The origins of Hung Kuen, one of the most recognized martial art styles in Guangdong, is a subject that has fascinated me for years. In the past decade I have travelled to different sites to understand its development, including legendary Hung Kuen master Wong Fei Hung’s native village Lok Zau Cyun in Sai Ciu San county, various parts of Guangdong and southern Taiwan, the city of Fut San where Wong Fei Hung made his name, and of course the city of Canton. Over time, I realised that martial arts – much like an archaeological site – have many layers of sediments, each telling its unique story, and the deeper the “excavation” goes the more extraordinary the find, often revealing hidden treasures and stories entirely beyond one’s initial expectations.
The multi-layered nature of Hung Kuen is logical given that each master has his own way of inheriting, interpreting and expressing tradition. This is no different in martial arts than other forms of cultural practice. Rather than remaining static over time tradition is constantly being reinvented. Therefore, as opposed to the common view that Hung Kuen represents an unbroken line that stretches from the time of the burning of Southern Shaolin – the supposed origin of the style – down to the present, my research has made me aware of diversity and divergence.
In many ways, the discourse of an unchanging tradition masks Hung Kuen’s real history, which is multi-linear and complex. Through my own practice, I came to realise that each boxing set and, indeed, the individual techniques therein, have their own “sedimentary layers” such that, if we take Gung Gee Fok Fu Kuen, the foundational set in Hung Kuen, as an example, the set has undergone subtle changes as it was passed down from Wong Fei Hung, through Lam Sai Wing, Lam Cho, finally to Lam Chun Fai. The protean nature of martial arts as a living tradition poses considerable challenge to research. However, given the right analytical tools, the fact that each martial art technique is embedded with significance can also be empowering, as it enables the researcher to dig into the “archaeology” of martial arts, by decoding their “genetics” if you like.
A comparative analysis of Lam Sai Wing and Lam Chun Fais techniques in Hung Kuen Training, Chin Cheung and Fok Fu Kuen Deui Chak
The writing of Hung Kuen Training led me to think that the origin of Hung Kuen must in part be sought in Fujian, particularly in the Minnan (Southern Fujian) region. This took me on my present journey in Zhangzhou, Quanzhou and Yongchun, the historic centre for Southern Chinese martial arts or the “Southern Shaolin” tradition.
More than a martial arts pilgrimage, the present trip has been a cultural journey through the history of underground resistance against the Qing dynasty in the late Ming and Qing dynasties, as I travelled through temples and walled villages in remote mountains where local Hakka and Fujian communities constructed physical and symbolic ramparts to resist the Manchu state. The fact I was accompanied by some of the leading martial art masters from Hong Kong certainly added authenticity to the experience. At the same time, exchanges with local martial artists opened my mind to the deeper cultural meaning embedded within the physical movements and postures in Hung Kuen, and made me aware of the complex interaction between “meaning” and “application” in Chinese martial arts, which developed in a context of persistent political suppression, endemic social conflict, and a culture of secrecy in late imperial Southern China.
Readers who are interested to read further may wish to refer to Hing Chao’s new book, Hung Kuen Training: Chin Cheung & Fok Fu Kuen Deui Chak, which is available at all major bookstores in Hong Kong.