Shaolin Kung Fu vs Wing Chun: What’s The Difference?

Shaolin Kung Fu vs. Wing Chun: What is the difference? -

If Shaolin Kung Fu is China’s most famous martial art, Wing Chun is probably a very close second, made famous by Bruce Lee and recently by Donnie Yen in the hit movie series “Ip Man”. Wing Chun and Shaolin are both Kung Fu styles, so what makes them special and distinct from each other?

What’s the difference between Shaolin Kung Fu and Wing Chun? The difference between Shaolin Kung Fu and Wing Chun is in their practicality. Wing Chun was based on Shaolin Kung Fu but developed to train physically smaller opponents to fight effectively. Nowadays, Shaolin Kung Fu is for shows while, if trained properly, Wing Chun works as a fighting system.

In modern usage, Wing Chun is a more practical martial art and can be used even as part of an MMA portfolio. Training Shaolin Kung Fu is physically demanding but it is not intended as a self defence system. While the tradition is alive and well, it is mainly used for impressive displays.

Here is a brief but fascinating history of both martial arts and how they developed to how we know them today!

About Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) forms of Kung Fu still in use in China. It is not, contrary to popular belief, the first Chinese martial art (a form of wrestling holds this honor and it appeared about 7,500 years before Shaolin Kung Fu at around the year 6,000 B.C!) but it was, perhaps, the first large scale formalization for training a martial art.

Shaolin is (and was) a monastery. Monasteries in the year 495 A.D., which was when Shaolin was founded, were rich and powerful organizations which held land, wealth and plenty of political clout. Because of this, monasteries were prone to being attacked by bandits, pirates and the occasional royal army in search of extra coins.

The Founders Of Shaolin Kung Fu

Thus, they needed to defend themselves and their lands and martial arts seemed like the obvious place to begin. The founder of Shaolin was an Indian monk called Buddhabhadra. He does not appear to have had any fighting skills himself (though rumor often casts him as a total hardcase) but his disciples Huiguang and Sengchou were martial arts experts.

He was followed by Bohdidharma, as the head of Shaolin whose disciple Huike was also a superb martial artist. Bohdidharma is very important in Chinese history because he is considered to be the founder of Chinese Buddhism.

What Does Shaolin Mean?

If you are wondering what the name Shaolin means, it’s a combination of Shao (which means the Shaoshi Mountain) and Lin (which means forest). The Shaolin Temple was built in Henan province in the Shao (or Song as they are known in English) mountains. Thus, Shaolin is simply a description of where the temple was founded.

The First Fighting Style Of Shaolin

The first mentioned fighting style of the Shaolin temple was the 18 methods of Luohan which was given a unique Buddhist twist. This style would have been used in battle in the year 610 (when bandits were run off the Shaolin lands) and in the year 621 when the General Wang Shichong bit off more than he could chew at the Battle of Hulao and was thoroughly beaten by the monks.

It is understood that the staff was used in addition to barehanded Kung Fu throughout this period.

Things Went Quiet For Shaolin

Surprisingly, despite the monastery’s reputation for being a battle-hardened outfit – there is no mention in the history books of any fighting from Shaolin monks after the 7th century until the 16th century!

During this period of the 16th and 17th century, the Shaolin absorbed many new fighting styles into their Kung Fu and they famously routed a series of pirate attacks on their lands.

The Modern Day And Shaolin

Shaolin monks are no longer called upon to fight as China is no longer a lawless country but rather one united under the Chinese party. However, the monastery and its traditions are still going strong.

The Shaolin train many Chinese monks, fighters and, indeed, martial arts movie stars. They also engage in training Western visitors at short-time training camps and very rarely they admit a Westerner to their main training school at the Shaolin Temple.

About Wing Chun

Wing Chun or to give its full title, Wing Chun Kuen, originated in Southern China which, technically speaking, means that it’s a form of wushu as opposed to Kung Fu. (Wushu is the Cantonese term for “Kung Fu” which is a Mandarin term).

It uses a mixture of fast arm movements combined with strong leg forms to combat an opponent. It also deploys the idea of “softness”. That is, it is performed in a way that appears relaxed (and relaxation techniques are employed to develop this skill) and this gives Wing Chun its distinct style when observed.

Who Founded Wing Chun?

The origins of Wing Chun are legendary, quite literally. It is said that there was an abbess, who served in the Fujian Shaolin Monastery, called Ng Mui. When the monastery came under attack by the Qing Dynasty forces in 1730 – the abbess realized that she could not fend them off and she fled from the monastery.

Ng Mui arrived in the Daling Mountains (which lay between Yunnan and Sichuan) and blended into the local population. One of her favorite pursuits is said to have been enjoying a bowl of tofu at a shop in the nearby town, which was own by a gentleman called Yim Yee.

The shopkeeper’s daughter, Yim Wing Chun, was unhappy. She was being pressured to marry a local warlord. She begged Ng Mui for help and when Ng Mui consented, she taught Yum Wing Chun a modified form of Shaolin Kung Fu that allowed Yim Wing Chun to stave off the advances of the warlord.

Yim Wing Chun continued to train for many years under Ng Mui until 1790 when she met a man and married him. She began to teach the techniques she had learned to others at that time and her husband, Leung Bok Chao, continued to teach it after she passed on. In 1850, he taught the art to six members of the Red Boat Opera Group.

These six people formalized Wing Chun into the fighting style that it is today.

Or Maybe Not?

This is all well and good but there is also another completely different legend that says Yim Wing Chun was a 19th century maiden and she learned Kung Fu from her father who had studied at the Fujian Monastery.

They ran away to Guangxi and then developed a brand-new style. They began teaching this style along with Yim Wing Chun’s husband in Guangdong in 1815.

There are also other competing, but less likely, claims for the origins of Wing Chun. So, in reality, nobody really knows how it began.

The Forms Of Wing Chun

Wing Chun uses a system of forms and, most commonly, these include three empty-handed forms, two forms using weapons and then a wooden-dummy form.

The three empty-handed forms are:

  • Siu Nim Tau – “the little idea” which is the core of the art and which teaches balance and body structure
  • Chum Kiu – “seeking bridge” which teaches close range attacks that bridge the gap between fighter and opponent
  • Biu Ji – “thrusting fingers” this teaches extreme close up and extreme long range attacks to use when an opponent has been compromised. This form is considered to be a “secret” among Wing Chun fighters.

In addition to the forms, Wing Chun practitioners learn “sensitivity” techniques – Chi Sau and Chi Geuk which are meant to train the mind to be aware of the body and to develop automatic reflexes that can be called upon when attacked even when under intense pressure.

Wing Chun Today

Wing Chun is widely practiced today and can be found in many different parts of the world. there are 11 main schools: Ip Man, You Choi, Jiu Wan, Gulao Village, Pan Nam, Yuen Kay Shan, Nguyen Te-Cong, Cho Family, Hung Fa Yi, Pao Fa Lien, and Fut Sao.

Each of them has a different approach to the art and while they are not so varied as to be unrecognizable, an untrained eye might not immediately see that they were connected when practiced.

The best-known school is Ip Man, which trained Bruce Lee and featured in the movies by Donnie Yen. Wing Chun is used for fighting rather than display purposes and some Wing Chun martial artists appear in MMA events too.

Shaolin Kung Fu Vs Wing Chun: What’s The Difference?

Shaolin is now a display art. It’s a fantastic thing to watch and behold. The practitioners achieve amazing levels of self-discipline and mental control. They are some of the best athletes in the world.

However, in a fight modern Shaolin Kung Fu is not likely to be particularly useful against a skilled opponent.

This is not true of Wing Chun which is a fighting art and is much more concise and precise in the execution of movements. You won’t see a Wing Chun fighter jumping around very much.


Shaolin Kung Fu vs. Wing Chun: What’s the difference?  Today, Wing Chun is more of a fighting art and Shaolin Kung Fu more of a demonstration art. There’s no doubt that they’re both great exercise methods and can help you learn self-discipline and flexibility as well as gain real skills when it comes to managing your mind too.

But if you want to learn to fight? Then Wing Chun is going to better suit your needs. Not only is it more accessible to learn but it has more practical applications. We know that there are some people out there that doubt the value of Wing Chun in MMA but we disagree. It’s great for trapping hands, has a great economy of motion and allows you to adopt offense as defense.

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