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Chinese Customs

in a Martial Art Class


Martial art etiquette often depends on the historical roots of a school. In our branch of taijiquan and swordsmanship Chinese customs dictate our martial arts terms. They suggest what to call the teacher and how to relate to other students. Sometimes these rules are unwritten and absorbed by becoming part of the school community. If you are a long distance student, as I am, it's best to ask questions.

Names and Titles

Some martial arts schools have everything clearly defined. There is a name for each level, a colour for the belt signifying each level, and a title for each level of teacher, both male and female. In the school I belong to, Chinese customs intermingle with western ways. In fact, even western ways vary from country to country. In Australia, we call everyone by their first name, including the boss and the Prime minister. If we want to show someone is important we use the first name followed by the surname. In America, most people call their boss "Mr Whoever". Try mixing that with the Chinese customs and you'll quickly discover precise martial art etiquette becomes a little unclear in a worldwide school.

Here are some martial arts terms we use for teachers:

Sifu - This is one of a number of martial arts terms meaning "master". It is an over used term today and has been downgraded in many types of martial arts to mean the person in charge of the school. This can be clouded even more by the fact that most students want to be taught by a "master". So what is a master? Someone to whom every aspect of their art is easy all the time. There aren't many people like that, especially in a world where martial arts teachers have families and need to make a living elsewhere. Most people don't have time to become true masters.

Laoshi - This means literally "old teacher" in Chinese. It is the same word a child in a school might use for their teacher and it's a term of respect. You could substitue "respected teacher". This is the same concept as Australian kids calling their teachers "Sir" or "Miss" and American school kids calling their teachers "Sir" or "Maam". I know some teachers of Chinese martial arts who prefer this term even though their skills are greater than those who freely accept the title of "master".

Student Instructors - There are only two people of my school, worldwide, who have been given the title "Laoshi". There are many other students who teach. These are the student instructors and will usually be the ones furthest ahead in any particular school. They do as much work as a teacher but are not quite up to the high standard of someone with that title. Students can learn a lot from fellow students but there will be some small details someone of higher training can see, that they don't.

So You Want to be a Teacher?

  • Are you prepared to make your training the main focus of your life and spend hours every day on your own training?

  • Do you actually have the gifting to teach or just more skill than others? Being good at something and being able to teach well are two very different things.

  • Are you good enough to prove your skill by taking on all comers in your area?

  • Are you willing to let students be like family to you.

  • Are you prepared to wait until others of your lineage acknowledge your skills and promote you?

Terms for Students

If we follow Chinese customs, martial art etiquette gives a specific word or phrase to every relationship. This is true in normal life, not just the martial art class. Here are a few of them:

Shiye: Your teacher's teacher. Your Grandfather teacher.

Shimei: A female student in your class or school who is not as advanced as you. Younger sister classmate.

Shidi: A male student in your class or school who is not as advanced as you. Younger brother classmate.

Shijie: A female student in your class or school who is more advanced than you. Older sister classmate.

Shixiong: A male student in your class or school who is more advanced than you. Older brother classmate.

There are also terms for your teacher's classmates. As a general rule, when you are a visitor at another martial arts school, call the teacher what his or her students call them or what your teacher tells you to. When at a seminar, ask what the teacher likes to be called and do that. This makes these Chinese customs much simpler.

Additional Notes from Visitors

From Watchfrog of Twitter:
" LaoShi is also the Mandarin equivalent to Sifu or teacher."

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