The Personal Web Site of Carl Pearson

Lee Style T’ai Chi


The Personal Web Site of Carl Pearson

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is there no evidence of the practice of Lee Style Tai Chi in China?

When Chee Soo published, The Chinese Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan in 1984+, western knowledge of T’ai Chi in China remained very limited. Following the Chinese revolution, and particularly the cultural revolution in the 1960’s, much of China’s traditional culture was eliminated or at least suppressed. Some elements survived in Hong Kong and in other overseas communities with an established Chinese population. Chee Soo talks with some knowledge about Yang style T’ai Chi and was undoubtedly aware of this styles popularity. By the time he was writing various traditions from a Yang family lineage had travelled and been established around the world. He also mentions Chen style, which he believed, not unreasonably in the circumstances, to have died out. He mentions one of the Wu styles, that of Yu-Seong Wu, which he had heard was still practiced in Hong Kong. Reading this today it is a very limited account of the variety of T’ai Chi forms and systems that can be documented around the world now. Since Chee Soo wrote his account China’s relations with the west have improved and this has opened up opportunities for much more cultural exchange. A number of western T’ai Chi students have gone to China to train and some have spent considerable time there studying T’ai Chi. The Chinese government now supports and sponsors its own official version of T’ai Chi, the simplified Yang style, which was developed in the 1950’s and T’ai Chi competitions are held regularly in China and around the world. The Chinese tourist trial can even include a visit to the Chen village and an official history tells the story of  how the Chen family clan preserved and passed on the arts we now know as T’ai Chi.

Some people have tried to find the origins of Chee Soo’s Lee Style back in China. To date they have not succeeded and although various ideas have been put forward they pose as many new questions as they answer. Lavinia Warr (Chee’s daughter) suggests a link to one of the Wu styles through Li Yi She. Of course if true this would seem to undermine much of Chee Soo’s own account of the independent historical family history of the style. It is perhaps most plausible to follow Chee Soo’s own account of a family history but accept that the Lee Style  form  of Chan Lee may well have been influenced in both execution and set movements by Wu style. Equally, as Chee Soo states Chan Lee was the last family member to practice the style and when he left China the link was broken and the style as he practiced it effectively disappeared from China.

Is T’ai Chi an Ancient Taoist Art?

The term T’ai Chi Chuan is a relatively modern one. It comes into common usage to describe this style of martial art only after Yang Lu Chan took his style to Beijing in 1852. Prior to this it is possible to work back and attribute lineages describing where the art came from, although all these are to some degree disputed or unclear. There is also evidence to indicate the practice of T’ai Chi like martial arts amongst the Taoist monks of Wudang mountain and elsewhere. Some authorities maintain that the Chen and Yang family traditions originally derive from this source.

What is clear is that the T’ai Chi teachings to do with internal alchemy, such as micro-cosmic orbit circulation of chi, special breathing techniques and chi  kung and nei gung exercises are rooted in Taoist traditions and teachings. These teachings historically were considered particularly valuable and were only passed on in secret to trusted students with whom a special close relationship was formed and formally sealed through a ritual initiation.

In terms of Chee Soo’s account, he clearly shows considerable knowledge of these practices and techniques in his published works. According to the accounts given by his major students he also had the ability to demonstrate and use these arts in his teaching and practice. Looking at what he says about the history of the Lee Family Taoist Arts it is reasonable to suggest these techniques have been known and written about for 2,000 years or more and there is independent evidence to collaborate this contention. His account of how the whole range of arts developed and stayed within a single family tradition over this period is much more difficult to accept. It is perhaps just conceivable in relation to a transmission of internal alchemy and nei gung. Chee Soo may be accurately reporting what he was told but the evidence now coming out suggests that none of what we now have as T’ai Chi forms is much more than 150 years old and indeed the forms we have and practice, whatever there origins and history, are those handed down over less than about four generations of teachers. We know the two different Wu forms and the Hao form originated in the nineteenth century, and the Sun form dates from the twentieth century. Chee Soo also did not teach the forms of the Lee Family Taoist Arts slavishly without change. He reportedly made a number of changes to the way some moves were taught over the years. It seems to me he was probably most concerned with teaching the principles of good T’ai Chi and took responsibility for changing things when in his terms he found a better way. Flexibility and not rigidity is after all the way of the Tao.

Did Chee Soo nominate a successor to carry on the arts following his death?

This question is of less importance now than it was in the period just after Chee Soo’s death. At that time there were  a lot of claims and disputation about this issue which ended with several students setting up their own associations. I don’t know the answer to the question, although I have read various posts on the web about this issue which usually come down to a debate about who was Chee Soo’s highest ranked student at the time of his death, or a claim that Chee Soo personally asked someone to carry on his work. Des Murray’s current web site, there have been several with different names, claims he is the Grand Master and Chee Soo’s nominated successor. I don’t think of any of Chee Soo’s other senior students would agree with this claim. I did read one account that at an instructors weekend in Wales shortly before his death Chee Soo indicated a list of people he considered his successors and whom he hoped would carry on the arts. I don’t know if this is true nor have I any idea whose names were allegedly cited. Again I think the present situation of a range of associations, which in some ways cover different parts of the country, is not unhelpful. Most, if not all of the associations have produced new and useful teaching materials, there are differences in emphasis between health and a more martial arts approach. One association is headed by a women, something that may well have pleased Chee Soo.

What do we know about Chan Lee and his family?

Chee Soo talks about where they came from in China and the fact the family were Taoists. Chan Lee is described as a dealer in precious and semi precious stones, perhaps a good reason to be proficient in a martial art. He apparently had business premises in Holborn and taught his tai chi class in a school room in Red Lion Square. He died in a storm in the South China Sea in the winter of 1953/54. As far as I know no one has been able to independently verify any of the facts given in this account. If anyone reading this does have any evidence I would be interested to hear about it. No pictures exist, or at least have been published, depicting Chan Lee. I was told that all Chee Soo’s own material relating to Chan Lee was lost in both a house fire in London, and later in a flood in Wales. Chris Simpson, who has done more than most to try and authenticate the Lee Style history and lineage, did manage to publish some new original material from Chee Soo so it is just possible that even now some further material will come to light.

+ I now understand an earlier edition was published in 1976.