Yip Man (葉問)

The Student

Our story begins in the late 19th Century in the city of Fut San, Canton Province, Southern China. A famous Wing Chun instructor, Master Chan Wah Shun, was teaching a small, exclusive group of students. In fact, his tuition was so high, a few ounces of silver, a tremendous cost at the time that Wing Chun Kuen had become “the rich man’s kung fu”.

The Master’s school was located in a compound owned by a rich family. A seven-year-old child from this family, Jee Man (later known as Yip Man), watched the classes with a burning desire to learn. The boy kept pestering Chan Wah Shun to learn, but he did not take it seriously. In addition to the tuition, the Master required a level of seriousness from his students that he never expected a young child to have.

Yip Man went to his family and begged them for silver to pay Chan Wah Shun to teach him. They finally gave into the pleas after they saw how desperately he wanted to learn Wing Chun. Then the boy approached Chan Wah Shun with several taels of silver (a huge sum of money at that time), and asked the master to take him as a student. At first, Chan Wah Shun felt that Yip Man had somehow stolen the silver as he believed it was not possible for such a young child to obtain such a great amount. He took the young boy and went to Yip Man’s home and confronted his parents only to find that it was true – he obtained the silver with permission. Chan Wah Shun, already an old man, had not planned to accept any more students, but he was so impressed with the young boy’s passion that he opened his door to Yip Man, the last disciple he would ever accept.

Master Chan developed such a liking for Yip Man that he became his favorite student. Yip’s elder kung fu brothers, including Ng Chung So, Lu Yu Ji and Chan Yu Min, were also completely won over by the boy and all looked after him. Six years later, as he was near death, the old Master ordered Ng Chung So to continue teaching Wing Chun to Yip Man. Yip learned from Ng Chung So for three more years.

At the age of sixteen, Yip Man traveled to Hong Kong to study English at St. Steven’s College. There he was introduced to Leung Bik, second son of Chan Wah Shun’s teacher, Leung Jan. Yip Man studied under Leung Bik for three more years, fully mastering the art of Wing Chun.

One day, Master Yip Man attended an annual parade in Fut San with a female cousin. A military officer was attracted to her, and saw that her companion, wearing delicate, traditional Chinese clothing, looked more like a gentleman than a fighter. Emboldened, he made rude advances to her. Yip Man, unable to tolerate this behavior, used the Wing Chun simultaneous attack and defense techniques, knocking the officer to the ground. The officer drew his revolver, but before he could shoot, Yip grabbed the barrel and used the strength of his thumb to force open the cylinder, thus rendering it useless.

The Teacher

For a number of years, Yip Man worked as a police investigator. He continued to hone his skills and was known as a formidable fighter. However, he did not teach martial arts until, after the Nationalist government fell; he moved to Hong Kong and established a Wing Chun school. His student base grew as the school moved around several time. Among his students in the 1950’s were Chan Shing (Chris Chan) and the late Bruce Lee.

Even at seventy, Yip Man had the strength of a young man. One night, as he was taking a walk, two young hoods with knives tried to rob him. He used the Pak Sao technique to knock one hood’s knife up and out of harm’s way, while simultaneously kicking him backwards. Then he kicked the other youth before he had time to figure out what to do.

Yip Man was an innovator who varied his method of instruction according to the knowledge, talents, habits and interests of the individual student. He was also very selective of his students, as was his original Master, Chan Wah Shun. This is illustrated by one of Master Yip’s famous quotes: “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.”

It is impossible in a short treatise to encapsulate Grandmaster Yip Man’s contribution to Wing Chun. However, some basic principles can be observed. He remained true to the underlying tenet of traditional Wing Chun: that the art should remain direct, practical and simple, without fancy embellishment designed more to impress than to serve as an effective fighting technique. Without Grandmaster Yip Man, the Wing Chun system would most probably still be a very secret art taught only to a few, trusted individuals.

Written by: Joe Vaughan
Edited by: Sifu Ken Chun and Sifu Tito Pedruco