Leung Jan is probably the most famous Wing Chun ancestor, embodiment of all virtues and undefeated fighter, in one word a true hero. As the legend goes, Leung Jan was true philanthropist, always ready to help those in need and being a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine gave him an opportunity to help treat poor people for free. When not working at his medical shop, he spent his time fighting challengers from other styles. As the story goes he had over 300 challenge matches and he never lost a fight. The truth is , although Leung Jan is such a famous character there are almost no real facts about his life, how he lived , what his martial style looked like , the exact year of his birth and death , number of children and number of students, all these things are uncertain and are a matter of argument among Wing Chun practitioners over last several decades. The most interesting thing of course is number of fights he supposedly had , so let’s analyze this claim from different angles.
From purely physiological point of view, number of 300 fights, won or lost is incredible. Giving the claim that those fights had no rules and no protective gear was involved the amount of physical trauma Leung Jan must had over time must be tremendous. Even today, with all the achievements of modern medicine, professional fighters tend to have shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population and they suffer from various health problems as a direct consequence of these fights. Let’s have in mind that professional fighters today use protective gear and have the best health care as well as the best coaches and training conditions and number of fights is not even close to 100 let alone 300. In the time of the Ching dynasty average life expectancy was little over 30 years of age , giving the fact that Leung Jan lived double that time it is safe to assume that he didn’t have any serious physical or psychological trauma during his life, 300 fights , giving the living conditions at time and the level of medical care and knowledge would definitely shorten his life span, unless he was never touched during those fights (which is only possible in action movies , even the best fighters got hit tremendous amount of times during matches). There is one other important thing we have to keep in mind. Professional fighters are exactly that, professionals. Their job is to fight and they dedicate all their time to rigorous training. Their life style, diet, seeping patterns , everything is dedicated to training. There are no professional fighters who have day job and train in free time. Leung Jan had a good business and he had to spend a lot time maintaining it , how much time he had for hard training regime required from someone to become the best fighter of his time is questionable. From this angle it is impossible to believe Leung Jan had 300 fights. Did he had any? It is unknown but it is obvious he was not a professional fighter, he was a medical doctor who practiced martial arts in his free time. It is hard to believe that he was challenged by the best fighters of his time (professionals who spent all their time training) and won, and not only won a few fights, but 300. It is also completely unbelievable that he never lost a fight. There is no fighter who never lost a fight, even the best of the best lose some time. If he fought 300 times he must have been lost at least few matches.
From sociological point of view it is highly unlikely that Leung Jan had any fights. He was a member rich upper class , the highest class of Han Chinese during latest period of Ching rule. Members of rich upper social classes never participated directly in competition fighting, wars or other conflicts. In any given time and place in history upper social classes styed aside and took care of their affairs. Giving the fact that challenge fights were forbidden and Leung Jan lived in turbulent times of Taiping rebellion and survived the aftermath of that conflict says a lot about his way of life, especially having in mind he was a practitioner of martial arts and he never had trouble from Ching government. If the government saw him not as a threat but only as a disturbing element of the society in those times he would definitely be persecuted by authorities. Win 300 (illegal) fights and become a sort of a hero for people would not be allowed , especially during Taiping rebellion times and years after that. So if not for fighting, why Leung Jan practiced martial arts? During his time martial arts changed tremendously and shifted role socially and technically. Becoming absolute in era of fire arms, martial arts shifted from weapons training to empty hand training. Not needed by military any more, martial arts were adopted by wealthy social class as a status symbol. Only those who had a lot of money could afford to learn kung fu. Martial arts represented same thing what sports cars represent today. Leung Jan didn’t have martial arts school, not in a sense we perceive martial school today. He ran an elite social club which members were other businessman and merchants from Foshan. They practiced kung fu as a sign of their social status. Leung Jan was rich , successful businessman, he reached the top of the society and had everything life could offer at time he lived on. It is highly unlikely he would risk his life, health, freedom, wealth …just to prove someone he could fight. Aside the fact that challenge fights were forbidden and if caught he would be punished, why would he risk to be killed or crippled if he had everything he could have at the time. It is highly unlikely that he had any fights, he simply had no reason to fight unless he was incredibly stupid.
From historical point of view during Ching dynasty rule martial arts were marginal activity reserved for people who needed them for work and rich people who could afford them. Of course, civilians were not allowed to carry weapons and only people with government permission could carry and use weapons (body guards, bounty hunters …) . So were there any challenge matches or death duels? No, we have no records of such a thing. These kind of things were forbidden by law and punishments for breaking the law were extremely cruel at the time.
Before Taiping rebellion we have no records of any challenges or death duels. After Taiping rebellion when things settle down, social and political climate changed, martial arts changed and competition started. Competition started because new social establishment came to existence, for the first time in history martial arts schools, in a form we know them today started to operate and some of them gathered a lot of students. Although majority of the people still lived in a very poor condition, more people could earn enough to join martial schools and more people worked better payed and not so physically exhausting jobs. Those famous wooden platforms from Hong Kong action movies were actually competition grounds, something like octagon today. People fought for fame and money. Like every competition, these also had rules and although there were pretty brutal, they were not much different from today’s MMA competitions, even the rules were pretty much the same. Many people got seriously injured but there is no record someone was killed in any of these events. There are no records that Leung Jan participated in any of these competitions. If he was such a famous fighter we would have at least some historical records of his fights. Even if we presume that all his fights were illegal and happened far from the eye of the public we would still have some records of those fights and what is more interesting we have not even one name of his opponents. Beating down 300 people , and not some ordinary people but more or less famous fighters and there is not even one record that nor even one name …Lack of written evidence ,first hand witnesses stories recorded at time of Leung Jan’s life or any other evidence from that time suggest that he never fought . If he was such a fighter there must be at least some trace of his fights , but we have no mention of any fights connected his name .
First mention of Leung Jan as a tremendous fighter can be found years after he died in pulp fiction novels. During republican period Leung Jan became a popular character of pulp fiction novel and that is a starting point of the legend of his extraordinary fighting skills. He became a hero of cheap entertainment magazines and people could read about his adventures for decades. This is the place where we find a starting point off Leung Jan’s legend. What was a fiction once, when Wing Chun became popular , became history in 70’s and 80’s .
From cultural point of view, ancestor worshiping is part of kung fu tradition. Giving the ancestor attributes (physical, moral and ethical) unreachable for ordinary man has two purposes, first to give style a “face” and second to be a role model for young students. All kung fu styles have some famous ancestor who had fighting powers never seen before (or after). Over time these powers grow and every generation add something more. At the end it is impossible to find even a shred of truth in these “histories” but that is not important , the purpose of “history” in Chinese (Japanese ,Korean) martial arts is not to present facts of the past events based on evidence but to be a cultural, ethical and moral guide and to offer a role model for future generations of practitioners. Wing Chun history need Leung Jan exactly as he is presented now, 300 , 500 or 1000 fights , it doesn’t matter. What is important is that his character is standing high above all others giving an example what a Wing Chun practitioner should be what may become. No matter if all evidence point that Leung Jan didn’t have any fight, for the purposes mentioned above, and because people like to consider them self as inheritors of such an important person, story of 300 fights will be repeated over and over again and it will be wildly believed.
To conclude this article, there is no evidence that Leung Jan ever had any fights. Stories about his fights and fighting skills emerged for the first time years after his death in pulp fiction novels. Stories from this novels became “history” in late 70’s when Wing Chun became popular and since that time Leung Jan’s fame grew as well as stories about number of his fights.