Professional Titles In Martial Arts.

Column by Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong
July 2005 Issue

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Many martial arts instructors these days adopt professional titles, such as master or grandmaster, to improve their credibility or solely to impress their students. Some even invent titles to make themselves appear more accomplished than their competition, or even their own teachers.

However, legitimate martial arts titles have nothing to do with self-promotion. Instead, such titles should be the result of a lifetime spent promoting your system and students.

In China, all martial art instructiors are called sifu or shifu in Mandarin. Some Northern Chinese call their teacher by the term laoshi or losi in Cantonese. Many third-generation students call their teacher's teacher si-gung or tai-laoshi. The fourth-generation students often refer to the first-generation teacher as tai-sigung or si tai gung.

However, there are not many traditional kung-fu teachers in China with more than four generations of students below them, because a teacher's students usually have to help teach until the teacher dies. Then the students can begin to teach on their own. In some cases, when highly skilled students move far from their teacher, they are permitted to teach on their own before their teacher's death. In this case, it is easy to see how a third generation of students can come about. However, a third-generation instructor could only happen if this person's student were also to move far away and begin teaching on his own.

For a rare fourth-generation instructor to be produced, this process would have to happen yet again. So as you can see, to arrive at four generations of instructors all living and teaching the same art, at the same time, is quite rare.

All the titles for addressing students and teachers are based on Chinese family titles. For example, sifu means teaching father. The wife of the teacher is called si-mo, even though she usually has no knowledge of her husband's martial art. If the teacher is a woman, she is still referred to by the masculine term sifu. The lady sifu's husband is called si-jeong or teaching uncle, even though he may not practice martial arts.

The term for a male senior classmate is si-hing or shi-xiong in Mandarin. A female senior classmate is called si-jie, or in Mandarin shi-jie. A male junior classmate is called si-daih or shi-di, whereas a female junior classmate is called si-moi or shi-mei. Your teacher's male or female senior classmate is called si-bak or shi-buo. And similarly, your teacher's male or female junior classmate is called si-suk or shi-shu.

These titles have little to do with formal ranking or learning levels; they are used in China mostly as a way of politely addressing peple you would normally see in and around your teacher's school. So, how did we arrive at the complicated ranking systems and titles used in today's martial arts schools?

When American GIs imported Japanese and Korean martial arts into North America after World War II, many of the early teachers began to devise more-extensive ranking systems. The karatedo and tae kwon do organizations in the U.S. and Europe were some of the first schools that used colored belts, degrees and professional titles for ranking purposes. In those organizations, a fifth-degree black belt who taught was qualified to be a master. The ninth- or tenth-degree black belt who headed the organization was usually considered to be a grandmaster.

Yet, despite all these precedents and traditions, there is no shortage of indivduals willing to bestow all manner of exotic titles on themselves. I can understand the kung-fu instructor who uses the "grandmaster" title after developing a sizeable organization, which includes several qualified master and sifu-level instructors.

There are some instructors that have never produced a single master or sifu-level student, but see nothing wrong with using the title of grandmaster. Some of these so-called grandmasters don't even have many students, let alone a full-time school. Some assume this title just because they have produced a student who is an instructor. Perhaps they confuse the title of grandmaster with grandfather. Yet, as I explained earlier, these titles are not the same.

In my case, my teachers certified me grandmaster so I could pass on their particular systems of martial arts. Today, my Plum Blossom Internation Federation has over 100 schools worldwide and I have produced more than one master-level instructor and dozens of sifu-level instructors encompassing five generations of teachers.

In my Federation, we only award professional titles such as sifu or master to instructors actively involved with teaching in their own school or organization. A certified staff instructor in one of our schools must be at least an advanced-level or black sash-level student. To earn the title of sifu, one must complete the senior-advanced level and must be the head instructor of a full-time school. The master level is reserved for someone who has not only completed the senior-advanced level, but also has produced a couple of sifu-level instructors that run schools.

A grandmaster is promoted by the soon-to-be-retired senior grandmaster, after this individual has produced a couple of master-level instructors. These master-level instructors and sifu are the foundation of a martial arts organization of significant size that promotes a particular system on a full-time basis.

As you can see, the true master or grandmaster is not self-appointed. Holding the title of master or grandmaster carries a significant level of responsibility and represents a lifetime of effort spent building a great martial arts organization. The true grandmaster achieves his title by producing many successful masters and sifus that are hard at work teaching their art to the next generation.

Doc-Fai Wong writes a bi-monthly column for Inside Kung-Fu.

July 2005 • Inside Kung-Fu