WING CHUN'S LINK TO TRIADS It's Not What You Think!
Black Belt|April/May 2021
One of the most popular systems of kung fu in the world today is wing chun. It was cast into the international spotlight by Bruce Lee, whose formal training started in the art, but its popularity has exploded since Donnie Yen brought founder Ip Man to life in four blockbuster movies.
Benny Meng

Despite all this exposure, many aspects of the southern Chinese system are not well-known outside of Hong Kong. One of them is its crime connection. That link is so prominent in the former British colony that wing chun is sometimes referred to as “gangster fist.”

This moniker came about because of the relationship the system had with the Chinese Triads, the secret societies known as saam hap wui ( ). When Ip arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s to spread wing chun, the Triads were very active. One of Ip’s students was Jiu Wan. Jiu was schooled in the Chan Yiu-Min lineage in China. Chan Yiu-Min was the eldest son of Ip’s teacher Chan Wah-Shun. It was not widely known, but Jiu was also a Triad member. The gangster-fist nickname stemmed more from Jiu’s involvement than from anything Ip ever did.

One of Jiu’s students was Lee Hoy Sang, my first wing chun sifu. That makes Jiu one of my sigung. When I was a young student, I first heard that he was involved with the Triads — we all understood the meaning of “gangster” in this context. It was not until I’d completed two decades of subsequent research into wing chun’s origins that I learned there’s a second triad connection, one that has a completely different meaning than what’s generally understood by the public.

So what exactly is this obscure relationship between a triad and the martial art? If you search for answers, you won’t find any in the brand of wing chun that’s taught today. You have to delve into its traditions, even its origins. There, you’ll learn that triad refers to the core concepts and principles of the art.

THE KNOWN TRIAD CONNECTION

The dictionary tells us that triad has three meanings: a group of three; a secret society that originated in China, typically involving criminal activity; and a chord of three tones related to the harmonic basis of tonal music.

The second definition, of course, is the obvious one that applies here. It refers to the social and political groups that have functioned in Chinese society for hundreds of years, with historical roots in secret societies and trade associations. They were organized for a variety of reasons: to protect territory, to support business, to raise dowries for weddings and to help with funeral costs. Some of them did engage in illicit activity, but many were created for mutual aid and the promotion of brotherhood. Some are still active to this day.

Criminal Triads functioned originally as political secret societies and flourished during the 17th century when they attracted Chinese who opposed the Qing dynasty. When the Qing collapsed in 1912, many of these members were enlisted by the Chinese Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang.

Over time, the political activities of some Triads faded as they began engaging in crime. In the early to mid-18th century during the Opium Wars, these Triads transitioned to organized crime.

The original Chinese characters used to refer to Triads are tin dei yan ( ), meaning “heaven, earth, human.” Sometimes the sequence was rendered tin yan dei ( ), which means “heaven, human, earth.” These terms are as old as the Taoists, the group that originated the concept.

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During the anti-Qing movement in the transitional years (1644-1683), the Southern Shaolin Temple was a hotbed of activity. Together with those loyal to the Ming dynasty, the Shaolin monks created a political secret society called the Faht Paai Hung Mun, with hung mun ( ) referring in general to anti-Qing groups.

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