Professional Titles in Martial Arts

training for Life
Column by Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong
October 2006 Issue

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These days a lot of martial arts instructors adopt professional titles, like Master or Grandmaster, in an attempt to improve their credibility, or solely for the purpose of impressing their students. Some even invent their own 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 your students.

In China, all martial art instructors 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fs 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. This is because a teacherfs students usually have to help teach until the teacher passes away. Then the students can begin to teach on their own. However, in some cases, when highly skilled students move far from their teacher, they are permitted to teach on their own before their teacherfs 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fs student were also to move far away and begin teaching on his or her 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 a rare occurrence in deed.

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fs martial art. If the teacher is a woman, she is still referred to by the masculine term Sifu. The lady sifufs husband is call 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fs male or female senior classmate is called Si-Bak, or Shi-Buo. And similarly, your teacherfs 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 people you would normally see in and around your teacherfs school. So, how did we arrive at the complicated ranking systems and titles used in todayfs martial arts schools?

When American GIs imported Japanese and Korean martial arts into North America after the Second World War, many of the early teachers of those arts began to devise more extensive ranking systems. The Karatedo and Taekwando organizations in the US 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 9th or 10th degree black belt who headed the organization was usually considered to be a Grandmaster.

Yet, despite all of these precedents and traditions, there is no shortage of individuals 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. However, 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ft 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, I was certified Grandmaster by my teachers for the purpose of passing on their particular systems of martial arts. Today, my Plum Blossom International Federation has over 100 schools world wide, 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 like Sifu or Master to instructors that are 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 Sifus are therefore the foundation of a martial arts organization of significant size, that promotes a particular system on a full time basis.

So 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 or her 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.

October 2006 Inside Kung-Fu