China is as large as Europe, and the many climatic and geographical regions have generated their own particular styles. For example in the North where it is mountainous people would ride horses and there was more emphasis on the stances and leg movements whereas in the South where transport was by river the posture and arm movements predominated. Different climatic regions also tend to produce different kinds of diseases and so the Taoist doctors would tailor their exercises to suit the environment. In order to explore the widest possible area the early Taoists decided that each should specialise in a particular aspect of the field and so T’ai Chi styles have also evolved along different paths each reflecting the interests or abilities of a particular teacher.
Most of the modern T’ai Chi styles we see today are offshoots of the Chen village style or the more traditional Taoist Wudang style, but during the cultural revolution (1966-1976) these styles almost died out. Even before then, after the fall of the Qing dynasty certain aspects of Taoist training were frowned upon as outdated and superstitious, and aspects like theatre and the spiritual aspects gradually fell by the wayside as Christianity came from the West.
The Lee style is the only true Taoist art, the oldest form of T’ai Chi Ch’uan in existence, and the most popular style in the world. It has been preserved into modern times since it came to the West in the 1930s. Some of the styles which have become popular in China in recent years are quite different from those which have been exported to other countries prior to the modern era when China became progressively more westernised. Foreign invasions, political upheaval, civil war, and two world wars have seen very little preserved in the way of accurate documented records for any reliable chronology to be compiled. Nevertheless the many volumes of Taoist writings which have survived testify to the fact that internal forms of exercise have been popular in China for many thousands of years.
The Lee style Taoist Arts were popularised in the West by two prominent figures, Chan Lee and his student Chee Soo.
Chee Soo was born on 19th June 1919 in Marylebone, London. In 1926 at the age of seven he entered the care of the Barnardo’s home in Stepney Causeway. He left school at fourteen and had odd jobs, he worked as a farm labourer and as a page boy in a nursing home in Earl’s Court, a job he didn’t particularly enjoy.
Chan Kam Lee 李陈金 (Pinyin: Lǐ chén jīn)
On his day off one Sunday he was playing in Hyde Park when he met an elderly gentleman who was Chinese, an importer-exporter named Chan Kam Lee 李陈金. Chee Soo gave us some insights into these early days when he was interviewed on the Brian Hayes radio show on LBC:
“It’s rather curious, by a very strange coincidence, probably another Chinese fairy tale really. When I left Doctor Barnardo homes at fourteen years of age I became a page boy in Earl’s Court in a nursing home, and I used to go over to Hyde Park and have a kick around on my day off on Sundays, and I happened to be playing with my ball when my ball actually hit the back of the head of a gentleman sitting on a park bench….
He was sitting there, just sitting there very quietly, and I went over to retrieve my ball, and I came up to the front of him to apologise, and I saw he was Chinese, and we got talking and he was an importer/exporter, very much alone he had no family, and I was of course actually an orphan and having no family of my own, and the friendship gradually grew and grew, and till eventually in actual fact after many meetings he invited me to his club in Holborn, Red Lion Square, which he had a little club meeting three or four times a week, and from then on I practised under him almost continuously. ”
Chan Lee was from Weihaiwei in Shandong in China and was trading in gemstones between Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and London. In 1930 he had set up offices in Holborn near the jewellery quarter in London’s Hatton Garden, the centre of the world gemstone trade at the time, and in 1933 he opened a small class teaching a selected group of friends in a schoolroom in Red Lion Square.
In the summer of 1934 Chee Soo was invited to train at Chan Lee’s class which met three or four times a week. Chan Lee was without a family so he adopted Chee Soo and began training him in the Lee family style.
Chee Soo was working as a merchant seaman in the Mediterranean when he enlisted in the British Army reserve on 26th October 1936 under his English name of Clifford Gibbs. In April 1937 he was approved to join the Royal Tank Regiment and went to train at Bovington Camp, Wareham, Dorset. During leave from his training he would stay with his friend the author Sir Rupert Croft-Cooke at his flat in London, and is mentioned in several of his books, in fact he even wrote a short story about him which was published in a newspaper in India.
“Clifford Gibbs had got his rather grand name from Dr Barnardo’s Homes, for he had been reared in one of these, the son of a Chinese father and English mother, neither of whom he had ever seen. I had known him before the war and was as proud as he was of the Military Medal he had earned as a Corporal in the Royal Armoured Corps in North Africa. He had been sent to Burma and taken prisoner by the Japanese, and suffered unspeakable tortures and humiliations because of his race, separated as he was from his fellow British. He had survived and, inwardly as inscrutable as a Conrad character, a little like Wang in Victory, he had married a blonde English girl and had an exquisite baby daughter whose godfather I became at a Sunday afternoon service in an East End Anglican church. Clifford, who went about life methodically, was severely industrious and found the means of saving for his family even in those days of grudging wages. But he had a humorous cheerful side to his character and enlivened my flat during his weekly visits between office hours and his return to Durban Street, E.15. He was an expert wrestler and had earned the Judo black belt. Only from the depths of his character emerged sometimes the exotic or oriental; in speech and manner he was very much an Englishman, and it was strange to hear from his curved lips words that might have been used by any London ex-soldier. I am glad to have had his friendship throughout those years.” The Dogs of Peace by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Chee went to fight in Northern France on the outbreak of war returning to Britain in 1940 where he was married to his first wife Gwendoline. During the war Chee Soo rose to the rank of sergeant in charge of his own troop of tanks. His unit was part of the legendary Desert Rats, and in Libya in 1941 as part of Operation Compass, he was awarded the military medal for his bravery as a tank commander at the Battle of Beda Fomm. The British in light tanks were outnumbered ten to one, but through their courage and tenacity after an intense battle with hand to hand fighting the Italians were eventually forced to surrender. Soon after this he was posted to Burma, and at the Battle of Yenanyaung – protecting British and Chinese troops who were destroying an oilfield to prevent it falling into the hands of the advancing Japanese – Chee was then captured on 19th April 1942.
The remainder of the war was spent as a POW on the Burma Death railway as part of a working party. Conditions in the POW camps in Burma were inhuman and many Allied soldiers died of disease and starvation or were summarily executed by the Japanese. Over the next three years he was to attempt to escape five times and frequently engaged in sabotaging enemy communications. He suffered solitary confinement, torture and beatings, by his own account he was staked out in the sun and eventually sentenced to death by firing squad only to have the sentence postponed twice due to Allied air raids. This prompted him to escape with the company of a Gurkha who helped him survive in the jungle for a month eating herbs and local plants until they managed to get behind Allied lines in the Shan mountains of West Burma. He was almost shot by the American guerrilla unit who found him when they mistook his oriental features for a Japanese soldier but they were amazed to hear his distinctive Cockney accent speaking in English. At this point he weighed only six stone and had to be put on triple rations, he was discharged from the services and was designated a war crimes witness and returned to England to be reunited with his wife. His discharge sheet gave him this testimonial:
“Conduct – Exemplary. This man has worked excellently. He has held non-commissioned officer rank for over five years and is a qualified driver operator. He is intelligent, thoroughly honest and sober and is of the good hardworking type with reliability.”
Teaching the Taoist Arts
Chee Soo set up his own club teaching the Taoist Arts in Manor Road school, West Ham. After Chan Lee died in 1954, Chee Soo became the head of the Association. In subsequent years Chee Soo went on to teach Feng Shou kung fu, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, K’ai Men qigong, and the Taoist Health Arts in clubs he established around Britain and in Commonwealth countries and Europe.
In the 1960’s Chee had become a well known figure in London and one of his students was Ray Austin the fight arranger and later director for The Avengers cult TV series. From 1965 Ray Austin worked closely with Chee Soo to develop the distinctive fighting style that became the hallmark of The Avengers stunts and fight scenes. Chee Soo, Ray Austin and Dame Diana Rigg were awarded the Guinness world record as the first people to show kung fu on TV to western audiences, this was seven years before Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu boom of the 1970’s. The Avengers was shown in more then eighty countries worldwide and for many years held the record as the most widely distributed television programme in the world, a publicity photo taken in 1967 shows Chee Soo with Dame Diana Rigg and Ray Austin.
A Movietone newsreel documentary film taken in 1970 at the University of Surrey shows Chee Soo giving a demonstration of Chi Shu, a Chinese soft style Martial Art similar to Aikido, which he taught under the auspices of the British Wushu Association. According to this report Chee Soo’s Association had more than 2000 students in Britain, he was one of the few people recognised by the Beijing masters and authorised to teach Wushu outside China.
During the 1970s as well as teaching classes, Chee Soo also ran a herbal clinic in London.
In 1973 Chee Soo made an appearance on BBC One’s Nationwide where they demonstrated Feng Shou Kung Fu to presenter Bob Wellings in the studio giving practical demonstrations of the power of internal energy or Chi. He also talked about the history of Chinese Martial Arts. The hallmark of his style was the relaxed technique and the emphasis on non-competition.
In 1974 he wrote “Teach yourself Kung Fu”, and in 1976 he wrote “The Chinese Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan” followed by “Chinese Yoga” (1977) and “The Tao of Long Life” (1979).
In 1975 Chee Soo was filmed by the BBC at his Feng shou kung fu class in Seymour Hall in London and subsequently appeared in a documentary broadcast for schools entitled “Scene: Looking for a fight”. His soft style kung fu self-defence class was contrasted with boxing and hard style kung fu.
During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76) Chee Soo’s group had become the largest group teaching Taoist Arts in the world with many classes in different countries. Today we are more familiar with Chinese Martial Arts and Taoist cultivation techniques like T’ai Chi and Qigong, but at this time China was not open to the West. Even in China these kinds of techniques were not shown publicly and had for many years only been available to Chinese people through joining secret societies and study associations both in mainland China and the Chinese diaspora overseas. Chan Kam Lee and Chee Soo were amongst the first pioneers in teaching the Taoist Arts openly to Westerners.
In 1977 he was interviewed on the Brian Hayes radio show on LBC and talked about T’ai Chi Ch’uan, his meeting with Chan Lee, and some of the background to Taoist spiritual views such as reincarnation. He also talked about one of his most passionate subjects: the rise in importance of women’s role in society.
In 1978 Patrick Kelly – an author and T’ai Chi teacher from Australia – visited Chee Soo’s Kai Men Qigong club in London and wrote an account of his experiences in his book “Infinite Dao”, which is also published on Patrick’s website.
In 1982 Chee Soo moved to Coventry in the West Midlands and set about gathering together a new group of teachers, it was to be his last. The emphasis moved away from Kung Fu more towards T’ai Chi Ch’uan – his personal favourite section of the Taoist Arts. Although he taught the self defence aspects of T’ai Chi such as T’ai Chi weapons, Whirling Hands, and Whirling Arms, he was more interested in developing the cultivation aspects of the Arts including Qigong and Taoist philosophy. He opened a club in the Alderman Callow School in Canley near his home in Charter Avenue, Coventry, where he held a weekly evening class. He also taught weekend courses in Lee style T’ai Chi Ch’uan and K’ai Men qigong, Feng Shou Kung Fu, Chi Shu, and Health and Massage classes including Anmo or Chi energy meridian massage, and Ch’ang Ming or Taoist macrobiotic diet. He taught an Easter and Summer Course every year including a week of T’ai Chi, a week of Feng Shou kung fu, and a week of Health and Massage. Many students travelled from overseas to attend these courses, and he also visited groups of students around the world teaching courses in France, Germany, The Netherlands, and Australia. He also opened a club at the Oddfellows’ Hall in Warwick Street in Leamington Spa which attracted acupuncturists from the College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture run by Professor J.R.Worsley, and students from the University of Warwick who set up their own club at the University Students’ Union.
He found a new publisher – The Aquarian Press (an imprint of HarperCollins) – for his series of training manuals about the Lee style Taoist Arts. He now had five paperbacks which were updated versions of his earlier hardback books. These became best sellers and were published in several languages across the world including French (distributed in Canada, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Portugal), German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (distributed in Brazil), Polish, and Indonesian. His books were among the first to reveal previously unheard of techniques of Taoist cultivation exercises such as the Microcosmic Orbit and the “Way of Occlusion”.
There was a new book added to the series “The Taoist Ways of Healing” detailing the Eight strands of the Brocade or the various techniques of Chinese medicine and healing. Over eight years from 1976 to 1984 he wrote a new book about Taoist philosophy called “The Tao of My Thoughts” – a practical guide to philosophy and living life as a Taoist, but this remained hidden at the back of a filing cabinet and was given to Seahorse Books for publication in 2006.
In 1990 he moved to Ebbw Vale in Wales where he was married to his second wife Marilyn in 1992. Chee Soo died in 1994 aged 75.
Anyone who met Chee Soo – and he trained thousands of people – will testify that here was no academic but a living Taoist who was thoroughly immersed in the philosophy he had learned from an early age from his teacher Chan Kam Lee.
Chee Soo’s books continue to be published with the help of Marilyn Soo and are available from the Seahorse Books website