Wing Chun was an obscure and little known art until the mid twentieth century. While multiple histories of the art do exist (some with only minor discrepancies), the generally accepted version is thus:
The style traces its roots back over 250 years ago to the Southern Shaolin Temple. At that time, the temple a was sanctuary to the Chinese revolution that was trying to overthrow the ruling Manchu. A classical martial arts system was taught in the temple which took 15-20 years to produce an efficient fighter.
Realizing they needed to produce efficent fighters at a faster pace, five of China's grandmasters met to discuss the merits of each of the various forms of kung fu. They chose the most efficient techniques, theories and principles from the various styles and proceeded to develop a training program that produced an efficent fighter in 5-7 years.
Before the program was put into practice, the Southern temple was raided and destroyed. A lone nun, Ng Mui, was the only survivor who knew the full system. She wandered the countryside, finally taking in a young orphan girl and training her in the system. She named the girl Yimm Wing Chun (which has been translated to mean Beautiful Springtime, or Hope for the Future), and the two women set out refining the system.
The system was passed down through the years, and eventually became known as Wing Chun, in honor of the founder. The veil of secrecy around the art was finally broken in the early 1950's when Grandmaster Yip Man began teaching publicly in Hong Kong, and his students began gaining noteriety for besting many systems and experienced opponents in streetfights and "friendly" competitions. The art enjoyed even more popularity when one of its students, Bruce Lee, began to enjoy world wide fame.
Most important is the concept of not using force against force, which allows a weak fighter to overcome stronger opponents. Generally, a Wing Chun practitioner will seek to use his opponent's own force against him. A great deal of training is put in to this area, and is done with the cultivation of a concept called Contact Reflexes Training.
Also of importance are the use of several targeting ideas in Wing Chun. The Mother Line is an imaginary pole running vertically through the center of your body. From the Mother Line emanates the Center Line, which is a vertical 3D grid that divides the body in to a right half and a left half. Most of the vital points of the body are along the Center Line, and it is this area that the Wing Chun student learns to protect as well as work off of in his own offensive techniques. Also emanating from the Mother Line is the Central Line. The Central Line is seen as the shortest path between you and your opponent, which is generally where most of the exchange is going to take place. Because of this linear concept, most of the techniques seek to occupy one of the two lines and take on a linear nature.
This leads to the expression of another very important concept in Wing Chun: "Economy of Motion". The analogy of a mobile tank with a turret (that of course shoots straight out of the cannon) is often used to describe the linear concept.
Only two weapons are taught in the system, the Dragon Pole and the Butterfly swords. These are generally taught only once the student has a firm foundation in the system.
The way the art produces efficent and adaptble fighters in a relatively short time is by sticking to several core principles and constantly drilling them in to the student, as well as taking a very generic approach to techniques. Instead of training a response to a specific technique, the student practices guarding various zones about the body and dealing genericly with whatever happens to be in that zone. This allows for a minimum of technique for a maximum of application, and for the use of automatic or 'subconcious' responses.
Much training time is spent cultivating 'Contact Reflexes'. The idea is that at the moment you contact or'touch' your opponent, your body automaticaly reads the direction, force, and often intent of the part of the opponent's body you are contacting with and automatically (subconciously) deals with it accordingly. This again lends itself to the generic concept of zoning.
Contact Reflexes and the concept of not using force against force are taught and cultivated through unique two man sensitivity drills called Chi Sao.
The concepts of guarding and working off of these lines and zones are learned throught the practice of the three forms Wing Chun students learn, and which contain the techniques of the system: Shil Lum Tao, Chum Kil, and Bil Jee.
Another unique aspect of the system is the use of the Mook Jong, or wooden dummy, a wood log on a frame that has three arms and a leg to simulate various possible positions of an opponent's limbs. A wooden dummy form is taught to the student, that consists of 108 movements and is meant to introduce the student to various applications of the system. It also serves to help the student perfect his own skills.
Weapons training drills off the same generic ideas and concepts as the open hand system (including the use of Contact Reflexes). Many of the weapon movements are built off of or mimic the open hand moves (which is the reverse process of Kali/Escrima/Arnis, where weapon movements come first and open hand movements mimic these).
Currently, there exist several known substyles of Wing Chun. Separate from Yip Man are the various other lineages that descended from one of Yip Man's teachers, Chan Wah Shun. These stem from the 11 or so other disciples that Chan Wah Shun had before Yip Man.
Pan Nam Wing Chun (currently discussed here and in the martial arts magazines) is currently up for debate, with some saying a totally separate lineage, and others saying he's from Chan Wah Shun's lineage.
Red Boat Wing Chun is a form dating back from when the art resided on the infamous Red Boat Opera Troup boat. Little is known about the history of this art or its validity.
At the time of Yip Man's death in 1972, his lineage splintered in to many sub-styles and lineages. Politics played into this splintering a great deal, and provided much news in the martial arts community throughout the 70's and 80's. By the time the late 80's/early 90's rolled around, there were several main families in Yip Man's lineage. To differentiate each lineage's unique style of the art, various spellings or wordings of the art were copyrighted and trademarked (phonetically, Wing Chun can be spelled either as Wing Chun, Wing Tsun, Ving Tsun, or Ving Chun). These main families and spellings are:
Wing Tsun -- Copyrighted and Trademarked by Grandmaster Leung Ting. Used to describe the system he learned as Grandmaster Yip Man's last direct student before his death. Governing body is the International Wing Tsun Martial Arts Association, and the American Wing Tsun Organization in the U.S.
Traditional Wing Chun -- Copyrighted and Trademarked by Grandmaster William Cheung. Used to describe a very different version of Wing Chun he learned while living with Yip Man in the 1950's. Includes different history of lineage as well. Governing body is the World Wing Chun Kung Fu Association.
Ving Tsun - Used by other students of Yip Man, such as Moy Yat. This spelling was considered the main one used by Grandmaster Yip Man as well. It is also used by many of the other students, and was adopted for use in one of the main Wing Chun associations in Hong Kong -- The Ving Tsun Athletic Organization.
Wing Chun - General spelling used by just about all practitioners of the art.
A World Wide listing of Wing Chun Kwoons (schools) is maintained by Marty Goldberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) and posted periodically to rec.martial-arts. A mailing list (open to all students of Wing Chun) is also maintained by Marty and Rob Gillespe at email@example.com