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A martial arts class is not the same as a night school course at college. The situation is quite different, and so is the instructor:
The term 'sifu' is similar in some ways to the Japanese title 'sensei'. A sensei is a black belt exponent of at least 3rd dan (sandan). Sensei teaches the class.
Sifu is pronounced 'seefoo' in Cantonese and 'shihfu' in Mandarin. It means teacher/father/master.
Sifu is the correct form of address when talking to the founder/instructor of a martial arts (e.g. taijiquan) class. A tai chi for health teacher could not be called 'sifu'.
A sifu teaches the art to their students; they explain what works and what does not. They offer corrections. A clear, detailed syllabus is implemented and adhered to.
The father component is about creating a good class atmosphere. There is an element of sternness, humour, responsibility and caring. Student wellbeing is paramount.
In Asia, the instructor isn't seen as being a 'father-figure'. They're more akin to a 'respected elder'. An uncle or aunt who isn't a blood relative...
A sifu is a master of their chosen art. They are not the overlord of the class/school. Mastery is about self-mastery rather than bossing people around.
The image, the reality
(i) The image:
We mix the avuncular Mr Miyagi of the Karate Kid fame with a smattering of the late actor Toshiro Mifune's phlegmatic and taciturn personality. Then add a dollop of the quirky, diminutive jedi master Yoda. Season well with the aphoristic wisdom of the Shaolin masters of the old Kung Fu TV series. And distilled, we might have a result: the perfect sensei - at least as envisioned by those who have scant exposure to the real thing.
In reality, the true sensei has perhaps a smattering of those stereotypical images. More likely, he is distinguished more by his ordinariness than anything else. He tends, when not actually teaching, to blend in. And even when teaching, his manner is more apt to be understated than dramatic, gently guiding; always subtle rather than nakedly charismatic.
book In The Dojo is an excellent read
for anyone wanting more information concerning martial arts etiquette, the role
of the instructor and the duties of the student.
Adam Hsu's The Sword Polisher's Record is also highly recommended.
(ii) The reality
The role of the instructor in a martial arts class is crucial. In addition to teaching the class, they often write the syllabus, run the class and decide how to approach the art.
Their personality is imprinted on everything they do.
Unlike a school teacher - who implements someone else's curriculum and follows someone else's rules - a martial arts instructor is more like the captain of a ship.
(i) If they are your instructor
If the instructor is currently teaching you, then you call them 'sifu' (no surname) or 'master' (no surname).
(i) If they are not your instructor
In Chinese martial arts you call the instructor Mr Surname or Sifu Surname or Master Surname when they are not your instructor.
To refuse to call an instructor Mr Surname, Sifu Surname or Master Surname is considered to be very arrogant and disrespectful.
The term sifu is not "Sir" or "Boss". It's more akin to saying Mum/Dad.
It's friendly and recognises the fact that you have a personal relationship with the instructor.
Instructors come in all shapes and sizes. Some have impressive skills or can move in a pretty way. Ultimately all that matters is what they can teach you. It may be worth asking:
What style of taijiquan do they offer?
Is the instructor a master of one style, or do they offer many?
How long has the instructor been practicing taijiquan?
If offering combat, how long have they been training martial arts?
What was their instructor called?
How long has the instructor been teaching?
Do they hold a teaching qualification? If so, who did they obtain it from?
How regularly does the instructor practice taijiquan?
Is taijiquan their focus, or do they offer a selection of martial arts or therapies?
If the instructor has a website, read it rather than ask them questions in person. This approach shows initiative and sincere interest.
Authority in martial arts
Martial arts have always been taught for money. The instructor needs a certain income to sustain the class, pay hall rental and their own fees.
Some people teach part-time whilst others teach professionally. Typically an instructor founds a class or is appointed by a governing body or a chief instructor. The instructor has a lot of responsibilities.
It is important to respect that the instructor is running a small business.
When you come to the dojo, it
is a recognition that the teacher there has something you want. He will give it
to you in his own way. You must accept that. If you do not, you are free to
leave. The dojo, however, is never run by consensus.
In terms of the class and all things pertaining to the class, the instructor must have absolute authority. You cannot run a martial arts class by consensus.
Despite this, you (the student) must decide to what extent you are prepared to accept this authority. If you wish to remain in the class, then you must accept it unconditionally.
If you are unwilling to acknowledge the worth of the instructor, then you should leave.
Being sifu is all about responsibility. The role of instructor demands a very serious dedication to the art and an on-going commitment to the students.
A martial arts class needs to have clear boundaries and a Code of Conduct. Sifu is the person who ensures that these are adhered to. They are also responsible for delivering the syllabus.
In some cases, the instructor may have written much of the syllabus themselves.
In his training and in his
life, he seeks that intensely personal mastery that defies description, but
which can be sensed and seen immediately.
A sifu must be capable of doing/applying all aspects of the art taught in the classes. Their skills must transcend those of every student in the class. Theoretic knowledge alone is not acceptable.
(ii) At least 10,000 hours
Being an instructor is more than just talent. You need to put in the work. A good instructor should have at least 10,000 hours of practice behind them.
10,000 hours of continued improvement, insight and development. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson found that this was true of any art; whether taijiquan, dancing or playing the piano.
The instructor should be practicing (by themselves) more than 2 hours a day. They should have taken at least 100 private lessons with their instructor.
(iii) Calculate your hours
Do the maths: if you trained taijiquan for 2 hours a day (every single day) for a year, that would mean 730 hours a year. At that rate, 10,000 hours would take you 13 years of practice.
Consider: Sifu Waller has trained martial arts for 3+ hours a day, 365 days a year, since the 1970's. Now, do the maths...
It is not easy to teach something as complex as taijiquan. The classes are in flux. Students are changing constantly. People make progress or they struggle.
Unfamiliar material must be introduced and explored. Different approaches and considerations need to be practiced. Everything being taught is provisional.
As students grow and change, their understanding and ability to comprehend alters too.
The budo, practiced correctly
as they were meant to be, will never have an enormous following. They require a
commitment and a willingness to endure boredom, repetition, and a constant
criticism that are not in tune with modern life.
Everyone is different. Everyone has their own agenda. Some people are easy to work with, whilst others are not. One student may try hard but continually fail.
Another might be totally lazy but have a knack for the art. Occasionally, a student neglects their training and blames the instructor for their lack of progress.
An instructor aims to help everyone fulfil their potential.
(i) Your own class
In taijiquan the title sifu is only for instructors who have a own class and teach there.
(ii) Commitment to the art
To call yourself sifu suggests a deep commitment to the preservation and furtherance of taijiquan.
Being sifu is about helping students to access the art.
The role is mainly about knowledge, experience, practice, teaching skills, being organised and systematic, disciplined, professional, calm, understanding and patient.
It is not an ego-trip. It is not always fun. But it is something worth doing. When a student 'gets it' and their face lights up with wonder, the effort is rewarded.
A instructor needs to cultivate an atmosphere of friendship, care and respect. The classes need to be akin to an extended family, with students feeling quite safe and comfortable with one another.
No matter what is happening in your life, the class remains a good place to be. Traditional Chinese designations are familial in nature: 'older brother', 'younger sister' etc.
Talking with the instructor
It is fine to talk with your instructor providing:
The instructor wants to talk
The instructor has time to talk
The class has started
The class is not over
It does not interfere with the lesson
It does prevent other students from practicing
You are not monopolising the instructor's attention
Your questions are relevant to the topic at hand
Item 1 is the most
The best method is to let the instructor approach you.
Remember that your insights and perspective will be wildly different from that of an instructor.
It is akin to a nursery-level child seeking to discuss Shakespeare with a University lecturer; there is no parity and no meeting of minds.
You may both be on the same journey, but the student is in the foothills whilst the instructor is high up the mountain range. The student can see the peaks from afar and that is all.
To think otherwise is truly naive.
When you meet a master swordsman,
show him your sword.
When you meet a man who is not a poet,
do not show him your poem.
Read some Lowry
We highly recommend Dave Lowry's marvellous books: Brush and Sword, Traditions, In the Dojo and Moving Towards Stillness.
He discusses the role of sensei (the nearest Japanese equivalent of sifu) in depth:
is not a therapist. The goal of the dojo is to make healthy people healthier,
physically and psychologically and spiritually. It cannot be expected to repair
badly damaged human beings. And so if a member exhibits serious personal
problems, the sensei's job is to get rid of him, gracefully if possible,
forcefully and definitively if necessary.
Like any intricate or complicated art, budo has so many subtleties, so many individualised manifestations, that there is no way it can be taught through books or video or through a teacher standing at the front of a big hall and counting movements like a drill sergeant. The relationship must be immediate, at least for those practitioners seeking to move further along the way than just the first steps.
There have always been individuals in Japan's budo willing to undertake this task, no matter how arduous and often thankless it is.
My own thinking is that a sensei is very much like another kind of person who is responsible for important matters. A person who, like the sensei seems to be from another age, a person of rare and unique gifts. The sensei, it seems to me, is very much like a vintner.
A vintner is the person who produces wine. He is the one who is responsible for it, from the planting of the grape vines, all the way until the raw wine is poured into casks to age. The vintner is the talented individual who can look at a particular hillside or a handful of soil and can tell you which kinds of grapes will grow best there, what kind of yield you can expect. He knows when the grapes need to be pruned. He makes vital decisions throughout the growing season, to fertilize, to spray for bugs. He must decide when to pick them in the fall, to wait for a few more days to let them fully ripen or to pick now and beat out the rain that can adversely affect the whole harvest.
The vintner is responsible for the blend of grapes that go into fermentation tanks. He must add the sugars if they're needed, to begin the fermentation process. In short, he is the guy responsible for the wine from the time the grape vines are planted or bud out, until the moment the wine is on its own, so to speak, when it has been put in casks and must now age and develop according to the qualities inherent in it.
Doesn't this sound very much like the sensei's task? He is the person responsible for a student, from the time that student enters the training hall until the crucial period of the training process has been completed. The sensei is a person, then, in my estimation, who can take a person of raw and unknown potential and turn out a complete and worthwhile product. He can oversee the process from beginning to end.
2 May 2008
Last updated 25 February 2020