Many of Kung Fu Tea’s readers are Wing Chun students and I am sure that most of you have already heard about Ip Ching’s passing on the 25th of January. Ip Man’s second son was well known in Wing Chun circles for his passion and skillful dedication to the art. This passing is especially sad as Ip Ching is my Sigung, and the head of our lineage. His older brother, Ip Chun, has noted that he had been sick for some time, so his passing was not entirely a surprise to the family.
As a humble and relatively low-profile member of Hong Kong’s first Wing Chun generation, fewer people are familiar with the details of Ip Ching’s life and contributions than one might expect. This is not the time for a full biographical investigation of his life. Such an undertaking would easily stretch beyond the confines of a single blog post. Yet given the academic and historical nature of this blog, it is interesting to note that Ip Ching witnessed important decades which saw fundamental changes in the Chinese martial arts in general, and Wing Chun in particular.
Like his older brother (Ip Chun) and two sisters, Ip Ching was born in Foshan. He remained there during WWII and the period following the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949 when his father fled to Hong Kong. Of the various children in the family Ip Ching seems to have been the most drawn to martial arts and was fascinated by his father’s practice. However, Ip Man was largely a distant figure in his early life, spending much of WWII away from Foshan, and then fleeing to Hong Kong in 1949.
The Anti-Rightist campaigns and first years of the Cultural Revolution were hard on both Ip Ching and Ip Chun. Like many other urban students in China at the time, the younger brother was sent to the countryside for an extended period of labor and reeducation with the peasantry. This did not suit either brother, nor did it allow Ip Ching to pursue his interest in martial arts. When the border with Hong Kong was briefly reopened in the early 1960s both brothers fled the mainland and reunited with their father.
Family tensions regarding Ip Man’s relationship with the “Shanghai Lady” notwithstanding, Ip Ching used this time to study his father’s skills and teaching methods. He eventually became his father’s teaching assistant and was assigned his own classes in various locations. After his father’s death Ip Ching went on to make his money in the textiles industry. Given the dominance of small-scale industrial production in Hong Kong during the post-war period, this sort of career path was fairly common. Ip Ching continued to practice his art with his Kung Fu brothers in his free time and occasionally taught. After retiring in 1994 he was much more active in the Wing Chun community and spent the last 25 year of his life promoting the art that he loved.
There is much more that could be said about this period. Jon Nielson and I explored Wing Chun’s modern development in the penultimate chapter of our volume on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts. As such there is no need to review those events here (as interesting as they are.)
Instead I would like to explain a more personal reasons that I have to be grateful to Ip Ching. At a time when Wing Chun’s popularity was exploding around the globe, he provided not just a link of continuity with the past, but the sort of level head that was so desperately needed. In the last few years we have seen Ip Man reimagined as a larger than life folk hero cut from the same cloth as Wong Fei Hung or Bruce Lee. These narratives have been driven by Hong Kong cinema, and the very real needs of a city to find heroes in local culture as the economic, social and political landscape has shifted beneath its foundations.
Rather than going around bursting myths at random, there is value in taking a close look at these processes to understand what they suggest about current state of Chinese society. Yet Ip Ching also realized that his father was a complex person who overcame challenges and did important things without being a saint. That is important as we must admit, if we are honest, that few of us are saints. If we truly want to learn from the past (rather than just using it as a mirror to reflect our present) we must try to understand events and people as they actually were.
Ip Ching provided multiple interviews for the volume that Jon Nielson and I co-authored which were absolutely critical to completing the chapters dealing with Wing Chun’s Hong Kong period. In our interactions with him we were always struck by his down to earth nature. He freely shared information about his father because he believed that his legacy was important. Yet Ip Ching always resisted the tendency toward hagiography or hero worship that is so common in these situations. He helped us to understand his father as a complex person with certain gifts and challenges. When we asked about something that he didn’t know, he simply told us rather than feeling (as many people in interviews do) that they must generate some sort of answer. Nor did he shy away from discussing aspects of his father’s life which were difficult for both members of the family and the Wing Chun community as it existed at the time.
While not remembered primarily as a writer, Ip Ching co-authored a number of short books with Ron Heimberger. Again, these do not attempt to be scholarly sources. They are purely popular books written for practitioners. Yet they remain important sources for anyone attempting to grasp Ip Ching’s understanding of his father and his approach to Wing Chun. His book dealing with his father’s development of wooden dummies suitable for urban use is a particularly valuable source of insights into the modern development of Wing Chun, and as well as the nature of life in Hong Kong during an era that has now passed. His willingness to share information and commitment to historical integrity (even if it meant telling a “warts and all” story) was invaluable to the completion of our own research.
Ip Ching applied this same basic approach to his Kung Fu. Even here he always seemed (at least to us) to be a very practical and down to earth person. Once while presenting a workshop in the US he was asked by a student about advice for running a school. He responded that while teaching is important, one shouldn’t worry too much about trying to make a living as a martial artist. His advice was to go out, get a real job and support yourself before worrying about such things. Afterall, if you teach professionally you might have to accept students that you otherwise wouldn’t want to work with.
I bring this story up for two reasons. It is obviously good advice in an era when TCMA schools are struggling. If embracing one’s day job is a necessity, one may as well make it a virtue. But Ip Ching’s down to earth approach to kung fu came from a specific perspective. While in Northern China (especially after 1949) Wushu has become the domain of professionals who often look down on mere “amateurs,” things have always been different in the south. There it was the norm for the martial arts to be a hobby, something that fit into, and served, the greater plan of one’s life. Teaching after you retired (as both Ip Ching, and his father Ip Man did) was always much more the norm. This is an important distinction to remember when writing about the social history of the Southern arts. As such, even when he was not directly addressing some historical or social question, the way he taught and practiced revealed much about what Wing Chun really was.
To close out this celebration of a life I have asked my own Sifu, Jon Nielson, to contribute a few paragraphs discussing his memories and thoughts about his teacher.
Remembering Ip Ching
By Jon Nielson
My first contact with Ip Ching was in 1994. Ron Heimberger and I had been having some discussions about making new connections with Hong Kong. Ron learned that Ip Chun and Ip Ching had come to the U.S. for a seminar on behalf of Samuel Kwok’s students. They had recorded a video and Ron acquired a copy. I was familiar with Ip Chun from his publications and public appearances, but at the time, I had no idea Ip Man had another son.
Ron asked me to watch the video and give him my opinion. I observed that while Ip Chun was a great spokesman for his father’s legacy, Ip Ching quietly displayed advanced knowledge and skill. This appealed to me, and I recommended that Ron form an association with Ip Ching. Ron agreed, and within the year, Ron’s organization was officially admitted under Ip Ching’s organization. I believe it was the first time Ip Ching made an attempt at international organization.
At first, we got only slight alterations to the forms that some of us had already learned, but in a few years, Ron was organizing visits from Ip Ching to the states and opportunities for his students to visit the grandmaster in Hong Kong. Over the course of the years, Ip Ching made several visits to the states. In addition to the training we got, we instructors got to spend more casual time with the grandmaster visiting the mountains of Utah and the Grand Canyon of Arizona. In Hong Kong, Ip Ching would take us to museums, restaurants and outdoor sites including his father’s gravesite.
As the relationship grew deeper, Ron, his students, and Ip Ching published several books together. Ip Ching even let Ron make a facsimile of Leung Jan’s Wing Chun notes and medical books in the hopes that one day they could publish a translation. Sadly, Ron passed away before that project was completed.
When Ron passed away in 2008, Ip Ching made himself free available to me and my fellow students. I took advantage of every one of these opportunities that I could, and I came to learn a lot more about this obscure giant of Wing Chun.
Ip Ching was a strict adherent to tradition. As such, he humbly supported his older brother as heir to their father’s legacy. Because of this, Ip Ching’s contributions to the art and community often went unnoticed. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from conversations and texts from Ip Ching, his students, and other students of Ip Man.
Ip Ching began learning Wing Chun when he was 7. He continued practicing even when his father fled to Hong Kong and when he was sent to the countryside. When Ip Man’s sons left Foshan to live with their father in the early 60s, Ip Chun already had a career, and found his own place to live, but Ip Ching lived with his father until Ip Man passed away, assisting in his father’s classes, and opening his own class in a local hospital.
When Ip Man died, many of his students wanted to give up training, but Ip Ching would call them up and ask if they wanted to, “play sticking hands.” Before long, there were enough regulars that they needed to reform their organization. Ip Ching suggested that they share the responsibilities, rather than risk certain alienation by appointing one leader. Thus the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association was formed with five grandmasters who took turns in different leadership roles.
I was once present when someone asked Ip Ching if he were going to appoint a successor for his own lineage. He said, “Why would I do that? If one of my students is a good teacher, people will go to him to learn. If he is not a good teacher, nothing I could say about him will change that.” He took this humble, pragmatic approach to everything he did.
Later, when Ip Man’s popularity grew, and Hong Kong wanted to make movies about him, Ip Ching acted as a technical consultant to most of those movies, but he was seldom interviewed or given credit. Once, I asked him about a historical inaccuracy in one of those films, and he just said, “They didn’t ask me about that.”
Ip Ching didn’t seek fame. He had made his money in textiles, and he taught Wing Chun simply for the love of the art. He was a careful thinker, and a conscientious teacher. His approach to teaching was to show how most of the movements in the system were devised to address certain problems one encounters when trying to hit the other guy. He would let students experiment with the system, and would correct them if their application wouldn’t solve the problem on which it was predicated. On the other hand, if a student had questions, he was generous with his answers.
I never knew him to be cruel or vindictive; he was a staunch adherent to his principles. If he felt he had been ill-treated, he wouldn’t retaliate, but was always kind. While he took ownership of his art, he recognized that each of his students needed to make it their own as well in order for Wing Chun to stay relevant.
While we mourn his loss, let’s keep it relevant.