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How Yip Man, Bruce Lee’s mentor, rose to the rank of martial arts master

Ian Harvey

Yip Man, aka Ip Man, was the instructor for some of the most respected names in martial arts.  Among others, Bruce Lee and Wong Shun Leung were his students.

Raised in an affluent family in the Foshan area of Guangdong, China, he and his three siblings were educated in traditional Chinese ways. At the age of seven, Yip Man began his training in martial arts with Chan Wah-sun, an authority of the Wing Chun discipline of martial arts. Chan was in his sixties when Yip Man came to him to begin his education. Yip received much of his instruction from Wu Chung-sok, the second eldest disciple of Chan Wah-sun. Sadly, Chan would only live another three years after Yip formally began training under Wu Chung-sok. Chan’s last wish was that his disciples continue teaching Yip the most difficult aspects of Wing Chun.

Yip Man
Yip Man

Yip continued training for some time but decided to relocate to Hong Kong with a relative, Leung Fut-Ting. A year later, he entered  St. Stephen’s College, a secondary school, typically attended by children of wealthy families and foreigners who had come to Hong Kong to live and do business. Yip’s first use of Wing Chun was as a student when he intervened to help a poor, elderly woman who was being attacked by a foreign police officer. Yip challenged the officer and succeeded in subduing him.

One of Yip’s friends told the story of what had happened to an elderly neighbor who asked to meet Yip. When Yip arrived, the man asked him about his martial arts skills; when Yip demonstrated for him, he used Wing Chun. The man remarked that chi sao would have been a better approach and challenged Yip to a contest. Yip was immediately defeated, only to find that his competitor was Leung Bik, the son of Chan’s teacher, Leung Jan.

Yip continued his training with Leung for several years until, at the age of twenty-four, he moved back to Foshan and joined the police force. He began teaching Wing Chun to a few friends and family members but not on a full-time basis. Soon, two of his better students, Lun Kah and Kwok Fu, went on to teach Wing Chun in the Guangdong region to keep the tradition alive.

After the Chinese Civil War, Yip returned to Hong Kong and opened a martial arts school. He was highly respected by his peers but had acquired the reputation of a teacher whose students left within a month or two of starting the course. Because of this, Yip was not satisfied with his teaching techniques and looked for ways to improve to keep students in the school. He moved twice – first to Sham Shui Po’s Castle Peak Road and then to Yau Ma Tei, where he opened a school on Lee Tat Street.

Yip’s alumni were teaching in numerous institutions around the city, starting a new era for Yip’s popularity as a respected martial arts teacher. His students matched their skills by putting on displays of friendly bouts, contributing to Yip’s celebrity.

In 1967, Yip’s students convinced Yip to establish Wing Chun Athletic Association in Hong Kong. Life was difficult for Yip in Hong Kong. His suspected opium addiction contributed to the decline in his business and his health. Yip’s former student, Duncan Leung, claimed that Yip would use most of the tuition money he collected to support his addiction.

Ip Man and Bruce Lee.
Ip Man and Bruce Lee.

Yip’s many notable students include Ho Kam Ming, Leung Sheung, Lok Yiu, Chu Shong-tin, Wong Shun Leung, and Bruce Lee.

Read another story from us: Bartitsu: an eclectic martial art and self-defence method originally developed in England during the years 1898-1902

Yip succumbed to throat cancer on December 2, 1972, in Hong Kong. He was responsible for the now global practice of Wing Chun, not only in practice but in writing as well – his written history is now stored at the museum that bears his name in the Foshan Ancestral Temple grounds. At least ten movies have been made about Yip’s life, and even more references to him are found in books and magazines.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News