As I walked through the swing doors into the large school hall I was surprised to find it relatively silent, silent except for the sound of deep, prolonged breathing, immediately I recognised from my training in Raja Yoga, the importance of this practice. I made my way as unobtrusively as possible to a bench where a few other observers waited. Observing the lesson, I recognised several people as former classmates from Judo and Karate. Before long I was treated to the spectacle of 4 of the senior student sparring first one to one, then one to three etc. while the other 30 or so members practised techniques at the other end of the hall. Shortly the Master joined the sparring seniors, they stopped immediately and bowed, he took a relaxed stance in the centre of the space and they surrounded him, all was still. Watching the seniors spar I had been impressed at their agility, the speed and sheer variety of techniques. The Master nodded his head and his protagonists exploded into action, they moved fast, their limbs blurred, the Master seemed to move slowly, calmly, without hurry, yet he ran rings round them. Where they kicked, he span, they punched he was gone, yet his hand passed across a face softly without harm, a deft sweep of an arm would send one into another, he had all the time in the world. This was my first live exposure to the Chinese internal arts, I had read about them, but this was real, this was great and I was hooked. I joined the Thetford Wu Shu Club under that Master, Ted Bird and thrived on it.
As my training progressed and I showed some ability (read ’put in more practice’) I was invited to the student section of the central training school in Dunstable, there we would be coached by the Grand-master, Chee Soo. The price of missing these sessions was driven home to me on one practice night when a fellow student with whom I shared a friendly rivalry, returned from a session I had been unable to attend. We had shared many hard battles without clear victory being established, In one session he had been transformed from being my equal in sparring; to someone I could not even touch. My kicks were intercepted half way, my hand strikes never landed and not a single technique of my fiendishly contrived combinations got through. Astonished and somewhat demoralised, I questioned my now superior and very pleased training buddy as to how this dramatic improvement was accomplished, generously he shared the secret and at the next session we were back at it hard as ever and even in skill once more.
Perhaps what was so surprising about Chee Soo was his ability to do so little and achieve so much. While senior level master’s flailed away, looking as cumbersome and uncoordinated as they made their own students seem, he stood comparatively still, a twist here, a shift of weight there, occasionally a step. His arms appeared magnetic, wherever you aimed, whatever devious angle or cunning combination you conceived, there they were sliding past you sending you into nothing, or a partner, trapping you without gripping, and yet you could not escape, or sometimes seizing you with a paralysing grip and an accompanying grin. This truly was mastery of ‘stillness in motion’.
To put this into perspective, as Master Grade teachers we had all acquired the ability to deal with up to five assailants in mass attacks, whether they were unarmed or armed with a variety of Chinese weapons we would spin in and out, throwing, tripping, locking and controlling, all without harming or being harmed, if you were hit in these tests you failed. So to see people with this level of skill handled like novices, made to look inept and inexperienced was somewhat awe inspiring, to be directly on the receiving end humbling.
Chee Soo could judge distance with the precision of a micrometer, timing to perfection, furthermore he understood and could exploit every angle or change of alignment with uncanny precision. This was the stuff he clearly enjoyed, even when well past retirement age.
Yet the other side to this was his encyclopaedic knowledge of how movement healed, how breath, intention and posture could affect the state of your body, or someone else’s. He happily modified the traditional postures of Tai Chi forms to make them significantly more beneficial to health, differences that you can feel physically and energetically.
Grand master Chee Soo, gave me a fantastic foundation in the Chinese internal arts. Thanks to his knowledge, tireless work and generosity over the 18 years I ‘Took from him’ I was inspired to continue my studies for a further 18, with other great teachers. Through constant research and practice, I have learned to see the connections between the martial arts and the therapeutic, the spiritual and the practical. I have observed that the gentlest of activities can be of tremendous benefit to those with reduced health, and yet those same movements can become vigorous and challenging, demanding the skill and stamina of an Olympic gymnast. Yet the combination of passive and active phases of the Chinese internal arts can also become a catalyst in the search for peace of mind, strong focus and balance in the fast paced world of today. Based upon Daoist precepts, stretching back through the millennia, they inevitably lead one to ponder the nature of life and our place within it, and almost as inevitably to appreciate the true nature of ourselves.
I am proud to be able to pass on this legacy.
Grandmaster Clifford Chee Soo (1919 – 1994) presided over the International Wu Shu Association, Chinese Cultural Arts Association and International Taoist Arts Society until his demise in 1994. He was taught by Chan Kam Lee, a dealer in precious stones and gatekeeper of the Lee family martial and health arts from 1934 until his death in 1953.
Keith Roost studied under Chee Soo from 1976 to 1994, receiving his Masters degree in 1986 from the IWSA. Keith is a senior level (30 years +) instructor with the Tai Chi Union of Great Britain, and Technical head of the Golden Rooster School (UK) and Institute (Portugal) he has recently returned to England after teaching Tai Chi Chuan and Daoist Qigong (pronounced Chee Gong) at Coimbra University Hospital and other institutions of higher education in Portugal.
Keith has studied the Chinese Internal arts for over 40 years. He lives in England and Portugal with artist, designer and writer Gloria Dean and teaches in Portugal and the UK.