Preamble on the Origin and Development of Hung Kuen
Lam Chun Fai

Hung Kuen (洪拳) is one of the most important and representative martial arts styles from southern China. Many theories and hypotheses surround the origin of Hung Kuen but most deal with legends and have little factual basis. From my father I have heard many anecdotes about Hung Kuen’s early history, particularly apropos the life and times of Lam Sai Wing (林世榮), but being of pragmatic rather than theoretical disposition and not having made any in-depth investigation, I can only offer my own interpretations and personal understanding.

According to popular tradition, the origin of Hung Kuen is related to the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple during the Qing Dynasty. In some editions of the martial arts manual Gung Ji Fuk Fu Kuen (工字伏虎拳), written by Master Lam Sai Wing during the the early 20th century, it is said that the Buddhist monk Ji Seem (至善禪師) founded Hung Kuen after escaping from the destruction of Shaolin:

During Emperor Yongzhen’s reign of the Qing Dynasty the Japanese invaded and occupied Taiwan. The Qing state was shaken by the news, but in spite of repeated attempts by civil and military officials throughout the domain to recapture Taiwan, the Japanese repulsed every effort. It happened that a group of Shaolin monks from Fujian province came upon the battle scene. Fighting courageously, they defeated the Japanese and retook Taiwan. Upon hearing the news, the Qing court was greatly pleased and wished to confer ranks of officialdom and rewards on the monks. However, being ascetics they accepted only paddy fields and grains as reward. Then it suddenly occurred to the Qing government that if the temple harbored men of such extraordinary talent and ability, it could easily threaten the state if it decided to take up the revolutionary cause. Goaded by a mixture of caution and jealousy, secret orders were dispatched to use the grains as incendiary, and in the course of the night the temple was set on fire. As soon as the monks realized what was happening they fled from the temple and scattered to other provinces. Ji Seem alone fled to Guangdong province where he settled at Nam Hoi Zhong Temple in Guangdong . From then on he started to teach martial skills inside the temple.’[1]

Master Lam Sai Wing's book is among the earliest martial arts manuals to be published in Guangdong. It is a seminal work for popular martial arts in Guangdong and a major contribution to the development of southern Chinese martial arts.

Even though the origin story recorded here cannot directly explain Hung Kuen’s historical genesis, it offers valuable clues to understanding its early development. In the ‘Brief Introduction’ to Gung Ji Fok Fu Kuen Master Lam Sai Wing makes several significant claims: (1) Hung Kuen started in Fujian but developed in Guangdong; (2) for an extended period Hung Kuen was suppressed by the Qing government; (3) its early development and dissemination was to a large extent conducted underground and only became legal around Master Lam Sai Wing’s lifetime during the early Republic of China era. What is noteworthy is that Hung Kuen’s origin story is fundamentally the same as the Hong Men Society’s foundation myth; the earliest information on the destruction of the southern Shaolin comes from Hong Men’s surviving texts. Indeed, Fujian’s specific socio-historical and cultural background made it a breeding ground for secret societies in the late Qing Dynasty, notably Hong Men, and according to contemporary historical research, secret societies often used local temples as centers for their activities, towards which the state pursued a steadfast policy of persecution and suppression, and regularly destroyed illicit temples. The precise relationship between Hung Kuen and Hong Men is scholars’ specialist domain, and their underlying relationship awaits further historical research. But I am certain is that it is not purely accidental that Hung Kuen and Hong Men share a common origin myth. 

When did Hung Kuen become an independent martial arts style? This is a difficult question but from the early 20th century at the latest, five family-styles, consisting of ‘Hung, Lau, Choy, Lei, Mok' ( 洪, 劉, 蔡, 李, 莫), were acknowledged as the leading martial arts styles in Guangdong. That Hung Kuen is listed at the head of the five families says much about its prestige and influence at the time. A hundred years ago Guangdong abounded with martial arts schools and organizations, and the social position of a given martial arts teacher depended directly on his pugilistic abilities and martial prowess. Unquestionably, a significant reason for Hung Kuen’s status as the premier martial arts family in Guangdong boils down to Master Lam Sai Wing’s unparalleled skills as a martial artist. According to my father, back in those days any martial artist who wished to open a school in Guangdong had to first pay a courtesy call to Lam Sai Wing and obtain his approval. This indicates he held a position of great prestige in Guangdong martial circles. Indeed, such was the extent of his influence that most of the Hung Kuen practiced today descends directly from Lam Sai Wing’s teaching –– an eloquent testimony to the unique contributions he has made to traditional Chinese martial arts. Naturally, this is not to say that the techniques and sets preserved and passed on by Master Lam Sai Wing represent the entire Hung Kuen repertoire in Guangdong at the time. However, popular martial arts had suffered grievous losses during the catastrophic decade of the Cultural Revolution, and it is impossible to gage either the extent of damage or the nature of these losses. All I can say is that Master Lam Sai Wing laid the foundation for the Lam Family Hung Kuen, and that most contemporary Hung Kuen styles have derived from this system.
Master Lam Sai Wing’s Hung Kuen system has diverse sources, the core of which descends from Master Wong Fei Hung (黃飛鴻)  –– Gung character Crouching Tiger Boxing (Gung ji fuk fu kuen), Tiger and Crane Boxing (Fu hok sheung ying kuen 虎鶴雙形拳), Iron Wire Boxing (Tit sin kuen 鐵線拳), Ng Long Eight Trigram Staff (五郎八卦棍 Ng long ba gua gwan), etc. –– but also includes Hung Kuen techniques passed down within the Lam family, such as War Palm (Jin zhern 戰掌) and Che Chong Double Broadsword 車沖雙刀, as well as unarmed and weapon techniques and sets absorbed from extraneous styles, including Plum Blossom Spear (梅花英槍 Mui fa ying chern), Commander’s Broadsword (指揮刀 Ji fai dou), Yu’s Family Great Fork (瑤家大扒 Yu gar tai pa), etc. During the 1920s and 1930s, under the patronage of the Republican Government, traditional Chinese martial arts became the national symbol for 'New China' and a burgeoning Self-strengthening Movement; by the end of the war, martial arts development entered a golden period of growth and popularity, which saw a blossoming of schools from around the country with an unprecedented exchange between the North and the South. For a time a strong martial spirit infused the whole nation, and Hung Kuen became the symbol for a relentless self-strengthening spirit in southern China.
Following Lam Sai Wing the second Hung Kuen grandmaster to emerge is his nephew, Master Lam Jo, who not only inherited Master Lam Sai Wing’s teachings, but introduced important innovations and reforms to the inherited techniques. His reforms mainly concern two aspects, in respect of contents and sam fa (身法 body positioning and movement). Regarding the former, the repertoire of today’s Lam Family Hung Kuen is almost twice as large as the original corpus. The reason for this is that Master Lam Jo composed a number of two-person sets based on existing routines, such as Tiger and Crane Two Person Set (虎鶴雙形對拆 Fu hok sheung ying dui cha), Single Broadsword versus Spear (單刀對槍 dan dou dui chern), Double Broadsword versus Spear (雙刀對槍 sheung dou dui chern), Double-ended Staff Two-person Set (雙頭棍對拆 sheung tao gwan dui cha), Great Broadsword versus Spear (大刀對槍 dai dou dui chern), etc. At the same time, he integrated a number of sets from other martial arts styles and schools into the repertoire. These include boxing sets, such as Lau Family Boxing (劉家拳 Lau gar kuen), Bang bou 蹦步, etc., as well as sets in weapon training, such as Lau Family Staff (劉家棍 Lau gar gwan), Butterfly Double Broadsword (蝴蝶雙刀 Wu dip sheung dou), etc. Concerning the latter, Master Lam Jo’s innovations transformed Hung Kuen stylistically and technically from the ‘hard bridge and stance’ (硬橋硬馬 ngan kiu ngan ma) of old into a more agile and flexible style; greater emphasis was placed on control over distancing and positioning, to avoid and neutralize attack through skillful body movements, and to maximize power by utilizing body momentum. Conversely, Master Lam Sai Wing was exceptionally well-built and possessed enormous physical strength; and added to this, years of hard training, the fighting style of ‘hard bridge and hard stance’ was well suited to maximize his body advantage.
Martial arts from southern China are commonly perceived as belonging to the system of ‘short-range striking’ (短打) suitable for close-range combat only. Actually, this is not completely correct; take Hung Kuen for example, even though its methods and principles posses characteristics of duanda, they also contain techniques typical of Northern style long-range striking (長拳), and thus may be more appropriately seen as a combination of Northern and Southern martial arts. Hung Kuen also possesses techniques that involve big swinging arm movements, which are not seen in more conservative southern martial arts, as for instance the combination of ‘Seoi long paau ceoi’ 水浪拋槌 and ‘Ling wan za ngo’ 連環責岳, which are reminiscent of Northern Pigua sequences. Nonetheless, fundamentally Hung Kuen has retained salient features of southern style martial arts –– firm, immovable stances and low kicks not higher than the waist –– and in my opinion represents a style of martial arts that is rich in southern flavor but not limited by the techniques of traditional short-range striking.
Essentially, martial arts are a dynamic cultural phenomenon. As conceptions and understanding of the human body evolve through time, or as one’s body condition alters, changes necessarily occur in martial practice and performance. Today, living in a society increasingly governed by the rule of law, martial arts are largely separated from the reality of combat and needs of self-defense, and have transformed into a cultural activity to cultivate the mind and the body, a way to enrich one’s physical and spiritual wellbeing, and a channel to experience and rejoice in traditional culture. At the same time, reviewing the development of traditional martial arts, particularly southern style Chinese martial arts over the past decades, I have mixed feelings about their future, commingling hope and optimism with a sense of worry and anxiety. On the one hand, in both in China and and Hong Kong, fewer and fewer people are taking up traditional martial arts, such that the martial spirit in the days of my youth has all but vanished. This probably has to do with the Westernization of society over the past half-century, and the impact of globalization on indigenous sports. On the other hand, traditional martial arts (including Hung Kuen) have maintained a vital role in the cultural life of overseas Chinese communities; and in the wake of transnational kung fu movement in recent decades, Chinese martial arts are attracting a rising following in the west, whose interest and devotion to the martial arts exceeds even that in China and Hong Kong. What I find regrettable is that on the evidence of this contemporary trend, traditional southern martial arts are slowly becoming an overseas ‘Kung Fu Culture’.

Please note that some transliterations based on Cantonese pronunciation have been used in this article in order to avoid confusing those that are already accustomed to their usage.

[1] 林世榮著,《工字伏虎拳》,民國75年,台北:華聯出版社印行 Lam, Sai Wing, Gung ji fuk fu kuen, Seventy fifth year of the Chinese Republic, Taibei: Hualian Press


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