagle Claw style, Ying Zhao 鷹爪, was integrated by Master Chen Zizheng 陳子正 in the Shanghai Jingwu school, in the 1910s. Then, Chen Zizheng was sent in 1921 to the Hong Kong Jingwu school to teach his style. He stayed there until 1924 and then returned to the North, leaving the teaching of his style to disciples. [11]. It can be assumed that some of his disciples were sent to the Jingwu school of Fatshan to teach the Eagle Claw style there. Disciples of Chen Zizheng or not, we know however that two instructors of Eagle Claw, Li Bao Ying 李寶英 and Liu Fa Meng 劉法孟, taught at Fatshan Jingwu School at that time [8].

The hypothesis of Praying Mantis Master, Tang Lang 螳螂拳, seems more plausible since it is indicated both by Rene Ritchie [2], Leung Ting [3] and Ip Ching [4]. Leung Ting mentions a certain Master Yu, as does Rene Ritchie, Master Yu Lok Gong. It turns out that a Tang Lang Master by the name of Yu Lok Gong 于樂江 in Cantonese (or Yu Le Jiang in Mandarin), was indeed sent to the Fatshan Jingwu school to teach the Praying Mantis style [8], from 1922 to 1925 [12]. Yu Lok Gong was the disciple of the famous Master Luo Guang Yu 羅光玉 who joined the Tang Lang at the Shanghai Jingwu school in 1919 [2] [13].

On the top corner left, Dai jingCheng 戴金城 and Mai Hua Yong 麥華永 demonstrating techniques from Tang Lang. Top right, the portrait of the famous Master Luo Guang Yu 羅光玉. Bottom, Wong Hon Fan 黃漢勛 with staff and Wong Hanchao 黃漢超 with large saber. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

The story goes that once he arrived in Fatshan, Yu Lok Gong would have challenged the community of local Masters to increase his reputation and attract new students to the Fatshan Jingwu school (versions by Rene Ritchie and Leung Ting). Another version states that the Masters of Fatshan were offended by Yu Lok Gong’s slanderous remarks and decided to appoint one of their own to challenge the Master of the North. Lee Kong Hoi, a herbal doctor from Fatshan, recommended his friend, Ip Man, to face Yu Lok Gong (version of Ip Ching). Ultimately, Yu Lok Gong challenged (or was challenged by) a member of the Wing Chun clan ; Ip Man or Yuen Kay San.

Ip Man and Yuen Yay San. In the 1920s/30s in Fatshan, the two Wing Chun Masters were good friends, they had the opportunity to practice together for several years. Note that these photos date from after 1950 and do not correspond to the period when they met in Fatshan.

 

Yu Lok Gong vs Ip Man / Yuen Kay San

At this point in the story, the versions diverge. In Ip Ching’s version, Yu Lok Gong, the Master of Tang Lang confronts Ip Man. While in Rene Ritchie and Leung Ting’s versions, Yu Lok Gong takes on Yuen Kay San. In the following paragraphs, I have taken the liberty of summarizing the stories exposed by Ip Ching, Rene Ritchie and Leung Ting.

  • Version of the fight against Ip Man

Ip Man having been chosen to face Yu Lok Gong, the fight was organized on a stage (leui toi 擂台) in the center of the city. The promotion of the event brought nearly 2000 people installed on chairs around the stage. The confrontation was very brief ; Yu Lok Gong lunged at his opponent to attack him, Ip Man absorbed it and kicked Tang Lang’s Master off the stage. Yu Lok Gong landed on a chair which broke his ribs. The fight was over. At that time, the spectators were dissatisfied because the confrontation had ended very quickly. Ip Man then kept them busy demonstrating the forms of Wing Chun. The event ended after some extra entertainment and a lion dance.

  • Version of the fight against Yuen Kay San

Rene Ritchie’s version and Leung Ting’s version differ of the circumstances that led to this fight between Yu Lok Gong and Yuen Kay San.

    • In Rene Ritchie’s version, Yuen Kay San came to witness the fight between the Master of Tang Lang and a Martial Arts Master from Fatshan (unidentified). Since Yu Lok Gong’s opponent didn’t show up, Yu turned to Yuen Kay San and challenged him. This one refused the challenge but Yu Lok Gong threw on Yuen Kay San forcing him to defend himself. The rest of the confrontation was very brief, Yuen Kay San defended the successive attacks of Yu Lok Gong while attacking him forcing him to retreat. Yu Lok Gong was overwhelmed and dominated, he had to submit to Yuen Kay San. The fight was over very briefly.
    • In Leung Ting’s version, Yu Lok Gong had heard of the fame of Ip Man, renowned for his Wing Chun style, so he went to the opium den where Ip Man used to go, for challenge him. Ip Man was not there that day, but his friend Yuen Kay San was relaxing by smoking opium. Yu Lok Gong never having met Ip Man, he confused him with Yuen Kay San, and launched a blunt attack on him. Yuen Kay San surprised, still had the ability to defend himself and repelled his opponent’s attack. After understanding Yu Lok Gong’s intentions and once everyone had stated their identity, Yuen Kay San offered his opponent to continue the fight outside the opium den. The rest of the confrontation was very brief, Yuen Kay San dominated the fight very quickly and Yu Lok Gong had to admit defeat.

 

Conclusion

We have seen that there are different versions of this event of the Northerner Master coming to challenge the Fatshan Martial Arts Masters. However, it seems that it would be a Wing Chun practitioner who defeated him. Again, the facts presented in the different versions of this account must be considered carefully. The truth about this story from a century ago remains impossible to establish, especially since these accounts may have been influenced by a version told in a wuxia-type novel published in the 1960s. [8]

In 1948, Chan Jin 陳勁, under the pen name “I am a Mountain Man”我是山人, published “Mr Jan from Fatshan” 佛山贊先生. This book deals with, in a very romantic way, the epics of the practitioners of Fatshan Wing Chun, in particular those of Master Leung Jan 梁贊, the sigung 师公 of Ip Man.

Regarding Yu Lok Gong, the Master of Tang Lang who confronted a Wing Chun practitioner in Fatshan, little is known about his life. He is not as well known as Wong Hon Fan, a brother in arms, having had the same Master, the renowned Luo Guang Yu. However, it seems that after having stayed in Fatshan to teach Tang Lang in the Jingwu school, Yu Lok Gong later traveled to Guangxi to transmit his style as early as 1925 [12]. Finally still in Guangxi, Yu Lok Gong is asked during the 2nd World War to train the soldiers of the Chinese army in the dadao 大刀, the large saber. [8] [14]

 

The 4 Wilson Ip films are not known to be authentic biopics of the Grandmaster’s life. No, Ip Man never set foot in America to smash Marines #IpMan4. However, we must admit that the Ip Man film (2008), however, is inspired by an old story passed to Fatshan, taking the liberty of reinterpreting it.


Note

  • Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛 can also be written in Cantonese Choy Lee Fut, Choy Lay Fut, Choi Lei Fut… and is written in Mandarin Cai Li Fu.
  • Jingwu 精武 is the script used in Mandarin. 精武 is often written Chin Woo in Cantonese, but we can also find Ching Wu, Jing Mo

Source

[1] Black Belt, July 1995, p60-62 and p64, Rainbow Publications (see my post for more details on this interview)

[2] Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen History and Foundation, p19,  RITCHIE Rene, ed Multi-Media Books, 1998 and www.wingchun.org (article de Rene RITCHIE)

[3] Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, p239-240, LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung Ting Co, 2000

[4] Ip Man Portrait of a Kung Fu Master, IP Ching and HEIMBURGER Ron, p21-22, King Dragon Press, 2001

[5] The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, p111-112, JUDKINS Benjamin, NIELSON Jon, ed. State University of New York Press, 2015

[6] 外篇 Opening Distant Jingwu Branches [Part Twelve of 精武本紀 The Annals of Jingwu], 1919. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

[7] 文苑 雜俎 題贈 頌祝 表 For The Jingwu Association : Contributions from Famous Writers, … [Parts Seven–Eleven of 精武本紀 The Annals of Jingwu], 1919. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

[8] The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, p138-140, JUDKINS Benjamin, NIELSON Jon, ed. State University of New York Press, 2015

[9] Ibid. p213 et Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, p69 and p246, LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung Ting Co, 2000

[10] The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, p180, JUDKINS Benjamin, NIELSON Jon, ed. State University of New York Press, 2015

[11] 鷹爪連拳 Eagle Claw Fifty-Line Continuous Boxing [Lines 1–5] Selangor Jingwu Magazine, issue #1, 1928. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

[12] website of Wong Hon Fan Tang Lang www.hfwong-mantis.com

[13] 螳螂拳術闡秘 Secrets of The Mantis Boxing Art 順德黃漢勛編述 by Huang Hanxun [Wong Honfan] of Shunde, 1946. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com et tanglangguan.20m.com

[14] 軍中大刀術 Large Saber Techniques for the Army 順德黃漢勛編述 by Huang Hanxun [Wong Honfan] of Shunde, 1955. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com et www.hfwong-mantis.com


 

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