The Sifu – an antiquated concept we can do without or a much needed figure in modern cultures?

Martial arts today are many and varied. They come from different countries and cultures, with the result being countless styles and varying degrees of quality. Some are traditional arts that require a lifetime of commitment, others are sports oriented that give the student limited time to reach a peak before they are unable to maintain the training and competition regimes. Some are led by a Sifu/Sensei, others by coaches and businessmen. For me it is the traditional art of Kung Fu and the hierarchy of respect and the morality and etiquette that inspires me more than the sports oriented versions of martial arts. And the fact that the Sifu is so much more than your teacher of a physical skill. In a world where people care less and less for each other, yet want more and more, having a relationship like this is not only rare but something that should be valued once you have it. I often think about my relationship with my Sifu, and his relationship with his own Sifu, and how that has influenced me as a practitioner and teacher of Chinese Martial Arts, my relationships with my students, and how I conduct myself in the community.

My Sigung and Sipo, my Sifu and my Simo, my wife and I.

Before sitting for the Master level grading that would lead me to opening my own school and becoming a Sifu I had a discussion with my Dai Sihing. He talked about the fact that being a Sifu meant there would be the Kung Fu me and the not Kung Fu me. He was referring to the fact that with my Kung Fu students I would conduct myself in the manner of a Sifu yet when dealing with non students in everyday life I would conduct myself more ‘normally’. Over the last 14 years this line has disappeared as my conduct reflects that of a Sifu/Kung Fu practitioner no matter where I am or what I am doing. This has also been influenced by the ancient code of Martial Morality.

I also feel that line disappearing between our classes that are martial arts related and those that are not. I give of myself in the same manner, teach with the same passion, and encourage the same relationships with students whether they belong to our martial lineage or to our health and exercise based community. Lately, with an influx of new students into all of our classes I felt it was time to return to an article about what a Sifu is and what he means to students that I read and shared some years ago. It is by Sifu Wong Kiew Kit (a Grandmaster from the Shaolin Wahnam Institute). His article is in green, my additions are in black.


“An art is best learnt in its culture. One remarkable difference between the culture of the east and the west is the respect shown to a Sifu. In this connection I have little complaint because my students, from both the east and the west, generally show much respect to me. But I have met many eastern sifus commenting on the lack of respect, sometimes utter disrespect, shown to them. Often it is because of the western students’ ignorance of eastern ways rather than their willful discourtesy that their eastern masters of chi kung or kungfu (including taijiquan) regard as disrespect. The following are some simple and helpful points both eastern and western students may follow to show the respect deservedly due to their Sifu’s.”

Interestingly enough, we saw the reverse of this on our trip to the Shaolin Temple in 2002, where Western students displayed a stronger connection  and deeper humility to their Sifu. My Sifu and Sigung took 16 students to Hong Kong and China. We were hosted by the Shaolin Temple outside of Deng Feng City in Henan Province for two days. After the first day the Temple Abbott himself, Shi Su Xi, made the comment that China could learn from Australia’s concept of respect and humility towards their teachers. We would not sit before our Sifu sat, would not eat before him, board the bus or elevators before him, pour his tea, and we would readily salute on bended knee and eyes averted. When he spontaneously asked us to perform in front of the Abbott and senior monks there was no hesitation. Even though we were in our formal suits and dress shoes!

Our group on the steps of the revered Shaolin Temple, Henan Province, China.

Performing for the Abbott and head monks, my Sifu and Sigung.

Our conduct so impressed them that by the second day certain Sifu/Disciple relationships we witnessed the day before were already returned to a higher level respect. Shi De Yang, the head warrior monk of the Shaolin Temple, had one of his main Disciples accompany him on both days of our visit. This Disciple had been in martial arts movies and was due to be in more (Kung Fu Hustle was one of those movies). It was clear his relationship with his Sifu was now influenced by his fame. It was almost as if it was reversed! But after a day with our group showing the utmost respect and humility to our Sifu and Sigung no matter where we were; in the hotel, mealtimes, or at the Shaolin Temple itself, by the second day this Disciple changed his conduct and manners. Standing behind and not in front of his Sifu, opening doors and allowing his Sifu to enter first, being less of a showman, these became the norm for him on the second day.

“Addressing the Sifu Correctly – First of all you must know how to address your sifu correctly, something which many western students are ignorant of. Never, never, never call your sifu by his name, especially if he comes from an eastern culture. In some western societies it may be considered personal and desirable to call your senior or even your boss by his first name, but in chi kung or kungfu culture it is considered extremely rude.”

This view of first name basis versus the Sifu title may be one of the hardest things the Western student comes to grasp with in a traditional art (along with the salute, which is talked about below). Some people may have trouble with the perception that they are giving someone power over them, maybe there are issues with authority in general, they  worry about a ‘cult like’ status being given to their teacher, or maybe they just want a coach and nothing more. I have noticed within myself the different connections mentally and emotionally I have with members of our club that use Sifu over the first name option. It is not something I make happen consciously but over 13 years my commitment to bearing the title Sifu has become more serious and meaningful to me, with the resulting connection to students certainly being influenced by their address to myself and their seniors. (Anyone who has trained longer than you, even by 1 day is considered your senior and bears the title Sihing, older brother, or Sijie, older sister). Traditionally, for a Sifu to bear the title meant that you are teacher and father figure for the student. Someone that does far more than just teaching someone physical skills. A Sifu is there for their students at any time they need help, advice, encouragement, direction. For me a Sifu can be close to students while simultaneously maintaining a bearing of correct conduct, good habits, and upstanding morals and ethics. A genuine Sifu is not a mate, not someone you go out drinking with. He will not ask you to do immoral or illegal acts, he will not charge you exorbitant prices for questionable products, and will not take advantage of you or your family in any way.

My Sifu and Sigung, and myself on Song Shan Mountain behind the Shaolin Temple.

“It is worthwhile to remember that your sifu is not your peer or equal. Your sifu is at least one, but usually many levels above you, otherwise he cannot and should not be your sifu. Well he is definitely one generation above you and hopefully many skill levels and grades too. The proper way to address your chi kung, tai chi, or kungfu sifu is “Sifu”, which is the Cantonese dialect of the Chinese language for “Master”. The Mandarin pronunciation is “Shifu”.

Actually if a great sifu answers you when you call him “Sifu”, you are, not he is, honored; it shows he accepts you as a student. (I always felt greatly honored whenever I called my masters Lai Chin Wah and Ho Fatt Nam “Sifu”, because they were two of the greatest sifus I had found.) “

My Sifu has always said you only ever have one Sifu. I follow this idea, although I believe you can have many teachers. This is also understood in China. My Sifu studied Taekwondo for 5 years to discover the kicking skills they have and also spent 3 months in China learning Chen style Tai Chi. I have been exploring other arts since 2008. The most regular being Xing Yi Quan and Bagua Zhang. I don’t call this teacher Sifu but still offer great respect as he is clearly a Master of these arts in his own right. I use his Chinese name given to him by his Sifu and will salute, although without the bowed head reserved for your own Sifu and Sigung. This respect and commitment was noticed and at the direction of his Sifu, my Xing Yi Quan teacher floated the idea of becoming a Disciple in their lineage. I respectfully declined their offer as I have my existing commitment of Discipleship to my one and only Sifu. A relationship I value and respect deeply enough to make it the only one in my life.

Me with my Xing Yi Quan teacher Geoff ‘Jiefu’ Sweeting and his Sifu Wang Tong.

“If your master’s surname is Chen, you should call him “Sifu”, or “Master” if you want to sound western, but strictly speaking not “Sifu Chen” or “Master Chen” for that is the address the public, not his students, would call him. If you call him “Sifu Chen” or “Master Chen” you are distancing yourself from him.

Showing Propriety – Besides showing propriety in your address, you should also show propriety in your behavior. Do not, for example, put your hand around him, pat him on his shoulder, or hug him — leave that to his wife, which following eastern social etiquette is also only done in private.
In our Kung Fu and Tai Chi lineage we use the traditional martial salute of the right phoenix eye fist covered by the left palm. The salute is something that permeates our art from the top down. It is a greeting to fellow students and their families, a show of camaraderie for each other, and a sign that you are willing to leave your ego at the door and to learn with humility. It should be held in front of the chest and in a strong framework for saluting fellow students. Do not be quick, complacent, weak, or reserved in your salute. Do not salute and use slang terms like ‘mate’, but always use a senior’s title or a junior’s first name. This simple action is very hard for some Western students to take up naturally. My Sifu has been asked by students why they should have to salute. Instead of explaining the history and reasoning behind it, he just asked them to leave the school and not to train with him. The salute for your Sifu shows a higher level of respect by dropping the back knee, holding the hands higher, and averting your eyes to the ground. This represents a willingness to be more respectful and also a great amount of trust. To look down means your can trust your Sifu with your life as he would never stoop so low as to strike you when you weren’t looking.”

Mudgeeraba’s Dai Sihing Dean saluting his Sigung before receiving his Disciple jacket.

“When you stand or sit in front of or near him, hold yourself upright. You need not stand at attention like a private in front of his sergeant major, but you should not stand sloppily, with arms akimbo or hands in your pockets. When you sit do not cross your legs with a foot pointing at him, or expose your groins to him even though they are hidden by your pants.It is only sensible that you should listen when your sifu speaks, especially if he is explaining some points. Yet, it is not uncommon to find some adult students (male as well as female) lying on the floor, sometimes with their hands folded at the back of their head, their eyes close and their legs open in an inviting position! This shows not so much a disrespect to the sifu, but an utter lack of good manners on the part of the students.

Entering and leaving a class It is also bad manners to arrive at your class late. In the past in the east, late students would be asked to go home, or to leave permanently if they were late habitually. The logic is simple: the sifu has something invaluable to offer; if you come late you tacitly show that you do not value his teaching. But if there is a valid reason for your being late, you should first greet him from the door, walk quietly but briskly to him, respectfully wait if he is pre-occupied, then explain your reason and apologize. I understand in our society it is not always possible to arrive on time or stay for the whole class. This may be due to work, studies, family commitments, traffic issues. Whatever the reason, speak with your Sifu and let him know the circumstances. Do not just show up at any time without the courtesy of explanation or saying it might be a regular occurence.

On the other hand, you should wait patiently if the sifu is late — even for hours! If you think this is unfair, you are probably not ripe for great arts. There are stories of great sifus who purposely arrived late, not for hours but for days, and then passed on their secrets to the few wise, patient students. Although it seldom happens nowadays, it will reflect a splendid grasp of chi kung and kungfu culture if you and your classmates stop whatever you are doing, stand up respectfully, bow and greet your sifu as he comes in.

Do not leave your class half-way. But if you have to leave early for some reason, explain that to your sifu before-hand and politely ask his permission. At the appointed time, ask his permission again, then bow and thank him before leaving. At the end of a class, the students should leave after the sifu, not before he does. However, if the sifu stays back for a considerable length of time, such as explaining some points to some students who stay behind to ask him, other students may leave first, after bowing to the sifu.

In the east, it is customary for the teacher to arrive last and leave first. Interestingly, it is often the reverse in the west. The teacher, western in culture if not in race, often arrives the earliest, sweeps the floor and prepares cookies and drinks which he will serve during recess to his students, who will joke and laugh. At the end of the class, the teacher will stand at the door, shake the students’ hands and thank them for their attendance. He will then throw away the garbage his students have left behind if he still has energy left, and check that everyone has gone home before he closes the door.”

Receiving our Master level in 2002 and beginning the journey as a Sifu in our own right.

“Offering a cup of tea – In eastern culture it is always the students who offer drinks to the teacher. When you offer your master a cup of tea, it is preferable to do so with two hands. In eastern societies, accepting a cup of tea and drinking it has deeper significance than merely quenching thirst. In the past, even if someone had done you great wrong, if he or she offered you a cup of tea, usually while kneeling down and then knocking his or her head on the ground, and you, sitting down in front of other witnesses, accepted and drank it, it meant that you accepted his or her apology, were ready to forgive all the wrong, and would not take any action whatsoever in future.

The students should also offer a seat to the master, and the seat chosen is usually the best one available. If the master is not seated, the students should remain standing, unless the sifu asks them to sit down. If they dine together, the students would wait until the master has made his first move to eat or drink.

Don’t be Insulting – When your sifu is explaining or demonstrating something to you, listen attentively and respectfully. Do not bluntly say you already know what he is teaching, even if you really know. In chi kung and kungfu culture, doing so is not being straight-forward, it is being insulting — you are implying that the sifu does not know what he is doing. I recall some occasions when my sifus taught me something that I already had learnt quite well. Thanks to my training in eastern culture, I followed their instructions faithfully although they appeared very simple and below my level then. Only much later did I realize that had I not follow these apparently simple instructions I would not have acquired the foundation necessary for advanced development.”

In my 23 years with my Sifu I have attempted to attend every seminar with him that I could. Many times they were geared at junior level understanding, like white, yellow, or orange belt. But even as a red sash Master in the art I always learned much from these seminars. The traditional idea of having an empty cup that can be filled, rather than a superior attitude of ‘I already know this’, always allowed me to gain many insights. And as Wong Kiew Kit experienced, my foundations became very solid.

Using those foundations became essential on many occasions, like lion dancing at events like the Sydney Olympics torch relay as it came through the Gold Coast in 2000.

“Do not ever make the fatal mistake of telling a sifu what or how to teach you. This is not only unbecoming, it is also very foolish, for you will be denying yourself the very purpose why you need him. If he is a sifu, he knows best what and how to help you attain your best results; he is able to see your needs and development in ways far beyond your limited perspective. Many times I have had students ask can we do this or that in their class. With a set plan in place for my classes and an understanding that I know the student’s progress and their place in the Kung Fu family, I will often steer them towards training something else. Even when what they have asked to do might have been my plan anyway!

For the Students’ Interest – Some westerners may find the above-described sifu-student relationship odd, just as those accustomed to eastern culture would find the behavior of some western students unbelievable. It may be more surprising, especially for those who think they are doing the sifu a favor by paying him a fee to learn, to know that all these customs of respect for the sifu are actually for the students’, not the sifu’s, interest.Someone who teaches kungfu dance or gentle exercise for a living (or any other sport or art in my opinion) will probably care more for your fees than your respect, but a sifu whose art gives you good health, vitality, mental freshness and spiritual joy actually does not care whether you respect him more or your dog. But those students who have experienced the wonderful benefits of genuine kungfu and chi kung will understand that the respect given to the sifu is not only a sincere token of appreciation to the sifu for sharing his art, but also constitutes an ideal psychological state for the training to take place.”

For me, being a Sifu, I certainly do care whether the student genuinely respects me. Without the sincerity and honest commitment to the relationship it is bound to fail eventually. The respect must be two ways, not just up the chain nor just down. “Respect and care for the people, and they will care and respect you.” Without this we are back to being the coach, or just the status of a businessman. A shallow reflection on what the Sifu’s of the past were and the ones in the modern era should be. I view the role of a Sifu in martial lineages, the genuine version and not the money focused, ego driven version, as more important and essential now than ever.