by David Peterson
In the realm of Chinese martial art folklore, the mere mention of a select few names can conjure up images of bravery, skill and honour. Names like hung kuen master Wong Fei Hong, Jing Wu Institute founder Huo Yuan Jia or wing chun ancestor Leung Jaan, immediately remind us of great martial artists whose skills and deeds continue to inspire respect in the martial world. Another name has been added to that list in recent times, brought to the attention of the wider public in three recent Chinese movies – wing chun grandmaster and patriarch, Ip Man.
Once merely a footnote in the biography of celebrated screen star, Bruce Lee, the late Grandmaster of Hong Kong wing chun kuen is now a household name throughout the Asian world, and rapidly becoming almost as well known in the West, thanks largely to the films ‘Ip Man’ (2008) and ‘Ip Man 2’ (2010) starring actor Donnie Yen in the title role. Just a few months ago, a third film, ‘The Legend Begins – Ip Man’ starring Dennis To and featuring screen legends Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, presented the film worlds version of the younger years of Ip Man prior to the events presented in the Donnie Yen films.
Yet another major motion picture by art house director Wong Kar Wai is set to be released in 2011. Plagued by production problems and taking over ten years to materialise, this movie, tentatively titled ‘The Grandmaster’ is said to tell the story of Ip Man’s latter years in Hong Kong and will star Hong Kong heart throb, Tony Leung Chiu-wai in the title role. There are even now rumours of a 40 episode TV series based on the life and exploits of Ip Man to be made as well in the not-too-distant future! The term “Ip Man Effect” is now appearing in the media throughout the region as a means of trying to describe the sudden and explosive interest in both Ip Man and the wing chun system that has now captured the publics’ imagination. Schools that once had a handful of students training in them are now packed with people of all ages wanting to become the next Ip Man.
So, what do we know about the real Ip Man and the legacy that he has left behind? Well, if we rely upon what is presented on screen, the answer is not very much, or at least, a very distorted and exaggerated story of the man and his skills. The media, with a certain amount of pressure from Chinese leaders to invoke the patriotism of the Chinese people, have created a new folk hero to revere and inspire, but in doing so, have largely ignored a story that is every bit as exciting and involved as the one we see on the screen. In addition, like with Ip Man’s most famous student of all, the late Bruce Lee, we have been given a sanitized portrait of the man, when in the case of both men, the “warts and all” story is so much more fascinating.
Ip Man was born in a tumultuous time in China’s history, a juncture between the “Old China” and the beginnings of the amazing powerhouse that China has become in recent generations. On November 6th, 1893, just a few short years before the Manchu Dynasty collapsed and the Republic of China was established by Dr Sun Yat-sen (another famous resident of the Guangzhou region), parents Ip Oi-doh and Ng Shui welcomed their third child, Ip Gai-man into the world. With an older brother, Ip Gai-gak, older sister, Ip Wan-mei and younger sister, Ip Wan-hum, young Gai-man enjoyed a relatively contented life as the son of very successful parents who owned land and property in Foshan (Fatsaan). Living on that property was to become pivotal in creating the role that Ip Man would play in the history and development of wing chun kuen over the ensuing years.
The ‘Ip Family Clan Hall’ was located on Song Yuen Dai Gai (Mulberry Gardens Street) near the centre of Foshan and local instructor, Chan Wa-sun approached Ip Oi-doh to seek permission to teach his students there. Better known by his nick-name, ‘Jaau Chin Wa’ (“Wa the Money Changer”), he was himself the student of famed wing chun ancestor, ‘Fatsaan Jaan Sinsaang’ (“Mr Jaan of Foshan”), Leung Jaan. By the age of 13, Ip Man had become quite fascinated with what Chan Wa-sun and his students practised in the Clan Hall, and he plucked up the courage to ask Chan if he could learn. By then, Chan was already 70 years of age and didn’t really want another student, especially the son of a wealthy landowner as he believed in a proverb that “rich students make poor students”, so to discourage Ip Man, he told the young boy that the fee to learn was some $500 silver dollars, an absolute fortune at that time.
Instead of this discouraging him, Ip Man went to his father to ask if he could use his life savings to learn from Chan. Surprised in his son’s interest, but pleased that he was so keen to learn, Ip Oi-doh allowed his son to take the money to Chan. On seeing the money, Chan was convinced that he had stolen it or worse, so he insisted that Ip Man bring his father to approve. On hearing from Ip Oi-doh that his new pupil had willingly offered his own money to learn, Chan accepted Ip Man as his 16th and final student. Sadly, barely three years after taking up the art, Ip Man’s teacher, Chan Wa-sun was dead, so the task of instructing him fell upon Chan’s second student, Ng Chung-so.
Around the time of Ip Man’s 15th year, another important milestone took place in his life. With the growing interest in western thinking and education, it was suggested that Ip Man travel to Hong Kong, then a British colonial outpost, to attain a western education. With the help of a relative, Leung Faat-ting, he went to Hong Kong and was enrolled to study at St Stephen’s College, a school famous for educating the children of wealthy Chinese and foreigners. Ip Man was a person who believed in justice and fairness, so he found certain aspects of life in Hong Kong quite confronting and developed strong feelings regarding how he saw the Chinese being treated there. Bullying by foreign students in the school met with swift justice in the form of Ip Man’s fists on more than one occasion and he soon gained a reputation as someone who could take care of himself very well.
On one occasion, whilst walking through the streets of Hong Kong with a friend on the way to school, Ip Man witnessed the brutal beating of a Chinese woman by an Indian police officer and went to the woman’s aid. The policeman, enraged by this, turned on Ip Man who was forced to defend himself, knocking the policeman to the ground with a rapid burst of wing chun skills. He managed to evade arrest, fleeing the scene with his friends, one of whom related the story to others and, according to a much disputed story, one of those who heard of the episode was Leung Bik, son of Ip Man’s own teacher’s teacher, the famed Leung Jaan. It is said that Leung Bik asked to meet the young man and in their discussions, revealed himself as Leung Jaan’s son after easily defeating Ip Man’s attempts to engage him in a challenge match. Subsequently, for the next few years until Leung Bik’s death in around 1912, Ip Man was trained in methods of wing chun that he had not previously learnt from his teacher or his seniors. In 1917, when he was 24 years old, Ip Man returned to Foshan and surprised his seniors by being able to effortlessly overcome their wing chun skills, something that had not happened previously.
However, there is much debate about this aspect of Ip Man’s training history, with many believing that this meeting never actually took place. For a start, there seems to be no way of proving that Leung Bik was even alive at this time, let alone in Hong Kong, and many of Ip Man’s own students had never heard anything of this story until the late 50s when a reporter for a prominent local martial arts magazine interviewed him for an article about wing chun history. Even my own teacher, the late Wong Shun Leung, one of Ip Man’s closest and most skilful students, stated that until that interview was conducted, he had never heard Ip Man speak of any of the history, including the story of Leung Bik, until that time.
Personally, based upon my understanding of Chinese culture and manners, particularly the concept of “face” which is terribly important to the Chinese since ancient times, I have tended to reach another possible explanation. In so much as the history of wing chun is concerned, we can only verify for absolute certainty that Leung Jaan existed, and that he was the teacher of Chan Wa-sun who was in turn the teacher of Ip Man. All history prior to that, based on research to date, is speculation and has not been proven. The majority of other Chinese martial arts can all boast of legends concerning the founding of their arts, with tales of monks and warlords, insects and animals, heroes and villains that led to the development of their systems. With wing chun being such an unknown and secretly practiced system up to the time of Ip Man (Leung Jaan is believed to have only had 3-5 private students, and Chan Wa-sun only 16 in his lifetime), perhaps there was no provable recorded story worth relating, so Ip Man, in an attempt to “save face” in front of his martial peers in Hong Kong, created a story that contained exciting elements to match those of his rival systems.
With the death of Leung Jaan, his student Chan Wa-sun had inherited his mantel as head of the style, with his two sons, Leung Bik and Leung Chun choosing to not challenge for the role. After that, very little seems to have been recorded about either of Leung Jaan’s sons, so we cannot say for sure where they lived out the rest of their lives and whether or not they taught students. If Leung Bik did indeed end up in Hong Kong, by the time he met Ip Man, if such a meeting did actually take place, he would have been a very old man, having been of a similar age to Chan Wa-sun who was already by that time deceased, hence Leung Bik would have been unlikely to be physically in a position to teach, let alone overcome the younger and stronger protégée of Chan Wa-sun and Ng Chung-so.
It is very clear that Ip Man was a wing chun genius, a man who trained hard and realistically to learn and master his skills. As such, we might speculate that it was through his own determined efforts, coupled with the “hands-on” experiences that he gained from combat in Hong Kong and elsewhere, that he returned to Foshan able to defeat his elder wing chun brothers. To “save face” with them, he may well have invented the story of Leung Bik to justify any changes or improvements he had made to his wing chun because his peers were more likely to accept that the skills of a “family senior” such as Leung Bik, a generation above them, were superior (and therefore acceptable) than a less dramatic explanation that Ip Man was simply better than them because he had trained hard and advanced his skills and understanding. Lending weight to this “genius” explanation is the fact that Ip Man seems to have repeated this process again after he arrived in Hong Kong in 1950, teaching a very different interpretation of wing chun to the one that he taught in Foshan, but more about that shortly.
After returning to Foshan, Ip Man began working as a police officer, deciding to put something back into the community. He became very well known for his integrity as an officer of the law, and found many occasions to put his wing chun skills to good use in the course of dealing with criminals. Eventually, after the Japanese were defeated and left China in 1945, Ip Man became Chief of Police in Foshan. In his private time, he continued to train and test his skills, cross-training with other martial artists such as Yuen Kei-saan, Yiu Choi, Lai Hip-chi, Tong Gai, and Ip Chung-hong, and teaching a handful of colleagues, friends and relatives, but never running an actual school of his own. It would seem that he had no desire to be an instructor or run a school, considering wing chun to be a passion, rather than a job. Even when approached to teach in Hong Kong later on, he did so very reluctantly and was not entirely comfortable in that role.
Of those whom he did teach in Foshan during those years, the names of only a very few have come down to us, with only two of them (as far is as known) continuing to teach in their own right, with students and now grand-students continuing that heritage. The two students concerned, Gwok Fu and Lun Gai, are the only students of that era still alive and both are currently teaching in Foshan today. Named as Ip Man’s most outstanding student of that period was Chau Gwong-yuk, son of Ip Man’s close friend, Chau Ching-chuen, owner of the ‘Luen Cheung Embroidery Factory’ portrayed in the first ‘Ip Man’ movie. Chau Ching-chuen was a successful business man and loyal friend of Ip Man, supporting him financially during the war years when Ip Man had fallen upon hard times.
It was at the cotton mill where Ip Man conducted classes after dark for these people during the Japanese Occupation period. It is reported that he did not charge fees for these lessons, instead promising to offer the classes free of charge for a period of approximately one year so long as the students trained regularly and with a determined effort to improve. Chau Gwong-yuk eventually followed a career into business, never taking any students of his own and both Chan Chi-sun (who tragically died quite young) and Lui Ying, two of the other students from this period, also appear to have not taught others. As an indication of his humility, Ip Man refused to be called ‘Sifu’ (“master”) by his trainees, insisting on them calling him simply ‘Man Suk’ (“Uncle Man”).
Prior to the Japanese Occupation, Ip Man had lived a very comfortable life, having come from a reasonably wealthy family himself, as well as marrying into a very influential and even wealthier family. His wife, Jeung Wing-sing was the daughter of a local and very powerful magistrate, so together they made a very successful union, producing four children in the process: two sons, Ip Hok-jun (Ip Chun) and Ip Hok-jing (Ip Ching), and two daughters, Ip A-sam and Ip A-woon. Once the Japanese arrived in Foshan, everything changed dramatically with the confiscation of the family property and the loss of most of their possessions and wealth. On more than a few occasions, the Japanese army approached Ip Man to instruct their troops, having heard of his martial prowess, but on each and every occasion, Ip Man declined to take up the post, believing that to do so would be a betrayal of his own people.
In 1914, Ip Man had already experienced an unfortunate incident involving the Japanese, so he was not at all endeared to them and felt no compulsion to offer them his services. According to an account written by one of his sons many years ago for a Hong Kong publication now out of print, Ip Man had been sent to Kobe in Japan to assist his elder brother in a business venture, as well as to further his education. Before any such plans could eventuate, it seems that Ip Man’s sense of justice once again got him into trouble, with an incident involving firstly several dock workers whom he defeated in a fight, followed up soon after by a fight with a Japanese officer of the law who sought retribution for the dock workers. This series of events saw him deported back to Hong Kong within weeks of leaving the place, cutting short any of the plans that had been made. Who knows what might have happened had he stayed in Japan, but as it turned out, it was China that was to shape his future.
Once the Japanese Occupation was over, Ip Man was able to return to his job as a police officer, eventually becoming Chief of Police and serving his community with distinction. This became a particularly busy time for Ip Man, so much so that he was forced to give up his wing chun training for a time so as to concentrate on work and family. Despite this, he still managed to find time to coach Pang Nam on the wing chun forms on the request of a good friend, Tong Gai and the sincerity of Pang Nam’s desire to learn. Pang Nam, who had training in other martial disciplines, eventually went on to teach his own version of the system and has left a unique legacy of his own, with students both in and outside of China.
However, with one threat gone, it wasn’t long before another appeared, this time in the form of the Civil War between the Nationalist Government of Jiang Kai-shek and the Communist forces of Mao Zedong. Having served briefly as an instructor to soldiers in the Nationalist Army, as well as being a policeman during their period of rule, not to mention being the son of a wealthy upper class landowner, Ip Man became an obvious target of retribution by the Communists once they took power, so he was forced to leave China to avoid arrest and possibly worse. It has been rumoured that a member of his own family, themselves an enthusiastic supporter of the Communist Party, was about to turn him in to the authorities, so Ip Man had to flee on short notice, leaving his wife and children behind in Foshan. He would not see his sons again until some 13 to 14 years later when they too reached Hong Kong.
After a brief stay in Macau, Ip Man eventually made his way to Hong Kong where he ended up working at the ‘Restaurant Workers Association’ in Kowloon. It wasn’t long before it was discovered that he had skills far more valuable than dishwashing and cleaning, so with the introduction of a friend, Lee Man, the 56 year old Ip Man began his first formal wing chun class in the Crown Colony, marking the beginning of the most remarkable period in the history of the art. Up until that time, taking into account all that we know about the history of wing chun, there had probably only been about two dozen exponents of the system in 150 or so years. With the commencement of this class, Ip Man was about to open a new chapter in the art, exposing it to the wider public and creating the foundation of an amazing legacy that now sees in excess of 3 million practitioners of wing chun around the world, all in the space of just two generations.
With his family still back in China and desperately needing funds, not to mention an opium habit that he had acquired as a young man that also required money, Ip Man needed to generate a regular source of income, but times were tough in Hong Kong, meaning that fees were quite low and the numbers of trainees who could afford to learn also low. His very first student was Leung Sheung, a former practitioner of bak mei or “white eyebrow” style, and he was joined by Chu Shong-tin, Lok Yiu, Ip Bo-ching, Jiu Wan, Law Bing and several others in that first group of students between 1950 and 1953. Of course, it must be mentioned that Ip Man made good use of his skills on a number of occasions whilst living in Hong Kong during this period in his life, adding further to his reputation as a great fighter and exponent of the art of wing chun.
After losing his fortune in China, Ip Man never again owned property in his life and was forced to live in relatively cheap rental accommodation in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong of the 50s was not the modern city of today, but a squalid place housing refugees from China in sometimes atrocious conditions. There was massive unemployment, low wages and a lack of many of the normal comforts of life. Street crime was rife and triad gangs were active everywhere whilst a particularly corrupt police force dispensed very poor service to the public. There was little running water and many people were forced to line up for hours in queues each day to fill containers at various points around the colony. One such point near where Ip Man was living had been taken over by a local triad gang who were charging outrageous amounts of money to obtain water. Ip Man was approached by neighbours to intervene, whereby he ended up fighting and defeating several street thugs and reclaiming the well for everyone. Legend has it that after this episode, two big buckets of water were placed on Ip Man’s doorstep every morning by the gang members by way of apologising and attempting to avoid further trouble from Ip Man.
In 1954, two very important names joined the class, the first of these being Wong Shun Leung and not long afterwards, Wang Kiu. Coming from a boxing background and with a passionate desire to test himself, Wong Shun Leung had come to Ip Man’s school to fight and initially defeated two of Ip Man’s students before being himself shut down with relative ease by Ip Man and then again by Ip Bo-ching. Convinced of wing chun’s potential as a practical combat system, Wong joined the school and within six months had developed a reputation that attracted the attention of Wang Kiu who at that time was practising the ‘Preying Mantis’ style. He challenged Wong in a ‘beimo’ or “martial comparison” and was beaten by him very quickly. Not satisfied with that, Wang Kiu then arranged for others from his clan to fight and they too were beaten by Wong Shun Leung, resulting in Wang Kiu then arranging fights with practitioners of other systems just to see how good both Wong and wing chun really were. In the end, Wang Kiu had to accept the effectiveness of the system and he too started training under Ip Man and representing the art.
The exploits of Wong Shun Leung and others in the school started attracting the attention of the public in Hong Kong, and Wong Shun Leung was so successful in his challenge fights that he was nicknamed ‘Gong Sau Wong’ or the “King of Hand-talking” and newspapers started to report on his fights and those of his peers, raising the profile of Ip Man and his school. Eventually, the numbers of students coming to learn from Ip Man began to grow and by 1956 a very famous name, that of the young Bruce Lee, went on to the class list of the Ip Man school. Ip Man and Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, had been friends in Foshan, so when Bruce came to the school, Ip Man was pleased to accept him as a student. Unfortunately, not everyone else at the school felt the same way towards Lee.
Being a child star in Hong Kong movies and, as a result, being quite well-off, some developed a real dislike for Bruce Lee, considering him arrogant and cocky. It was discovered that his mother had German blood and this led to a number of the students insisting that Lee be expelled from the class, such was the stigma that was still at that time attached to sharing anything of Chinese culture with the gwailo or “foreign devils.” Not wanting to insult Lee’s father but at the same time not wanting to lose many of his students as they were his much needed source of income, Ip Man approached Wong Shun Leung who was Lee’s senior in age by some six years, asking him to teach Lee privately at his home rather than having him stop training entirely. Wong accepted this request, becoming Bruce Lee’s mentor and training partner for the next 18 months prior to Lee’s departure for the USA, leaving an indelible impression on him that would shape Lee’s future development as a martial artist.
During this period, Ip Man was constantly revising his views on how the system could be taught, trained and applied. The challenge fights involving Wong Shun Leung and several of his wing chun brothers provided a testing ground whereby the effectiveness of the art could be examined and modified. Ip Man actively encouraged these matches and was very proud of his students. By then he was in his sixties and not doing much fighting of his own anymore, but through the exploits of his students, he was able to revel in the victories and further develop the art. He was often making changes to forms or drills based upon what had been learnt in “battle”, resulting in students of different periods having sometimes quite distinctly different actions or ideas. It has long been said that Ip Man had no time for students that showed no real aptitude, tending to devote his personal time to very few of the students, offering information spasmodically and not being willing to repeat the message if you had not understood it the first time. But his genius was evident in the way that he would advise his more favoured students, and a small handful of them reached an incredible standard as a result.
In order to overcome his use of opium, Ip Man had taken up smoking to a very serious degree, going through several packets of ‘Camel’ non-filtered cigarettes every day. It is a habit that seems to have rubbed off on at least a few of his students as well. Needless to say, it was this practice that probably led to his developing the throat cancer that was to eventually take his life on December 1st, 1972. On that day, the world lost one of the greatest martial artists that ever lived. An innovator and martial genius, Ip Man has left us with an incredible fighting system that is based upon science, logic and structure. He radically changed and improved upon the wing chun system that he was first exposed to, making it more accessible and more practical for the modern world. It is right that we now recognise his contribution to martial arts and appreciate what he has left to us, not only directly via his own skills, but also in the way that he has influenced so many such as Leung Sheung, Wong Shun Leung, Wang Kiu, Chu Shong-tin, Lok Yiu, Ho Kam-ming, Cheung Chuk-hing, Hawkins Cheung, Lee Shing, Moy Yat, Chow Tze-chuen and the many, many other now famous names in wing chun who have passed on this knowledge to 1000s of their own students all over the globe.
Without Ip Man and the mentorship of his much-loved student, Wong Shun Leung, there may not have been Bruce Lee and his legacy of jeet kune do that has so influenced the martial arts world. Ip Man truly was the ‘Master of a Generation’ and left us with an amazingly effective combat system that is concept-based rather than technique-based, and meets the needs of the modern world. Whilst he may not have been quite the legendary martial hero that has been portrayed on film of late, Ip Man has become a modern day folk hero to the Chinese and his life is celebrated with the ‘Ip Man Tong’ (Ip Man Museum) in Foshan. His integrity and humility is a fine example for us all to aspire to in our own lives. He never claimed to be anyone special, nor did he proclaim himself to be better than his peers. We can all only hope that we might achieve such a level of skill and respect for humanity as he did. I consider myself very lucky to be able to call him ‘Sigung’ (martial grandfather) and am proud to be a able to share in his amazing legacy.
Editors note: This article was originally published in two parts in 'Martial Arts Masters' magazine, Summer & Fall 2011 issues, and in Wing Chun Illustrated magazine, Issues 1 & 2 (2011)