Sifu – Shifu – what does it mean?
People call me “Sifu Jensen”. Why do they call me “Sifu”. What does the term Sifu mean?
The meaning of the word “Sifu” is something that I have thought about at length. My teacher Wong Jackman, whom I called Sifu, gave me one of his simple, but profound, answers when I was young. I asked Wong Jackman, my Sifu, “What does someone do to become a Sifu?”.
Wong Jackman did listen carefully closely to what people said. He was present in the moment and always answered exactly the question I asked. Not the question I might have wanted to ask if I had thought it through better or phrased my query better. No, Wong answered exactly the question as asked and nothing else. His answers were always short. They were also always profoundly insightful regarding the topic at hand. On rare occasions I asked him questions he could not immediately answer yet, he answered them later. There were times he struggled to answer while quietly laughing at me. Or he struggled to find the correct words to kindly teach me.
His reply to my question “What does someone need to do to become a Sifu?” was:
“If you want to be a Sifu you have to quit your job and do Buk Sillum all day.”
To me this seemed like an obvious and true answer. But what I thought then was this was about hours of practice and skill. It is, but it also isn’t. It is really about career and life choice. Being a Sifu means you are a professional martial artist and a professional teacher as contrasted with a professional guard or professional sport fighter. What makes you a Sifu is that you have students who practice what you teach, and you use the tuition they pay you to support yourself. That is what it means to be a Sifu in my opinion. It is a professional designation. If you go out in the morning and spend all day being a doctor or a dentist and you pay your bills with that career you are a doctor or a dentist. You might be a doctor who also studies or is expert in martial arts. You might be a dentist who has some students in which case you are also amateur teacher. Personally, I have learned traditional medical massage and traumatology from some of my martial arts lineages, and attended acupuncture school. Yet I would never call myself a doctor. To become a good Sifu is a huge commitment and like becoming a doctor requires many years of both real effort and extensive instruction and hands on training.
The term “Sifu” used to mean a super high level of skill to me. A supreme master of martial arts like Wong Jackman. I do think it should mean this, and in Utopia every single Sifu would have a high level of skill. However, the linkage between skill and being a Sifu is not so clear. Many people have come to equate “Sifu” with “Master” and “mastery in martial arts”, yet “teacher” would be better, or better still “professional teacher of secret skills”. Experts are experts, Sifus are committed professional teachers of secret knowledge.
You can be a pretty poor doctor or dentist skill wise and still go out and make a living. This is also true in the world of martial arts. Just like in any profession there are a wide variety of skill levels in Sifu’s. Some are super expert at martial skills and knowledge, others know less but are great at instructing, or specialize in instructing children, or at running schools and events. The same champion who represents the style in tournaments may not be the best children’s instructor. They are a champion, and they might have much better martial skills than the professional children’s instructor. Yet it is the professional teacher who is the Sifu, not the tournament champion. Even though the champion might be technically better.
Somewhere in the world the absolute worst doctor or dentist is treating patients extremely poorly today. So are the poorest qualified Sifus. But if someone only teaches Kung Fu to make a living, they are still a Sifu. I might think this person is a terrible martial artist and an incompetent teacher, but if they have a space and they are in there teaching students, they are a Sifu. In truth, you do not need to lease a space or even have an indoor gym or room at all. What is important is the student – teacher relationship and the commitment to teach as a profession. If there are no students, there are no Sifus either.
In judging the skill of a Sifu it is all about observing the skills of their students. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said, “Judge a tree by its fruit, not its flower.” This means judge a person by the effects, especially the long term effects, of their actions rather than by their appearance or words. In the case of a Sifu or professional teacher the measure of their skill is found in observing their students. If the students have good skills, health, knowledge, and Wu De then the Sifu is good. If the health, skills, knowledge, and especially Wude are lacking, then the teacher lacks skill. This is the measure of a Sifu. It is not how many students they have, or how many tournaments they won, or books they published, or how big their school is, or how many movies they starred in, or how fancy their uniforms are. A Sifu who can produce high quality students who can inherit the essence of their art, perfect it, and then teach it, becoming Sifus themselves, that is a good Sifu. Without good Sifus a tradition dies a slow death, withering on the vine without ripening seeds for a new generation.
The term Sigung means “Grand Teacher” although many today translate it as Grandmaster. The best definition is “Grand Teacher of Secret Knowledge”. To me Sigung means two things. You are a Sifu whose students have become Sifu’s, or “Fathers of Secret Knowledge”, and therefore you are now the “Grandfather of Secret knowledge”. Your students call you “Sifu”, but their students call you “Sigung”. The beautiful moment is when the students of your students run up to you saying “Sigung”. The other thing “Sigung” or “Grand Teacher” means is that you have taken personal responsibility for the tradition of your art living on into the future and that you will not stop until you have ensured its survival.
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