Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Wing Chun and Law Enforcement


Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, regarding Ip Man's days before he moved to Hong Kong. He was in law enforcement and was on the Communist Enemy's List when they took over, which prompted him to move to Hong Kong. The rest is history.

The full post may be read here.

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Detective Ip Man and the Roots of the Multiple Attacker Scenario

Ip Man was a younger son born into a wealthy merchant family.  His parents owned businesses between Foshan and Hong Kong and they could afford the best for their children.  Ip Man received both a traditional Chinese style education and a state of the art western one in Hong Kong.  In sociological terms he was clearly in the economic class that subsequent historians have termed the “new gentry.”  Among the various luxuries in life, his parents bought him Wing Chun lessons with Chan Wah Shun, an important local martial artists.

Ip Man appears to have been a genuinely genial and well liked individual.  However, it is also quite clear that he was not a very productive member of society for much of his young adulthood.  Apparently he preferred to spend the family fortune rather than building it, and he devoted most of his time to practicing Kung Fu and associating with other local martial artists.

I suspect that much of the impoverishment of the Ip family actually has to do with Nationalist (GMD) tax policy and wealth expropriations to support the Northern Campaign against the warlords in the 1920s.  In this sort of an economic environment making large investments with payoffs in the distant future probably did not make a lot of sense, and consumption at least insured that you got to enjoy your wealth while it lasted.

By the 1930s and 1940s the economic fortunes of the Ip family had turned for the worse.  It is often said that due to his diminished circumstances Ip Man was forced to get a job as some sort of law enforcement officer in Foshan.  When this happened, and what post he actually held, is not always clear.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Most of the accounts we have are brief and sometimes they have been carelessly translated.  Ip Man himself did not spend a lot of time ruminating about the “good old days” as he apparently came to despise the Nationalists government.  His children (especially Ip Ching) were also quite young at the time of these events.  Lastly, most Wing Chun students only care about the Hong Kong period of his career when he was actively teaching.  As a result not much research has ever been conducted on his earlier career in law enforcement.

The accounts of Ip Man’s career in law enforcement that we do have are brief and contradictory.  Some sources indicate that he started working with the police in Foshan as early as the 1930s.  I recently heard an interview with an “expert” from a mainland non-Ip Man Wing Chun lineage who claimed that Ip Man actually started to work in law enforcement after the 1938 Japanese occupation of the area.  According to this individual he was actually a Japanese collaborator and traitor, which is why he was forced to flee to Hong Kong in 1945 and never returned to mainland China.

The claim that Ip Man started to work for the local GMD police in the 1930s is interesting, but I believe it is ultimately based on a misunderstanding.  The more recent claim that he worked for the Japanese police and was a collaborator is outrageous.  There is no evidence to support that claim and quite a bit (like his actual travel documents that show he immigrated to Hong Kong in 1949, fleeing the Communists) that disprove it.  Still, on at least a social level this particular conspiracy theory is interesting as it demonstrates how uneasy many martial artists in mainland China are with both Wing Chun’s sudden rise in popularity and its domination by “foreign” teachers in both Hong Kong and the West.  Discrediting Ip Man and his lineage would be a helpful first step in rewriting the history of this art in terms that mainland martial artists might find more helpful.

Instead the greatest number of accounts, and the most reliable accounts, seem to indicate that Ip Man was first hired to work in law enforcement by the Nationalist government as it struggled to regain control of the countryside in the wake of the Japanese withdrawal at the end of WWII.  During the war Ip Man had actually been employed as a private martial arts instructor at a friend’s cotton factory.  As the war ended and the economy returned to normal his first experiment in public teaching came to a close.

Shortly after the close of his school Ip Man was apparently approached about leading a group of “plain clothes” detectives in Foshan’s newly reconstituted police force.  He likely accepted this position at some time in 1945 and held it until he abandoned his post and fled to Hong Kong at the end of 1949.  As far as I can tell this four year period was the only time in Ip Man’s life when he held a conventional job that brought home a steady paycheck.

While his days as a carefree “Kung Fu bum” might have been over (to use a modern image), Ip Man’s association with the martial arts did not go away.  In fact, they were probably the reason he was offered the job in the first place.  We know for instance that between 1945 and 1949 Ip Man frequented a local private martial arts association that was backed by the local branch of the GMD.  This is where he occasionally instructed other police officers such as Jiu Chow (who asked him to “correct his forms”) and where he first met and exchanged notes with Pan Nam (again, while the two worked together neither claimed a teacher-student relationship).

I review the details of all of this in my book manuscript and I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion of what Wing Chun looked like between 1945 and 1949 in this post.  But I will say that knowing some form of martial arts was an important job skill for law enforcement officers, and being able to evaluate and teach them was something that would benefit their officers.

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