In Search of the Real Ip Man
After watching, Ip Man, the trilogy of movies directed by Wilson Yip, one cannot help but by captivated by the martial arts legend (played by Donnie Yen). In the movies, which are loosely based on the life of Yip Kai-man (known as Ip Man or Yip Man), he is a humble master of Wing Chun. He is not only impressive for his unparalleled skills, but for his deep convictions.
The first movie in the trilogy was released in 2008 (and is by far the best) and the final installment in 2015. In an era when martial arts movies have gone way over the top with special effects, these movies are refreshingly different, getting back to what made martial arts films so iconic across the globe. The surge in fanfare for martial arts flicks was certainly due to the popularity of Ip Man’s most famous student, Bruce Lee.
Ip the Man and Ip Man the Legend
In the movies, Ip Man does unfathomable feats such as destroying throngs of men who are attacking him armed with staffs, swords, hatchets, chains and other weapons of destruction. The ante is forever upped as Ip Man continues to astound. But who was the man behind the legend portrayed in the Ip Man films?
Ip Man was known as the “Master of Wing Chun” because he was not only the forms greatest teacher, popularizing it worldwide, but he was widely considered by his students, including the legend Bruce Lee, as the greatest practitioner. But what is Wing Chun?
Wing Chun is said to have been started by Yim Wing-Chun, whose name is often poetically translated as “eternal spring.” Yim Wing-Chun made her living selling tofu. She was said to have been a woman of great beauty and was forced to become a martial artist to ward off unwanted advances. There was a local bully who was trying to force her to marry him at the tender age of 15. As the legend goes, she sought the aid of Ng Mui, an abbess at the Shaolin Buddhist Temple, who was forced to flee during its destruction by the Qing Government (1644-192) sometime in the early 1700s. Ng Mui was one of the Five Elders of Shaolin. Forced to leave the Shaolin temple, these five monks are credited with spreading the celebrated Shaolin Kung Fu throughout China.
Ng Mui taught Yim Wing-Chun an easy to learn, modified version of Shaolin Kung Fu, which would not require great strength. With this training, Yim fended off the advances of the local bully and fell in love with martial arts. She later married a salt merchant named Leung Bok-chau, who became her finest pupil and he named the martial art “Wing Chun Kuen” (meaning Wing-Chun’s Fist). But it was eventually known simply as Wing Chun. It was passed on through several generations of male practitioners before Chan Wah-shun taught it to Ip Man.
Ip Man’s Story
Ip Man grew up in Foshan (sometimes Anglicized as Fatshun), a city located in central Guangdong province. He was born in 1893, at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He began studying martial arts under Chan Wah-shun at the age of seven. Ip Man was to be his final student, studying with him for three years. The master saw great potential in Ip Man and one of his dying wishes was for his finest student Ng Chung-sok to take Ip Man under his wing and teach him everything he could about Wing Chun.
At the age of 15, Ip Man left Foshan to spend time with relatives in Hong Kong. While in Hong Kong, Ip Man found Leung Bik who was an elder pupil of his master. Leung Bik decided to take Ip Man on as a student. Ip Man’s training in Hong Kong greatly improved his technique and he returned to his home of Foshan, at the age of 24, a far improved martial artist. He became a police officer.
He went through very lean times during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Then, when the Chinese communist party took power in 1949, Ip was driven from his home to Hong Kong. With little money, he was forced to open a school teaching Wing Chun to support his family.
Ip Man was very selective in who he would take on as a student. As his son would often hear him say: “no doubt it is difficult for a disciple to select a teacher, but it is even more difficult for a teacher to select a disciple.” Bruce Lee may have been the best known, but he had many talented students.
Follow in the Footsteps of Ip Man
Ip Man, more than any other master, is credited with spreading Wing Chun. He became a legend in Hong Kong as well as in his native Foshan. For those who want to make the life of Ip Man a part of their itinerary, both Foshan and Hong Kong are important stops.
Foshan is known for its martial arts and Ip Man has legendary status in his hometown. You can visit the “Yip Man Tong,” which can be found at Foshan Ancestral Temple where there is a wide array of memorabilia from his extraordinary life.
Hong Kong is worth a visit whether or not you are a fan of martial arts. The bustling city is often ranked in the top 20 cities to visit in the world. It is a place of enchantment with phenomenal food. But if you are interested in Wing Chun and specifically the story of Ip Man’s life, then it is a must. For those who are looking to learn Wing Chun from the finest instructors, there is no better place than Hong Kong.
Two of Ip Man’s sons, along with other high-ranking students of his are teaching Wing Chun in Hong Kong. In 1967 Ip Man founded the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association (VTAA) with the help of a few of his best students. The VTAA is still a vibrant home for martial arts education and should be a focal point for anyone hoping to learn more about the legend. His sons teach there and for a reasonable fee (they charge by the month), you can learn from the best.
The final piece in the Ip Man tour of Hong Kong is visiting his grave. His final resting place is in Fan Ling, which is fairly easy to reach by public transformation. Those looking show him respect, are encouraged to purchase incense and properly place it on the tomb.
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He has written for The Permaculture Research Institute and Uisio among other prominent outlets.
He is the author of Death: An Exploration (2016). For more visit his official website: www.lorenmayshark.com