Harvard\’s Tai Chi Master

Master Yon G. Lee, Harvard’s chief instructor of kung fu and tai chi, draws an old sword from a leather hilt. Turning around, he hands me the weapon. Half a dozen other students look on.

Lee, who turns 70 next month, is a short, slender man with thin silver hair. He wears a white crewneck sweatshirt advertising the Harvard Tai Chi Tiger Crane Club, which he has advised for over a decade.

The sword is heavy and sharp. It cuts through a cardboard box like butter. He has me practice a few simple motions, and then asks me to stab him in the throat.

Lee takes the point of the sword and places the metal on the fleshy area just above his collarbone. I stand frozen, white-knuckling the hilt, not putting an ounce of force into the blade. Lee complains I am not stabbing him hard enough. He calls over Michael R. Showstack, a tough Bostonian who has run a kung fu school for more than a decade. Showstack grabs my arms and shoves down impossibly hard.

Lee’s face narrows in intense concentration. The sword bows downward, buckling under the sudden force of Showstack’s push. Everything happens too fast. Seconds later, Showstack relents. The sword drops away.

Lee is perfectly fine. A deep indentation appears in his neck, but no blood. He explains that he directed his “chi”—energy he believes permeates every living thing—to his neck, which protected him from the blade. Lee moves on as if nothing happened.

I stare at my hands and touch the tip of the sword to assure myself it’s real. My stomach feels wobbly and nauseous. Guilty and exhilarated, I think I understand what it was like for an audience member to saw Harry Houdini in half. And like that volunteer, I have no idea how to explain what’s going on.

Yon Lee demonstrates a diversion against the force from our FM writer\’s punch.

A few feet away from us, a class of about 30 people listen to a lecture about qigong, a traditional Chinese healing method. We’re in the office of Lee’s acupuncturist (called the Oriental Culture Institute), who allows Lee to use the space on Sundays to practice with his most advanced students. It makes for a strange environment, but Lee’s intense demonstrations barely raise eyebrows.

Lee and his students refer to each other as a kung fu family. They come from radically different walks of life, from Harvard and from Chinatown, from the suburbs and from Southie. While I am baffled by this world where swords glance off skin, they laugh and take it in stride. Lee pulls the strange threads of this family together. His friends include the faculty deans of Adams House and former mayor of Boston Raymond L. Flynn, who worked with Lee to purge criminal gangs from Chinatown in the early nineties.

Some say Lee—kung fu master, Harvard fixture, sword-repeller—can even cure broken bones.

Timothy J. Lavallee, a student of martial arts who has known Lee for ten years, picked me up around 9:30 a.m. that morning. Lavallee practices with Lee every Sunday and volunteered to drive me from Cambridge to Quincy, Mass., where the Institute is located. He has short white hair and a small stud in his left earlobe. He was listening to Wu-Tang Clan when he picked me up, but turned it off so we could talk. There was an animal jawbone in the backseat of his car, but I didn’t bring it up.

At around 10 a.m., we arrived at a slablike brick office building with a mediocre burger joint on its ground floor. We took a shaky elevator up to the fifth floor, where we were greeted by a view of Quincy’s church steeples and colonial brick.

The Institute comprises a large central room with a few closed doors at the margins. The open space has the unresolved quality of a “Where’s Waldo?” picture. Several ceiling panels are missing. What appear to be small camera lenses are glued to every surface in the area, including on a snowglobe containing the Buddha. “Shhhhh…. Live Guinea Pig Class In Progress,” declare several homemade signs. I see no trace of any guinea pigs.

At the entrance, next to a wooden folding screen, stands a massive yellow M&M; character. It’s holding a large tray above its head, filled with smaller statues of M&Ms.; In fact, the room is filled with M&M; paraphernalia. Paper cups lie throughout the room, filled with M&Ms.; One smaller red M&M; is dressed like Elvis Presley.

An M&M; statue greets visitors by the door of the Oriental Culture Institute.

Between the unseen-but-oft-alluded-to guinea pigs and the truly unfathomable volume of M&Ms;, Lavallee warmed up for the tai chi lesson. As he made the signature smooth, slow movements of the practice, I sat in a leather chair off to the side to wait for Lee. A tall man walked over to me from the qigong lecture on the other end of the room. He wordlessly handed me a large oyster shell with a camera lens and five magnets glued to the swirling mother-of-pearl inside. He motioned for me to put it on my stomach and also placed a heavy board laden with magnets under my foot. Then he walked away. I sat like this for several minutes before I quietly placed the objects back on the table.

Lee arrived 30 minutes late, but nonetheless walked in with an assured air that informed us we were, in fact, early. Yet there wasn’t a drop of arrogance in him. He is like a force of nature in that way—the rain falls when it falls and Lee arrives when he arrives. He moves through the world unlike anyone I have ever met. I would later learn Lee describes most major events in his life as a result of being in “the right place at the right time.”

Lee has no agenda, though he does have things he would like to teach. He apologized to us for the delay, his voice never rising above a whisper.

Lee was born in Taishan City, China in 1948. He converted to Christianity after attending missionary schools in Hong Kong. At the start of the Great Leap Forward, when Lee was 10, he moved to Boston. His father had already lived there for some time, working as an electrician in the Quincy shipyards during World War II and operating a laundromat for 20 years after that.

After attending English High School, Lee enrolled at Brandeis as a physics major. As an undergraduate, he co-authored a 1970 paper on laser diffraction in the American Journal of Physics. He studied abroad at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where his life path began to shift.

Yon Lee returned to Hong Kong around the same time Bruce Lee did. Bruce Lee’s movies shattered box office records across Asia in the early 70s; and Yon, like the rest, was a fan. But what drew him most deeply to kung fu—a blanket term for the art of controlling chi—were not cinematic kicks or punches. He was fascinated by the parallel practice of qigong, which uses controlled chi for healing, rather than violence. While he studied in Hong Kong, he noticed how the poor in the city and in southern China turned to acupuncture for medicine, given it was sometimes the only treatment they could afford.

Lee returned to Boston and completed his Masters degree in nuclear physics at Northeastern. After graduating in 1974, he devoted himself to what caught his interest most while studying abroad: kung fu. He has taught ever since, using his education in physics to explain the complex motions behind tai chi and qigong. “I try to demystify it,” Lee says. “There’s really a lot of science behind it.”

When he wasn’t teaching kung fu, Lee began a career in politics. Relations between the U.S. and China were warming for the first time in decades. Lee had studied abroad during Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, making him a hot commodity in the states—an interpreter of the newly open country. “It was just a simple trip, and that sort of made me into an expert,” Lee says, laughing. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Lee was friendly with Edward J. King, a candidate for Massachusetts governor. After King was elected in 1978, he appointed Lee an adviser on China, where Lee worked to establish relations between Massachusetts and the Chinese government.

In the 1980s, Lee had a brief stint running Hung’s Food, an egg roll factory in Brighton, Mass. owned by his family. Somehow, balancing Hung’s and his usual teaching schedule, he found time to start coaching kung fu at Harvard.

Throughout, Lee says he never lost sight of the original reason he learned kung fu: to heal the people around him. In 1987, Lee was appointed Mayor\’s Liaison to the Chinese Community (yet another position Lee attributes to “being in the right place at the right time”). In the 80s, parts of Chinatown were colloquially known as the “Combat Zone,” controlled by the Triads, an organized crime syndicate. By the time of Lee’s appointment, the area had built a reputation for violence. The Harvard community in particular was shocked in 1976 when football player Andrew Puopolo ’77 was stabbed to death in Chinatown after that year’s Harvard-Yale game.

“I wanted to get rid of those peep shops and burlesque shows and prostitution and drugs,” says Flynn, then-mayor of Boston, who cold-called me to talk about Lee. “So I brought Yon in and we we went full speed ahead to clean up the Combat Zone down there by Chinatown.”

On Jan. 12, 1991, during Lee’s tenure as liaison, five men were murdered in a gambling parlor on Tyler Street. After the mayor left the crime scene, it was Lee’s job to go on television and tell the public not to panic. Afterward, squad cars circled Lee’s home for protection, given he was now the face of gangbusting.

“It was never part of the job description that I would be on the front line,” Lee says. He had hoped to be a more low-profile community advocate.

Flynn calls Lee’s overall tenure was an unqualified success. Lee advocated for bilingual education and special-needs programs in Chinatown schools and fought for affordable housing, all of which undermined the Triads’ stranglehold on the neighborhood. He helped William J. Bratton, then Superintendent-in-Chief of the Boston Police Department, develop a new community policing policy in the area. Lee was instrumental in getting roughly a dozen Asian police officers appointed to the force.

“We met a lot of opposition from a lot of prominent mobsters, bookies, gangsters and the underworld,” says Flynn. “Yon made great progress. He never got much credit for it.”

Lee and I eat dinner together in Adams House, where he has been an associate since 1997. When he taps through his iPad to show me videos of his students, he does so with the same careful motions he uses in his tai chi. We’re joined by Marilyn M. Goodrich and Jaden Y. Freeze ’19, two regular attendees at Lee’s tai chi sessions. Both were drawn into Lee’s circle by word of mouth and by what they call his magnetic presence.

Goodrich has a soft voice and and short gray hair covered by a knitted cap. She is a retired administrative coordinator in the Anthropology department, and has been coming to Lee’s classes since 2010. She says she had been falling a lot before she began, so friends recommended she pick up tai chi.

“It’s hard to describe it, but it just became a way of life for me with the tai chi, where I just felt stronger as a person,”Goodrich says. “I felt less overwhelmed.”

Goodrich says she doesn’t fall anymore.

“People were regaling me with the different wonderful feats he’s done in the past, which I certainly believe now,” says Freeze, who has been attending Lee’s classes for a semester or so.

Freeze, a Chemistry and Physics concentrator, says he appreciates the way Lee uses science as a metaphor to explain tai chi. When I tell Lee I study physics, he begins to explain chi in terms of resistance and capacitance.

Students from past years also lauded Lee’s teachings. “[Tai chi] helped me improve in my ability to deal with asthma at the time,” recalls Andrew J. Green ’99, who now works at a think tank in Washington, D.C. “It grounds you when you do it in a serious way. It takes you out of the day-to-day things you worry about.” The dozen other students I spoke with shared similar praise for Lee.

Yon G. Lee demonstrates a series of movements in his Adams House class in early February.

To Lee and many of his followers, the control of chi through kung fu has a deep healing power. The tai chi and qigong they practice means much more than the simple motions that appear on the surface. It’s a mistake to clump the practices under the umbrella of the secular “mindfulness movement.” What Lee does is not corporate yoga, squeegeed of cultural and spiritual significance and sanitized for a skeptical Western audience. This is not just exercise. Tai chi is a religious practice.

Not only does kung fu have spiritual significance, it is supposed to yield tangible results. Showstack, the gruff Bostonian who drove the sword into Lee’s throat, tells me Lee’s qigong treatments helped his 14-year-old son heal from a serious injury. Showstack’s son’s growth plate had fractured in a gruesome car accident, and doctors weren’t sure his leg would grow. Showstack attributes his son’s full recovery to Lee’s intervention.

Lee is constantly doing experiments to test the limits of qigong. Right now he’s interested in storing chi, taking his body’s energy and transferring it into large bins of dried soybeans. He says these beans can be used to heal people, just like his hands can transfer energy to patients. Pulling out his iPad, Lee shows me a video of an inconsolable child who stops crying when plopped into an enormous container of beans.

“It’s an energy that’s completely untapped,” says Bill E. Emmes, one of Lee’s students and collaborators on the bean tests. “It’s a way of life that has existed outside the United States for centuries, and people here scoff at it.”

I have trouble believing these claims. Lee’s practices transgress my comfortable division between religion and science. I like to confine the mystic to one hour on church Sundays, where it won’t interfere with a carefully constructed world of science and observation.

I call Peter M. Wayne, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, to get his opinion. Wayne has practiced qigong and tai chi for over 40 years, learning traditional Chinese medicine while he mastered cutting-edge biochemistry.

“There are people who have accumulated skills through traditional training who have information that’s worth exploring,”Wayne says. “We shouldn’t coo-coo these things. Just because we can’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring.”

Wayne explains how these practices work. Tai chi is effective in preventing older people from falling—not only because it strengthens the legs and increases flexibility, but also because it heightens attention, Wayne says. As people practice tai chi, they become more aware of their body in space and less vulnerable to lapses of control, he adds.

It was less clear to me how the qigong treatments—which resemble normal massages—could work, but they might also have a biological mechanism: biofields. Wayne explains that the human body produces electric and magnetic fields measurable through EEGs and MRIs. Perhaps, Wayne suggests, people could manipulate their fields to change those of others. He is careful to clarify there is no convincing evidence either way at this time.

As for the beans, Wayne links it to the long tradition of homeopathy, but is not dismissive. “I think the jury hasn’t even been assembled, much less being out,” he says.

Lee never married, but he is a part of a warm kung fu family. His students praise his unusual approach to teaching, which mimics his gentle go-with-the-flow path through life. “He sort of lets things go, until you get to a certain point where you look like you’ve figured it out, and then he’ll offer advice,” Showstack says. “It’s a different way of teaching.”

Timothy J. Lavallee, student of Yon Lee, goes through a few of his warmup exercises.

“He let me discover [qigong] myself,” says W. Vincent Rocha, a student of Showstack and Lee who has been practicing martial arts for almost 30 years. “You kind of teach yourself by watching how he responds to it.”

“Master Lee is very giving,” says Deb A. Sukeforth, another student at the Sunday session. “He will share, share anything you want, you know. And try to help you understand it.”

People never seem to remember exactly how Lee came into their lives. He simply became visible, like a flower exposed by melting snow. Robert J. Kiely, who served as master of Adams House when Lee first became affiliated with Harvard, says Lee just “appeared” and offered to teach tai chi to Adams House residents.

“He’s a character, the way we are all characters, but he just brings extraordinary depth and breadth to undergraduate houses,” says John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, one of the current faculty deans of Adams House. “What we’re trying to build is that diversity of personality and opinion and knowledge.”

Lee has a unique worldview, which he describes as simultaneously Christian, Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian, all steeped in tai chi. Though he is devout in each of these traditions, Lee does not believe they are in conflict.

“They’re all basic principles of being, helping one another, and being benevolent and compassionate,”Lee says. The “concepts” and “methods” are different, he explains, but they share the same real-world practice.

Lee’s take on these traditions undermines the power structures of the everyday. The meek inherit the earth, the poor barefoot doctor cures the country with only a box of needles, and the nonviolent win the street fight. Is it fantasy to think injustice can be undone by belief? When I’m with Lee, I sense something very real here—a subtle, slow-moving current of good flowing deep below the surface of our world.

He taught me that to defend myself, all I had to do was twist my arms and send the shock of a punch back into the person who threw it. Forces of violence, like a physical strike or the troubles that paralyzed Chinatown for years, could be matched by a small twist. To Lee, affordable housing and kung fu are two sides of the same coin.

His philosophy is a quiet one. He’s not a prophet, and he has no ambitions to change the world. “Now that I’m semi-retired, I just do whatever I want,” he says. “No particular aim.” He spends his time with friends, shaping the world he has into one with a bit more compassion and wonder.

A few days ago, I sent a simple email to Lee, asking about his day-to-day life.

He replied with a short manifesto: “I practice my tai chi and spend my days and nights dreaming and mimicking Nature in infinite ways imaginable.”

This content was originally published here.