Ip Man - the Man who Taught Bruce Lee Kung Fu
Author: Daniel Land
Ip Man was the second son of a wealthy and influential family. His early years were set against a backdrop of civil unrest and conflict. A bloody conflict with Japan was lost and China was forced to cede territory and money to Japan A coup d'etat followed three years later and for the following few years the country was thrown in to further turmoil by the "Boxer rebellion" (a bloody uprising of martial artists against foreign influence in China). By the time he was 12 the uprising had long since been quelled and the remaining martial artists who hadn't been put to death were maintaining a very low profile.
It was at this time that Ip Man started to take an interest in Wing Chun, after watching classes run in the Ip family clan hall by Chun Wa Shun. Although Ip Man was only able to train for three years before Chan passed away. At 15 Ip Man moved to Hong Kong to attend high school. Ip Man described himself as an arrogant youngster quick to get into fights. After a fight with a policeman he found beating a Chinese woman, during which he impressed those around by dispatching the much larger and older man armed with a baton, he came to the attention of Leung Bik a student of Chun Wa Shun's own teacher.
Their first meeting went very badly. He was unaware of why he had been summoned to meet Leung Bik, but turned up as requested, as the tradition in those days was that young people were expected to respect the wishes of their elders. Leung Bik asked Ip Man to demonstrate his Wing Chun, which Ip Man was initially happy to do and then pointed out a number of deficiencies in his skills. Ip Man was enraged and when he was finally asked to practice Chi Sau (a form of sparring used in Wing Chun training) thinking that he now had an opportunity to teach the old man a lesson, Ip Man immediately threw a punch which was blocked, with Ip Man thrown effortlessly to one side, two more attempts both left Ip Man lying on the floor wondering what had just happened. Ip Man was furious and stormed out, it was only the next day when he had calmed down and asked who Leung Bik was that he realised that he had a lot to learn from this man. He went back to see Leung Bik, apologised and asked him to take him on as a student. For the next four years, until his death, Ip Man refined his Wing Chun skills under Leung Bik's guidance.
In 1912 Ip Man returned to Foshan, being from a priveleged and wealthy background he didn't need to work and was able to devote the next few years to refining his Wing Chun skills and passing them on to others. Challenge matches between kung fu schools were an everyday reality of Chinese Martial Arts culture and Ip Man quickly acquired a reputation that made him the target for many of these challenges. He was however, able to despatch all his challengers. One of these more famous encounters involved a master of Praying Mantis, who, when laying down the challenge smashed his fist through a brick wall. The fight was held on a stage and watched excitedly by the whole town expecting an evenings entertainment, their evening was cut short as Ip Man managed to finish the fight within a few seconds of it starting by throwing his opponent off the stage and breaking three of his ribs in the process.
In 1937 following the invasion of China by the Japanese Empire, Ip Man's fortunes changed radically. The family wealth was confiscated and Ip Man was obliged to find a job to support himself. As a result of his reputation not only for martial skills, but for his honour and honesty, Ip Man was offered the job of police chief for Foshan. He carried out this job dilligently using much of his spare time to teach wing chun, until the communists took power in China in 1949. He joined the exodus of nearly a million Chinese to Hong Kong, to escape the forced reformation of Chinese culture.
Ip Man spent the rest of his life teaching in Hong Kong. He arrived in Hong Kong without a penny to his name, so to support himself ran a school on behalf of the Hong Kong Restaurant Workers Association. At that time Wing Chun was an obscure style of kung fu practiced by a minority. However as his school grew and his pupils took part in and usually won the many illegal rooftop fighting competitions of the day, Ip Man's reputation grew across the island, and students flocked to his school. He never advertised , feeling that this would not give him the option of turning away potential students that he thought would be unsuitable, but as a result of the fighting prowess of his students he was never short of people who wanted to train with him.
Ip Man made a point of teaching Wing Chun to each student in a way that was adapted to their personality, profession, education and body build. One example that he gave was when he taught a professional hairdresser, because of her job she found it very difficult to keep he elbows in, spending her entire working life with her elbows pushed out. So rather than try to correct this, he taught her techniques to compensate for this poor elbow position.
It was this constant adaptation and variation in teaching that led to many disputes following his death about the "correct" way to perform particular techniques. In one case one of his students claimed that he was the only person Ip Man had ever taught the "true wing chun" to. Not surprisingly most of these squables and grandiosed claims came after Ip Man's so that he couldnt' refute them.
It was during this period in the fifties and sixties that Ip Man trained some of his most famous students. Amongst these was the young child actor and son of an opera star Bruce Junfan Lee. Bruce aged twelve had been beaten up by a local gang and wanted to learn how to defend himself. Initially Ip Man was reluctant to take the young boy on, and only agreed as a result of his persistance, a character trait that he was legendary for having in abundance. Bruce Lee studied with Ip Man for two years before moving back to his country of birth the united states only having learned a small part of the Wing Chun system. As there was nobody in the US qualified to further his training he took an interest in Karate and taekwondo to supplement his trainning. Eventually he merged all these systems into his own hybrid system called Jeet Kune Do.
The story of Bruce Lee's rise to stardom is well known, within a few years of making his first martial arts film, he had become a household name in the West. The fact that Lee had learned Kung Fu from Ip Man created a demand for Ip Man's students to teach wherever they went. As a result schools quickly sprang up across Europe and the United States.
As is the tradition in Chinese Martial Arts schools senior students (Si Hing's) are expected to take an active role in teaching their younger "kung fu brothers" (Si Dais). The temptation to distort this to a claim that they had taught kung fu to Bruce Lee and gain a lot of kudos with his army of fans, proved too much for many of Ip Man's students. Hence today there are many conflicting claims about who Bruce Lee's instructor was, although non dispute the fact that he studied under Ip Man during his time in Hong Kong. This more than any other disagreement has been a significant factor in the many splits and political divisions that have occurred between the schools of the Ip Man lineage.
Ip Man died of throat cancer in 1972, almost certainly as a result of the 20 camel cigarretes a day that he famously smoked, sometimes whilst stood at the side of his classes watching his students train. Ip Man's two sons maintain the family tradition to this day and head up his "Hong Kong Ving Tsun Association" with satellite schools in every country in the world, maintaining Ip Man's no-nonsense approach to teaching a fighting system based on simplicity, speed and efficiency.
Daniel Land is a student of Wing Chun Kung Fu and an editor of the Martial Arts Open Directory. http://www.martialartsopendirectory.org
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