Most of the information surrounding the life of the grandmaster Yip Man revolves around anecdotes. But by dealing wither his approach to teaching we also can gain excellent insight into wing chun’s greatest modern-day teacher. Through this introspection we will be able to answer many of the question students have about Yip Man.
Yip Man’s Beginnings
The China of the early 1900s was an empire on the verge of collapse. Most of the Western powers had carved spheres of influence out of the country’s sovereignty. Yip Man was born in Futsan in 1895. He was 5 years old at the time of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and 16 when the Ching dynasty crumbled and Sun Yat-sen’s Republic was proclaimed. His family had money and he was raised in the fashion befitting a child of wealth – educated, but sheltered as much as possible from the turmoil in the country. When he was 14. Yip Man started wing chun training with Chan Wah Sun, his first sifu. After approximately one year, master Chan died and Yip Man continued his studies with Chan’s senior student, Ng Chang-so.
Leaving home to attend high school in Hong Kong, by then an established British colony. Yip Man continued his wing chun education with Leung Bik. After graduation he returned to the Mainland, and worked in his family’s business. He was not teaching at the time.
Yip Man lived through the Kuomintang’s revolution warlord period of the 1920s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the upheaval of World War II. When, in 1949, the Communists succeeded in consolidating their hold on the Country, Yip Man, now 55, was forced to leave his possessions and wealth. He escaped with his family to Hong Kong.
Yip Man turned to teaching to survive. He had several schools. His first location was at The Hong Kong Kowloon Restaurant Union. This lasted only a short time. Next he moved to Li Dai Strect (1953-54) and then to the Government Resettlement Area (1955). The average size of his school was 350-to-400 square feet, which doubled as a living space for his family. In essence, his was a school within a school within a school. The daily classes held from 2-4 p.m. and from 4-6 p.m. were open and informal. Anyone who paid could train. Information was passed on by the senior students, but for the most part you either trained by yourself or with a few friends. The high number of people passing through during these hours made it impossible to know everyone who was training. Bruce Lee and I didn’t realize we were training with Yip Man until Bruce transferred into my class at St. Xavier Junior High School. Having Yip Man in common. we started spending most of our time together.
At these open sessions. Yip Man barely paid attention. Most of the time he was watching what was happening Out in the street, while his senior students did the teaching. He did, however, know what was going on, although he was generally unconcerned with the progress of the public group.
The Old Man’s Students
Before continuing with the story, let me explain the three basic student groups that formed much of what has been taught since Yip Man’s death. The first group was predominantly people who had studied other martial arts styles. The most notable of these were Leung Sheung, Lok Yiu and Tsui Sheung Tin. They were older than us and their approach was more traditional, and perhaps more intellectual because of their maturity.
The second group was made up of myself, Bruce Lee and other teenage school kids. We wanted to learn how to fight. We were the fighters and partly through our victorious efforts in the street, wing chun began to get a good reputation as an effective fighting method. I make this distinction because other martial artists looked down their noses at us, claiming we were all brawl and no art. We didn’t give a damn. We wanted the techniques as fast as possible so we could fight. Just like other teer-agers, we wanted to show off our skill and courage.
The third group was comprised mostly of individuals or small, groups studying privately. Most in this section were professionals for whom wing chun was a hobby. It is believed there are people, unknown to us, who trained privately with the old man and are probably excellent fighters.
One should also remember Yip Man started teaching at the approximately age of 56. By 1954-55 he was 60 and by 1965 he was 70. Obviously, as he became older he was forced to change his teaching approach either because experience had shown him better ways to get his points across or because physically he had to adapt to his physical limitations. Also remember that each of his students was different. I was 5-foot-1 and weighed 98 pounds. Bruce was 40 pounds heavier and William Cheung was even bigger. Our needs were different.
Our training went like this. Each day after school we would go to the roof of the Rose Hotel for a couple of hours of sticky hands practice. Next door to the hotel was the gym where Bruce began weight training and several days a week he would go there after a session on the roof.
However, three or four times a week we would head for Yip Man’s after our rooftop session, where we would do regular, informal training. The training regime allowed us to work out with many different people, each of whom had a unique way of doing things. This gave us the experience to adapt to different situation and different feels. We would train with seniors, union workers and juniors.
During this time I never saw Yip Man stick hands with anyone in the school. He was so busy watching what was happening in the street, or telling jokes. It took me a long time to realize how the improving students were getting their information. Finally, I asked Bruce and learned that after 6 p.m., Yip Man taught private groups by appointment. The name of the game was money and for school kids in Hong Kong like us, the amounts he charged were considered a fortune. However, I teamed with Bruce and several others. We pooled our money and trained privately.
These private groups were small and usually composed of students, lawyers, policemen or businessmen. Usually one or two senior students would accompany Yip Man and take the bulk of the physical training. Yip Man would watch and coach. Again, he never stuck hands with anybody at these sessions. Occasionally, he would show a few moves to illustrate his points or he might satirize a student’s inability to perform by exaggerating the student’s technique. This was done partly to help the student, but also to have a good laugh. What I want to share at this point is that Yip Man Wasn’t into the “sifu image” you see in the movies. He was a friend, a coach. He had a sense of humor and a sense of fun. Our respect for him was like one friend to another. That is not to say that he didn’t have a serious side. If you lost a fight or had a problem, he became very serious.
His Teaching Method
I went with him to many of the different groups, both as a senior instructor or a friend to keep him company. Each group was taught differently. Business or professional people treated wing chun as a hobby or sport. So, he concentrated more on theory and sticking-hands training. Our group wanted to fight, so he concentrated on entry techniques, closing the gap and combination.
Furthermore, he adjusted his methods to the student’s character, natural ability, size, coordination and need. For example, if someone couldn’t get the swivel (e.g.. keeping both heels planted and shifting the front of the feet simultaneously to the right or the left. while the upper body shifts). he had the person step and turn. This became two-count instead of one-count technique, but it allowed the student to do the job.
The student gained something, but he also lost something, By stepping, you lose the inside game because the timing is stretched and the body is moving away from the opponent. However, if the student felt comfortable and natural, and honed the technique, the compromise became minimal because of the increase in the student’s ability to perform the maneuver. This meant that each person learned something different, because each had a different level of ability. Then, a person worked on the techniques he liked, and made them his own. Even though everyone is different, everyone is right.
To better illustrate this point, let’s look at lap sau. Lap sau changes relative to the size of the person performing the technique and the job he wishes to accomplish in various situations. One is strictly defensive. Another is strictly offensive. The size and shape of the opponent dictates usage. You might decide to smash your opponent’s forearm while pulling him off balance, or you may decide to set up a flow so a heavy second punch can he landed. The choice is yours.
When I returned to Hong Kong after attending a university in Australia, I trained privately under Yip Man. By then, he was 70 and primarily offering private training to older students. I had trained with him as an adolescent, and now I was training with him as an adult. We had a certain affinity that was built on being the same size and of similar character. Most of this later training was control technique and theory.
To capsulize the theory of the system, as it was imparted to me by Yip Man, the essence of wing chun is to get the mind and body working at speed to process the information of a given situation in microseconds and then perform the correct maneuver with the best possible coordination and timing. Within this is the ability to read your opponent before he acts or to trick him into acting. This is the control level of wing chun, which requires a great deal of experience. It was the ultimate game Yip Man played toward the end of his life.
There are many stories, rumors and anecdotes about Bruce and Yip Man. I am not about to go into which are true. But there are three which for me are the most important; they show Yip Man’s character, Bruce’s humanity. and the relationship between the old man and his prized pupil.
A Student Named Chou
During our high school days, Yip Man had another student named Choy. He was the son of a restaurant owner. Bruce and Choy just didn’t get along. They couldn’t stand each other, and each wondered if he could best the other if it came down to a fight. Choy went to Yip Man and asked if he could beat Bruce. Yip Man showed him a technique and said now he could beat Bruce. Bruce also went to Yip Man with the same question. Again, Yip Man showed Bruce a technique and said now he could beat Choy. The joke was that each thought he could beat the other and proving it didn’t matter because sifu had told each he was better. When Yip Man told me the story, he laughed and said, “What else could I do? They’re both my students. They both respect me. They both have the wing chun attitude. I have to satisfy both and keep the peace between my students.”
Bruce Wanted to Quit
When those of us in the second group were growing up, we would challenge any style. This gave us a great deal of experience in dealing with many different opponents. Choy Li Fut practitioners became our foremost enemies because their long-range style was opposite our short-range style. In the mid-1950s, wing chun’s high reputation was very much because of our efforts in the street. The rules for these fights were simple. Each side would provide a referee. The fights lasted two rounds. In the first round, one opponent would attack first. In the second round, the other opponent would attack first.
Bruce Lee’s first fight took place on a rooftop in Kowloon City, against a Choy Lee Fut practitioner, it was the second fight of a two-fight afternoon. The opponent was first to attack. His attack was violent, with a wild flow of techniques. Bruce handled the situation as best he could. He got in a few punches, defended himself, and absorbed quite a few blows. At the end of the first round, Bruce was scared and wanted to quit. We had already lost the first fight thanks to our fighter’s inexperience. We told Bruce the worst was over because he had survived the first round. We told him to go for his face as soon as possible. His fear and excitement became focused and he moved in. He broke the guy’s jaw and won the fight. Often, in his letters to me from the U.S. he would relate how good the wing chun served him arid how he was still practicing. Regardless of what he went on to achieve, I still think this first fight was one of the turning points in his life.
His Fued with Yip Man
In 1964, Bruce came back to Hong Kong for his father’s funeral. When he visited Yip Man, he asked him for permission to film him doing the dummy techniques. Yip Man refused, although Bruce was one of his favorites, he was not his senior student. If he let Bruce film him, he would have to let all his seniors film him. Later in his visit, Bruce did a television demonstration and referred only to his “gung fu.” To me, this was the first indication of Bruce’s departure from wing chun.
This turn of events is consistent with Yip Man’s way of teaching. The style was only the raw material; the system was the means by which the material was made to work. The forms of sil lim tao, chum kil, and, bil jee create a dictionary or shop manual of the basic material and its application. Usage is dependent on size, coordination, timing and situation. When two opponents meet and the fight is hand-to-hand, the larger person wins. When a physical challenge is met with, for example, superior timing, control techniques, or trapping (the opponent’s mind as well as hands), the physical will usually be contained This doesn’t mean you should not train for a physical game. It just means the more games you can play, and the more games you can recognize being played, the more often the odds are in your favor.
Using a straight lap sau on a big man will produce little success. In this situation, the timing of the lap sau and the use of a smashing lap sau instead of a rolling one, will give the smaller man a chance to use lap sau and follow through with his attack.
A Wing Chun Recipe
Yip Man tried to get each of his students to make the system his own. Consider if you will that all the moves found in wing chun are raw foods – eggs, flour, water, carrots. Onions, beef, or fish, for, example. The theory is what helps you cook the raw food, changing it into a meal. Your level of mastery of the style is that when confronted by your opponent (the guest), you have to cook a meal (fight). You choose those ingredients which are necessary (techniques) to the situation, and you cook and serve them (timing, control. experience). If you serve up a good meal and deliver it in the fastest conceivable time, you have a proficiency in this type of meal for this type of guest. This may not he the right meal for your next guest. You have to serve something else. This comes from experience and is a guide to your level of fighting. Furthermore, given the same materials, different cooks and different guests, every meal will be different even if called by the same name. One person’s usage will differ from another’s because each person is different and each sees things in different ways.
Yip Man’s Death
This rift between Bruce and Yip Man continued until 1971 when Bruce visited Yip Man. They got along well. In 1972, Yip Man died of throat cancer. Everyone wondered if Bruce, now a world-recognized film star, would attend the funeral. Rumors circulated that Bruce had betrayed the old man by leaving wing chun. However, Bruce’s respect and loyalty never strayed. He attended Yip Man’s funeral and paid homage to his teacher. Six months later, Bruce Lee died.