Shaolin gong fu: the legend of the Five Elders
Sometime during the early 18th century, the Fukien Temple burned. According to some legends, the Temple was betrayed by a senior monk, Ma Yee Yuk (or Ma Ning Yee), who was known as “Pak Mei” (or “White Eyebrow“). As the legend has it, Ng Mui, Gee Sin, Mew Hing, Hung Sikwan, and Fung To-tuk escaped from the Temple. Other versions include Pak Mei at the expense of Mew or Hung. Gee Sin travelled around and eventually took shelter on the Red Boats (early Chinese opera boats that provided entertainment up and down the river – especially the Pearl River – of Southern China). He is known for teaching many laymen, including: Luk Ah-choy, Leung Yee-tai, and others; as well as those with Shaolin affiliation, such as: Hung Si-kwan, Fong Wing-chun, Mew Hing, Fong Sai-yuk, and others. Ng Mui invented Wing Chun, Fung To-tuk invented White Tiger, and Hung Si-kwan invented Hung Gar. And the betrayer, Ma (Pak Mei), invented the White Eyebrow style. Or so the story goes. There are many variations, especially in Hong Kong cinema.
BETWEEN LEGEND AND REALITY
Most of these characters, though they appear in works of fiction from the 1880s onwards, really did live. We have internal evidence for the historical existence of some of these personages. For instance, Ng Mui was a relation of Sitaigung Hua Ling P’o. Most of the stories told about them are patently fictious, however. The White Eyebrow for whom the style is named, for instance, lived around 100 years prior to the legend of the Five Elders. Surely, the same Pak Mei didn’t persist for 200 years!
PAK MEI IN CHINESE FOLKLORE
There are many reasons why Pak Mei continues to “pop up” in Chinese forlklore. We shall discuss two. First of all, he was the “Darth Vader” of his day, a fallen Shaolin monk, and he was understandably immensely popular as a villain. And so any time a really nasty scoundrel was needed, Pak Mei was invoked. Second, recall that the original Pak Mei was a practitioner of the darker aspects of Taoism. What did he receive for aiding the imperials in their conquest of the Honan Temple in the mid-17th century? According to Shaolin histories, Pak Mei was deeply interested in the Taoist quest for immortality, and was rewarded by the Manchu with access to knowledge and worldly control over other Taoists. The Taoist societies, much like the anti-Ch’ing secret societies, At the practice whereby you doing with this symbolic name. It is both probable and logically consistent that one or more of these societies always had a “Pak Mei” at the helm. So when the Fukien Temple was betrayed in the 18th century by “Pak Mei,” it was one of these later Pak Meis. It is even possible that the original White Eyebrow spawned a secret cult of his own which perpetrated a grudge against Shaolin – a grudge eventually resulting in bloodshed.
THE LEGEND OF THE FIVE ELDERS
The legend of the Five Elders maintains that Pak Mei slew many Shaolin, including Gee Sin, Fong Sai-yuk, Hung Si-kwan, and others. Some versione even clame that Pak Mei slew Wing-chun’s father. Fong later married Hung Si-kwan; and, as legend goes, Hung slew Fong’s father’s killer as part of his courtship. But this is no part of the official Hung Gar lineage. As the story goes, Hung developed Hung Gar by blending the White Crane style of his wife with the Southern Tiger style he had learned from Gee Sin. Hung was, by all accounts, amazingly strong, and this stylistic synthesis suited him well. On the pretext of lingering to look for other comrades, some Shaolin disciples prepared to take revenge on White Eyebrow and recapture the Temple. For several years, these disciples, led by Hung Si-kwan, planned their strategy and honed their gong fu skills while hiding as riverboat acrobats. When Hung confronted White Eyebrow, Hung was killed. His son, Hung Wen-ting, supposedly slew Pak Mei with Hung Gar techniques a few years later. According to the legend, the death of Pak Mei symbolised the righteousness of Shaolin being reasserted over the imperial-mandated destruction of the Temple.
IS THE LEGEND TRUE?
From the Shaolin perspective, there are serious problems with this legend. First, as already mentioned, is their own oral tradition, which maintains that White Eyebrow lived in the mid-17th century. They recognize the fallibility inherent in the transmission of oral history (that is, we might be wrong about all this!). Yet while Shaolin monks who trained in China during the late 19th century verified the existence of Gee Sin, Hung Si-kwan, Luk Ah-choy, Ng Mui, and others who lived during the 18th century, they maintained that Pak Mei lived much earlier (as did Fung To-tuk).
THE CASE OF HUNG SI-KWAN
Then there is the case of Hung Si-kwan. Seen as a historical here by many, he was an outcast by Shaolin standards. Hung was known to have developed skills with the express intent of killing someone, perhaps in the case of Fong Wing-chun’s father; and perhaps others, as Hung was involved in fighting the Ch’ing. He may even have honed his fighting skills to battle a latter-day “Pak Mei.” Hung was engaged in both political machinations and taking revenge – for these activities he was disowned by the Shaolin Order. This partly explains why Hung Gar, certainly an excellent martial style, has never enjoyed the prominence within the Order as it has in civilian circles.
WHAT THE LEGEND OF THE FIVE ELDERS IS ABOUT?
Finally, affiliated with the Five Elders legend, is the common assumption that only five Shaolin survived this assault on the Fukien Temple. This assumption is part of the “story”, the folklore aspect of history. During this period, other Shaolin Temple were active, and numerous masters resided in other locations. Monks frequently travelled between temples, and it was fairly common, for example, that a Fukien abbot would have trained at Honan, a Honan abbot at Fukien, and a Kwangtung abbot at Omei Shan. Many monks also spent prolonged periods among the general populace, and still others lived in a solitary fashion, close to nature. It is also a Shaolin custom to run away in the case of attack. So, while Fukien Temple was razed during this time period, the Shaolin Order holds that it isn’t true that the upper echelons of the Order were decimated (or worse).
Source: The Shaolin Grandmasters’ Text – Hystory, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch’an, Revised Edition – by the Order of Shaolin Ch’an