Yip Man was born into a wealthy and influential family who were the owners of a farm and two rows of large old-fashioned houses along the whole length of an avenue in the town of Futshan, Guangdong province. In the centre of this estate was the ancestral temple of the Yip clansmen. It was there that the master Chan Wah Shun was teaching Wing Chun Kuen to a few select students.
Yip Man, being the second eldest son of this wealthy family, enjoyed a privileged and carefree upbringing. According to Yip Man's eldest son, Yip Chun, his father was born in the year 1893. However, there is a second set of birthdates of which the sources are various students of Yip Man. These dates mention Yip Man being born closer to 1898 or as early as 1895. Whatever the exact birthdate of Yip Man, at around the age of eleven he started to take an interest in Wing Chun Kuen after watching the martial art classes conducted by master Chan Wah Shun in his family's ancestral temple. Chan Wah Shun rented this site for the purpose of teaching martial arts since he was lacking a gymnasium of his own. Yip Man, being from this wealthy and respected family, was expected to tend to his academic studies in literature, poetry, art and Confucian philosophy. However, Yip Man often snuck off to watch Chan Wah Shun drill his pupils, most of whom were grown men. Watching the practice day after day, Yip Man became more and more intrigued by the martial techniques and skills displayed by master Chan Wah Shun. One day at last, he went straight up to Chan Wah Shun and asked him to be permitted to join his Wing Chun classes. Master Chan Wah Shun thought the boy might only be joking, so he said that every boy in order to be admitted had to pay an initial admission fee of 3 taels of silver and that if the boy had 3 taels of silver, he would admit him. On hearing this, Yip Man rushed back home filled with excitment and pleasure. Soon he brought back 3 taels of silver as required. Master Chan Wah Shun was surprised to see what the boy had done. He asked the boy where he had got the money from. The boy answered that he had already known that he needed 3 taels of silver for admission, so he began to save money some time ago.
According to an interview by a Hong Kong martial arts magazine ('New Martial Hero'), Yip Man was asked about this among other things. His answer to the interviewer's question was that he had to pay 20 taels of silver during the acceptance ceremony in a red envelope as the martial art custom required. Moreover, he had to pay a monthly tuition fee of 8 taels of silver. The interviewer then asked him how much 20 taels of silver were worth according to that time's living standard. Yip Man responded that with 20 taels of silver one was able to cover the wedding costs if the wedding was not conducted in a too expensive manner.
To come back to the main story, Chan Wah Shun did not believe the boy, thinking that he must have stolen the money from somewhere. So he did not accept the boy as his disciple, but instead told him to bring his mother to the ancestral temple to prove that the money really belonged to him. Yip Man had no other choice but to go home and urge his mother to come and see Chan Wah Shun. When mother and son went back to the temple, Chan Wah Shun just wanted to speak to Yip Man's mother personally to ask her whether she really allowed the boy to learn Kung Fu. Chan Wah Shun mentioned that he thought Yip Man to be quite gifted in learning Wing Chun Kuen. Yip Man's mother was very pleased to hear that and said that if Chan Wah Shun agreed to accept her son, she would not hesitate to allow her son to take up studies of Wing Chun Kuen.
From then on Yip Man became the last and youngest disciple of Chan Wah Shun. According to the 'New Martial Hero' magazine, Yip Man said that his master at that time was already 70 years old and that even though a bit weak, he still would correct Yip Man's mistakes with great patience. Besides that, Chan Wah Shun told his other students to instruct Yip Man. That way his Wing Chun techniques improved quickly. Yip Man was only able to train for three years before his master passed away. However, before Chan Wah Shun died, he reminded his eldest disciple Ng Chung So to take good care of Yip Man, his youngest Kung Fu brother. Yip Man continued his studies under Ng Chung So until an incident occured in which Yip Man, only 16 years old, killed someone in a fight. As his parents were very wealthy and had good connections, they were able to send their son almost immediately to Japan in order to avoid further complications with the authorities.
He later traveled to Hong Kong to pursue academic studies at the St. Stephen's College at Stanley. This was an upmarket secondary school for kids from wealthy families and foreigners who lived in Hong Kong. Yip Man was a real troublemaker and would get quick into fights and even upon one occasion beat up the school's Indian doorman. After six months in Hong Kong, one of his classmates by the name of Lai whose father owned a large silk factory in Jervois Street in Sheung Wan, told Yip Man of an older gentleman who was living in their house and who knew martial arts. This same person extended an invitation to Yip Man to a friendly exchange of techniques. Yip Man had never lost a fight up to that moment and was very confident and proud of his Wing Chun skills and gladly accepted. This gentleman, Leung Bik, asked Yip Man to demonstrate his Wing Chun Kuen, which Yip Man was initially happy to do and then Leung Bik pointed out a number of deficiencies in the boy's skills. Yip Man was enraged and when he was finally asked to practice Chi-Sao (a form of sensitivity training used in Wing Chun Kuen) thinking that he now had an opportunity to teach the old man a lesson, Yip Man immediately threw a punch which was diverted, with Yip Man thrown effortlessly to one side, two more attempts both left Yip Man lying on the floor wondering what had just happened. Yip Man was furious and stormed out; it was only the next day when he had calmed down and asked who Leung Bik was, he realised that he had a lot to learn from this man. He went back to Leung Bik, apologised and asked him to take him on as a student. For the next four years, until Leung Bik's death, Yip Man refined his Wing Chun skills under this master's guidance.
Leung Bik was very clever and analytical as a teacher besides his martial proficiency which impressed Yip Man greatly. Thus, eventually Yip Man became the product of two masters - one a better fighter and the other a better teacher.
At around the age of 24 Yip Man returned to Futshan. Being from a well-to-do family, he didn't need to work and was able to devote the next years to refining his Wing Chun skills and passing them to others. Yip Man installed a wooden dummy in the corner of his living room. Yuen Kay Shan for example was practising with Yip Man at that time. Yuen Kay Shan, like Yip Man, was from a wealthy merchant family in Futshan and besides working as a lawyer part-time, he devoted himself to the study of Wing Chun Kuen and thus reached quite an advanced level of skill.
Yip Man also got married to a lady by the name Cheung Wing Sing and had four children. Two sons (Yip Chun and Yip Ching) and two daughters (Yip Ar Sum and Yip Ar Woon). Challenge matches between Kung Fu schools were an everyday reality of Chinese martial arts culture and Yip Man quickly acquired a reputation that made him the target for many of these challenges. He was however able to dispatch all his challengers.
While Yip Man had been away from Futshan his Wing Chun skills had improved tremendously and he found himself more advanced in his skills than his former fellow students under Chan Wah Shun. This provoked complaints from his elder Kung Fu brothers who believed he had learned a different kind of martial art and treated him as a traitor to Wing Chun Kuen. This resulted in many arguments between Yip Man and his elder Kung Fu brothers. Fortunately, Ng Chung So successfully explained the situation to the other students. He revealed that their master, Chan Wah Shun, although highly skilled in the art, had not been a scholar, therefore he wasn't in the position of explaining in a proper way the theories of Wing Chun Kuen to his students. Whereas Leung Bik was a learned scholar in addition to being a highly skilled martial artist. Therefore he could give explicit explanations of the principles of Wing Chun Kuen to Yip Man. This was where the difference between Yip Man and his elder Kung Fu brothers lay.
Yip Man was known for being a modest and unassuming man with a friendly and humorous manner and made a point of never indulging in laying claim to supernatural powers or aggrandized stories of his fighting prowess. This earned him a reputation of being an honest and honourable gentleman. As a result of his reputation not only for martial skills, but also for his honour and honesty, Yip Man was offered the job of police chief of Futshan. He carried out this job diligently using much of his spare time to practice and teach Wing Chun Kuen in his house.
Here are some accounts of his supposed martial art exploits while being in Futshan:
There was a wanted robber by the name of Tsu Ping, who was cruel, strong and skilled in martial arts. The local policemen were after him for quite a long time. One day Yip Man's squad was informed that the wanted robber had been sighted in Futshan. Yip Man led some of his detectives to lay a trap for the robber. He briefed his detectives that the robber was ferocious and armed, and that it was dangerous to cross fire with him in a crowded street. He told them that he would deal with him first and that when the robber was overpowered, they would then rush in to apprehend him, but before that they had to hide at some concealed corners. Soon the robber was located in a street. Yip Man walked towards him. Being well-dressed and gentle in outlook, Yip Man didn't cause the robber to be alarmed. The robber passed by casually. Yip Man then turned and called the robber's name. The robber became suspicious and began to run. But Yip Man stepped forward and grabbed the robber's collar who was then trying to draw his pistol. Yip Man grappled the robber's arms. The robber struggled. But Yip Man's arms were too powerful for the robber, and his stance too firm for him. At this moment the other detectives rushed forward and handcuffed the notorious robber and brought him back to the police station. When the robber was questioned, he admitted all charges laid against him. He only regretted that he never dreamt that he would be caught by a gentle scholar, because he had so far not met a real antagonist. Yip Man smiled and said, "You call me a scholar. Do you think you can defeat me with your techniques?" The robber said, "If I am allowed to fight with you bare-handed, I can defeat you within one minute." Upon hearing this, Yip Man asked his men to uncuff the man and promised him that if he could win, he would be set free. The two were then ready to have a free fight in the hall of the detective's office. The robber poised a wide stance, and adopted long bridge-arms, and attacked with thrusting punches which seemed fast and powerful. Yip Man dodged left and right, trying to keep himself evasive at first and avoiding to make direct contact with the robber. He waited for his chance. Suddenly, when the robber had just completed a reverse punch but had not withdrawn his forearm from the attack, Yip Man advanced, grabbed the robber's wrist with his right hand and pressed down the robber's elbow with his left hand, and exerted a powerful downward pull. The robber lost his balance and fell forward. At this moment, Yip Man raised his right leg to execute an upward knee thrust at the robber's chest. The robber fell to the floor and was out stone-cold. Since this incident, Yip Man was well-known as the unarmed scholar-detective of Futshan.
There is another story told by Yip Chun of his father's amazing finger strength which seems a bit unlikely or exaggerated to say the least. There was a man by the name of Yu Yiu. He served in the army during the war, and after the war, he was recruited into one of the divisional patrols of the local police in Futshan, under the command of Yip Man. But owing to the large number of patrolmen, neither Yu Yiu nor Yip Man knew each other. One day, Yu Yiu was patrolling along a busy street. But very soon for some minor reason, he argued with someone in the street. Both men started to shout at each other loudly. It happened that captain Yip Man passed by the crowded spot. He saw that one of the quarrelling men was wearing a badge of his patrolling teams and carrying a pistol and knew that the man must be one of his patrolmen. He wished to stop the quarrel, thinking that a police patrolman's duty is to keep order and peace and should not be arguing with people. He stepped forward to stop the two men from quarrelling. But the patrolman was too proud to be stopped by a well-dressed gentleman such as Yip Man. He started to shout at Yip Man, ordering him to step back and mind his own business instead of intervening their quarrel. As he shouted at Yip Man, he drew his pistol and pointed it at Yip Man. Yip Man realized that the patrolman was clearly losing his sense, and that drawing a pistol in a busy street was a dangerous move. To eliminate the danger, Yip Man rushed forward to stop the patrolman from pointing the pistol at anyone. He got hold of the bullet-chamber of the weapon, meaning to stop the man from mis-firing. The man struggled to free his pistol from Yip Man's grip. However, Yip Man's fingers were so powerful that after a few pulls and twists the bullet-chamber of the pistol broke off to the astonishment of the on-lookers.
Another version of this same incident has Yip Man attending a local festival in the town of Futshan and was accompanied by several young female relatives. Not far away from them was a soldier who also was a spectator of the festival's show. Yip Man had a special dislike for soldiers because it was said in those days that only vagabonds and outlaws joined the military service. Yip Man's female companions were luxuriously dressed and their beauty and graceful manner attracted the attention of this particular soldier. The soldier annoyed Yip Man as he approached them and started to speak disrespectfully to the ladies. Yip Man accused him of having bad manners which resulted in a fight between the two men. To the surprise of the soldier, Yip Man was not the delicate scholar he expected. This infuriated the soldier who drew his pistol and pointed it at Yip Man. At this critical moment Yip Man wasted no time. He quickly snatched the pistol and knocked the bullet-chamber away with his powerful fingers, leaving the soldier standing frightened and dumbfounded. Before the soldier had time to recover from the shock, Yip Man and his companions were already gone.
In another incident, Yip Man was noted for his competence in a duel with a boxer by the name of Kam Shan Mao from Kianghsi Province in Northern China. Kam arrived in Futshan and asked for the post of instructor in the Ching Wu Athletic Association of Futshan. He boasted of his own skill and degraded the standard of the martial artists of Futshan. The directors of the Ching Wu Athletic Association were reluctant to accept him. Nevertheless, he was invited to take part in a tournament, to be held in the Futshan Theatre, in which he was to fight the famous Yip Man. Yip Man at first refused to take part in such a public fight with this stranger, but at the earnest request of Lee Kwong Hoi, a famous herbalist physician of Futshan, he eventually agreed to the fight.
On the day of the tournament the spectators flocked to the theatre where the fight was to be held. To the disappointment of all, Kam was knocked down by Yip Man already in the first minute of the fight. The disappointed spectators became furious and restless, and disturbances at the scene would be inevitable it seemed. They were calmed down only by the fight-organiser offering them some instant boxing shows by a few other pugilists present at the scene.
The second time Yip Man fought for the fame of the Kung Fu circle of Futshan was in a duel with a comedian of the Red Boat Opera troupe. The groupe was at that time visiting Futshan. When the opera was not performing or when the show was over, the comedian of the troupe used to frequent a smoking den (a place where the people of Futshan could legally smoke opium). Non-smokers also used it as a meeting place. Whenever the comedian of the troupe went into the smoking den, he used to boast about his own Kung Fu skills. Once he even demonstrated his 'Phoenix-Eye Fist' in front of the smokers making a hole into the wall with just one punch. It was there that Yip Man encountered this man. The man, proud of his skills, insisted on having a fight with Yip Man who refused to accept the challenge. The fight would never have happened if it was not for the persistent urging of the meddlesome onlookers. To their surprise, Yip Man put his opponent on the floor with only one punch, giving him a bleeding nose.
The spectators cheered Yip Man and asked how he could win the fight so easily. Yip Man told them that, although the man was powerful with his 'Phoenix-Eye Fist' but that he had little knowledge of martial techniques used in fighting. That was why the man lost the fight.
Another story tells us of an associate of Yip Man by the nickname of Charlie Wan who was badly in need of a large sum of money. Charlie Wan was a pugilist of the Choy Lee Fut style noted for its practical fighting skills, but quite different from those of Wing Chun Kuen. Though they were friends they never discussed martial art techniques, nor did they ever argue over the art of Kung Fu. For this reason, the meddlesome citizens of Futshan did not know, but were eager to find out, which of the two was the better fighter. One of them had thought out a way to test them at last - that was to hold a contest between the two of them for fund-raising purposes. This would, in the first place, attract and satisfy large crowds of Kung Fu enthusiasts and secondly, would serve to meet the monetary needs of Charlie Wan. Charlie Wan at first refused this suggestion, thinking that this would impair the friendship between Yip Man and himself. However for the sake of easing his own needy situation, he finally agreed to the contest with the stipulation that there should be a suitable go-between to arrange it. This problem was taken care of by Lee Kwong Hoi, who agreed to arrange the fight and be the judge. Yip Man had no objection to this at all, thinking this would not only solve his friend's problem but also promote the art of Kung Fu in Futshan. For increased publicity, Yip Man even suggested that he would be blind-folded during the fight. This really stirred up much talk about the tournament, and the people of Futshan became very anxious to know how this man who had knocked down Kam Shan Mao in the first minute, would fight when he was blind-folded. Some feared that Yip Man's chance of winning was very slim.
On the day of the fight, spectators poured into the area. At the order of Lee Kwong Hoi, the judge, the two pugilist began their bout. Charlie Wan took the offensive at the very beginning, while Yip Man, well trained in detecting the intentions of his opponent by the feeling of his bridge-arms, remained in constant contact with his opponent. Though the attacks of Charlie Wan were fierce and powerful, yet Yip Man managed to dissolve them one by one, and very often succeeded in chasing his opponent and rendering counter attacks. In this way they exchanged punches and kicks to the great satisfaction of all the onlookers. At last the clever Lee Kwong Hoi, fearing that one of them would inevitably be wounded in the end, declared a stop to the fight. So the fight ended in a draw amidst a hail of cheers from the spectators.
During his time as the chief of police of Futshan, it happened once when Yip Man was having a chat about Kung Fu with some of his subordinates. In his enthusiasm, he took up the Wing Chun stance 'Yee Chi Kim Yeung Ma' and invited four strong men to pull his legs apart, two on each leg. To their surprise, no matter how hard they pulled, they could not cause the slightest movement of Yip Man's legs.
It was recalled by one of the retired detectives of Yip Man's squad that he once witnessed Yip Man's amazing strength. The story goes that one day Yip Man was leading his squad in hunting down a gang of robbers. They arrived at a large farmyard, where the robbers were suspected to be hiding. In front of the main door of the farmhouse there was a gate made of fir trunks as thick as a man's arm. It was extraordinarily strong and compact. Yip Man seeing that the gate was under lock and chain, realised that the robbers had made use of it to stop Yip Man and his team. They were not carrying any tools with them, so Yip Man, without further thought, gave the gate a kick which was powerful enough to break instantly four of the fir trunks forming the gate. They were then able to break into the farmhouse and arrest the robbers.
Once, Yip Man was chasing a thief who had just ascended to the flat roof of a house by means of the inside stairway. When Yip Man came up onto the roof, the thief had already jumped over the parapet to the roof of the neighbouring house, which was quite close, and was about to go down the staircase from the roof of that house. Yip Man risking his life rather than allowing the thief to escape, followed suit by jumping over the space between the two roofs. The thief, seeing that Yip Man was hard after him, suddenly slammed the door of the roof stairway towards Yip Man, who had just landed in front of it. This scared all those who were watching him as the door might force him to fall back and Yip Man would fall off the ledge of the roof. But they were wrong, for Yip Man's upper body only slightly swayed backwards and he was able to retain his balance. After this, the people of Futshan were even more convinced of Yip Man's competence in Kung Fu.
The people of Futshan had very high regards for Yip Man's Kung Fu skills, but he had never the slightest thought of teaching his skills to anyone, always keeping the commandment of Wing Chun Kuen, that ‘to spread it is in contrast to the wishes of the founder’. He used to think that Wing Chun Kuen was a deadly form of martial art. The more he knew of the profundity of Wing Chun Kuen, the more he admired it as an art of self defense. That was why he never imagined that he would one day become an instructor of this art.
In 1937 following the invasion of China by the Japanese Imperial Army, Yip Man's fame soon reached the ears of the Japanese soldiers and he was offered several invitations to train the Japanese troops. But due to his nationalistic feelings and a hatred towards the invaders, he refused to be used by the Japanese Government. Because of this, his family wealth was confiscated and Yip's fortunes changed radically. Luckily one of his good friends gave him financial support from time to time. In order to repay his friend's kindness, Yip Man accepted his son as a student. From 1941 to 1943 he taught Wing Chun Kuen in Luen Cheung Cotton Mill at Wing On Road to a couple of people. During this time his wife became terminally ill and soon passed away and Yip Man was left alone to raise his two sons and two daughters. Yip Man continued in this manner until 1949.
When the communists took over China, they began to persecute the wealthy and influential and anyone connected to the Kuomintang, the political party of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Republic of China. Yip Man felt forced to flee mainland China, abandoned his family and fortune to seek sanctuary off-shore and returned to British-occupied Hong Kong after a short stay in Macao with some friends who owned a bird shop, reaching Hong Kong alone and destitute, facing certain poverty. What made it very difficult for Yip Man to find a suitable job, was his unusual temperament and pride, coupled with the fact that he was from a wealthy family. Therefore he had to be content with living in relative poverty. However, Yip Man quickly fell back on his martial arts expertise to earn a living. He decided to break with the Wing Chun Kuen tradition of limiting instruction to a select few and started teaching members of the Restaurant Workers Union.
According to Lok Yiu, the second most senior student of Yip Man in Hong Kong, this happened in the following way:
Among the staff members of this Union, there were Leung Sheung, Lok Yiu and Lau Ming who were all Chinese martial arts enthusiasts. The secretary, Tsui Fung, worked with the newspaper 'Sing Pao Daily News', and did not have enough time to handle the business of the association. So Lee Man was employed as an extra helper in assisting with the Association's daily affairs. Lee Man often did the 'Huen-Sao' movement. Leung Sheung recognized this as a basic movement of Wing Chun Kung Fu, because he had once learnt some other Wing Chun style and therefore knew something about this particular system. He asked Lee Man if he too had learnt Wing Chun Kuen before. There and then Lee Man related stories of the deeds of Yip Man and everyone present got very much interested. Lee Man then brought Yip Man to the Association after work was done for the day. Leung Sheung was teaching martial arts to a group of people. Leung Sheung was an expert in Dragon style, Choy Lee Fut and White Eyebrow style. Yip Man was quietly observing but when asked about his opinion, he started to make fun of Leung Sheung's martial skills and told him that it was more or less useless. Leung Sheung wasn't convinced at first just listening to Yip Man explaining the principles of Wing Chun Kuen, but when Yip Man had no problem handling Leung Sheung who was 190 pounds and 5 feet and 11 inches tall, which is big for a Chinese person while Yip Man was only about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighted about 125 pounds, then Yip Man won everybody's admiration for his Wing Chun skills. After a great deal of persuasion, Yip Man finally accepted the post of Kung Fu instructor of the Restaurant Workers Union.
At first, members of the Association did not pay much attention to Yip Man, nor did they have much regard for what he was teaching, as Wing Chun Kung Fu, unlike the ‘long bridges and wide stances’ of other Kung Fu styles, was not very attractive at first sight. Besides, Yip Man, like his own masters, did not wish to boast about his skills, not to mention taking part in public displays. That is why Wing Chun Kung Fu was not well known at that time.
After two years of serving as the instructor for the Restaurant Workers Union of Hong Kong, where he had only a few students, he opened his own training hall in the district of Yaumatei in Kowloon. Many of his early students, who had followed him over the past two years also came to the new location and lent a helping hand in teaching Wing Chun Kuen. It was then that this new Kung Fu style started to draw the attention of Kung Fu enthusiasts from all over Hong Kong. Later, when more and more students came to the classes, he had to move his gymnasium to a larger site. Yip Man's fame, which ran fast, and the practical value of Wing Chun Kuen were especially admired by members of the police force of which more and more attended the classes.
From the time, Yip Man started to teach Wing Chun Kuen in Hong Kong around May 1950 until his retirement 20 years later, he attracted many students. There were many challenge fights by the Wing Chun students to the other Kung Fu styles to test their fighting abilities. These were bare-handed, no-rules fights, called either 'Kuo-Sao' or 'Beimo', and were mostly held in the back alleys of Hong Kong or on rooftops of apartment buildings. On some occasions, the challenging parties even invited journalists to document the fights. It was mostly through these matches that the fame of Wing Chun Kuen started to spread as a practical, efficient and no-nonsense martial art style which actually delivered results.
In 1970 Yip Man officially retired from teaching at the gymnasium and enjoyed a leisurely life, going for tea in the afternoons and dining out in the evenings with friends and students. But he still was giving private lessons by appointment at his home though. In 1972, however, a medical check-up revealed that he was suffering from throat-cancer, which had stripped him of his physical strength.
That was also the time, when he decided - just a couple of weeks or 10 days (depending on the source one wants to believe) before his death - to have the 'Wooden Dummy techniques' committed to 8 mm film, so as to leave the correct dummy techniques for posterity. When watching the uncut version of this film, one can clearly see that Yip Man was using the last ounce of his strength to have his dummy techniques filmed. During this time, he still kept on going to the tea-house or dining out in the evenings with his disciples.
However, when his condition worsened, he was at once admitted to the hospital and finally succumbed to this fatal disease on December 2nd, 1972.