The Cult of Ip Man

Every now and then someone takes a colorized black and white photo of Ip Man, posts it to a FB forum and then proceeds to heap praise and gushes over him.

Other folks would follow with more praises. There’s no attempt to explain to explain why Ip Man is being praised.

I find this rather bizarre. If you write something about Ip Man’s contributions to the art of Wing Chun and praises his effort I can understand it.

But praising Ip Man for the sake of it?

The first thing I thought of is why is the writer praising Ip Man. Is Ip Man his grandmaster or great, great…. grandmaster? Or is he praising Ip Man because he likes Ip Man the actual person or Ip Man the semi-fictional movie character played by Donnie Yen.

Depending on which teacher I had learned from Ip Man is either my grandmaster or great grandmaster. However, my relationship to him is kinda like I know him but I know him not. Yes, I know who Ip Man is but I don’t really know him, and what I know of him is through 2nd hand or maybe even 3rd, 4th, Xth hand news.

Pre-Donnie Yen Ip Man movies some of these teachers would just refer to Ip Man as Sifu. Some might refer to him as Bloody Old Man; depending on the context.

The person referring to Ip Man in this way is either complaining about Ip Man or is using “bloody old man” as a term of endearment (if you are a Cantonese Chinese this would make sense to you otherwise you will probably be bewildered).

As example, one of my Wing Chun teachers was once on a trip with one of the top 5 disciples of Ip Man. During the trip this teacher complained that this “bloody old man” never taught much. In this context the term is used to express frustration.

In the next example, when there was a rumor that Ip Man might have a third son out there someone said that Ip Chun allegedly commented that since the bloody old man was randy, he would not be surprised if it was true. In this context, the term was one of amusement.

To me, such stories and rumors of Ip Man whether true or not, humanizes him. To me Ip Man is not a deity, a god whose tablet or photo you hang on the wall, bow and worship him.

From the stories of how Ip Man taught it sounded to me that he was a teacher who taught the traditional way in that he didn’t teach as much, preferring to let each student to practice and find his own answer.

Ip Man also did not discourage questions nor did he give absolute answers. He encouraged students to test out the art to find out for themselves if his (Ip Man) teachings were valid.

Ip Man was not above changing the art or teaching each student differently depending on what the student needed. This is unlike the diehard attitude of some of today’s students who insist on being traditional, unchanged teachings whatever the hell this really means.

Though Ip Man may sound like an undefeated superman of a master he was probably not. I read he was challenged by a Choy Li Fut school but nothing came of it. I read two sides of this story as to why the challenge never happened. I have no idea who is correct. I do know that this CLF school defeated a number of Ip Man’s students in a full contact tournament. I had lately read that Wong Shun Leung (one of those who lost in this tournament) was frustrated that the tournament format as not suitable for the use of Wing Chun techniques.

I was also told a story that Yuen Kay San (if you don’t know who he is, google – one of my WC great grandmasters from China said that Ip Man also learned from Yuen, hence Ip’s version of Wing Chun resemble Yuen’s version in many ways) was not happy with Ip Man’s flirty behaviour with his (Yuen) wife and sent Sum Nung to teach him a lesson in Hong Kong. Sum Nung apparently came but the fight didn’t happen. Why? No idea.

Then came the Donnie Yen movies. Suddenly, the name of Ip Man became a cash cow. Anyone who wanted a piece of the pie had to kowtow and play politics to be on the right side.

Overnight, Ip Man the person became synonymous with Ip Man the movie character. Ip Man, the Sifu of Wing Chun suddenly became referred to even by some of his disciples as Ip Man, Zhong-Si.

Previously, Wing Chun was found in Hong Kong, USA, Australia, New Zealand, some parts of Europe. But today, Ip Man’s version of Wing Chun is the MacDonalds of the Wing Chun world. Practitioners are found everywhere including India, Africa, Middle East and many parts of Europe.

More bizarre, Ip Man’s Wing Chun has exported back into China where it is sidelining the other more traditional versions of Wing Chun. I foresee that Ip Man’s Wing Chun DNA will even infect the traditional versions, changing their practice, and not necessarily for the better.

It is unfortunate, but this is what happens in a world where people are overwhelmed and bombarded with the same information over and over again, until fiction can become fact. The ease of information access also means research can be done by googling it instead of actually going to the ground to do it. The constant brainwashing results in failure to think, hence the cultish behaviour of wanting to deify, to worship, to praise blindly.

If you love the art of Wing Chun open your eyes wide and not throw the baby out with the bath water. No, sorry learn to see the baby first. Otherwise, once the older knowledge is lost it will be lost and then Wing Chun will be nothing but a shell of an art once great, its characteristics distorted in the face of ignorance.

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