Ip Man, Wing Chun Grandmaster & Bruce Lee’s Mentor


Sahasra Ponnuswamy

Bruce Lee was a martial artist recognized for his acting and skills in the kung-fu style of Wing Chun Kuen also known as Wing Chun or Ving Tsun. Before the 32-year-old’s tragic death in 1973, he had starred in 5 completed movies and popularized the ancient form of Wing Chun. The legend we know as Bruce Lee wasn’t self-made. Bruce Lee’s grandmaster Ip Man also known as Yip Man is a master in Wing Chun. Yip Man can be considered the man who made Bruce Lee a legend.

Ip Kai Man was born on Oct 1st, 1893 in the city of Foshan in China’s Guangdong province. He was the third out of four children and was raised by wealthy parents. A traditional Chinese education was given to Ip man, his eldest sister Ip wan mei, his older brother Ip kai gak, and his youngest sibling Ip wan hum Instilling the disciplines and self-sufficiency of Wing Chun were of utmost importance for Ip man’s parents Ip Oi-dor and Ng Shui As they were living in southern China, they resided in the birthplace of the art which was developed more than 300 years ago.

When Chan Wah Shun gave Ip Man his first lesson, he was either nine or thirteen depending on the source. Chan was a disciple of grandmaster Leung Jan and had only recently begun to teach his pupils. He overcharged Ip Man in hopes he would leave, but Ip Man only left to gain a better education. By the year 1909, Ip Man was attending St. Stephen’s College in Hong Kong. This high school schools China’s elite and wealthy. This is where Ip Man met Leung Bik, a kung-fu prodigy unbeknownst to Ip Man. Being undefeated and an overconfident teenager, Ip Man challenged Bik to a fight. After getting beaten by Bik twice in a row, the feeling of defeat compelled Ip Man to take a vow to never speak of kung fu again. Unlike Ip Man, Leung Bik was impressed by Ip Man’s skill and revealed to him his true identity. He was the son of Leung Jan, the man who trained Ip man’s old master. Reignited, Bik taught Ip Man until 1916. After a 24-year-old he moved back to China to work as a police officer, and also gave private Wing Chun lessons. He soon met his wife Cheung Wing-sing and had 4 children. As the communist party took over in 1949, he was courageously defending China in the Second Sino -Japanese and soon had to leave the mainland.

His unplanned departure to British Hong Kong meant deserting his family and leaving his assets back in Foshan. He was very grateful for the shelter given to him by the Restaurant Workers’ Union Hall. According to legend, he couldn’t hold back giggles when watching master Leung Sheung teaching his students kung-fu. Enraged at the disrespect being shown to him, he challenged Ip Man to a fight, not knowing who he really was. The stranger easily won the fight and gave some advice to the master.  After that day in 1952, Ip Man became the figurehead of the martial arts school. As written in allthatsiinteresting.com, “ According to another one of his first students, William Cheung, Yip Man was a kind teacher.’Yip Man had a very good sense of humor,’ said Cheung. ‘He liked to give his students nicknames and he would take a long time to dream them up. Like Wong Shun Leung was called ‘Wong Ching Leung,’ which means that he’s like a bull. I was called ‘Big Husky Boy.’ And Bruce was nicknamed ‘Upstart.’” He met Bruce Lee in Kowloon, Hong Kong

The 16-year-old Lee had just come after losing a fight with gang member rivals and wanting to refine his skills. Ip Man and his pupil Bruce Lee both shared a love for practical jokes. These pranks included covering fists with itching powder before sparring and playing with gullible students by shaking hands with hand vibrators. Lee soon became Ip Man’s most proficient. He fondly remembered his lessons in an interview in 1961. He said “‘My instructor, Professor Yip Man, head of the Wing Chun school, would come up to me and say: ‘Relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow your opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the countermovement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’”

Ip Man’s life quickly spiraled. While his professional life was thriving, his personal life was broken into bits and pieces. His first wife Cheung Wing Sing died alone in 1960, as she couldn’t come to Hong Kong due to closed borders. He remarried after that, only for his second wife to die due to cancer in 1968. He became an opium addict and was soon evicted from his home, which also served as his school. His student Bruce Lee’s fame helped Ip Man gain more clients and found the Wing Chun Athletic Association gym in 1967. Before he could put his newly acquired assets to use, he died of laryngeal cancer on December 2, 1972. This happened just a mere seven months before Bruce Lee’s death caused by a fatal reaction to medication.

Ip Man’s life was a heroic Chinese journey with many twists and turns along the way. From a young boy learning Wing Chun to a police officer and refugee, and ultimately to a Kung-fu master