“Respect the teacher, one day as a teacher, lifelong father!”
-Old Chinese Saying
Most phrases don’t translate well from Chinese to English because of the cultural divide. An old saying like this is not just about the words being said, but understanding cultural concepts and values. The terminology used in other cultures differs from that which is used in today’s modern American culture. Today’s American culture doesn’t place a high value on the concepts of honor and respect. Instead, the predominant attitude is that of irreverence. I’m all for freedom of thought and freedom of speech, but something has to be said about honoring and respecting your teachers and those that have come before you.
In the Chinese martial arts, many systems are based on the Confucian ideal of the family. Within the Asian culture and family, everybody is assigned a role. I can remember having friends that would call their uncles “first uncle” and “second uncle,” and didn’t even know their names. Every family member has a different classification, and everything is delineated by generation. Even the empire was structured like that -- the emperor was considered the father and all the subjects were his children. In this system, it’s the duty of the leader to be responsible for everyone below them. Similarly, in the traditional Chinese martial arts, your Sifu was considered responsible for you. Anything that happened to you, he had to answer for it and vice versa.
This is the understanding of, “One day as a teacher, lifelong father.” (一日為師，終身為父) It doesn’t translate well literally to English, but it’s important to understand some of the reasons behind it. In the past, the “Sifu” could be a craftsman of any sort who taught a trade or practiced a skill. You would travel and then apprentice under a master shoemaker or master tinsmith, a master herbal doctor, or a master martial artist. You would call him, “Sifu,” because he let you into his world, gave you a life skill and gave you a means to earn a living. He opened the door for you, so you gave him respect. Even if he just taught you for one day, you call him Sifu because he gave you access to knowledge you never had before.
Your Sifu (師父)is your direct teacher, the one you started under, the one that opened the door and let you enter into the world and life of the Chinese martial arts. This is opposed to a Sifu (師傅), meaning “master” or “qualified worker,” someone who has attained a high level of skill in a particular craft. You may address this master as “Sifu” 師傅 to show him respect, but this doesn’t mean he’s your personal Sifu 師父. Even though both words are pronounced the same, their meanings are different. Without your father, be it your Sifu or your biological father, you will not have life. In that sense, you look at your martial art teacher as a father figure bringing you into the martial arts. This is why you call him Sifu, because you give him the ultimate respect, just as you give your father the ultimate respect.
You must call your Sifu, “Sifu.” Other terms that you may use divorce you from the responsibility that you have to him and the responsibility that he has towards you. You call your father, “Dad” or “Daddy,” or “Papa,” or “Father.” You don’t call him “Joe,” or “Mr. Smith.” The same is true for your Sifu. “Mister” is a term used for everyone. “Sifu” is a term that you use to show respect for your teacher that has put in decades of work and is willingly giving you this knowledge. You may say, “I paid for the knowledge,” but you could not afford to pay for your teacher’s knowledge. You don’t know what he has had to go through -- all the blood, sweat and tears he put in to learn what he has learned.
In today’s culture, the martial arts has become big business, and a lot of this has been put aside. Most students don’t spend every day with their Sifu as in the past. This is okay. However, when you start taking away these titles, like Sifu (which much be deserved), you start to undermine the values, moral and ethical, that are ingrained in the martial arts. Once that happens, you lose something that you’re never able to get back. Kung Fu is far more than learning about a physical technique or an application. You’re learning the culture, and one of the tenets of this culture is respecting and honoring your elders, and doing so by using the proper terminology.
No matter how important your father is to you when you are a child, as you grow older, your relationship with him changes. The same thing is true with your Sifu. At some point in your life, your relationship with your Sifu becomes just as close, if not closer sometimes than your own father. I can distinctly remember, not that long ago, I called my mom to say hi while I was practicing with my Sifu. She said, “Give my best regards to your Sifu. He’s an excellent man, he’s an angel.” As a mother, she recognizes the impact that this relationship has had on her son. She realized that in many ways my Sifu was able to give me direction, insight, and guidance, that my own father couldn’t. This is no way taking away from my dad, because he’s an amazing individual, with his own experience and knowledge. That’s what he was able to give me. But my Sifu has other experiences and other knowledge that he can share with me, making me more well-rounded and whole. So, I honor him as a father figure. He does not replace my biological father. But at the very least, your Sifu can give you guidance that you need at that point in your life.
When an individual has spent most of his adult life mastering and learning his art form, whatever the art form is, be it mathematics or martial arts, he must be given his rightful due. You’re not just honoring one individual, you’re also honoring the institution and culture. Many people will argue with me and say, “Well, you live in America; you should do everything the American way.” I’m not saying this is wrong or that things cannot be done differently. But I will say the reason why I was attracted to Kung Fu was because of its culture and its philosophy and its diversity, and that is the American way. If you really want to personify the modern American way, then you should embrace the diversity of ethnic cultures and recognize them for who and what they are, upholding their traditions when you are participating in their art. Then it becomes your art. I’ve had Chinese friends say to me, “You are more Chinese than I am.” I say it’s not because I am, it’s because I have respect for my art and where it comes from.
At the end of the day, everyone is free to make their own conclusions and decisions on how they want to treat, honor and respect their teachers. For myself, I appreciate and value the traditional ideals set forth by our martial ancestors, understanding that without genuine reverence for the teacher and the gift of his knowledge, there is no respect for yourself. This is not just because it is traditional, but it upholds the true precepts of the Chinese martial arts. I will always honor and respect my teacher as my “Sifu,” my “lifelong father” in the martial arts.