Harvard Remembers Beloved Tai Chi Instructor and Adams House Affiliate Yon Lee

When Mansfield, Massachusetts-based martial artist Deb A. Zion wakened one morning after an extended and troublesome evening of kung fu, she stated she discovered herself unable to maneuver her arms.

Feeling the soreness from her coaching and the toll of years of practising martial arts on her physique, Zion was uncertain how for much longer she would be capable of meet kung fu’s bodily calls for.

Trying to find knowledge, she appeared to her shut good friend Yon G. Lee for recommendation. Zion requested Lee, a grasp of kung fu and tai chi, when she would know that she was too previous for the martial artwork.

However Lee shocked Zion with reassurance, telling her that she would by no means be too previous and advising her to adapt kung fu to herself.

“That was a fantastic piece of recommendation as a result of I used to be at that time able to step away from the humanities as a result of I’m like, ‘I’m too previous. That is for younger folks. That is loopy for me to strive to do that,’” Zion stated. “However I tailored.”

Lee first coached kung fu at Harvard in 1986, and he ultimately grew to become the College’s chief teacher of kung fu and tai chi. In all, he spent greater than three a long time at Harvard. Lee was additionally a beloved affiliate in Adams Home, which he joined in 1997.

Lee died from Parkinson’s illness on Jan. 6 on the age of 74.

Former Adams Home College Deans Judith S. Palfrey ’67 and John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 described Lee as a beneficiant and loving one who was all the time within the lives of his many associates in Adams Home and past.

“He did convey life to something you probably did with him,” Sean Palfrey stated.


‘One In need of a Nice One’

Zion recalled making a “massive mistake” the primary time she educated in kung fu with Lee, whose small body she described as “98 kilos soaking moist.”

“I used to be attempting to be light as a result of I see this little man,” she stated. “Subsequent factor I do know, I’m tied up in a knot and I didn’t even know what received me.”

Lee demonstrates his kind in Adams Home’s Randolph Courtyard. By Courtesy of Sean Palfrey

Lee was a grasp of kung fu and tai chi — a meditative type of kung fu that focuses on the correct move of 1’s vitality, or chi, all through their physique, Zion stated.

Timothy J. LaVallee, a martial artist and longtime good friend of Lee, remembered Lee as an distinctive instructor of tai chi who may clarify its complicated nature in ways in which made sense to his college students.

“On the one hand, you’re studying how one can defend your self and also you’re studying how one can use your physique as a weapon. However alternatively, you’re additionally studying how one can repair stuff,” he stated. “And so he was consistently utilizing math and physics as a manner of attempting to elucidate and perceive each the martial artwork facet of it and the therapeutic facet.”

Andrew J. Inexperienced ’99 stated he started taking Lee’s lessons as refuge from the stress of life as a university pupil. He stated the lessons supplied stability “intellectually, and emotionally, and interpersonally.”

“It offers one a centering, the place you will be in the midst of no matter chaos is happening round you and it’s okay,” he stated.

Former Adams resident Eboni C. White ’17 recalled the way in which that Lee would serendipitously train others round him new expertise. White, who had then simply begun studying how one can throw knives, recalled Lee approaching her to show her a brand new method after she had completed a follow.


“He confirmed me these movies of tai chi masters throwing chopsticks by means of cement,” she stated. “And so, lengthy story quick, he ended up educating me how one can throw my knives in a manner that it appeared like an accident.”

“That’s a part of the explanation why I feel he was so endearing,” she added. “He’s not gonna be like, ‘Oh, that’s harmful.’ It’s extra identical to, ‘In the event you’re gonna do it, do it proper.’”

Zion, who stated Lee is a part of her “kung fu household,” will keep in mind Lee as a “nice martial artist.”

“The martial arts world is one in need of a fantastic one,” she stated.

An immigrant from China, Lee was devoted to fostering cultural trade between his birthplace and the USA.

“He wished the Chinese language tradition and the Chinese language folks to be seen by us in the USA. That was his ardour,” stated retired Adams Home prepare dinner Edward B. Childs.

Born in Taishan Metropolis, China in 1948, Lee moved to Boston when he was 10. He graduated from Brandeis in 1973, the place he studied physics and went overseas to the Chinese language College of Hong Kong. Lee later acquired a grasp’s diploma in nuclear physics from Northeastern.

Lee, proper, launched an annual trade program between Harvard college students and the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng, China. By Courtesy of Sean Palfrey

A part of Lee’s effort to foster connections between the U.S. and China included establishing a scholarship program to fund an trade program for college kids in Harvard and China. This system, led by Lee, supplied teams of Harvard college students the chance to find out about Chinese language tradition as emissaries in Beijing or Dengfeng.


Sean Palfrey, who made two journeys to China, credit Lee’s friendliness for the nice and cozy welcome the delegations from Harvards acquired from their hosts.

“He has, clearly, numerous connections there, each family and friends and artists,” he stated. “We had been greeted in every single place. There have been occasions that we actually would go right into a small city and throughout the road on the entrance of the city, it stated ‘Welcome, Yon Lee and Dr. Sean Palfrey from Harvard.’”

Lee additionally introduced college students, educators, and artists from China to Adams. On one event, he welcomed the abbot of the Shaolin Temple, a famend monastery acknowledged because the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu.

“He was a man who made associates extraordinarily simply and noticed himself as actually this ambassador, not simply between Boston and Chinatown, however between this area and China,” Sean Palfrey stated.

“He would say, ‘coming with a bunch of my associates.’ That is likely to be anyplace between 20 and 100. You by no means knew who would come,” he added.

In Boston, Lee additionally served as Mayor’s Liaison to the Chinese language Group beneath former mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who credited Lee with progress in countering gang violence within the metropolis’s Chinatown in the course of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

LaVallee stated Lee was “all the time in search of a possibility to convey people collectively from completely different locations.”

“He wished to make it possible for the neighborhood on the College — the scholars — had a possibility to expertise these items from folks from all over the world, as an alternative of simply himself,” LaVallee stated.

‘The Actual Deal’

When the Palfreys started their tenure as Adams Home school deans in 1999, they stated they had been impressed by the dedication that Lee dropped at the home.


“We form of thought there was a constructing and there have been some college students, and we had no concept that there really had been these fantastic individuals who had been dedicated to being a part of the neighborhood,” Judith Palfrey stated.

“It was only a charming partnership with this man in each form of setting,” Sean Palfrey added.

Childs stated he and the remainder of the eating corridor workers carried “super” respect for Lee, who repeatedly invited them to his kung fu lessons and home occasions.

Lee, entrance, deliberate a Lunar New Yr celebration in Adams Home eating corridor with a gaggle of lion dancers from Boston’s Chinatown. By Courtesy of Sean Palfrey

As soon as, Lee educated the Adams eating workers to prepare dinner conventional Chinese language meals for a Lunar New Yr celebration in the home, Childs stated.

“We had conventional meals, all conventional recipes, from scallion pancakes to the gravies, the sauces, how one can reduce the Chinese language broccoli — the whole lot,” Childs stated. “The massive factor was he educated us, and he did it with ardour, and it was clearly wonderful.”

Judith Palfrey stated Lee had a “knee-jerk” response to assist others, citing his assist in organizing a vigil for Adams associates after the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults.

“By midday that day, there have been no candles anyplace in Cambridge and Boston, and Yon received wind of that. And he went to each suburban little city and place himself,” she stated. “He got here again simply in time with precisely the suitable variety of candles.”

Inexperienced, certainly one of Lee’s former kung fu college students, referred to as him “the true deal.”

“He took every pupil as they had been and helped give them, I feel, the interior power and the outer bodily power to develop and change into who they wanted to be at Harvard,” Inexperienced stated.


—Employees author John N. Peña will be reached at john.pena@thecrimson.com.