The Personal Web Site of Carl Pearson

Lee Style T’ai Chi


The Personal Web Site of Carl Pearson

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More Frequently Asked Questions

I have heard it claimed that Chee Soo was recognised by the Taoist Masters in China. Is this true?

This claim was made in some literature promoting classes. When I checked the books recently for where I had read it, the only reference I could find was in the Kung Fu book (p233), where it says briefly that Chee Soo’s International Wu Shu Association was the only organisation at the time recognised in China. The claim is also repeated in the histories given by some of Chee Soo’s students. As far as I know there is no evidence to verify this statement. At the time it was probably originally made the Chinese cultural revolution would have made it difficult for anyone to claim to be a Taoist master and formally give such recognition and as far as I know no one who was a master travelled to the west met and “recognised” Chee Soo. This was probably an attempt to provide a link back to China and it is quite possible someone in China, possibly in the Government, gave some formal recognition and encouragement to Chee Soo’s work to promote Chinese culture in the west.

Desmond Murray, one of Chee Soo’s top students has promoted his association as the Weihai Lishi Quanfa and his web site at one time talked about links with the White Cloud Temple in China and even gave a contact in China. The text, giving proper respect to Chee Soo, emphasises the Taoist origins of the Lee Style practices. There is apparently a film of a visit to China, The Journey, where the group talk and practice with Taoist practitioners in China identifying common techniques and awareness of energy. It is good if by taking the Lee Style back to China people there have recognised a common heritage and history. However, as far as I am aware none of this has shed any light on the history of the family nor does it confirm the claim made by Chee Soo to some sort of endorsement from Beijing. It is possible, indeed likely, that there is a story behind Chee Soo’s claim and it would be interesting to hear it.

Do the different Associations teach the arts in the same way?

There is a lot of commonality in the way the different Associations describe the way they teach. The best advice is always to try a class and a teacher and see if you like it. If you are not happy try another. Generally in open classes the T’ai Chi form is taught along with Dao Yin and Kai Men exercises. The flying hands form may also be introduced and some partner work such as sticking hands. The weapons forms and more advanced work on the forms may only be taught in a club night and at weekend day schools. It depends on the teacher. The Associations generally support a grading structure and whilst these use the same terms for grades the requirements may differ. One school has offered a fast track to becoming an instructor in less than two years. This approach is unusual and normally an instructor would have probably at least five years of practice, including some assisting in class, before becoming an instructor and this would be considered a very quick progression by a particularly dedicated and adept student.

Since Chee Soo’s death some differences have appeared in the way particular exercises are taught and the way some moves are taught in the form. For example move 12 of the T’ai Chi chuan form. When I was taught this move I was told the hands are pushed out to  the side, then circled outward and round, down the centre line of the body and circled out again to the side. However, if you read the description in Chee Soo’s book, or view Howard Gibbon’s DVD, you will see that here the description is merely to allow the arms to swing down in front of the body and let them slowly push out to the side. I am told Chee Soo taught both ways to execute the movement at different times. On move 19 I was always taught this was a step back into a duck stance, and this is what is shown in Chee Soo’s book. At least one of Chee Soo’s senior students is now teaching this as a step back into leopard with the toes of the right foot pivoting to the left to form a leopard stance at the end of the move. Another move you may encounter performed in two different ways is the step from move 82 to 83. I was originally taught this as a step backward turning 90 degrees, a view supported by Chee Soo’s book. This is also taught as a step forward with a 90 degree rotation, in the same direction, but obviously pivoting on the other leg. For advanced students if you encounter instructors from the Taoist Arts Organisation you may find they have now changed move 126 from a crossed leg stance to a scissors with the foot passing behind, not in front allowing an extra step backward. There is another change, I think around move 133, with the hands being taken to the side.

The Taoist Arts Organisation is the most innovative of the Associations in changing and developing the inheritance from Chee Soo. There is some truth in the view that Lee Style T’ai Chi had waned in its popularity in Chee Soo’s later years. The break up of the Association following personal issues in Chee Soo’s life caused the majority of his senior students to look elsewhere for training and support. Since Chee’s death the TAO has set about systematically seeking to restore the reputation and credibility of Lee Style amongst the wider T’ai Chi community. This has included reworking some aspects of how the traditional form is performed and developing shorter four minute competition versions of the main forms. The Association has also developed a focus on elite performance, and its top competition performers train like athletes or gymnasts. The practice of these performers, whilst rooted in T’ai Chi principles, is very different from that you will encounter in your average T’ai Chi class. It is also interesting that this high level of exhibition performance can be achieved with virtually no attention to work with the breath, although Lee Style form practice has never paid the same attention to breathing as some other systems do. In my view the form taught by the TAO may now best be described as Tony Swanson’s modified Lee form as its execution seems to draw so strongly on Yang style principles.

The fact that Chee Soo made a number of changes to the form during his own time teaching should suggest that the exact sequence of movements is less important than how well movements are performed, and all T’ai Chi forms have undergone, and continue to undergo, change and evolution. We may need to get used to the idea that the arts will continue to evolve and develop. The point I have made, and will continue to make, is that it would be helpful to document any changes so we know what is being taught and whether or not it was taught by Chee Soo at some time. I have seen a reference to a Lee Style Nunchaku form. Whilst I have seen references to Chee Soo teaching other weapons to those generally mentioned in his books I was not aware he taught this form and it does appear to be offered only by one school.

The main associations that continue Chee Soo’s work are also a source of much information that was never recorded or past on through Chee Soo’s books. Both Howard Gibbon and Tony Swanson’s organisations produce regular  Newsletters which often contain interesting insights that you won’t find elsewhere.

There are some people around who trained with Chee Soo and before his death went off and set up their own organisations, including elements of what Chee Soo taught them in their own systems, sometimes without proper acknowledgement. (I was told Chee Soo changed move 12 of the form after the split with his senior student Jack Harford for example). I have come across at least two Kung Fu associations where people have trained with Chee Soo and then gone on to include this training with other sources to create something new.

We still lack an account of the history of the teaching of the form by Chee Soo, the changes he made and the explanations he gave about these changes. At certain times Chee Soo made a deliberate break with his past, and existing teaching set up. He did it when he changed to the Chinese Arts, and he did it again when he moved to Coventry in 1982. There are differing accounts of Chee Soo’s training at this time. Some who knew his previous teaching felt he simplified his teaching and consequently it became less effective. Others maintain there was a change of emphasis and some shift away from the martial tradition, particularly in the T’ai Chi, and that health and the mind-body dimension received more attention.

My own teacher, Mike Stanley, trained with Chee in this period and found his teaching impressive, so even if Chee did make the system easier to learn and more accessible he was still able to produce talented and skilled teachers like Mike. Although there may have been some minor changes to what was taught there was also a lot of commonality in the T’ai Chi and weapons forms. The main criticism seems to be that in the Feng Shou as Chee aged he could not properly demonstrate some of the moves and therefore did not continue to teach them. There is a well known quote attributed to him to the effect that he would only teach what he could do himself. On the other hand he set down his Kung Fu system in a book published in 1983, after he moved to Coventry, and when he was 64 years old. It is still possible to be a good coach and trainer after a fighters career is passed, indeed some would argue that this is when they are best equipped to pass on their knowledge to others. From what I saw the students who progressed in the Coventry period where probably less interested in fighting and more interested in health applications. Of course this is only my personal opinion.

I started to train in Coventry with teachers that had learnt the system with Chee Soo during the l980’s. In my view a number of good teachers emerged during this period. They may not have the many years of training that some teachers had, or claimed to have, but to write them off, and their training, as of a lower standard, does seem to me to be very harsh. Both on them and Chee Soo. It is over 20 years since Chee Soo passed on and I am sure the best of those trainers have continued to develop, and to pass on the Arts to others, which I for one am very grateful they continue to do.