Yip started learning Wing Chun from Chan Wah-shun when he was 13. Since Chan was 70 at the time, Yip was Chan’s last student. Due to his teacher’s age, Yip learned most of his skills and techniques from Chan’s second oldest disciple: Ng Chung-sok. Chan died three years after Yip’s training started and one of his dying wishes was to have Ng continue teaching Yip.
At the age of 15, Yip moved to Hong Kong with help from his relative Leung Fut-ting. One year later, he attended school at St. Stephen’s College, a secondary school for wealthy families and foreigners living in Hong Kong. During Yip’s time at St. Stephen’s, he saw a foreign police officer beating a woman and Yip intervened. The officer attempted to attack Yip, but Yip struck him down and ran to school with his classmate. Yip’s classmate later told an older man who lived in his apartment block. The man met with Yip and asked what martial art Yip practiced. The man told Yip that his forms were “not too great”. The man challenged Yip’s Wing Chun against the man in chi sao (a form of training that involves controlled attack and defence). Yip saw this as an opportunity to prove that his abilities were good, but was defeated by the man after a few strikes. Yip’s opponent revealed himself to be Leung Bik, Chan Wah-shun’s senior and son of Chan’s teacher, Leung Jan. After that encounter, Yip continued learning from Leung Bik.
Yip returned to Foshan when he was 24 and became a policeman. He taught Wing Chun to several of his subordinates, friends and relatives, but did not officially run a martial arts school. Yip went to live with Kwok Fu during the Second Sino-Japanese War and only returned to Foshan after the war, where he continued his career as a police officer. Yip left Foshan for Hong Kong in 1949 after the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland. Yip was an officer of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), the Communists’ rival in the Chinese Civil War.
Initially, Yip Man’s teaching business was poor because Yip’s students typically stayed for only a couple of months. He moved his school twice: first to Castle Peak Road in Sham Shui Po and then to Lee Tat Street in Yau Ma Tei. By then, some of his students had attained proficiency in Wing Chun and they were able to start their own schools. Some of his students and descendants sparred with other martial artists to compare their skills and their victories helped to increase Yip’s reputation. In 1967, Yip and some of his students established the Ving Tsun Athletic Association.
Yip died on 2 December 1972, from throat cancer. Yip’s legacy is the global practice of Wing Chun with his most notable student being the legendary Bruce Lee (李小龍). Yip also left behind a written history of Wing Chun. Many artifacts of his life are on display in the “Yip Man Tong” museum in the Foshan Ancestral Temple grounds.
Ip Man, a film loosely based on the life of Yip Man starring Donnie Yen as the martial artist, was released in cinemas in 2008. The film takes a number of liberties with Yip’s life, often for dramatic effect. The film focuses on Yip’s life during the 1930’s to the 1940’s during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The sequel Ip Man 2 focuses on Yip’s beginnings in Hong Kong and his disciples—including Bruce Lee.
Another film based on Yip Man’s biography called The Legend is Born – Ip Man was released in June 2010. Herman Yau directed the film and it starred Dennis To as Yip Man. Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmasters, a film starring Tony Leung as Yip Man, is scheduled to be released in December 2012.
Amid a surge of Yip Man-related film projects in production, Donnie Yen told the Chinese media in March 2010 that after Ip Man 2, he will no longer play the Wing Chun master any more. He stated, “I would never ever touch any films related to Ip Man. This will be my final film on the subject. Whenever something becomes a success, everyone would jump on the bandwagon, this is very frightening. Did you know how many Ip Man films are in production? Under such condition, we would not progress, it’d only lead to over-saturation of the subject matter.”