The popular legend is that a Buddhist nun called Ng Mui was one of five monks to escape the Shaolin temple after it was attacked by the ruling Manchurians. She escaped to smaller monastery close to a town. In the town a young lady called Wing Chun was being bullied by a man in the village. The man had attempted to rape her and marry her. Ng Mui heard about Wing Chun and decided to teach her how to defend herself. She taught her for many months. Eventually, Wing Chun challenged the bully to a fight and beat him. Her name was then used to describe the fighting system.
The actual origin of Wing Chun Kung Fu is hard to come by because of secrecy. Although a recent version of the story has been brought about by Master Garrett Gee (Chu King-Hung).
During the Ming Dynasty, the Buddhist Shaolin monks were allowed (and supported) to develop and refine martial arts, called Wushu in China. They had studied human physiology as well as how wild animals fought. They had used the martial arts to help with meditation as well as defending against bandits while they travelled to spread the teachings of Buddha. They had also created a group of warrior monks which the Ming’s often used for travelling to border areas.
During the 17th Century the Hans (Ming Dynasty) were conquered and overthrown by the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty). Members of the Ming family funded the Shaolin monks (who were already loyal to the Mings) to develop a martial arts system that could be learnt quickly and be used to overthrow the Manchu government. They also wanted them to export their training to soldiers who could defend the Han nation. So the masters of several kung fu styles got together to create Wing Chun Kung Fu (named after the Wing Chun Tong or the Everlasting Spring Hall in the temple). As well as developing Wing Chun, the Shaolin temples were used to organise anti-Manchurian activities. Eventually the Manchu government suspected the temples and attacked and destroyed them.
The teachings continued and many boxers created secret societies to organise anti-Manchurian activities. The fighting system was renamed to Yim (secret) Wing (recite, praise or chant) Chun (spring or growth), so the system was taught secretly by word of mouth. The system was not allowed to be taught to people outside the societies or who were non-Han.
The boxers moved further south and spread the system along the way. Some of them created the Red Boat Opera Junks. These were theatres that would travel along the rivers in Red Boats. This was ideal for teaching Wing Chun Kung Fu and to organise anti-Manchurian activities, the Red Boats were also beyond suspicion. One of the troupe was nicknamed Tan Sao Ng because of his excellent hand movements (Tan Sao means dispersing hand). Eventually the Manchurians did suspect the Red Boats and they had to disperse once again. Descendents of the Red Boat Wing Chun Kung Fu society organised the Boxer Rebellion in the 1800’s to overthrow the foreign powers that had slowly been taking over china.
This does seem a more realistic story and I suppose the legend is a shorter version – the young lady is the Han nation and the bully is the Manchurian nation trying to rape China.
This also explains the secrecy for Wing Chun Kung Fu. It is rumoured that the societies did not want the system to be taught outside the societies in case it was used against them. Particularly Westerners who were much bigger in size.