Best known in the West for his role as the mentor and friend of Bruce Lee, the legendary Ip Man established himself as one of the most prominent masters of Wing Chun ― a concept-based martial art that originated in South China as a self-defense style based on traditional Chinese Kung Fu.
Ip Man, or Yip Man, which would be the more precise transcription of his name in Chinese, was born in 1893, as a son of a well-off family in the province of Guangdong, in Southern China, and started his training in 1906, at the age of 12.
Although he was given the chance to train under Chan Wah-shun, who was considered an absolute authority on Wing Chun technique, due to the master’s old age and health issues, Ip Man received only three years of tuition from him.
He would continue under Chan’s second eldest disciple, who would reveal to him the advanced secrets of this elaborate method of hand-to-hand combat. He excelled, making a string of victories among his peers. In 1910, he moved to Hong Kong to attend St. Stephen’s College, where he received a high quality education reserved for children from wealthy families and foreigners living in China. This is where he would meet an opponent who would change his life forever.
After learning that a certain Kung Fu master was living with his schoolmate’s family, he became interested in sparring with him. At the time, Ip Man boasted about the fact that he had never met a sparring partner who could defeat him.
Young, self-assured and eager to meet his match, Ip Man attended a dinner with the mysterious master after which he challenged him to a duel in the most gentlemanly fashion. However, what young Ip Man didn’t expect was that he would be overtaken so easily ― within a matter of seconds, he was on the ground and defeated. Believing it was a fluke, he immediately asked for a rematch, only to lose once again, just as fast.
Broken by the feeling that the years of training had gone to waste in the face of this secretive foe, the young fighter stormed out of the house with a sense of utmost disgrace. To his great surprise, the Kung Fu master went looking for Ip Man after a while, with a wish to train him, as he recognized great potential in the young man who challenged him.
The master’s name was Leung Bik, and he was actually the son of the master who Chan Wah-shun, from whom Ip Man received his first lessons in Wing Chun during his childhood. By 1917, Ip was already teaching Wing Chun in his hometown of Foshan, while working as a police officer. Here he married and founded a family soon after.
His reputation slowly grew, as his students went on to achieve success in various duels and sparring matches over the years, therefore enabling him to return to Hong Kong and start a Wing Chun school there in the 1950s. While his wife and son stayed behind in Foshan, in what was by that point the People’s Republic of China, Ip Man continued his life in Hong Kong, which was still under the protectorate of Great Britain.
During his second period in Honk Kong, Ip Man met with his most famous pupil ― one that would change the face of Hollywood forever, introducing Asian martial arts to the big screen.
Lee Jun-fan, better known by his moniker Bruce Lee, attended the classes of Ip Man between late 1956 and 1957, during which period of time he mastered the craft of Wing Chun. It was here that Lee practiced skills such as wooden dummy techniques, free-sparring, and “sticking hands” drills, known as “chi sao”.
He would continue to pursue a career in the film industry, while Ip Man became one of the most praised teachers in China. Although Lee is often cited as his most important student, there were many others such as Kwok Fu and Lun Gai who continued the traditional way of Wing Chun and held a number of high-achieving disciples.
As for Ip, he developed a habit of consuming opium over time, which affected both his health as well as his finances. Allegedly, at one point all of the money he earned from tuition was spent to feed his drug addiction.
He passed away in 1972, after suffering from throat cancer. Bruce Lee died just seven months after, leaving behind a legacy that led directly towards the teachings of his great master. Ip Man is today revered as one of the most influential figures in Kung Fu and is present in popular culture through movies and manifestations which are held in his name.