Yip Man is the patriarch of the Wing Chun style of kung fu. His teaching has become a cornerstone of the modern martial arts era. The efficiency of his fighting techniques, coupled with the knowledge that he was Bruce Lee's instructor, caused millions to regard his art with awed curiosity. Today Wing Chun is the most influential martial art to emerge from the 20th century China. Yip Man was born in the year 1898 in the Southern Chinese town of Fatsham, son of a wealthy merchant who owned a large farm and an merchandise exporting business. As a boy Yip Man approached Chan Wah Shun and asked to be accepted as a student. Yip Man became the last of Chan's disciples. He became the youngest in a direct line of Wing Chun practitioners dating back nearly 200 years. Yip Man studied with Chan Wah Shun for four years, until the old master's death. Yip spent another two and a half years training with his senior, Ng Chung So.
At the age of 16, Yip Man was then accepted as a student of Leung Bik, the son of Yip Man's teacher's teacher. Yip Man had challenged Leung Bik unaware that he too was a Wing Chun practitioner. Leung Bik explained how his father, Dr. Leung Jan, had withheld key elements of the Wing Chun system from Chan Wan Shun. Chan had been over six feet tall, whereas Dr. Leung's two sons only stood at about five feet. In order to give his sons a slight technical edge, Dr. Leung did not teach Chan Wah Shun the proper interrupted footwork patterns. Further, he held back many techniques even from the three forms. Yip studied with Leung Bik for two and a half years.
Between 1937 and 1941, Yip served in the army during China's valiant effort to repel the Japanese invasion. He returned home to his family in Fatshan during the years of the occupation. Times were hard. His farm was in ruin and his wife was ill and subsequently died. The end of the war brought little improvement.
The Nationalist Chinese government recruited Yip to the post of captain of the police. After the Communist triumph in 1949, Yip left his two grown sons in Fatshan and fled to Hong Kong. His position as police captain would have meant almost certain death at the hands of the Communists had he remained. Thus at the age of 51, Yip Man was forced to start an entirely new life.
Yip Man started teaching at the Restaurant Union Hall. His classes had grown so large that he had to leave the Union Hall and opened his first commercial Wing Chun School on Lei Dat Street in Yaumatie District of Kowloon. As the years passed, Yip's reputation as an instructor grew and he was eventually able to afford better accommodations. In fact, by 1964 he was able to bring his two sons and their families out of mainland China. Three years later, due in part of the prosperity brought to him through Bruce Lee's Green Hornet fame, Yip made his final move to a large, well equipped gymnasium. Only after the name of Bruce Lee did the other students realize that the master was so great, and that the style was so great, because they saw that it could produce practitioners like Bruce. They had not realized the treasure they had in Yip Man and had taken him for granted.
Bruce Lee wrote an essay for his freshman English class illustrating the subtle tactics Yip Man would use to influence his students. "My instructor, Professor Yip Man, Head of the wing chun school, would come to me and say, 'Loong (nickname Yip gave Bruce meaning "Upstart"), relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow your opponent's movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement, without interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment. Loong, preserve yourself against nature: never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it.' Later Bruce was on a boat looking at the water when it suddenly struck him. Wasn't water the essence of gung fu? This water, the softest substance in the world, could fit itself into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substances in the world. That was it. Bruce wanted to be like the nature of water.
Yip Man was a well-educated man who never wanted to teach kung fu. His best loves were watching soccer and attending the Chinese Opera. He was a man of perfection. He believed that there is no half way to doing anything. In May 1970, Yip Man permanently closed the doors on his career as a martial arts instructor. He died on December 2, 1972 at the age of 74.