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Heroines from the past

Myths  and legends provides the background to the history of female martial artists that enriches the cultural heritage of the Chinese martial arts.  Inspired by those tales, many women takes up the challenge and dedicated themselves to the life of an martial artists.  Through their hard work and remarkable achievements, their deeds are past from one generation to the next.  This long and illustrious history for woman  inspired the poet-revolutionary, Qiu Jin (秋瑾 1875 - 1907) to comment:

Don't say
A woman can never be a knight,
Do you hear
The double-edge sword is singing
On her wall day and night."

Qiu Jin would die for those believes during her rebellion against the repressive Qing dynasty at the turn the of century. 

 1.  Heroine
 2.  Ancient Times
 3.  Past
 4.  Art and Fiction
 5.  Present Day

(Women can be deadly martial artists with strong convictions and dedication to the martial way.)

Martial Arts Training for Women of all Ages in Ottawa

The curriculum at the Ottawa Chinese Martial Arts Association is suitable for women of all ages and all backgrounds. Our approach is to take the best of both the external and internal styles to create a system where everyone can receive the benefits of proper training.  The external styles provides the cardiovascular fitness and muscle endurance and the internal styles provide the mental focus and the energy alignment.  In combination, those different types of training provides the balance and harmony that offers the best in traditional Chinese Martial Arts practice. 

The association also encourage our students to explore other aspects of Chinese culture by exploring the richness of East Asian cinema, arts and entertainment as well as the large variety of ethnic foods.  Chinese Martial Arts is not just about practice its about an attitude and a way of life.


Women played a significant role in the recent past.  They include the Three Princess that are honored for protecting and continuing the Shaolin tradition for female devotees to founders and teachers of martial arts systems such as Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun.

The Three Princesses and the Shaolin Temple

Yongtai Monastery (Chin.: Yǒngtàisì 永泰寺) has a long and deep relationship with the Shaolin Monastery and its history can be told through the story of the three princesses. The founder of the monastery is Princess Zhuanyun (Chin.: Zhuǎnyùn Gōngzhǔ 转运公主) one of the first female Bhuddhist nuns. The temple was expanded under the care of Princess Minglian (Chin.: Míngliàn Gōngzhǔ 明练公主) who was considered to be the first female student of Bodhidharma. The temple reached its final form under Princess Yongtai (Chin.: Yǒngtài Gōngzhǔ 永泰公主) for which the monastery is now named after. Through its thousand year history, the temple has maintained its tradition in the teaching and promotion of Chan as well the training in the Chinese martial arts.

Princess Zhuanyun (Chin.: Zhuǎnyùn Gōngzhǔ 转运公主) was the daughter of the Northern Wei Dynasty Emporer Wencheng (Chin.: Wénchéng Dì 文成帝, 440-465). According to legend, she became a Buddhist nun (Chin.: nísēng 尼僧) after studying the teachings of Bodhi. She reculsed herself near the Shaolin temple and committed herself to the pursuit of the Dharma. Her devotion and dedication resulted in the formation of the Zhuanyun Convent (Chin.: Zhuǎnyùn Ān; 转运庵), a community for Buddhist nuns that was the forerunner community that eventually grew to the Yongtai Monastery of today.

Princess Minglian (Chin.: Míngliàn Gōngzhǔ 明练公主) was the daughter of Emperor Wu of Liang (Chin.: Liáng Wǔdì 梁武帝, 464–549) and lived during the Southern Dynasties (Chin.: Náncháo shíqī 南朝时期, 317-589). She developed an interest in the Dharma and subsequently followed the First Chan Patriarch, Bodhidharma, to Shaolin Monastery where she became one of his four closed-door disciples. She received the Dharma-name Zongchi (Chin.: fǎmíng Zǒngchí 法名总持). During her path towards enlightenment, Princess Ming-lian followed a tradition education that included the studied of Chi Kung, the martial arts, and herbal medicine.Because of her interest, the Emperor expanded the Zhuanyun Convent into the Minglian Monastery (Chin.: Míngliànsì 明练寺). This Monastery then followed the teachings established by Ming-lian and continued to promote both Chan and martial arts practice. 

Yongtai (Chin.: Yǒngtài Gōngzhǔ 永泰公主) was the younger sister to the Emperor Xiaoming's (Chin.: Xiàomíng Dì 孝明帝, 510-528) and the seventh daughter of Emperor Zhong Zong (Li Xian) of the Northern Wei Dynasty. History recalls that she was extremely upset over the treatment of her mother, Empress Dowager Hu (Chin.: Hú Tàihòu 胡太后), and in frustration and as a sign of protest she renounced her royal position. She reculsed herself at the Minglian Monastery and concentrated on cultivation of the Buddhist path (Chin.: xiūfó 修佛). During her tenure, she established a reputation for helping people by using her connections to request supply relief aid to the neighboring communities. She was also well known for her skills in qigong and martial arts practice. At the end of this period, her efforts resulted in a large Buddhist community with with more than 1,000 nuns. During the Tang Dynasty (Chin.: Tángdài 唐代, 618-907), the Minglian Monastery (Chin.: Míngliànsì 明练寺) was re-name Yongtai Monastery (Chin.: Yǒngtàisì 永泰寺) in tribute to the merits and virtues of Princess Yongtai.

After the Northern Song Dynasty (Chin.: Běisòng 北宋, 960-1127), Chinese society was influenced by the Cheng-Zhu School of neo-Confucian idealist philosophy (Chin.: ChéngZhū Lǐxué 程朱理学). This resulted in a prevailing sexist attitude towards females. This view prevailed even through monastics life as nuns were referred to as "second monks" (Chin.: èrsēng 二僧), meaning they were a rung below males. This resulted in a decline in support for the monastery. 

During the Jin Dynasty (Chin.: Jīndài 金代, 1115-1234) , the name of the Monastery was changed to Yongchan Monastery (Chin.: Yǒngchánsì 永禅寺; "Always Chan") to re-emphasize that Chan approach (Chin.: chánzōng 禅宗). In this approach, the true Buddha-nature (Chin.: fóxìng 佛性) is beyond all duality, such as male and female.  This change in name was not enough to counter the negative influences of society and support for the monastery continued to decline. 

After the Yuan and Ming dynasties, there attitudes towards women improved and the contributions of the Yongtai Monastery was once again being recognized.  The Yongchang Monastery was once again renamed Yongtai Monastery.  In addition, the nuns of Yongtai Monastery began to adopt the generation naming system begun by Yuan Dynasty Shaolin Abbot, Ven. Fuyu (福裕, 1203-1275), based on his 70 character poem. Yongtai Monastery was subsequently referred to as a branch of Shaolin, i.e. the "Shaolin Nunnery", and the nuns of Yongtai Monastery would also be buried in the Shaolin Pagoda Forest (Chin.: Shàolínsì Tǎlín 少林寺塔琳).   This marks the first explicit recognition of the contributions of the Yongtai Monastery to the rich heritage of Shaolin. 

The fate of Yongtai Monastery is forever bonded to that of the Shaolin Temple.  The Yongtai Monastery was also destroyed as the Shaolin Monastery had been. However, it too rose from the ashes. In the 1980's it was rebuilt and today is a fully functional nunnery under the current abbess, the Ven. Shi Yanjun (Chin.: Shì Yánjūn Fǎshī 释延君法师).

Today Yongtai Monastery is also the home of the only all-female Shaolin wushu school nationwide- the Yongtai Monastery Female Wushu School (Chin.: Yǒngtàisì Nǚzi Wǔshù Xuéxiào 永泰寺女子武术学校). It is formally approved and established by the Physical Culture and Sports Commission and the Educational Commission of China. The school is entirely comprised of female students who are instructed by female coaches. Nuns, coaches and students have traveled abroad to spread the culture and awareness and to strengthen the female involvement in Shaolin Wugong and Chan Buddhism.

Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun (1662-1722)

The legendary Shaolin nun and abbess,  Ng Mui (五梅大師; pinyin: Wǔ Méi Dà Shī; Yale Cantonese: Ng5 Mui4 Daai6 Si1) was considered one of the Five Elders of Southern Chinese Kung Fu (Chinese: 五祖; pinyin: wǔ zǔ; Yale Cantonese: ng5 jou2). They were described as a group of highly skilled martial artists who had escaped from the destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Qing government (1600-1700).  Ng Mui was  said to have studied the Shaolin martial arts, the Wudang martial arts, and Yuejiaquan (the family style of Yue Fei).  She is often credited as the founder of the martial arts Wǔ Méi Pài (Ng Mui style), Wing Chun Kuen, Dragon style, White Crane, and Five-Pattern Hung Kuen.  In the case of Wing Chun Kuen (咏春拳), oral traditions described that she created the techniques by watching the fighting between a crane and a snake.  Similiar origin stories can also be found in the White Crane and Tai ji traditions. 

Yim Wing Chun (嚴詠春) was a native of Canton [廣東, Kwangtung Province] in China. She married Leung Bok Chau (梁博儔), a salt merchant of Fukien. They finally settled at the foot of Tai Leung Mountain near the border between Yunan and Szechuan provinces. She encountered Ng Mui and studied with her for many years. Under Ng Mui, Wing Chun developed a style that is extremely efficient and ideally suited to smaller fighters having less strength. Wing Chun then taught her skills to her husband Leung Bok Chau. Leung then trained Wong Wah Bo (黃華寶, an opera performer). Wong Wah Bo taught Leung Yeu Tei (梁二娣). Leung Yeu Tei moved to Fat Shan, Southern China One of his students in Fat Shan was Leung Jan (梁贊; 1826~1901). Leung Jan taught his skills to Chan Wah Shan (陳華順; 1849-1913).  Chan in turn taught Yip man (葉問; 1893-1972).  Yip man was already a noted Wing Chun fighter before becoming even more famous as the teacher of Bruce Lee.

Many Others

There were many more notable female martial artists including:
  • Wu Rong (吳蓉), daughter of Wu Zhong (吳鍾; 1712-1802),taught Baji quan (八极拳) and Pigua (劈掛拳) in Mengcun (孟村) village of Cangzhou (沧州) in Hebei Province. She became a pivotal figure in establishing the reputation of this fierce fighting style.