Rose Shao-Chiang Li was born in Beijing around 1914. Her father was a relatively high-ranking civil servant and was for a time responsible for the Chinese coal industry, such as it was under the late Qing Empire. This brought him into contact with foreign engineers and he developed a great fondness for English culture in particular. He made sure that his daughter received the best western education then available in Beijing, which at that time meant church institutions: an Anglican secondary school and a German Catholic university. Meanwhile, because his first two girls had both died in infancy from a blood-related weakness, he gave this third daughter what would more normally have been a boy’s name, which might be translated as ‘continuing strong’. He was also keen that she should indeed be strengthened by access to the best forms of physical exercise then available, which naturally drew his attention to the indigenous martial-arts traditions then flourishing all across the capital. These, then, were to be the formative influences on the young Shao-Chiang: Han Confucian culture from her family, Christianity of the broad-church Anglican variety from her school teachers (from whom she also received the western name Rose), and the Taoist ways of what was to become her second family in the internal martial arts.
Later Miss Li used to tell her students that she was a Confucian in her personal relationships, a Christian in her social ethics, and a Taoist in her relationship with God and Nature. For them, then, working with her was more than just about learning physical movements: it was an exposure to a whole complex culture and history.
Rose Li was intensely involved in the study of the internal martial arts from the age of eight in the early 1920s until she was twenty-four in the late 1930s: her main teacher was Teng Yun-Feng (1873-1941) and through him she also had contact with an outstanding figure from the previous generation, Liu Feng-Shan (1852-1937). She was a regular attender at Master Teng's classes in the Temple of the Fire God by Coal Hill just north of the Forbidden City, but he also frequently came to give her individual lessons at her family home in the old quarter just west of the centre, where he would often stay to eat and chat with her father. Master Teng’s high level of martial-arts skill goes without saying: he had studied with central figures in the Tai Ji, Xing Yi and Ba Gua traditions, but his role as Rose’s teacher was an unusual one for an upper-middle-class family at that time, and he had been selected carefully by her father. For, although like most of his martial-arts colleagues he was a manual worker from the countryside and effectively illiterate, he placed a much stronger emphasis than most on the spiritual side of practice: he was keenly interested in Chan teachings, had a close relationship with the Taoist abbot of the temple where he held his classes, and was also a member of a western Protestant denomination. After Rose's father died, Teng Yun-Feng arranged financial help for her and her mother, indeed she regarded him as her second father and was present when he passed away.
All this had a strong influence on the distinctive approach Miss Li would later introduce in her own teaching. Though fully aware of martial applications, she deliberately avoided any extensive discussions of these in her classes and included very little pushing-hands or sparring practice. In part this was a reaction to the high profile of 'fighting' in the west, which she saw as a vulgar distraction from the real value of the oriental traditions, especially in the case of Tai Ji. For her these martial arts were indeed arts in the highest sense of the word: they were for self-cultivation and for health, and they should aim to make some wider social contribution. At the very least, practitioners should not make their living from them but should pursue conventional occupations and live as ordinary householders.
Meanwhile, the young Rose also became increasingly involved in Christian missionary social work and increasingly interested in western monastic traditions: she felt a particular affinity with Anglicans, above all her special mentor Miss E. Fisher. Both her parents and also her martial-arts teacher had died by the early 1940s so, as the situation in Beijing became increasingly unstable under the impact of the Japanese invasion, she left for central China with a group of Christian missionaries. She attended the Catholic University in Peiping for three years from 1944, and then received an MA in Ethnology from Furen University back in Beijing in 1947. During the Communist takeover it began to seem advisable for someone from her social background to leave China altogether, which she did with financial and administrative support from the American Church Mission, initially with the aim of attending the Catholic University of America in Washington. However, she lived for a time in San Francisco and then studied educational psychology at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, receiving a second MA in 1950. On graduation she moved for a while to Honolulu and Hawaii, teaching in church schools and discovering a special gift for working with young children. For the next thirty years Rose Li’s life was to be shaped by involvement with Episcopal monastic groups and educational work. For a period of seven years she was a member of the Community of the Transfiguration in Glendale, Ohio; and then, when she moved to England, was for five years a member of St Hilda’s Priory in Whitby, Yorkshire. She worked for a time in kindergartens in the Ohio area, then taught Chinese language, first at Ann Arbor University, Michigan, and finally in the Department of Oriental Studies at Durham University in England.
While teaching at Ann Arbor it seems Miss Li offered to teach Xing Yi, but student interest was not sustained. Similarly, just after leaving the priory in Whitby and before settling in Durham, she ran Tai Ji classes for a while in Santa Barbara. However, the time and the place were never quite right until growing student interest in Durham led her to start internal martial arts classes there in 1975, then to set up parallel groups in Manchester and London. It was the classes in the capital that attracted the largest numbers, so Miss Li eventually moved there in 1986 and devoted the final phase of her eventful life to running a large school, focussing on Tai Ji but also including the other arts, and extending into private classes in Chinese language and calligraphy. Regular weekly classes and individual sessions were supplemented by lively, week-long, annual summer schools, mainly held at Grantley Hall near Ripon in North Yorkshire. In 1999 Miss Li was unable to continue teaching due to ageing and ill health and she passed away in 2001. Over the years she had several hundred students and a strong core group formed of those who had studied with her for ten years and more. Miss Li’s teaching was based on a traditional approach to the internal martial arts emphasising ‘good taste’: a low profile, gradual self-cultivation and spiritual values. Something of the flavour of her combination of Taoist, Chan and Christian attitudes may be captured in the few typical sayings given alongside.