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ng mui: shaolin nun and heroine of china

ancient chinese history tells the tales of several women across the millennia who defied the traditional concept of male warriors in ancient warfare and helped mold the course of china's history. they included slaves, prostitutes, princesses, and shaolin buddhist nuns.


one such heroine is ng mui (chinese traditional: 五枚; cantonese: ńgh mùih/múi; mandarin: wú méi; c. 1700). the ńgh/ character is the symbol for the number "five." the múi/méi (枚) figure is rendered as "plum." her name translates as "five plum," a poetic allusion to the five-petal plum blossom, which is also called the five-petal flower ( wǔyè huá 五葉華). plum blossoms flower in mid-winter to early spring. they are seen as a sign of winter and a forerunner of spring. they symbolize perseverance and hope as well as beauty, purity, and brevity of life. in some sources, her name is written instead with the characters 五枚. meanings for the alternate múi/méi (枚) ideogram include "tree trunk" and "wooden peg."

the expression "five petals" is also connected with the transmission verse of bodhidharma who foretold that five generations of ch'an masters would follow him:


i originally came to this country (china)
to transmit the dharma and save deluded beings.
when the single flower opens into five petals
then the fruit will ripen naturally of itself.

five petal flower

ch'an buddhism joined taoism and confucianism to become one of the three teachings of china.

ng mui

depending on the source, she is referred to as either ng mui sitai (五梅師太 ng mui grandmaster) or ng mui dashi (五梅大師 ng mui great master).

in some legends, ng mui was born into a noble family as the daughter of a general within the imperial court during the ming dynasty (traditional chinese: 明朝; pinyin: míng cháo; 1368–1644). her social standing gave her access to the finest education and martial arts instruction of her time. she was regarded as a master of shaolin martial arts (少林拳), wudang martial arts (武当拳), and a style of yuejiaquan (岳家拳) founded by song dynasty (traditional chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: sòng cháo; 960–1279) general yue fei (岳飛; 1103–1142), a patriot and folk hero in china. the style created by yue fei is distinct from the northern shaolin chuan fa yuejiaquan system developed by the henan shaolin temple (shàolín sì 少林寺) in northern china. ng mui was credited with founding several styles, including wing chun kuen (咏春拳), wu mei pai (吴梅派)/ng mui kuen (吴梅拳), southern dragon style (龙形摩桥), white crane style (白鹤派), and five pattern/five animals hung kuen (五形洪拳). she is named in many folk tales, which contradict each other.

ng mui 2

in the wu mei pai tradition, ng mui created her style while in the forbidden city. she practiced on capsized logs or "plum blossom poles" (chinese traditional: 梅花桩; mandarin: méihuā zhuāng; lit. "plum pile") to cultivate balance and leg strength. she became renowned for her skill fighting atop plum blossom poles. she was traveling when her parents perished during the conquest of the ming capital city of beijing in 1644 by the manchu qing dynasty (traditional chinese: 大清; pinyin: dà qīng; manchu: daiqing gurun). the qing dynasty was founded in 1636 and ruled china proper from 1644 to 1912. she fled to the white crane temple (báihè sì 白鶴寺) in guangxi province (alternate romanization: kwangsi or kwangshi) in southern china, bordering vietnam. she became an anti-qing rebel and taught her style within the white crane temple. her style included rapid counters and slower movements from qigong and bodhidharma forms.

ng mui

dragon style historians say that ng mui created the dragon style at the henan shaolin temple about 1565. she was one of the last members of that temple before a fire caused its first destruction in 1570 during the time of the longqing emperor (隆慶; 1537–1572) of the ming dynasty.

in the lore of tibetan white crane, though, ng mui is the chinese name of a male tibetan monk called jikboloktot (吉博克洛科特). he was of the last generation of students taught by sing lung (唱肺), a martial arts master who sheltered at the dinghu temple (dǐng hú sì 鼎湖寺) in 1865 in guangdong (alternately called canton or kwangtung), a coastal province in south china on the northern shore of the south china sea, during the reign of the tongzhi emperor (同治帝; 1859–1875) of the qing dynasty.

miu hin

miu hin

according to five pattern/animals stylists, their system was jointly created by the nun ng mui and miu hin (苗顯), an unshaved lay disciple from the siu lam monastery (southern shaolin; cantonese yale: siulàhm jí) in fujian (or fukien) province on the southeastern coast of china. ng mui and miu hin observed and imitated the movements of many animals, adapting the techniques for human limbs. the two masters were both among the legendary shaolin five elders (少林五老), who spread shaolin martial arts across southern china during the early years of the qing dynasty as part of an effort to overthrow the ruling manchus, who were seen as invaders and barbarians.

shaolin martial arts are called shaolin quan (traditional chinese: 少林拳; pinyin: shàolín quán; cantonese yale: siulam kyuhn); more precisely, shaolin chuan fa, or quan fa (traditional chinese: 少林穿法; pinyin: shàolín chuān fǎ; wade–giles: shao lin ch'üan fa; cantonese yale: siulam kyuhn faat; literal: "shaolin fist technique"). the term chuan is the chinese transliteration of the sanskrit term mukti (मुक्ति; "clasped hand"). the suffix fa is the chinese transcription of the sanskrit word dharma (धर्मा; "teachings of the buddha"). when reverse translated back into sanskrit, chuan fa means dharmamukti (धर्मामुक्ति; "closed hand of the dharma"). shaolin chuan fa became part of what came to be called ch'an (chinese zen) martial arts (traditional chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: chánzōng wǔshù; cantonese yale: sìhmjūng móuhseuht) which combined ch'an philosophy with the martial arts of the shaolin temple.

ng mui and the other shaolin elders learned northern shaolin chuan fa which can also be called beiquan (traditional chinese: 北拳; pinyin: běiquán; cantonese yale: bāk kyùhn; lit. "northern fist") or a bei pai (traditional chinese: 南派; pinyin: běi pài; cantonese yale: bāk paai; lit. "northern school"). learning northern shaolin chuan fa traditionally took ten to fifteen years.

ng mui and her fellow elders therefore developed a number of southern shaolin chuan fa styles that could be taught within two to three years to ming loyalists who were actively fighting against qing forces. the new systems were centered around two animal forms and one weapon. the new systems let the ming loyalists specialize in certain areas of chuan fa that suited different body types at an accelerated pace. southern shaolin chuan fa can also be called nanquan (traditional chinese: 南拳; pinyin: nán quán; cantonese yale: nàahm kyùhn; lit. "southern fist") or nan pai (traditional chinese: 南派; pinyin: nán pài; cantonese yale: nàahm paaii; lit. "southern school").

fong sai-yuk

fong sai-yuk

some traditions say that ng mui took as a student fong sai-yuk (方世玉), a possibly fictional martial arts master and folk hero during the qing dynasty who came from zhaoqing city, guangdong province. sai-yuk was part of a powerful clan named fong. his father, fong tak (方德), was a wealthy merchant, while his mother, miu tsui-fa (苗翠花), was a chuan fa master and the daughter of miu hin.

according to folklore, beginning immediately after his birth, miu tsui-fa would intentionally break every bone and limb in sai-yuk's body and bathe him in dit da jow (跌打酒), a healing chinese herbal liniment. the treatment made sai-yuk virtually invulnerable and gave his body the quality of "copper skin, metal bone" (tóng pí, jīnshǔ gǔ 銅皮,金屬骨). mia cuihua trained sai-yuk in martial arts as she raised him.

in these traditions, ng mui was a member of the fong clan as well. ng mui was said to have taught fong sai-yuk the tiger and crane form (虎鶴形) from the fujian shaolin temple, which was the predecessor of the hung ga (洪家) style. fong sai-yuk was also associated with the shaolin five elders and hung hei (洪熙官; 1745–1825), the founder of hung ga. most fong clansmen were said to have preferred the crane techniques.

bak mei

bak mei

conflicting stories also say that ng mui worked with fong sai-yuk and/or bak mei (白眉), a controversial shaolin five elder, to establish secret han chinese revolutionary societies called the tiandihui (traditional chinese: 天地會; pinyin: tiāndì huì; cantonese yale: tīndeih wúi; lit. "heaven and earth society") or "triads," aka sam hop wui (traditional chinese: 三合會; pinyin: sān hé huì; cantonese yale: sāam hahp wúi; lit. "triple union society," "three harmonies society," or "three united association"; referring to the union of heaven, earth and humanity). the triads started as patriotic societies that kept strict discipline over the behavior and activities of their members. the followers saw themselves as blood brothers and blood sisters and they were expected to be loyal and upright. the tiandihui later devolved into organized crime syndicates, though.

tiandihui certificate

certificate given to new tiandihui member.

according to wing chun grand master ip man (葉問; 1893–1972), ng mui was abbess of the henan shaolin monastery. she was living and studying at the monastery when it was destroyed by qing troops during the rule of the kangxi emperor (康熙帝; 1661–1722) due to its anti-qing activities. the qing government had little success in subverting the revolutionaries until chan man wai (陳文慧), a recently appointed qing government official seeking favor, hatched a plot with a group of renegade shaolin monks led by ma ning yee (馬寧怡). ma ning yee and the others agreed to betray the pro-ming revolutionaries at the monastery for pay. one of the other conspirators was reputedly the teacher of ng mui. in the history passed down by ip man, ng mui's teacher was master dook bay sun lai (德灣新來). in other wing chun accounts, her teacher was master lee pasun (李·帕松).







henan shaolin temple 河南少林寺

ma ying yee provided the monastery plans with its secret passages to qing authorities. when qing forces attacked the monastery from without, ma ying yee and his fellow conspirators caused confusion within by setting fires and attacking the other monks.

shaolin height=

destruction of shaolin temple

ng mui and the other shaolin five elders survived the monastery's destruction, which occurred around 1674, 1677, or 1714. other accounts say the monastery was destroyed in 1647 by the shunzhi emperor (順治帝; r. 1643–1661) or in 1728 or 1732 by the yongzheng emperor (雍正帝; r. 1722–1735).

ng mui and shaolin five height=

ng mui and shaolin five elders

ng mui sheltered at the white crane temple, located in the daliang mountains (traditional chinese: 大涼山; pinyin: dàliáng shān; cantonese yale: daaihlèuhng sāan; lit. "great cool mountains") between the provinces of yunnan and sichuan in southwest china. legend says that during her time at the white crane temple, ng mui watched a crane and snake fight one another. afterwards, she incorporated the principles of their movements into a new martial arts style she created that required quick arm movements and strong legs as well as softness via relaxation and the execution of techniques in a relaxed manner to best opponents. she had yet to give name to this new style, though.

ng mui snake crane

ng mui watching the crane and snake

in a contradictory legend passed on by ip man, ng mui was the daughter of a han chinese general who defected to the qing dynasty. her father was one of eight han chinese generals who helped the yongzheng emperor (康熙帝; r. 1722–1735) ascend to the throne. the yongzheng emperor was the fourth emperor of the qing dynasty and the third to rule over china proper. ng mui was then known as lui sai leung (chinese traditional: 呂四娘; mandarin: lu siniang). she was the granddaughter of lui lou leung (呂留良; mandarin: lu liuliang), who was a famous yóuxiá (遊俠; lit. "wandering hero" or "knight-errant") hero. his nickname was ho kou lo yan (何求老人; pinyin: hé qiú lǎorén; lit. "he qiu the elderly").

after rising to the throne of china, the yongzheng emperor had his father the kangxi emperor and the eight ming generals killed in order to safeguard his power. to avenge her father, lui sai leung trained rigorously in martial arts at a taoist temple in the wudang or mo dong mountains (traditional chinese: 武當山; pinyin: wǔdāng shān; cantonese yale: móuh-dōng sāan) under master wan ho lo yan (灣河老仁). finally, in 1735 she beheaded the yongzheng emperor and went into hiding at the shaolin temple.

quanzhou shaolin height=

quanzhou shaolin temple 泉州少林寺

quanzhou monks

quanzhou>shaolin monks

in an alternate tradition, the yongzheng emperor, who was born as prince yinzhen (胤禛), infiltrated the southern shaolin temple at quanzhou (chinchew), a port city on the north bank of the jin river by the taiwan strait in fujian province. the young yinzhen disguised himself as a shaolin monk in order to learn about the activities of anti-qing revolutionaries at the quanzhou temple. when he ascended to the throne, he ordered the burning of the quanzhou temple.


anonymous tibetan dobdo monks

anonymous tibetan dobdo monks


unknown dobdo monks at lhasa city, capital of tibet, 1938

dobdo monks

march 6, 1937. tibetan dobdobs, monk policemen, outside the entrance to the shira gate on the south side of the jokhang, tibet's most sacred shrine, in the heart of old lhasa town. the dobdobs wore padded clothing and wielded long wooden staves and branches to control the crowds during a monlam torgyap ceremony. the ceremony marked the end of the monlam chenmo, the great prayer festival, held to celebrate the new year. a group of lay officials stands in the background at the entrance to the jokhang.

the yongzheng emperor raised an army and recruited a number of tibetan lama dobdos (ldab-ldob) or "fighting monks." many dobdos were khampa monks from the tibetan province of kham. the dobdos sometimes acted as self-appointed policemen for monasteries in tibet. they were also personal guards for the successive dalai lamas. they were often the less academic and pious monks of the tibetan monastic order who had interests in sports, fighting, and other "worldly" matters. many dobdos entered the tibetan monastic order to escape the hardships of village life or they were enrolled by their families regardless of their wishes for the honor of having clansmen being ordained monks rather than from genuine piety. they served as peacemakers within the tibetan monasteries, but were also liable to be disruptive influences and were thus prone to adventurism. the tibetan dobdos were trained not only in unarmed combat, but they also used a fearsome secret weapon called the "flying guillotine" (traditional chinese: 血滴子; pinyin: xuèdī zǐ; wylie tibetan transliteration: hyut dik zi; lit. "blood-dripper"). the tibetan flying guillotine is said to be fashioned like a bell-shaped hat attached to a chain. the "hat" was filled with razors that laced around an opponent's neck and ripped the opponent's head off.

flying guillotine

flying guillotine


portrayal of dobdo master wielding hyut dik zi from 1967 film "master of the flying guillotine."

qing vs shaolin

qing army attacks quanzhou shaolin temple 泉州少林寺

the quanzhou temple was successfully razed by qing soldiers and the auxiliary tibetan dobdo fighters. lui sai leung, who was a famous yóuxiá, was among the enraged chinese citizenry. following the destruction of the quanzhou temple, lui sai leung penetrated the qing palace on her own and killed the yongzheng emperor.

afterwards, lui sai leung fled to a shaolin temple whether in fujian province or henan province. at the temple, she received the buddhist dharma name ng mui though she was actually a taoist practitioner. ng mui furthered her martial arts learning under dook bay sun lai or lee pasun. she became the most skilled elder of the temple and she came to associate with the other shaolin five elders.

ng mui later developed a martial arts style called mui fa bak bo (traditional chinese: 梅花八步; pinyin: méihuā bā bù; lit. "plum flower eight step"). when she watched a snake and crane battle one another, ng mui further developed the style which became known as sei ho bak bo (traditional chinese: 蛇鶴八步; pinyin: shé hè bā bù; lit. "snake and crane eight step"). after watching a mouse walk, she continued refining the style and it was called shu bo mui fa kuen (traditional chinese: 鼠步梅花拳; pinyin: shǔ bù méihuā quán; lit "mouse step plum flower fist"). these three styles preceded what became known as wing chun.

the differing wing chun traditions generally converge to say that, as an elderly woman in hiding, ng mui purchased tofu frequently at a shop in nearby village. there she befriended a shop worker, a then 15 year-old girl named yim wing chun, whom a local bandit leader was attempting to force into marriage. in one story, the bandit leader is called wong (黃). around 1790, ng mui taught wing chun how to protect herself with her unnamed system, which wing chun could learn quickly over the course of a few months rather than years. wing chun practiced with an old tree trunk, which later formed the basis for the wing chun wooden dummy, the mu ren zhuang (木人樁; mandarin: mù rén zhuāng; cantonese: muk yan jong; lit. "wooden man post"; wade giles: moo jen ch'wang).

ng mui teaching wing chun

ng mui sitai teaching yim wing chun

ng mui's system deemphasized the use of size and strength, favoring deflection over blocks and simultaneous defensive and offensive moves. other basic principles were:

  • the shortest and fastest distance between two points is a straight line.
  • the essentialness of control and striking along the centerline (the plane between the center of one's body and that of an opponent's).
  • executing 2-3 techniques simultaneously rather than one.
  • receiving what arrives, following what retreats, and striking when open.
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some accounts say that ng mui left wing chun for a time in order to settle accounts with her former teacher, whether named dook bay sun lai or lee pasun. the two fought a match atop plum blossom poles with sharpened stakes set below. she defeated her former teacher, who died. ng mui then returned to wing chun and continued wing chun's training.

ng mui vs former master

ng mui vs dook bay sun lai/lee pasun atop plum blossom poles

the annals of grand master ip chun (葉學準; born ip hok-chun; july 10, 1924), the elder son of ip man, recorded the following:

yìhm wing chun 嚴詠春 had trained very hard and her soul had grown to a high level. ng mui sitai 五梅師太 (ng mui grand master) was very pleased with her and knew that she was good enough to deal with those gangsters!

one morning ng mui sitai called wing chun to her and said, "you have been here for months now. you have learnt so much and improved very quickly. it is time for you to go home. start getting your things together. tomorrow you will go back and see your father."

yìhm wing chun was sad and knelt down in front of her teacher. "sīfú, thank you for teaching me and looking after me. i do not know how i can ever repay you. i will remember what you have taught me and i will always think of you. i would like to come back and look after you once i have finished my business with those gangsters."

ng mui sitai smiled, "there is no need for that. you should have your own life. when the time is right i will come and see you."

the next day wing chun had packed all her things and came to say goodbye, but she still had one more question. "sīfú, what is this kuen* you have been teaching me?"

ng mui smiled and replied, "think, what is your name?" ng mui did not answer her question, but asked her a question instead.

wing chun was confused. "sīfú knows my name." she thought to herself. she did not really know what to say do simply said, "my name is wing chun."

ng mui smiled broadly and said, "then this kuen is called wing chun kuen!" and from that day this is what the skill has been called.

*traditional chinese: 拳 ; pinyin: quán; lit. "fist"

yim wing chun went on to defeat the bandit leader.


yim wing chun versus the bandit leader

ip chun's annals record that when wing chun returned home, she found a letter left for her by ng mui:

wing chun 詠春 opened the letter and looked at the bottom, it was signed by her sīfú.

ng mui si tai 五枚師太 wrote, "my dearest student wing chun, meeting up was fate. i don't have any other students you are the only one. i watched your family being bullied by the gangsters and this gave me an opportunity to teach you and i particularly wanted to teach this new kuen style that i had created. you are kind, loyal and very smart. you have picked up my kuen very quickly and have gained a deep understanding so fast. i didn't expect this but this has made me very happy. when you left with all the skill to return home and fight the gangsters i was watching. i was always nearby and i was so impressed with how you planned, prepared and took action. you are very structured and organised and i know you will be alright in the future. now you have to take care of yourself and your father. i hope one day you will find somebody to pass the skill on to and keep developing it. it is time for me to go as there are more things in the country that i need to do. maybe someday i will visit you again.

yours sincerely,

sīfú ng mui."

after reading the letter wing chun cried and as the tears flowed from her eyes she realised she may not see her sīfú ever again, but inside she hoped, that perhaps someday day in the future, fate would let them see again.

wing chun never saw ng mui again.

ng mui journeyed across china to join with other revolutionaries from the shaolin temple to raise another revolt against the qing dynasty. ng mui's final fate is unrecorded.

wing chun went on to wed her promised husband leung bok chow. she taught ng mui's system to her husband. some wing chun traditions say leung bok chow named ng mui's system after wing chun following her passing around 1840.

wing chun bronze relief

bronze relief in ip man memorial hall, locun, foshan, china

little to no resemblance exists for the styles ng mui is associated with. her contributions to each style show a development in her skills. as she set her own path in life, ng mui helped shape chinese history and contributed to china's tradition of female martial artists. both men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the shaolin monks and nuns in detroit and madison heights classes offered by the michigan shaolin wugong temple.


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