10 Questions with Ronnie Yee
Ronnie Yee is a martial artist from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada but now lives in Vancouver, BC. He is a student of Chen Zhonghua and a dedicated Chen Style Practical Method practitioner and teacher. I (Michael Joyce) first met him at Hunyuan World, a gathering that Master Chen set-up at the end of our extensive training course. During these few days, I got to meet, speak and get-to-know my taiji brother Ronnie. One thing was very true – this guy knew his stuff! Those of us training towards our certification were even more impressed with Ronnie’s explanation of complex taijiquan concepts and his willingness to share his knowledge with others. Nowadays, with social media and advances in communication, it’s even easier to reach out to him. For anyone interested in learning more about Mr. Yee, please comment on this interview or email us directly at CombativeCorner@gmail.com and we’ll make sure he gets it. Now,… for our Special World Taiji Day Interview!
What brought you to the martial arts?
I grew up in the 70-80s in a small prairie Canadian city. At that time, there was very little social media influence and no martial arts schools. My sole exposure were television and movies; the martial arts stars: David Caradine, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and my favorite, Bruce Lee are what got me hooked from a young age. The city’s first martial arts school, a traditional kung fu school, opened in 1979; I learnt of its existence in 1980 and I joined right away. From that moment on, the practice of kung fu consumed my life. As time went on, more styles of martial arts began to emerge in the city such as: Tae Kwon do, Karate, Judo, Aikido and Muay Thai, to name a few. I became friends with students in the other martial arts and trained with them all. My momentum in the martial arts exceeded many of my classmates and my ego was in full-bloom. I was a case of “big fish, small pond”. In 1986, everything changed, I met Master Chen and was humbled to the core. Master Chen was the embodiment of the true martial artist and as much as I feared him, he became one of my greatest mentors and helped me to become the martial artist that I am today.
What were the first few years like studying under Master Chen?
I was a juvenile sixteen-year-old when I first met Master Chen. At the time, Master Chen was teaching ESL in my high-school and he decided to start-up a wushu/taiji class after school. I was excited to attend his first class and show-off because, as far as I knew, I was the best! Needless to say, I was quickly proven wrong. The very first demo of the very first class, Master Chen used me in a demo and made an example out of me. My ego collapsed and I became his student. Master Chen had a very strict regime but it didn’t begin with taiji. He wanted all of his students to have a foundation of wushu basics and the discipline that came with it. His training was gruelling. As students we had no structure, no discipline, no natural talent and no maturity. We were never fast enough, never low enough, never flexible enough, and never up to his standards. After roughly 3-months of wushu basics, the classroom size shrunk from 15 students down to only 3. It wasn’t until he knew that we were devoted to the arts that he began teaching taiji. Master Chen always wanted perfection from his students; it was very frustrating for all of us but probably most frustrating for him!
You have a great skill at teaching and expressing your ideas. How did you excel as a teacher in your own right?
After having studied 2 years intensively under master Chen, he left Regina in pursuit for his career in teaching at a secondary school in Edmonton. I was thrust into the role of instructor to my classmates. I had to validate my theories into practical reality regardless of the skill level I was at for that time. This way of teaching has always been an ongoing, evolving process throughout my life. If one thinks they have found the absolute ultimate truth, then they have stopped learning and stagnate. That is why my philosophy is based on being humble and learning from everyone regardless of their skill level. I put my ego on check, and take all criticisms seriously and try to better myself. Even the most diehard beginner that walks into your class for the first time can teach the instructor something of great value.
Master Chen’s way of teaching using many concepts and analogies to describe one paticular move definitely had significant influence on me. To look at one thing from numerous angles so that a student can understand. Presently I come to the realization that I am very critical of myself. Watching recent videos I see so many mistakes and weaknesses. I see these same errors in many others. I have become obsessed with finding ways to express the way some particular move or application is being performed. Also I have been to workshops or classes with other instructors in other systems. You watch for ways that work well for people and you borrow teaching methods. It’s important to know how each individual student learns best and suit the teaching to them.
Out of all that you’ve studied, is there something you enjoy most (form, weapon, etc)?
If there is one thing that I enjoy most, it would be the validation when an application is successful.
What does Taijiquan mean to you?
As a martial art, Taijiquan challenges practitioners both intellectually and physically. For me, Taijiquan is the balance between good body mechanics, physics and health.
How important is “Qi” or understanding of “Qi” to you
I believe Qi is the energy of all things. I do not understand how Qi relates the the practical application of martial arts but I do recognize Qi’s benefit to the spirit.
Besides Master Chen, have there been other mentors/influences that have greatly impacted your evolution as a martial artist?
In 91′ I went to China for a summer and trained under Hong’s disciple, Zhang Lian En. He influenced my physical mechanics by improving my grounding and strength. Around this time, Joseph (Master Chen) and I were introduced to Liu Chengde (another one of Hong’s disciples). Liu Chengde taught me the soft side of chen taiji which helped balanced the art.
Over the years I have sustained my share of injuries and have endured many pains in the body. In the Early 2000s I met a woman named Amelia Itcush who taught me the Mitzvah technique. In simple words, the Mitzvah technique is the base of body alignment through natural movements. Following 3 years of consistent Mitzvah practice, all my pains disipated and I began to incorporated the techniques into my taiji.
In recent years I have had my eyes opened to real world effectiveness of the Filipino Martial arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I like to study these two arts specifically because it helps me think more critically of taiji applications.
When you train yourself, how do you arrange your session? (Do you add other non-taijiquan exercises, endurance or resistance training, etc)
Presently I mostly focus on single drills, positive and negative circles and specific movements of both yilu and paochui (the 2 main hand forms in the Chen Practical Method). I rarely practice the forms from beginning-to-end as I prefer to isolate each movement within the form and deconstruct its application. I also do modified pole shaking exercises, modified chin-ups, and modified pushups, that simulate taiji mechanics. As stated in the previous question, since the early 2000s the Mitzvah technique has become a part of my everyday motions.
Do you feel that Taijiquan will sustain your interest/passion forever, or do you wish to supplement your training with other systems of study?
Taiji as a martail art is so beautiful, detailed and complex that it could capture my attention for multiple lifetimes. I love it for the counter-intuitive approach to body mechanics. Although I plan to practice taiji for the rest of my life, it would be unwise to be blind to the strengths of other martial arts. One of my character flaws is procrastination but I do plan to learn more from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the Filipino Martial Arts.
When I first met you, I was amazed at how multi-talented you are (magician, wushu, rope dart, massage therapy). Do you still engage in all of these activities and do you have any other things that take up your day these days? What’s new in the life of Mr. Ronnie Yee?
My girlfriend of 6 years and I recently moved to Vancouver. I still teach taiji, still do massage therapy and am still very passionate about magic. I personally think the study of magic has helped my taiji. Puts me into the mindset of drilling every nuance to perfection. I dabble in many things but those are the main pieces of my life.
If you could meet one martial artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
It’s a tie between Hong Junsheng and Rickson Gracie. They have both been or are true legends of their craft. Hong Junsheng obviously because he is my grandmaster and is the one that shaped the art for how my teachers taught and how I practice. I briefly met him in 1991. But unfortunately did not get to experience his ability. So that is why I would like to meet him again. To learn taiji but very importantly to feel his skill.
Rickson Gracie is undeniably a legend in the world of BJJ. To me high level BJJ appears to have a lot of the same physics as high level taiji. I would love to experience the crossover between taiji and BJJ at this level.