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Factual History of Chee Soo (English name, Clifford Gibbs) and Li Style Taijiquan

By Lavinia Soo-Warr

My Father, Chee Soo, was born in 1919 to a Chinese Father and English Mother. At around the age of 7, due to the death of his parents, he was sent to an orphanage where he spent the next 8 years. His siblings faired better; they were looked after by an elderly spinster and Chee spent many happy weekends with them. The orphanage decided that Chee would stand a better chance with work if he was to change his name, so on their advice he took the maiden name of his mother which was Gibbs and his Grandfather's name of Clifford and he was known for over 30 years as Clifford Gibbs.

At the age of 14, while kicking a ball in Hyde Park, Chee accidentally bumped into a Chinese gentleman by the name of Chan Kam Lee (from Shandong Province, a province famous for its martial arts). This man took pity on this young orphan boy and befriended him. In time he taught Chee the Feng Shou (Hand of the Wind) system of Kung Fu, Li Style Taijiquan and Shuai Chiao (Chinese Wrestling), which gave Chee a great sense of achievement.

After the death of Chan Kam Lee my father took over the position of Chief Instructor to continue to promote these arts. He registered the British Wushu Association in 1958; he was probably one of the first in this country to use the name Wushu. Although he took over the position he promised not to personally teach these arts for ten years. The difference in the spelling of the surname Li / Lee is that the Chinese spelling is Li and the English is Lee.

During the War my father worked his way up to Sergeant in the Royal Tank Corps. His unit took him to Dunkirk, North Africa and Burma, where he was captured and was last seen alive by the men of his command as he was about to have his head cut off by a Japanese Officer. He was officially dead for four years, but during that time he was on a roving work party supplying wood to the men on the Burma Road. He finally managed to escape with two Gurkhas and spent many months moving through the jungle to get to friendly lines. It was during this period that his martial arts training proved invaluable on many occasions, he frequently said that the arts kept him alive. But he did not come out of all that without a mark - he suffered for many years from malaria and wounds to his face and neck caused by shrapnel. These facts can be verified by my father's Commanding Officer and my Godfather Rupert Croft-Cooke, a well-known author. (" Dogs of Peace " by Rupert Croft-Cooke.) My father was awarded the Military Medal in North Africa.

Clifford married Gwendoline, my Mother, (Aug 1940) just two days before he was posted to Burma; that was the last time she saw him and in early 1941 she became officially a widow until my father's return in early 1945.

My parents settled in London and started their family. I was born in May 1946, and I am the only member of the family who has continued with the training. Along with my husband Peter, I have kept the system going in its original form.

Once settled in London (late 1945) Chee Soo started practising the Japanese arts of Judo, Aikido and Kendo. With all these arts he obtained very high grades. His training was with many distinguished names, including Kenshiro Abbe and the Otani brothers. They were frequent visitors to Chee's house in London, not only as Instructors but also as friends. His training started at the Budokai where he excelled in Judo; this was largely due to his previous Chinese martial arts training.

His standard was such that he was asked to enter for the selections to become a team member to represent the country but due to an illness was unable to compete.

In his prime my father's skill in both the Japanese and Chinese arts was such that he never refused a challenge and he was never beaten. He always gave the challenger the option of which art to use, and frequently took on a number of people at once. The most memorable was to see him take on four high graded Karate Instructors at once and beat them. As a Martial Artist he was second to none.

I also have trained in the Japanese arts of Judo, Aikido and Kendo for a number of years. My father started my training from a very early age at his school in West Ham which he opened in early 1947. Within this school my father had an enormous following. When I reached the age of about 6 my training was stepped up and was usually 4 evenings a week and most weekends. This went on for many years.

My favourite art was Aikido and I believe I was at that time the youngest black belt in Aikido in this country.

After ten years my father changed back to the Chinese arts. He gave the Judo and Aikido clubs the opportunity to change with him, but the majority of these clubs decided to stay with the Japanese arts. There was a parting of the ways and my father then proceeded to only teach the Chinese arts.

He started teaching a very small select group in the local school in Dunstable where he now lived. His main art at that time was the Ch'i Shu (Locks & Throws) and the Kung Fu system of Feng Shou.

As the Ch'i Shu and Kung Fu systems became more popular he also introduced Taijiquan and the Chang Ming Diet. When Taijiquan became popular he decided to open a school in London, where he was very successful. He then changed the association's name to International Wushu Association (IWSA) as by this time he had a number of clubs around the world. Due to his high profile he was asked to be one of the founder members of the then British Kung Fu Council (now British Council for Chinese Martial Arts). This body was set up to put in place ground rules for a set standard of Martial Arts in this country.

During the period of 1970s through to the 1990s my father changed the Kung Fu system at least three times. The reason I believe is that my father always said, " If I cannot do the moves then I will not teach them", which was fine when he was a young man, but as he grew older then the system became ineffectual. Within the Original Li Style Taijiquan there are numerous difficult moves. My father could see that few people would persevere with the style, so it was altered drastically, making it easier to learn and bringing in a large number of students, but in doing so it lost its original principles.

Chee was still very much a Chinese person inasmuch as what he taught family was very different to what he taught the students.

The Chinese arts my father taught were :

  • Feng Shou Kung Fu incorporating :
    • Foot Patterns (kicking techniques)

    • .Shuai Chiao (Chinese wrestling).

    • Two & Three Man routines.
    • Open Hand Form.

    • Fist Form.

    • Weapon Forms.
    • Self Defence.
  • Ch'i Shu The art of Locking and Throwing (similar to Aikido)
  • Kai Men Chinese style of Yoga
  • Taijiquan Li Style Form, also covering
    • Tai Chi Stick.
    • Tai Chi Sword.
    • I Fu Shou (Sticky Hands & Whirling Arms).
  • Chang Ming Diet
  • Massage


These arts are complete in themselves with their own grading syllabus, and should remain that way.

As Chee grew older, and since his death, the styles integrated to what is generally now known as the Lee Family Style. Unfortunately, what this now means is nothing more than chop suey or a mishmash of all the different arts. In many cases there is just one grading syllabus covering small sections of the different arts, and in a few other cases there is no resemblance to the above arts at all, other than in name.

In 1981 my husband Peter and I could no longer tolerate the way my father and the majority of his Instructors were teaching the arts, so we decided to leave the IWSA and set up our own Federation which we called the Wu Kung Federation.

In keeping with the family style, we teach the Kung Fu system, Shuai Chiao, and many styles of Taijiquan including the Original Li Style Taijiquan.

It is unfortunate that I had to call it the Original Li Style, but so many people are teaching the Lee Style to what is generally of poor standard, that I did not want any confusion in what they teach and what I am now teaching.

It has taken many years of being nagged and cajoled by numerous people to finally convince me that now is the time to pass on my knowledge of the Original Li Style. But I will not be making it easy for anyone. If anyone wants to learn the Original Li Style then I will personally make sure it is to a high level, with no short cuts. I do not want this form following the same route as the Lee Style.

In early 1995 Peter and I took a group of students to China to train at the Beijing Physical Education Institute. We then we went to my Grandfather's home town of Wei Hei (Shandong Province). At the time my Grandfather would have been there it was nothing more than a small town with a naval garrison. When we went there we saw a thriving city with a National Park, and it was here that the town's officials invited me to plant a tree in the park in memory of my Grandfather and the connection with England, or as I have been told, "going back to my roots".

It was during this trip to China with our close friend Master Jifu Huang (a superb Chinese martial artist & historian), that with his help we continued the research into Li Style Taijiquan. Our inquiries showed that Li Style had the characteristics of the small frame Wu Style, but also some similarities with the medium frame Wu Style. This led us to the following theory:

From Wu Yuxiang (small frame Wu Style) down to Li Ye Shi, the style then split into two differing styles, the famous one is Hao Wie Zhen then to Sun Lu Tang, from this line comes the Sun Style Taiji. The other one stayed in the home Province and is not generally known, nor is it popular outside the Province.

Our research has shown that Li Style Taijiquan in China is recognised although not well known. At this stage we do not have any documented evidence that would prove Chee Soo's Li Style came from this line, although the research goes on.



 

TRAINING C.V. OF LAVINIA SOO-WARR

 

Japanese Arts

Martial Art Year Started Instructor Grade
Judo 1951 Soo, Chee
Sensei Abbe
1st Dan
Aikido 1956 Soo, Chee 1st Dan
Kendo 1958 Sensei Otani Yellow Belt

 

Chinese Arts - Chan Kam Lee - Shandong Province

Martial Art Year Started Instructor Grade
Chee Shu
(the Chinese Art of Locks & Throws)
1957 Soo, Chee 4th Duan
Original Li Style Taijiquan
1957 Soo, Chee 4th Duan
Kung Fu
(Original Family System)
1957 Soo, Chee 2nd Duan

 

1958: Chee Soo formed the British Wu-Shu Association

 

Martial Art Year Started Instructor Grade
Taijiquan
(Chinese 24 Posture Yang Style)
(BCCMA 24 Posture Yang Style)

1985 - 95 Huang Jifu - Zhijiang Taijiquan Institute Instructor
Grade A
Taijiquan
(Chinese 24 Posture Yang Style)
(32 Sword Form)

1986 - 89 Grandmaster Chen Yuhe (Graduate - Nanjing Academy, 1936) -
Taijiquan
(Chinese 24 Posture Yang Style)
(32 Sword Form)
(42 Posture Combined Form)

1988 - 95 Professor Li De Yin Instructor Grade A
Taijiquan
(Traditional Sun Style 97 Posture)
1995 Madame Sun Jian Yun (Sun Lu Tang's daughter) -

 

 


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