The Abbess Ng Mui one of the 5 legendary elders of Shaolin is thought to have been the originator of over 7 martial arts. Her journey in life was a perilous one where she had to face life and death situations on many occasions, regardless of this, she pushed on through never giving up, her actions influencing many for generations to come.
Our story begins in 1644, the Ming Dynasty known for ruling the golden age of China (in which the Great Wall was built) was now facing desolation after its 300 year rule. The Manchu tribes (relatives of the Mongols) of northern China seized a moment of opportunity and the rise of the Qing Dynasty was about to begin.
After a series of rebellions from the Manchu tribes the Ming had tried to form an alliance with them to end the rebellion from within. This proved to be a costly mistake as the Machu Tribes did not want an alliance but instead dominion for themselves and they were prepared to use any tactics necessary to crush the well supported Ming Dynasty. The recent turmoil in China, a financial crisis, the new threat of Japanese pirates along the south east coast and an earthquake in Beijing had left the Ming Dynasty in a weakened state. The Manchus knew this was a great chance to strike and the fact that the Ming were now seeking alliance with them after squashing their rebellions for so long proved their weakened position.
In this time of turbulence Ng Mui resided as part of a royal family within the Ming Dynasty. Being part of a royal family meant she would have been acquainted with martial arts at an early age. During this era martial arts was a well-respected skill to possess along with others such as being able to write novels, producing poetry and painting. These were seen as beneficial practices that one should spend dedicated time focusing on. Even now if you were to trace back a lot of Martial art lineages you would see a large majority passed through wealthy and royal families who had the time to dedicate to practice, this was unlike a lot of the lower classes whose main focus was making sure they had food to eat and ensuring their families were looked after.
Though being part of royalty had allowed Ng Mui to study and dedicate herself to hone her skills, it also proved to be a double-edged sword. When the Manchus seized control they also began killing any families of royalty whom they believed to be loyal to the Ming Emperor in case they led a revolt. Ng Mui’s family was captured as part of this strategy resulting in her parents eventually being killed. Ng Mui though was released but not without first having to suffer punishment. She lost part of her arm as it was severed off before her release. This could be why in Wing Chun you learn to be able to use one hand to complete many movements, even striking and defending with the same hand. The forms are an example of this where you train to be able to do continuous movements with one hand at a time, training each hand separately.
A great modern-day example of how Wing Chun can be used effectively even with a disability is Master Philipp Bayer who lost his hand in an accident. Master Philipp Bayer was a student of Wong Shun Leung “The king of talking hands”.
Ng Mui had managed to keep her life but was now faced with uncertainty both in the state of China and in the future that lie ahead of her. At this time the Ming emperor succumbed to the inevitable and hung himself in the garden of his imperial palace. This event marked the time the Qing Dynasty began although the Manchu tribes still did not have complete control over China. The fight for supremacy would last another 40 years until the Manchu tribes had securely conquered China and brought it under its rule. The next chapter of Ng Mui’s story proceeds within that 40 year fight for supremacy.
Resilience of the Abbess….
Ng Mui journeyed towards the Wudang mountains and a collection of Taoist temples situated in the heart of China. Here she spent time training in Wudang martial arts. Wudang training is known to focus more on the internal aspects of martial arts such as meditation, dynamic meditation and flowing slow movements that improve body awareness through shutting off muscle usage to the highest degree possible. This allows you to use the power created by human joints and tendons instead. With this skill you can create incredible power at short range. Here’s a modern-day example of a Wudang master performing a crane form which Ng Mui would have most likely trained in as well
The crane and snake are two animals that would later be combined to represent Wing Chun. In Wudang martial arts, the crane form, trains ‘essence’, ‘essence’ meaning strong focus and harmonious heart in the present moment.This allows you to stay focused on the present task at hand doing it whole heartedly. While standing like a crane with elegance and patience in any situation means that you never feel rushed getting in to a state of panic. Even when you are under extreme pressure whether that be from a life threatening situation or from the many challenges life throws at you, you are able to stand with poise and dignity as you know it will pass. The snake represents “energy” and training the snake form can create a body with the ability to yield to force rather than having to fight against it. The snake form also teaches us to strike with precision and speed. Here’s a demo of snake body (snake training is also a great for maintaining healthy spine)
When striking with this method it uses a whipping/wave motion through the whole body to generate fast explosive power. Bruce Lee described this well explaining it as the ball on the end of a chain effect rather than an iron bar. You can watch an interview of Bruce explaining about this here
Ng Mui’s refuge at Wudang mountains had allowed her to develop her martial art abilities to an even higher level as well as give her some much needed respite after everything that had proceeded. She was now ready to move on.
The phoenix rises….
Ng Mui continued her travels which eventually led her to Southern Shaolin. This area had become a melting pot for martial arts as many martial artists had gathered there to learn and share their styles. At this time even though not expressed openly, Shaolin had become opposed to the Qing establishment and the many rebels situated there.
At Shaolin you did not just train on the combat side of martial arts but you also had to study Buddhism and Chinese medicine with equal importance. You needed a healthy body and mind so you could train in martial arts and perform it to the best of your ability.
Ng Mui’s value was quickly perceived at Shaolin as she was already demonstrating a high level of martial arts ability. She did not stop there as she carried on forging her art on the battle field leading groups of rebels in skirmishes and assassinations of key Qing officials. Here she showed she had developed her skills also as a strategist being able to apply her martial arts not just in one on one battles but also on a larger scale a true mark of a supreme martial artist. Her understanding of strategy and how to use it can be seen through the art of Wing Chun which uses core strategies to deal with a variety of situations. An example being ‘strike the unprotected zone’ meaning in one on one combat you would not strike where an opponent is guarding themselves but instead where there is a clear path. On a larger scale you would not take an army head on but strike where they are weak and vulnerable.
Seen as a threat as many rebels were situated there, over the preceding years the Qing dynasty tried to burn down Shaolin twice as it stood outside of Qing control. Through this time Ng Mui proved herself on countless occasions showing her superior abilities at the temple and also on the battlefield. Eventually she rose up to the highest position possible at Shaolin receiving the title of Abbess and becoming one of the 5 legendary elders of Shaolin. In this period Ng Mui also met Yim Wing Chun whom the art of Wing Chun would eventually be named after.
A final gift….
Yim Wing Chun was a young woman who worked at her father’s tofu shop. She had fallen in love with her childhood friend called Leung Bok Chau, but before they could get married a local warlord had decided that he wanted her for himself. The warlord made a marriage proposal to Yim Wing Chun which she profusely refused, he then countered this with what he thought was an unachievable challenge. He would revoke his marriage proposal if Yim Wing Chun could defeat him in a fight. Yim Wing Chun agreed as long as she would have time to prepare and she was given until the following spring to do this.
As the news spread of Yim Wing Chun’s situation she was soon approached by a female customer whom she had befriended at the tofu shop. This woman was in fact Ng Mui. Yim Wing Chun did not have much time to prepare and Ng Mui knew this. Ng Mui decided to strip all her own knowledge of martial arts back to the essentials and teach this to Yim Wing Chun. The following spring came and it was now time for Yim Wing Chun to fight for the right to choose her own love. The fight took place in front of the entire village and was watched on by Ng Mui and Leung Bok Chau. What ensued was a display of an art never seen before. Yim Wing Chun flowed out of the direct lines of the warlord’s attacks while knocking his balance off. With his balance off, Yim Wing Chun delivered a series of continuous blows to end the fight. Yim Wing Chun had won her fight and was allowed to marry Leung Bok Chaun. This story about Yim Wing Chun being taught by Ng Mui was the last heard of the abbess and a final gift from her. Leung Bok Chaun later named the fighting style that Yim Wing Chun used after her ‘Wing Chun’ (Eternal Spring), as up until that point it had not yet been given a name.
The legend continues….
Ng Mui was a true pioneer of her time who battled through many harsh circumstances forging her art in fire. She left a legacy that still thrives today with millions of practitioners worldwide. An art that has been kept alive through new pioneers such as Ip man, Bruce Lee, and each time you train you keep it alive too!
A special thank you goes to Wendy Mendoza for proofreading the article and making sure its palatable
Disclaimer & references
Unfortunately, few records were kept especially about Ng Mui at the Shaolin monastery as many documents were lost when Southern Shaolin was burnt down by the Qing dynasty. What we do have though is an art with its history passed down orally and technically through its forms and concepts from generation to generation. With the knowledge that we do have, we can piece together what seems most likely and has the most support to its credibility. I hope you enjoyed this article and we can keep this great art alive together.