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Yip Man, or Ip Man, was a martial arts master best known for teaching the Wing Chun form. Kung Fu master and icon Bruce Lee was one of his students. Yip Man was a martial arts master and teacher, best known for making the practice and instruction of Wing Chun popular. Brought up in an affluent family, he was very intelligent and because of his family’s wealthy status, well-educated. He spent his early life as a police officer, teaching Wing Chun privately. As the Chinese Communist Party came to power in the mid-1900s, political turmoil upended his life and career as a police officer, forcing him to move to Hong Kong to escape prosecution. He turned to the art of Wing Chun to create a new life for himself. Opening the first public school of Wing Chun – the business grew slowly and was difficult to maintain until a young Bruce Lee came to train with him.

His career took off as Lee became famous for his TV shows and movies. His school and training program began to grow rapidly. Lee remained a close friend through the rest of Yip’s career. Although Yip faced several personal challenges during his career, he ultimately achieved prosperity and left a long legacy. As a pioneer of Wing Chun, he has left an indelible mark on the history of martial arts.

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Early Life

Yip Man, also known as Ip Man, was born Ip Kai-man or Yip Kai-man on October 1, 1893, in Foshan, China. He was the third of four children and was raised by his wealthy parents Ip Oi-dor and Ng Shui. His upbringing reflected his family’s status. He was a determined student and received a high level of education, including college.

His martial arts education began at age 13 under Chan Wah-shun and continued throughout his early years. It is reported that during his days at St. Stephen’s College in Hong Kong, Yip Man intervened in an altercation between a police officer and a woman and subdued the officer with martial arts moves. A student told a nearby man about the fight and Yip was invited to meet him.

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The man challenged Yip to show him his martial arts skills and after seeing Yip’s form and moves, deemed them rudimentary. The man then revealed himself to Lee Leung Bik, the master of Yip’s former teacher Chan and took him under his tutelage. Some of the details of the account have been questioned but his education under Leung Bik was a critical point in his Wing Chun career.

Political upheaval served as the backdrop for Man’s younger years but he received a traditional education until at age 12, he was able to begin studying Wing Chun, a system of martial arts developed in Southern China more than 300 years ago under the tutelage of Chan Wah-shun, who charged him an exorbitant amount of money for the service, initially believing he would discourage the boy. But Man would learn much from his teacher in the 3 short years before Wah-shun’s death.

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At the age of 15, Man moved to Hong Kong where he later attended St. Stephen’s College. While in Hong Kong, he also continued his martial arts training. The man eventually returned to Foshan at the age of 24 and was employed as a police officer. By this point his Wing Chun skills were such that he was able to begin giving private lessons.

In 1917, he returned to his childhood home in Foshan, China to become a police officer. He began teaching Wing Chun privately. From 1937 to 1941, he fought in the army against the Japanese invasion. During this time, most of his property was ruined or lost and his wife fell ill. After the war, he was recruited by the Nationalist Party to serve as a police officer as China rebuilt.

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During his career as a police officer, he taught many students Wing Chun on the side. He taught several students that would go on to teach Wing Chun themselves.

In 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power, Man fled to Hong Kong where he opened a Wing Chun school, charging for his services and becoming the first martial arts master to train students publicly. One of Man’s most notable students was Bruce Lee, who studied under the master in 1953.

At the age of 13, Lee was an excellent and intense student and became proficient in Wing Chun art. Lee would return to visit Yip Man in later years. The two had become friends. The business was initially poor but Bruce Lee’s role in The Green Hornet brought fame and prosperity to Yip Man. He opened a large martial arts facility due to his school’s growing popularity. As his reputation grew, the number of students enrolling in his school and his fortune also increased. He helped create the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association in 1967.

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In 1970, he retired from teaching martial arts but did not stop practicing. Wing Chun’s training continued under the leadership of his sons. He wrote the first comprehensive history of Wing Chun. A part of the text was supposed to be utilized for the proposal which was submitted for the establishment of the Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship.

He was married to Cheung Wing-sing and they had two sons. His sons have played a major role in continuing the Wing Chun legacy, begun by their father. Many recollect that he had drug use problems and experienced financial strain due to his vice. They say that he was never really happy after losing his affluent lifestyle in China.

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Bruce Lee attributes him as a primary inspiration and a teacher he admired for all of his life. Yip and Lee were friends beyond Lee’s years at the school. Bruce Lee’s wife details the impact of his teacher in her book “The Man Only I Knew”.

In addition to Bruce Lee, he taught several students that became well-known for their martial arts skills including Leung Ting, Lo Man-kam, William Cheung and Leung Sheung. His life is chronicled in the book Ip Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu Master – a biography based on stories from his son Ip Ching. Several films have been inspired by his legacy including The Legend Is Born – Ip Man, The Grandmaster, and Ip Man: The Final Fight.

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He died in 1972 of throat cancer. Many of his personal effects are on display at a museum in Foshan. He is considered a martial arts pioneer and the spread of Wing Chun is attributed to his passion for the practice. 6 weeks before he died, this famous martial arts trainer asked his sons and a student to film him performing Wing Chun forms. The video has survived to date and digital copies may be seen on YouTube. He nicknamed Bruce Lee “upstart”. He often gave nicknames to his students.

Since his death, many works have been made about his life including the 2001 book Ip Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu Master by Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. And the films The Legend Is Born: Ip Man released in 2010 and 2013’s The Grandmaster and Ip Man: The Final Fight.

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