71: Ip Man

If you’re a fan of Kung Fu movies, Ip Man is one you’ve already seen. If you think everything you saw on the screen actually happened, you might be surprised with the true story.

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Episode Transcript

So far on the Based on a True Story podcast, we’ve covered over 70 movies. Some of them are the biggest blockbusters coming out of Hollywood, like Titanic, The Sound of Music, Lawrence of Arabia and The Ten Commandments. Being some of the highest-grossing films in cinematic history, it’s probably safe to assume if you haven’t seen those movies you’ve at least heard of them.

Some of the movies we’ve looked at are smaller films, though. Movies like Bitter Harvest, Walt Before Mickey and Cadillac Records that—based on box office numbers alone—it’s very possible you haven’t seen.

Today we’re going to cover a movie that sits between those two extremes. It’s one of those films where if you’ve heard of it, you’ve almost certainly seen it.

But if we’re basing things on box office numbers, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve heard of it.

Made with a budget of about $11 million, it managed to earn about twice that at the box office. While doubling an $11 million budget is pretty good profit, it’s nowhere near the billions of dollars that Titanic raked in.

Then again, not everyone’s into Kung Fu movies. But if you are, you’ve already seen 2008’s Ip Man.

But do you know the real story behind the Kung Fu masterpiece?

The true story behind Ip Man

Our movie today begins with some text on screen that explains our story is set in a city that has a reputation for martial arts, Foshan, in the year 1935. After this we’re introduced to Ip Man as played by Donnie Yen for the first time. When we are, we can clearly see that he’s living in a very lavish home.

The movie is correct in showing a rather lavish home as Ip Man was born on October 1st, 1893 in Foshan. That’s a city in the Guangdong province of China, which is on the southern coast of the massive country. It’s only about 150 miles, or 240 kilometers, to the north of Hong Kong.

As the 19th century turned to the 20th, Ip Man benefited from his parent’s wealth as he received a much higher level of education than most others his age in the early 20th century.

There’s no documented proof of when he started learning martial arts, but most agree it was probably around the age of 13 when he began learning a form of Kung Fu known as Wing Chun, or sometimes called Wing Tsun.

To give you an idea of some of the great education Ip Man enjoyed, at age 15, he moved to Hong Kong so he could attend a secondary school called St. Stephen’s College. Or was that at the age of 18? There are some conflicting reports about exactly when Ip Man attended the school.

While he was in school, he continued his Kung Fu training under a man named Leung Bik, who himself was the son of Leung Jan—a man who some credit with creating the three hand forms that are primarily used in the modern Wing Chun style.

By the time Ip Man returned to Foshan at the age of 24, his martial arts skills had grown immensely.

They only continued to grow as the years wore on. Fast forward a few decades and we’re about to the point of the timeline in the film where, in 1935, Ip Man would’ve been 42 years old and legendary in his skills.

Going back to the movie, there’s a couple other characters that are subtly introduced in the beginning. Living along with Master Ip in his beautiful home are his wife and son.

In the movie, Master Ip’s wife, Cheung, is played by Lynn Hung while his son, Zhun, is played by Li Chak.

This brings up a great point that I should address up front. As you can tell from what I’m saying at this moment, this podcast isn’t in Cantonese, the language the majority of Foshan’s citizens speak. It’s not in Cantonese because I don’t speak Cantonese. As I’ve mentioned before on this podcast, unfortunately, English is my only language.

The reason I mention this is because all of the research I’ve done for this requires it being translated into English. That means there can be differences in words, and it’s perhaps most notable in people’s names.

For example, Ip Man himself is sometimes referred to as Yip Man or Ye Wen or Yip Kai Man. Similarly, in the movie we see Master Ip’s son cast, in English, as Zhun. However, his name in nearly all of the research I came across was Ip Chun.

Oh, and if you’re like me and don’t speak Cantonese, the surname is flipped. So here in the United States where I’m from the first name is spoken first, surname spoken last. That’s the opposite of Cantonese, so Ip would be their surname.

Anyway, I’m pointing all of this out as because, for the most part, these sort of differences are things I’m not going to mention for the sake of this episode. That’s a little different than I’ve done for other movies where they’ve specifically changed the names of characters from the real people.

For example, even though the movie calls him Zhun, Master Ip’s real son, Ip Chun, was born in 1924. So that’d mean when the movie begins in 1935 he’d be about nine years old, which is about how old the child looks at the dinner table in the first scene. So rather than assuming this is the filmmakers changing the character’s name, I’m going to chalk that up to my lack of knowledge of the Cantonese language and overlook any other similar changes name characters.

With all of that said, if you do speak Cantonese and are aware of some differences between the names of the real people and the characters in the movie, by all means please let me know. I’d be happy to come back and update this episode.

That leads me into a much bigger issue here. Two issues, actually. Two big issues that, quite honestly, almost made me not want to create this episode. The root problem here has to do with tracking down the information to compare history with the movie. Let me explain.

With names like Ip Man or Yip Man it’s pretty easy to know the two names are talking about the same person the movie is because, well, he’s famous. But documentation and reports aren’t nearly as good for some of the lesser figures in the movie.

For example, after this introductory scene with a friendly duel between Donnie Yen’s version of Ip Man and Zhi-Hui Chen’s version of Master Liu, we’re introduced to yet another character: Jin.

In the movie, Jin is played by Siu-Wong Fan.

Is Jin a real person? Maybe. Try as I did, I was unable to find any sort of documentation to prove his existence. And that goes back to what I mentioned before—is it that the filmmakers invented Jin or just that there’s a language difference and his real name, in Cantonese, isn’t anything like Jin? Or maybe he’s just not famous enough to have documentation from 1930s China, pre-World War II, still surviving today.

All of those are plausible scenarios. Probably the two people who’d know best of all would be Edmond Wong and Tai-lee Chan, the two talented writers who crafted the story behind the movie Ip Man.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unsuccessful in getting a hold of them to find out. That’s one of the issues, and it leaves us with trying to sift through historical documentation. For every other episode, that hasn’t been much of an issue.

But then we run into the other wall—the language barrier I mentioned earlier. Am I not finding any mention of Jin because he’s not real or because I’m looking for the wrong name?

Something else I haven’t mentioned is that there’s a lot of slang used in Foshan. So while Cantonese is the primary language there, slang terms make things even more difficult to track down the origins of things.

Hopefully this isn’t coming across as an excuse, but I wanted to clarify some of the challenges I’ve had researching for this episode because, quite honestly, it’s been really tough to find a lot of solid facts. So as I offered before with the names of people, if you have any more facts that can help us understand the difference between the movie and history, I’d encourage you to join the Based on a True Story community on Facebook and let everyone know!

With all of this said, even with these two big walls blocking a lot of what we can see of the real history, that doesn’t mean the entire true story for Ip Man is shrouded in mystery.

Going back to the movie and the character of Jin, we know from one of the scenes where Jin talks about his northern style of Kung Fu being better than Ip Man’s southern style, that implies Jin is from Northern China.

And we know from history that Ip Man seemed to have a bit of an issue with northerners. In fact, there were four types of people who Ip Man refused to teach.

1: Northern Chinese, or foreigners who were heavily built
2: Children under the age of 13
3: Anyone who Ip Man thought might be a criminal
4: Anyone he thought had to have…well, less than high mental understanding. Basically, anyone Ip Man thought was stupid.

So even though we don’t really know if the events with Jin happened the way we saw in the movie, it’d seem that Ip Man must’ve had some sort of a beef with his countrymen from the north.

Speaking of which, there’s a moment I love in the movie…well, one of many moments I love about this movie…happens when the character of Jin mocks Ip Man’s fighting style, Wing Chun. Jin says something to the effect of, “Show me how a man can fight like a woman.” Then Ip Man replies calmly, explaining that good Kung Fu doesn’t depend on age or sex. It’s simply about how well you fight. You’ll understand that soon.

I think if Ip Man had a mic at that moment, he would’ve dropped it.

Anyway, that’s the lead into just one of many amazing fight sequences in the film.

Unfortunately, there’s no documentation I could find to prove this fight ever happened. But there was a moment earlier in Ip Man’s life that could’ve led him to be the calm person he seemed to be in the film.

This took place while Ip Man was a teenager living in Hong Kong attending St. Stephen’s. Because of his earnest practicing of Kung Fu, Ip Man had yet to be defeated by any of his classmates. As is often the case, when you never lose you tend to start to get the feeling that you will never lose.

That happened to Ip Man. He was good, and he knew it.

All of that changed one Sunday afternoon when one of his classmates said he knew of someone in town who might make a good sparring partner. It was a friend of this classmate’s father, apparently.

Ip Man accepted it at once—after all, he’d never lost. He wouldn’t lose this time, either.

When he showed up for the friendly sparring, a pleasant, middle-aged man greeted him. After formalities, this man, whose name Ip Man didn’t even know, told him not to hold back. According to him, even though it was a friendly match, the middle-aged man told Ip Man to come at him with all he had. Basically saying, “Whatever you’ve got, I can take it.”

Not in so many words, but that’s the gist. Anyway, this proceeded to do nothing more than piss off Ip Man, who was instantly determined to take this from a friendly sparring to a full-fledged beating.

And he tried.

But he failed.

Ip Man’s barrage of punches were no match for his opponent’s speed. Within a matter of moments, Ip Man had lost the match.

Upset and quite humiliated at his defeat, Ip Man left without saying much. Then, about a week later, Ip Man heard from the middle-aged man he had fought with earlier. This man wanted to meet with Ip Man again.

At first, he thought he’d ignore the summons. He thought he wasn’t good enough.

Then something changed, and Ip Man did go back to meet with this man.

And this is something that not everyone can do—after failing so mightily, to turn around and make yourself better out of it. For you see, that man who defeated Ip Man was none other than Leung Bik. If you remember from earlier, Leung Bik was the man who trained Ip Man.

Even though Ip Man’s pride was something that swelled so high only to be deflated after such a devastating defeat, he didn’t dwell on it. Instead, he swallowed his pride and was determined to learn all he could from Leung Bik.

So while this event happened much earlier in Ip Man’s life than the encounter between Jin and Ip Man in the movie, since there’s no way to prove if what we saw in the movie actually happened, I still wanted to share that little story because it helps give us an insight into the type of person Ip Man was.

As a teenager, he was just like you and me—thinking he’s the best. Granted, he was a lot better as a teenager than I ever will be at martial arts, but the lesson in that story is that even when he thought he was the best, he learned the very hard lesson that there’s almost always someone out there better.

And rather than hide from that, he learned from it to make himself even better than he was before.

Back in the movie, there’s a bit of text on screen that explains a moment when Ip Man’s life changes forever. It happened, according to the movie, on July 7th, 1937, when something called the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred and Imperial Japan invaded China. The movie doesn’t talk about what the Marco Polo Bridge Incident was, but for the purposes of our story today, all we find out is that the Japanese have occupied Ip Man’s hometown of Foshan.

What the movie is referring to here is an event that actually happened, but there’s more to the story. You see, the Japanese occupation of China didn’t start on July 7th, 1937 like the movie implies. It actually started six years earlier in 1931 when the Imperial Japanese Empire took over Manchuria in northeastern China, north of modern-day North Korea.

Remember that Foshan is in southern China, so we’re talking about 2,000 miles, or 3,200 kilometers, away from where Ip Man lived. Nevertheless, it’s the same country—and that occupation didn’t help the relationship between the Japanese the Chinese governments.

Tensions continued to rise with more and more Chinese citizens around the whole of China finding themselves with a growing distaste for the Japanese.

Then, on July 7th, 1937, the event the movie talks about happened. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident is something that happened on, well, the Marco Polo Bridge. That’s a bridge that was built somewhere around the year 1200 CE and earned its name when the famous explorer mentioned it in his travels. Those records made their way back to the Western world and that’s why most Westerners today refer to it as the Marco Polo Bridge.

For a bit of geography, that bridge is near what we now know as Beijing. So that’s still about 1,300 miles—2,000 kilometers—to the north of Foshan.

On the evening of July 6th, some Japanese forces had occupied a train station near the bridge.

The next day, a small detachment of Japanese troops demanded they be let into the nearby walled city of Wanping. There’s been a lot of controversy over the years as to what exactly happened here, but many historians think the Japanese troops wanted in so they could try to find one of their soldiers that had gone missing.

Even though we don’t know exactly what happened, we know the Chinese troops in the city refused to let the Japanese in, and shots rang out. Later that night, the Japanese tried to get into the city by force but were repelled.

By the time the sun rose on July 8th, reinforcements from both sides had begun to arrive and things began to get out of hand, culminating in the Chinese Army attacking the Japanese at the bridge at about 4:50 AM. That began the Battle of Beiping-Tianjin and along with it the Second Sino-Japanese War—full scale war between the Chinese and Japanese nations.

Going back to the movie, you’ll also notice the filmmakers made a pretty big change in the movie when talking about the Japanese invasion. Before it, everything is bright and vibrant. After the Japanese occupation, the colors in the movie become more desaturated and darker.

Of course, the world didn’t physically get more desaturated after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, but that battle kicking off the war ended in Japanese victory and led to spreading occupation of China by the Imperial Japanese Empire. So it’s certainly something that made life darker for the citizens of China who were affected.

For the purposes of our story, though, it can mark something of a turning point. You see, this is about the point in the film where a lot of the main storyline seems to diverge from history.

For instance, after the Japanese occupation, Donnie Yen’s version of Ip Man tells his wife that he’ll have to go out and start looking for a job. He goes on to say he never needed one before, but he needs to now.

The implication here is that because of his wealthy upbringing, he’s never really needed to work.

Well, that’s not true. Even though Ip Man grew up in a wealthy family and we don’t know the specifics of his finances, we know from history that Ip Man actually got a job as a policeman soon after he returned to Foshan from Hong Kong at the age of 24. We don’t really know how long he held this job for, but we do know that after the events in the movie—namely, after the Japanese occupation during World War II—Ip Man returned to Foshan and once again became a policeman.

There’s also no indication in historical documents that Ip Man was forced to work shoveling coal like the movie suggests.

Probably the biggest inaccuracy in the film, though, is…well, pretty much the entire premise of the battle between Ip Man and General Miura.

General Miura, by the way, is played by Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.

While there’s no documentation I could find to indicate General Miura was a real person, it’s hard to say that there’s absolutely no proof. After all, Miura was a common Japanese surname of the time and many records from the Imperial Japanese Empire were destroyed or lost during the course of World War II.

What is true, though, is that word of Ip Man’s talents somehow made their way to the Japanese military. They, in turn, tried to get Ip Man to train their troops. Sort of like what we saw General Miura ask Ip Man to do, albeit with different means to reach those ends.

Unfortunately we don’t know a lot of the details about what happened, so we can’t really do a scene-by-scene comparison. But there’s no historical proof of Ip Man fighting in tournaments like we saw in the movie or even battling a Japanese General like we saw in the big, epic fight at the end.

In fact, the true story is quite different than what we saw in the movie. Remember when we learned earlier that Ip Man worked as a policeman and there wasn’t any proof of him shoveling coal for work like we saw in the movie?

Well, a big part of that is probably because what really happened was that when the Japanese Imperial Army wanted Ip Man to train their soldiers, he refused. We don’t know the capacity by which he wanted them to train the soldiers—by that I mean, it’s not likely they wanted or expected Ip Man to train millions of people—but they did want to take advantage of his expertise. When he refused, that is when the Japanese captured his family’s wealth.

So the movie’s timeline is flipped because in the film it wasn’t until the end when the Japanese asked Ip Man to train them. In truth, it was as a result of Ip Man’s refusal that he was left without his family’s wealth.

But he didn’t go work shoveling coal like the movie implies.

He did, though, do something else we saw in the movie. That would be training some of the people working at a cotton mill. For the most part, though, things were fairly quiet for Master Ip during the war. For two years, 1941 to 1943, he trained workers at the cotton mill and some others in exchange for financial support.

Sadly, Ip Man’s wife passed away somewhere around 1943 and he set about the task of raising their children alone.

Yes, I said children.

In the movie, Ip Man only has one son. In truth, by the time Cheung passed away, Ip Man had two sons and a daughter.

And with that, we’re pretty much caught up to the point in time when the movie ends.

Of course, if you’re a fan of the movie then you’ll know there was also Ip Man 2 and Ip Man 3. No, we’re not going to compare those movies to history now, but as the existence of sequels imply, that’s not where Ip Man’s story ends.

According to the text at the end of the movie, Ip Man settled in Hong Kong after the war and began teaching Wing Chun.

That’s true, but there’s more to the story.

Ip Man managed to survive as a single father through the end of World War II. Then, the people of China went through yet another period of turmoil when the Chinese civil war erupted. Well, technically, one could argue it began in 1927 and sort of took a hiatus for World War II, only to pick back up after the global conflict…but the point here for our story is that by the time 1949 rolled around, the Communist party had gained control over much of China.

And, simply put, they didn’t really like the political circles that Ip Man was apparently affiliated with at the time. So that is why Ip Man moved to Hong Kong after the war. In case you weren’t aware, despite its connection to China, Hong Kong is technically an autonomous territory.

But the movie is correct in mentioning that it was here in Hong Kong when Ip Man opened his martial arts school. His first official school after the war, even though he’d trained many up to this point.

Despite living in Hong Kong earlier in his life and having quite a reputation in Foshan, Ip Man’s school didn’t take off. In fact, it did fairly poorly. His classes mostly consisted of drills, technique and sparring with other students, but there wasn’t necessarily a syllabus for the training. As a result, many students came and went.

While it didn’t help his success immediately to have his students leave, sometimes only months after starting their training, many of those students went off and sparred with more well-known martial artists in the region—and won. These victories helped increase Ip Man’s reputation and, by extension, brought in more students.

Eight years after arriving in Hong Kong, a 16-year-old boy by the name of Lee Jun-fan was one of those students who joined Ip Man’s classes. This brought a lot of controversy from the other students. You see, Lee Jun-fan was born in San Francisco. He was American, even though his father had immigrated to the U.S. from China.

That was enough for some students to leave, not wanting to train alongside someone of mixed blood.

But Ip Man continued to train Lee Jun-fan. Maybe he saw something of himself in the young fighter. You see, soon after Lee was born, his family moved to Hong Kong. That was just before the Japanese occupation began. So he, too, had to live under Japanese occupation, albeit as a child.

Maybe Ip Man saw something special in him. Maybe he saw a bit of his own children in the young boy. We don’t really know. But what we do know is that in 1955, Ip Man decided to offer private training to the young Lee Jun-fan.

That only lasted for a few years, though, and in 1959, after a fight at school with someone who his parents feared were tied to organized crime in Hong Kong, Lee Jun-fan was sent back to the United States to live with his aunt in San Francisco.

Today, we know Lee Jun-fan by a different name: Bruce Lee.

For years, Ip Man continued training martial artists.

Sensing the inevitable, Ip Man decided to turn to film for another reason. He didn’t want to become a movie star like Bruce Lee, but instead he wanted to capture the system he’d helped build into a respected form of martial arts—Wing Chun. He wanted to make sure the legacy of the system he’d established would live on beyond his years.

And so, in October of 1972, at his request, Ip Man’s two sons and one of his students, Lau Hon Lam, filmed the legendary martial artist practicing his now famous Wing Chun system.

It’s some of the only footage we have of Ip Man, and you can find it embedded above.

At this point, Ip Man was 79 years old and despite still being incredibly fast, was slowed as he fought through incredible pain to be filmed performing the drills he’d run countless times before.

You see, despite a lifetime of exercise from practicing martial arts, Ip Man also had lifetime of smoking cigarettes and opium that was catching up with him.

Then, just weeks after shooting the footage, it did. On December 2nd, 1972, Ip Man passed away into legend.

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