Wing Chun Kung Fu has become one of the most widely practiced martial arts of the 20th century, yet its history remained aloof and shrouded amidst myths until a courageous and unselfish teacher recently stepped forward and shared serious historical knowledge with the Ving Tsun Museum and, ultimately, the Wing Chun world. Since 1993, the Ving Tsun Museum in Dayton, Ohio has aggressively pursued leads around the globe in an all-out effort to help the Wing Chun community identify its true roots and origins. Recent publications and press releases from the Museum have revealed one of the most promising links to date to the actual origins of the art — Gee and other members of the Hung Gun Bui family practicing Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen.
Fabled stories of a woman named Yim Ving Tsun exist in virtually every Wing Chun family. Books and even movies have popularized the myth that the art originated with her defeat of a local bully in Fatshan, China. In truth, Wing Chun’s history is much more complex and far reaching than this simple myth can convey. This article will reveal the developmental history of Wing Chun’s unique swords as taught by one of its original founders, Cheung Ng (Tan Sao Ng), and remove some of the myths that have previously pervaded any study of their origin. In Wing Chun, learning the Butterfly Swords is considered to be a highly advanced stage of learning that represents completing the system. In many cases, only a few students are ever taught the sword level of Wing Chun because it requires advanced comprehension of the nature of the art itself and how the sword is woven into every aspect of the system. Consequently, knowledge of the sword is considered very sacred and oftentimes protected secretively.
Although there are those who perform and practice the Wing Chun Swords today, very few people are familiar with the history and background of their origination. Before examining these origins, it is essential to validate the background and credentials of our information source — Gee (Chu King-Hun). Gee comes from a family line renowned for intellectual leadership, statesmanship, and excellence in martial arts and military matters. One prominent ancestor was Zhu Xi, a political leader and teacher in the Song Dynasty. Zhu Xi is credited as being one of the key figures in the revival of Confucianism through the establishment of academic institutions, active correspondence with fellow scholars, publication of over 90 books, and extensive instruction of personal disciples. An imperial decree issued decades after his death designated several of his published commentaries as required reading for all government students. During the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Xi was officially elevated to the stature of Confucius and his birth was celebrated twice yearly.
In more recent history, Gee’s grandfather, Chu Jun-Bak, achieved prominence as a military leader and master instructor at the prestigious Wong Bo Military Academy. The Wong Bo Academy is the foremost military school in China with a reputation and distinction that makes it China’s equivalent to the West Point Military Academy in the United States. China’s greatest generals have traditionally been schooled at Wong Bo Academy.
Gee, himself, displayed significant martial arts talent at a very early age. He began training under the tutelage of his father at the age of 5. He quickly demonstrated a profound affinity and talent for swordsmanship, as well as other Kung Fu weapons. By the time he was 13 years old he so impressed Dr. Wang Ming (one of the descendents of Cheung Ng and a teacher of Wing Chun from the Hung Fa Yi Secret Society) that he became the last of Dr. Ming’s four disciples.
The evolution of the Wing Chun Butterfly Sword we use today progressed through three primary stages of development. The first stage was its creation as a defensive, non-killing weapon created by the Shaolin monks.
Originally, the butterfly sword was very different from the Wing Chun sword we see today. The butterfly sword was designed to meet the training and defense needs of Shaolin monks. In harmony with Buddhist philosophy and teachings, the monks designed the weapon for parrying, disarming, and cutting — not for killing. Consequently, the blade was structured with dull edges on top and bottom to be used for interception of an opponent’s weapons. As indicated in the attached drawing, only the first 3 inches (the curved part) of the blade were sharpened. The remainder of the blade, top and bottom, was solid and dull for parrying and non-lethal striking purposes. The monks created the dull blade on the butterfly sword not only because it was a weapon of self-defense, but also because the dull blade added thickness for extra support to the structure of the sword. Having a sharpened blade on the butterfly sword was useful for chopping but because of the thin edge of the sword, the blade could easily be damaged or broken when defending against a longer, heavier weapon in combat. For this reason, the Shaolin monks preferred the sturdier blade. Today’s Wing Chun sword techniques still emphasize parrying, obstructing, or intercepting an opponent’s weapon. These remain highly consistent with the original design and intent of the blade itself.
In the Shaolin Temple, the butterfly sword was not mass-produced to a specific length. Rather, the length of each butterfly sword was customized to the practitioner. Specifically, the blade measured from the practitioner’s wrist to his or her elbow. The monks heavily stressed the need to tailor the butterfly sword to its intended practitioner. An unfitted blade, used as intended, could easily harm the user and limit the mobility of his arms and body. In contrast, the width of the blade did not vary. It remained 3 inches from top to bottom starting at the hilt and extending to the start of the blade curvature near the tip. The 3-inch width was selected because it approximates the width of a developed male wrist. The thickness of the blade varied, dependent upon the sword maker, but was usually about 1/8th of an inch throughout. The handle of the sword sported a guard in the shape of a hook with an open end. The monks used this guard to trap an opponent’s weapon and quickly disarm them. Again, this was consistent with Buddhist philosophy — disarm an enemy rather than kill him. All in all, the Shaolin Butterfly Sword was considered a small weapon in contrast to its counterparts. This was intentional as the monks wished to conceal the sword beneath their robes while traveling. They could move about in public without being questioned or creating an improper image in respect to their Buddhist teachings. As noted above, the original Shaolin usage of the blades was deeply rooted in Buddhist beliefs. Killing was not an option. Both the blade and the training methods for using it centered around parrying, disarming, and cutting. It was considered far more humane to surgically cut tendons at the joints, thereby maiming an opponent rather than killing him.
The change in shape and intended function of the swords was a direct result of the creation of the Wing Chun fighting system with the specific intent of training revolutionaries to engage the imperial troops of the Ching Dynasty. According to Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen, the Double Butterfly Swords form seen in Shaolin Kung Fu was first created by the Fut Pai Hung Mun (Buddhist Hung Mun). The Fut Pai Hung Mun was a secret society existing within the Southern Shaolin Temple itself. This society’s primary goal was to oppose the Ching Dynasty that arose from the Manchurian conquest of China in the 17th century, and to restore the Ming family to the throne. They needed an art that was efficient to train and employ. They needed an art that was complete in that it consistently developed empty hand skills along with both long and short, as well as single to double, weaponry.
Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun tradition further instructs that two Shaolin Wing Chun masters survived the Manchurian massacre at the Southern Shaolin Temple. They are credited with keeping the Wing Chun system alive. The senior of the two masters was Yat Chum Dai Si, a 22nd generation Shaolin Grand Master. The second was Cheung Ng (Tan Sao Ng). Very little information remains today of the ensuing history of Yat Chum Dai Si. Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun tradition holds that he was originally trained in and belonged to the Northern Shaolin Temple at Shong Shon. He later moved to the Southern Temple as part of the joint effort to secretly develop the Wing Chun style of fighting during the effort to train rebels for restoring the Ming Dynasty to power. It was there that he met Cheung Ng.
Cheung Ng was reported to be a highly educated man with an extensive background in both literary and military skills. He often performed in dramatic opera. It is believed that he was originally a native of Hanbuck and that his family had served the Ming regime for generations as military tacticians and warriors. The Manchurians destroyed his family and Cheung Ng fled to the Northern Shaolin Temple seeking refuge. He was accepted as a Shaolin disciple and trained at the temple. It was there that he learned of Yat Chum Dai Si’s activities at the Southern Temple and the gatherings in a place called Hung Fa Ting where training and planning for the restoration of the Ming Dynasty took place. He then left the Northern Temple to join the rebels in the Southern Temple. Under Yat Chum Dai Si he began his studies of the art that was to become Wing Chun.
Following the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple in the mid-seventeenth century, Cheung Ng is believed to have fled to Guangdong Province. The city of Fatshan is widely accredited with being the birthplace of Wing Chun. Historically, it is important to note that Fatshan is in Guangdong Province. It is also historically interesting to note that Fatshan is also credited to be the birthplace of the Red Boat Opera Company. Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun tradition holds that Cheung Ng formed the Red Boat Opera Company as a means of disguising rebel activity and supporting his teaching of Wing Chun Kung Fu to rebel leaders. The Red Boat Company was noted for its discipline and rules of conduct. With its talented performers and tight discipline, coupled with the logistic advantages of traveling up and down China’s rivers at will, it is logical to assert that the Red Boat Opera Company was capable of promoting covert training and instruction of rebel warriors throughout Southern China in the art of Wing Chun.
These historical events lead us to the second stage of evolution of the traditional Shaolin butterfly sword into today’s Bot Jom Doa. This stage was greatly influenced by the fighting needs of the Secret Society of Hung Fa Wui (the Red Flower Society) and the Hung Gun Bui family. With the passing of time, revolutionary fighting against the Manchurians and the Ching Dynasty increased in intensity and the blade began its transition from a defensive oriented parrying weapon to an offensive weapon designed to kill. To make the blade more suitable to warfare, the revolutionary secret society members of the Hung Fa Wui sought to make it more lethal.
According to Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen tradition, Cheung Ng, himself, modified the traditional butterfly sword to create a practical battlefield weapon. Although the changes he made initially were subtle, when combined with the latest, foremost fighting system of Wing Chun as the foundation, the results were very lethal. This new version of the butterfly sword represented a new stage of development for the weapon and its use, but the knowledge of the modifications and training to use them were never disclosed by Grand Master Tan Sao Ng or the Secret Society to the general public. The modified swords were known to the Secret Society as the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Double Butterfly Swords.
The Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Swords were very similar to the traditional version. Most of the top and bottom of the blade remained straight. But, the design was altered at the tip to accommodate thrusting and stabbing motions. To this end, they trimmed the front of the blade, adding a curvature and sharpened point that gave the sword the appearance of a large dagger. The notched area was then sharpened and blood grooves were added to the sides of the blade. This enabled blood to drain more easily when the point of the sword pierced the stomach or other organs.
Although the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Swords are not generally known to the public, the Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun Kuen still practice with them according to the original form and routines taught by Grand Master Tan Sao Ng. Their intent is to preserve the knowledge of the swords’ use and the methods employed by the revolutionaries to train them.
With centuries of interaction among the different styles of Southern China, the Wing Chun Sword continued to evolve. The third phase of evolution of the Shaolin Butterfly Swords into the Wing Chun Sword and Bot Jom Doa training form we know today took place in the 19th century. This modern version of the Butterfly Sword has many variations in shape, but the biggest difference is that all have sharpened the entire length of the blade. Another type of blade also evolved during this modern period. It is called the Tiger’s Head Blade. It shares the same characteristic of sharpness throughout its entire length, but it also incorporates a significant curvature or bow toward the front half of the blade.
In summary, there are three primary eras of development of the Butterfly Swords. Out of these eras have come four distinct types of blades heavily influenced by applications relevant to that period. The first blade originated from Shaolin. It consisted of a 3-inch wide blade with only the first 3 inches of the blade sharpened. The next blade originated with the Secret Societies. It consisted of the same 3 inch wide blade with a modified tip to make it more lethal when used for stabbing. The third blade originated in the modern era and is distinguished by sharpening the entire blade. The final blade is the Tiger’s Blade with its bowed front.
Oftentimes, advanced practitioners will focus on weapons training by examining technical details of current uses and applications. In contrast, an approach that focuses on the evolution of a weapon can give the practitioner a whole new perspective on use and application. Such is the case with the Wing Chun Butterfly Swords.
Grand Master Benny Meng