Ip Man: The Man Who Taught Bruce Lee to Fight

From Bruce Lee to The Matrix, meet the man who created martial arts as we know it

Almost everyone has heard of Bruce Lee---the Kung Fu master from the 1970s Hong Kong cinema scene with the “Fists of Fury” and the almost-comically-bad voice dubbing. But have you ever heard of Ip Man, the man who taught Lee how to fight?

Bruce Lee and Master Yip Man, Circa. 1954 - 58 (From the collection of Bruce Lee Foundation)

In the first half of the 20th century, in in the village of Foshan in Guangdong Province, Southern China, there lived a man known as Master Ip, or Ip Man. Though most of us have never heard of Ip, he was a martial artist of the highest order and a master of Kung Fu.

Bruce Lee Meditating at Lake Washington, by Bruce Lee (From the Collection of Bruce Lee Foundation)

The Original “Mind Over Matter” Matrix Moves

Born in 1893, Ip Man became one of the foremost practitioners of the Wing Chun Kung Fu style associated with his region of China. The style was characterized by a certain off-to-one-side stance adopted by the fighter, which seeks to avoid direct confrontation. The movements are fluid, and could best be described as looking like the character of Neo in The Matrix trilogy when he takes on Agent Smith and his sunglassed minions.

In fact, it is probably no coincidence that the same martial artist who consulted on The Matrix movies, Yuen Woo-Ping, also choreographed the third in the trilogy of films about Ip Man by the producer Raymond Wong. The style of Wing Chun practiced by Ip Man appears at times almost to defy gravity and makes the practitioner of it appear so self-composed that they barely seem to even break a sweat.

1953 - Begins studying Wing Chun with Yip Man, 1953 (From the collection of Bruce Lee Foundation)

In an interview conducted with Grandmaster Ip in the same year as his death (1972), Ip Man described the Wing Chun style as being similar to the precision required for a hammer to perfectly hit a nail on its head and drive it effortlessly home. Such a comparison illustrates the point about the mysterious, almost-spiritual quality of this form of Kung Fu: it is a question of mind over matter.

Master Meet Student Bruce Lee

In his early life in Foshan, both before and after the Second Sino-Japanese War (“Sino” simply refers to “China”), Ip worked as a policeman. However, during the war itself (which began in 1937 following Japan’s invasion of the Chinese mainland and lasted until 1945), Ip Man went to live with a former student, Kwok Fu, resisting the Japanese as best he could.

After that war ended, the Chinese Civil War and Communist Party takeover of China followed hard on its heels. During the Civil War, Ip fought on the side of the Kuomintang (the Nationalist party opposing the Communist party). When the CCP finally won in 1949, Ip fled to Hong Kong, where he found many disciples who wished to learn his style.

Bruce Flexing, by Bruce Lee (From the collection of Bruce Lee Foundation)

Among these disciples was one Lee jun-fan, a 16-year-old young man who had been born in Chinatown, San Francisco. At that time, Lee was living with his parents in Hong Kong, had recently lost some fights with members of a rival gang, and was perhaps looking for revenge. Much like the Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-San relationship in the film The Karate Kid, the boy would learn quickly from the master, ultimately going on to overshadow his fame. This young man was named Bruce Lee.

“After four years of hard training in the art of gung fu (kung fu), I began to understand and felt the principle of gentleness — the art of neutralizing the effect of the opponent’s effort and minimizing expenditure of one’s energy. All this must be done in calmness and without striving. It sounded simple, but in actual application it was difficult. The moment I engaged in combat with an opponent, my mind was completely perturbed and unstable. Especially after a series of exchanging blows and kicks, all my theory of gentleness was gone. My only thought left was somehow or another I must beat him and win.” - Bruce Lee, Black Belt Magazine

Today, Grandmaster Ip’s reputation has been resurrected with the aforementioned trilogy of Hong Kong-based Ip Man films, as well as the 2013 film The Grandmaster by famous Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai.

Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon”, by Warner Bros., Circa 1973 (From the collection of Bruce Lee Foundation)

Ip Man died of throat cancer in December of 1972, preceding his more famous and much younger student, Bruce Lee, in death by only seven months. Lee was only 32 when he died while finishing work on his final film, Enter the Dragon. But their legacy lives on. Together, Master and student are forever linked in Kung Fu immortality.

Explore more:

- Bruce Lee Foundation
- Bruce Lee: An Introduction
- Bruce Lee: Action on Screen

Words by Andrew Mulvania
Credits: All media
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