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Lee Style T’ai Chi


The Personal Web Site of Carl Pearson

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Chee Soo reports that he learnt the arts from a Chinese businessman, Chan Kam Lee who he met in London in 1934*. Chan Lee was the last member of his own family to still practice the Lee Family Taoist Arts and over the next five years he taught Chee Soo as part of a small class he ran for friends. During the second world war Chee Soo fought with distinction, was a Japanese prisoner of war, and later escaped finding his own way back to allied lines. Following the war Chee Soo continued to learn and acquire martial arts skills, adding judo and Aikido+ to the arts he had studied. He reports he also managed to make contact with Chan Lee and continue to train with him. Chan kam Lee was a trader in precious and semi precious stones and travelled between China and Europe as part of his business. In the winter of 1953/1954 the ship on which he was sailing was lost in a storm in the South China sea.

According to the account in Chee Soo’s books, Chee Soo established his first class in Manor Road School, West Ham in 1950. His daughter Lavinia dates the start of this class as 1947 in her account of her father’s life, and also reports the existence of an agreement between Chee Soo and Chan Lee that Chee Soo would not teach the Chinese arts until ten years had passed. During the 1950’s Chee Soo became a successful instructor in Aikido and built up a number of classes and clubs in this art. At the end of the agreed period in 1958, Chee Soo decided to switch from Aikido to teach the Lee Family Taoist Arts. From this point forward he only taught the Chinese arts he had learnt from Chan Lee. There are slightly different accounts of the arts Chee Soo taught. The following list is agreed by most sources:

Chee Soo also taught I Fu Shou (sticky hands), Lun Shou (whirling hands), Lun Pei (whirling arms) and Mo Kun (the Taoist Wand). Chee Soo taught and practiced a range of other health arts including, Anmo and T’uina (massage), Tien Chen (acupressure), Mo Hsiang (meditation), Chen Tuan (Chinese Diagnosis) and Ch’ili Nung (The way of occlusion). He was famous for his advocacy of the Ch’ang Ming diet. Chee Soo describes all the arts he taught as “Taoist”. He says that they were handed down through the Lee family who were Taoists and that this origin is the source of their ancient lineage.

Following Chee Soo’s death his main students, and some not quite so senior, set up their own associations to continue to teach the Lee Family Taoist Arts. The main  associations in the UK teaching Lee Style are:

Taoist Arts Organisation - Chief Instructor & Technical Director: Tony Swanson

International Daoist Society (Weihai Lishi Quanfa) - Chief Instructor: Desmond Murray

East-West Taoist Association - Chief Instructor: Howard Gibbon

Lee Family Internal Arts - Chief Instructor: Keith Ewers

Taoist Cultural Arts Association - Chief Instructor: Chris Simpson

Lee Family Arts - Chief Instructor: Shelia Dickinson

Chee Soo’s daughter, Lavinia Warr - Soo also teaches a different version of the Lee Style Tai Chi Form that she calls the “original” Li Style. Lavinia and her husband Peter have their own organisation Wu Kung through which they teach a wide range of Tai Chi styles. They have developed their practice within the mainstream of Tai Chi as recognised and accredited in China.

The forms taught by the different associations are similar, apart from that taught by Chee Soo’s daughter, which from my limited exposure to it is more complex and demanding to learn at a physical level than the Lee form handed down directly by Chee Soo. In the twenty years since Chee Soo died what is taught as Lee Style T’ai Chi form by some teachers has begun to diverge a bit from what Chee Soo laid down. I look to the description of the form in the book published by Chee Soo as the benchmark against which to judge what is generally taught as the Lee Style T’ai Chi Chuan form. It seems difficult to argue against the view that this depiction largely represents what Chee Soo himself wanted to pass on to the next generation.

My own original teacher, Mike Stanley, knew all the main students and I know he particularly respected Tony Swanson, Des Murray and Howard Gibbon. He also said to me on one occasion that Chee Soo had said to him that there was another form that he still needed to learn, and I know Mike wondered if this might be the form now being taught by Lavinia Warr.

In my opinion the popularity of the Lee Family form is founded on the quality of teaching provided by Chee Soo. Those who met and decided to stay with him and learn acquired great skill and knowledge. All those I have spoken to within the Lee Family Arts have testified to Chee Soo’s ability. He was by all their accounts a superb and gifted martial artist and a dedicated teacher. Many of his students still talk about his ability to demonstrate the power and influence of his own chi energy. My own teacher was quite convinced that Chee Soo’s teaching was special. Following Chee Soo’s death he had looked at other internationally known teachers such as Bruce Kumar Frantzis, who I know he considered very good, but I sensed were not as convincing to Mike as Chee Soo had been.

* Shipping Records show that someone with the name Kam Lee entered England at the Port of London on 16th July 1926 on the ship “Glaucus” but it is not possible to demonstrate this is the same Kam Lee. There are no other known records of a Kam or Chan Lee entering England from China at the right period.

+ I recently come across some references to the early teaching of Aikido that throw some doubt on the accuracy of the dating  I suggest in this account. Although there were Japanese martial artists in Britain from the 1920’s the only arts widely taught where Judo and Karate. It was only after 1955 that any organised system of teaching and training for Aikido teachers emerged in Britain via Sensei Kenshiro Abbe. Both Sensi Abbe and Masutaro Otani are cited as important to this spread of knowledge, Chee’s daughter documents his contact with both these Japanese teachers, but if the histories given in the Aikido lineage are right Chee Soo’s contact with them must have been later, or much briefer, than my account above implies.

Brief History of Lee Style Tai Chi

Lee Style Tai Chi, or the Lee Family Taoist Arts as it is also called is unusual in that it has developed and gained popularity in Britain and spread to other parts of the world from there. The popularity of the arts is down to one individual - Chee Soo. Chee Soo taught these arts for over 30 years until he died in 1994. All the evidence we have for the history of the arts comes from what Chee Soo said about them during his lifetime and what he wrote about them in his own books.