Public Wing Chun Schools in Foshan (1920-1940)

Most accounts of Wing Chun’s history in Foshan focus solely on their subject (Ip Man or, less frequently, Yuen Kay San) before moving on to post-WWII events. From the view of a cultural historian, this is a significant flaw because neither of these individuals was “typical” of the average Wing Chun practitioner, let alone a martial artist, during this period. This erroneous emphasis undermines our understanding of how Foshan’s civil society evolved during the Republican period and occasionally led to historically incorrect conclusions.

One of the more widely held beliefs in Wing Chun literature is that Ip Man was the first to teach Wing Chun publicly. This statement has been repeated so often that it has become a mantra. People can find it in all of the historical sources we’ve used. Certain historical liberties must be taken for such an assertion to be true. Chan Wah Shun’s haphazard attempts at running a school must be redefined as something far more exclusive and traditional than they most likely were. Ng Chung So must be forgotten entirely. This, however, severely distorts the reality of life in Foshan’s martial arts community.

During the Republican era, there was a thriving market for Wing Chun instruction. In a variety of schools and classes, hundreds of students actively studied the system. Some were affiliated with the Zhong Yi Association, while others were not. Indeed, Ip Man’s teaching style in the 1950s was influenced by “what he saw during this earlier period.” To fully comprehend the emergence of modern Wing Chun, we must temporarily set aside our discussion of Ip Man and focus on some of the less well-known instructors of the time. This discussion should also help us better understand Foshan’s martial market.

As the popularity of Wing Chun has grown, mainly since Bruce Lee’s death and the recent spate of Ip Man films, there have been numerous attempts to portray one person or another (usually Ip Man or Yuen Kay San) as the “leader” of Foshan’s Wing Chun clan and the true inheritor of the system from which all others learned. Many of these debates are political, pitting one lineage against another and, more recently, mainland martial artists against those in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, most of these accounts promote a vision of life in Foshan that is entirely unfounded and disconnected from reality.

At the most basic level, Wing Chun does not appear to have had specific “inheritors” and “leaders.” However, if it did, the “leader” of the Wing Chun clan would most likely have been Ng Chung So because he was the one who kept the public face of the art alive and invested the time and effort to train the next generation of instructors throughout the 1920s. Unfortunately, Ng Chung So’s genuine contributions to the community have been largely forgotten, and he is rarely mentioned in current debates.

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