Ng Mui, and the origin of Wing Chun martial arts

Before there was Josephine Siao, Michelle Yeoh, or Zhang Ziyi, you could say that the list of leading female Chinese martial artists was even shorter than it is today, especially back in the 1600s. Ng Mui is a legendary figure and folkloric hero in China whose legacy in martial arts makes her one of the greatest masters of all time, which is why she inspired my painting called "The Abbess." Here's more of what I learned about Ng Mui when researching components for her portrait.


Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Chinese History: Legendary Figure Painting. Today we're talking about the subject of my painting called “The Abbess” who is based on the legendary hero and Shaolin master, Ng Mui or Wu Mei.

According to Chinese folklore, Ng Mui was a daughter of a general of the Ming Dynasty within the imperial court, and was given access to a strong educational foundation and martial arts instruction. She would practice martial arts religiously, developing leg strength and balance by training on capsized and upturned logs in the Forbidden City.

As was the case for most women in Imperial China back then, to avoid the domestic prison of marriage, you could continue your education through one of two means: (1) become a courtesan or (2) enter a nunnery. It follows that Ng Mui chose the second option. She continued her training under traditions of monasteries in the day. As monasteries had large, landed estates, regular sources of income, and enjoyed the patronage of Imperial families, it was not uncommon at the time for monks and therefore even nuns to practice martial arts and bear arms for protection against raids.

It's not known when Ng Mui entered Henan Shaolin Monastery, that legendary cradle of Chinese martial arts, but she eventually rose to the role of an abbess. At the time, Shaolin Temple, was the primary hub for Chan (or as it's now more popularly known as, Zen) Buddhism, and therefore enjoyed a position of influence and patronage of many emperors for over a thousand years. It had also as a result, been the target for rebellions and had been ransacked, burned and destroyed various times. The most popular account of its destruction was during the time that Ng Mui was residing and studying at Shaolin.

During her time there, the Ming Dynasty came to an end and Ng Mui's family perished under the destructive forces of rebel attacks. Under the new Qing government, Shaolin Temple was destroyed under suspicion of anti-Qing activities with the help of renegade monks on the inside. According to legend, Ng Mui was one of the Five Elders, five fugitive monks who supposedly survived the fire and were dispersed across China, thereby spreading Shaolin martial arts throughout China and eventually through their students, to the world beyond.

Ng Mui herself retreated to White Crane Temple, a legendary place said to be located in the Daliang Mountains between Sichuan and Yunnan in Southern China. There she contemplated the challenge of creating a more efficient fighting form that did not rely on pure strength and could be quickly taught and applied against other martial arts practiced by renegade Shaolin monks.

One day, Ng Mui witnessed a crane and a snake locked in battle. Though the snake would circle the crane and struck with force, the crane maintained its center, keeping aligned with the snake and used its wings to deflect the snake's blows while counterattacking with its beak in a single motion. This gave Ng Mui the inspiration she needed to develop a new fighting system. Her first student for this new system was Yim Wing Chun, a young woman and daughter of a tofu seller, who was harrassed by a local warlord who was trying to force her to marry him. Under Ng Mui, Yim Wing Chun was able to master this form of martial arts quickly and challenged the warlord to a fight for her freedom. She resoundingly defeats him and went on to marry her true love, Leung Bok Chow, who learns the system from his wife and went on to formally establish a school, naming it after his wife, Wing Chun.

Remnants of the original foundations of Wing Chun are still visible today, though as with most traditions passed from master to apprentice, the form has changed vastly either watered down or combined with other martial arts through innovation. Notwithstanding, some of the most famous students include Ip Man, Bruch Lee and Brandon Lee, Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, as well as Steven Seagal and Robert Downey, Jr.

Ng Mui herself is credited not only of founding Wing Chun, but also Wu Mei Pai, Dragon Style, White Crane, and Five-Pattern Hung Ga martial arts. These systems apparently bear little resemblance to each other, which could mean they were created by different people... or that each reflects a uniqueness in Ng Mui's style at the time of her development and personal training.

Either way, Ng Mui's legacy is one that has inspired some of the greatest minds in martial arts and continues to influence how it is practiced to this day, and gave me plenty of material to work with when painting her portrait. I had a lot of fun doing it, so I hope you also enjoy watching this time lapse of its creation. Until next time!


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