Not much is known about Ip Man’s training with Ng Jung So (the senior student old Money-Changer Wah put in charge to teach Ip Man after his death). It has been suggested that Ng Jung So is somewhat of an unsung hero in the Wing Chun lineage and this is probably true. In any case Ip Man was only to train with him for about two years until he was fifteen years old. After that he was sent to Hong Kong to study at St. Stephen’s College.
While in Hong Kong, Ip Man was introduced to an old Kung-fu fighter who turned out to be none other than Leung Bik—Dr. Leung Jan’s son! Unlike Money-Changer Wah, Leung Bik was well educated and could explain the theoretical and technical aspects of Wing Chun in a way that Money-Changer Wah could not. Of course, Ip Man was somewhat older now and perhaps mature enough to learn from Leung Bik what he was unable to grasp from Chan Wah-Shun in his childhood. It is worthwhile remembering that Dr. Leung Jan was a medical expert and would have been well versed in traditional Chinese theories of medicine that include knowledge of qi and human anatomy. Perhaps the lettered Leung Bik was able to teach Ip Man the subtleties of Wing Chun that he had not picked up in his younger days in Foshan.
Ip Man trained with Leung Bik for about four years and completed his studies at St. Stephen’s. It seems he had had plans to continue his studies in Kobe in Japan. But it was 1914. War was declared in Europe and the world would forever be changed. Japan declared war on Germany and seized German fortresses in China. In 1917, China would join the Allies and pay a heavy price for it.
For the next twenty years Ip Man worked in the army and police force. All the while China suffered one tragedy after another. In 1919, the Allies signed the treaty of Versailles ending the First World War. However, the treaty gave Japan possessions in China. This outraged the Chinese—who had once again been humiliated and betrayed by the Europeans. China refused to sign the treaty and in 1918 a group called the “Society for the Study of Marxism” was formed in Beijing. And so the seeds of communism were planted on Chinese soil.
During these turbulent times Ip Man practiced Wing Chun with his peers at his residence in Foshan. It must have been a rare pleasure to be able to exchange notes on Kung-fu with friends, to continue the process of self-discovery that Wing Chun unleashes in all its practitioners, and to preserve a precious Chinese tradition in a time when so much in Chinese society was vulnerable and under attack. But the worst was yet to come.
Between 1920–25 there was anarchy among disputing war lords in China and many anti-foreign incidents. The Chinese Communist Party came into being. Sun Yat-sen died and Chiang K’ai-shek rose to power as leader of the Kuomintang (the Nationalists).8
The Nationalists and Communists began fighting each other and then, in 1937, Japan invaded China. Ip Man refused to cooperate with the occupying Japanese forces, and so had to suffer the consequences. This could not have been an easy decision: Ip Man was married and had four children. Because of his principles he had to give up his job and his family’s property. And so, it was not long before he had fallen into poverty. But Wing Chun came to Ip Man’s rescue. When a close friend began supporting Ip financially, he repaid the favor by teaching his son. He also began teaching at the Luen Cheung Cotton Mill between 1941 and 1943.
In August 1945 the Americans dropped atomic bombs on [the Japanese cities of] Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Russians invaded Manchuria; the Japanese surrendered... In China a full-scale civil war between Communists led by Mao Tse-tung and Nationalists under Chiang K’ai-shek ... ended in victory for Mao’s forces and [the] Chinese People’s Republic was established.9
Fortunately, most of us can only imagine what the aftermath of war must feel like. Ip Man was now in his fifties. Born just after the Boxer Rebellion, he had witnessed the occupation of China by foreign forces; seen first-hand the destructive effects of English opium trafficking on Chinese life; and experienced the racism and prejudice of Westerners, the looting and raping of the Japanese, the plunder and pillaging of outsiders, and the reckless self-destruction of the Chinese in their own civil war.
Born into wealth and prestige in a China that still proudly recalled its glorious past, he lived through the turmoil and chaos of a new China emerging. One that would react to all the foreign led destruction of China, by turning in upon itself, and destroying much of what was left of the old ways. Under Communism the old Chinese cultures, traditions and customs were frowned upon and seen as decadent. The new China had turned its back on the glorious past. But the martial arts were a part of that past that could not easily be destroyed.
It is easy to imagine how Ip Man’s Wing Chun would have helped him cope with the difficulties of all those years. “Wing Chun teaches us how to manage under pressure,” says Sifu Loukas. Many of Loukas’s students point out that they have become better people because of their Wing Chun—they can cope with difficult situations by not panicking. They keep their calm, maintain their focus, accept the situation, and then deal with things appropriately.
There is little doubt that Wing Chun would have been a solid support in Ip Man’s life at this time. As he continued his own personal practice of this rich tradition that began so long ago that its origins are lost in myth, and as he continued to refine his understanding of the art that was passed on to him from Leung Bik, Money-Changer Wah, and Ng Chung So, Ip Man could not have known that one day this treasure of the Chinese would be respected and preserved by people from all over the world. And he himself would become a legend.
The Qing had been overthrown—they were now just a name from the past. But the Ming could not be restored since they no longer existed. China had awoken into the modern world. But it was not the China of fable. And yet Ip Man had brought with him something out of that past that was fabulous and profound and worthy of respect. Wing Chun practitioners would no longer belong to secret societies seeking to overthrow tyrant emperors. They would now belong to very open communities of practitioners for whom Wing Chun would continue to enrich their lives, and who, for their part, could continue to enrich that tradition by becoming a part of it and contributing their own discoveries to it.
And so, begins a new phase in the history of Wing Chun.
- Pat Barr, Foreign Devils: Westerners in the Far East. The Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), 87.
The above is an excerpt from Wing Chun In-Depth: Skills for Combat, Strategies for Life by Munawar Ali Karim and Loukas Kastrounis, publication date May 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN:9781594399275.