Yes, Shifu!

When I started in Tai Chi I was taught that “Sifu” was a rank you were awarded only after years of dedicated practice when a certain level of mastery had been obtained in your martial art. Then one of my students took a trip to Hong Kong and it turned out that everybody was called Sifu! Your taxi driver, your chef in a restaurant, a car mechanic, etc. it just meant somebody who was skilled at something.

Sifu is Cantonese, Shifu (simplified Chinese: 师傅 or 师父; traditional Chinese: 師傅 or 師父; pinyin: shīfù) is Mandarin.

The character 師/师 means “skilled person” or “teacher,” while 傅 means “tutor” and 父 means “father.”

From Wikipedia:

So, it wasn’t wrong to call your martial arts teacher your Sifu, but it wasn’t a rank that could be awarded. Something had got lost in translation.

Photo by Artem Podrez on

In Brazilian JiuJItsu (BJJ) we don’t have Sifus or Shifus, but we do have Professors. That sounds even grander than Shifu, yet how many people know that Professor is just the Portuguese word for teacher? It’s like saying “coach”, but in a culture like ours that has real Professors (i.e. people working in academia) it gets a sort of elevated status. (Actually, professor is a slippery term in the West as well, because in North America it can mean anybody who is a researcher or teacher in a university, whereas in Europe it is generally used to indicate distinction in a field.)

Professor is, unlike Sifu a rank that can be awarded mainly because BJJ has a belt culture. (I’m sure that if Chinese marital art had a belt/rank culture then Sifu /Shifu would inevitably become the black belt rank.)

But BJJ has its own weird cultural oddities. Certain BJJ teams and academies have rules that every black belt must be addressed formally as Professor by lower ranked students at all times. How seriously these rules are taken tends to be up to the academy owner though.

I’m a professor myself, but I never insist somebody call me professor. That would be nuts. I just let them call me whatever they’re comfortable with, but I don’t object to it if they do call me professor. There are some black belts who make a big fuss if you call them professor, going as far as making fun of the person who said it or going on a mad rant. I think that’s just rude. It’s just as bad as being one of the people who insist on being called professor!

I prefer a middle way. Some people like the whole rank and respect thing, I get that, and they’re just trying to be respectful by calling me Professor, so I appreciate their effort. I just don’t make a thing out of it.

I’ve always believed that trying to control what other people do or say too much never turns out well in the long run. The same can be applied to martial technique. Whenever I try and force something to happen in a sparring situation, it rarely turns out well, even if I’m really good at it! And this is where my personal philosophy in BJJ aligns perfectly with Tai Chi. I find it much better to ‘go with what the guy is giving you’ rather than to try and impose your will on them. If he’s giving you his leg then stop trying to go for his arm and take his goddamn leg and do something with that instead!

It’s amazing how simple this strategy sounds, but how hard it is to apply against somebody really trying to get you, with real resistance. It’s so tempting to try and ‘just do your thing’ and impose your will on the opponent. Yes, sure, this can work, and you see it work all the time in competition. The problem is it requires serious amounts of athleticism and effort to achieve. It’s a high risk, yet high reward strategy. And one of the risks is that you might get injured because you’re usually going to have to use some force against force. I’m too old for that type of game, and I’d also like to say, too wise, but that sounds a bit pompous, especially when I’m the same guy who just this morning tried to feed that cat my (human) breakfast cereal by mistake.

When you catch yourself doing that, it’s hard to think of yourself as a Sifu, Shifu or a Professor. You’re just a guy who wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing, and who now owns a cat with a newfound taste for Chocolate Chip Mini Weetabix.

Now bow to your Sensei!

Photo by Kelvin Valerio on

5 thoughts on “Yes, Shifu!

  1. All of my Chinese teachers introduced themselves by their given names. When the topic of titles came up, these are titles of respect that you give. Calling oneself by a title, like Shifu, 師父(师父), even on a business card or marketing literature shows hubris and arrogance, something frowned upon in Chinese culture.

    They said you only call a person you respect Shifu, and only when you are their student. Some of those teachers preferred the lesser appellation, ShiXiong, 師兄, “Respected Elder Brother”, but I when I went to Boston on a business trip and was able to study with a student and relative of the founder of the system, I was told the more generalized but more respectful, Laoshi, 老師, would be most appropriate.

    In your comment about trying to force something to happen, I think you are paraphrasing Laozi. He said to work with the materials at hand, or some such. As a counterpoint, he also said to never attack the opponent’s strengths, only their weaknesses. When I trained with a friend who was a master of Indonesian martial arts, he reminded me of this when saying, “Never play your opponent’s game. Only play your own game, and then, only if it is better than your opponent’s.”

    I reminded of this because it requires a certain amount of will to do, but it is more a will of out maneuvering an opponent’s will than a head-to-head battle of will against will.


  2. Graham, ah, Canadian Winters… what can I say except to note that we are having a freezing rain storm at the moment I write this which has carpeted the remaining snow with a thick blanket of white ice.

    They used to say that Canadian Winters were six months of snow followed by six months of bad sledding conditions; still seems true despite all the talk of global warming.

    Thanks for keeping up the quality of your posts; I suspect that it reflects your skills in and interest in the “manly arts” [he wrote with tongue jammed firmly in his aging politically-incorrect cheek]


  3. Michael, I always found that the more run-down the surroundings the better the quality of the Chinese martial art! But it was probably more to do with the lack of a formalised “dojo” culture in Chinese martial arts. My preferred training environment in the UK was always outside in the sunshine, mud and rain. I can’t imagine that would be much fun in a Canadian winter though!

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  4. I led group classes for many years; I told my students to call me Mike though many had done kung fu elsewhere and had a tough time getting used to that apparent informality. Then again a lot of those same people also used to say “Gee, your premises are sure neat and clean compared to what we’re used to.”

    I’d think back to the crappy places I trained in for my formative martial years and think ‘Yup, Chinese schools were a very different environment from the hygiene-obsessed karate and aikido schools I had experienced.’ “A chacun son propre” [To Each his Own”] as my froggy ancestors would say…


  5. Having experienced the belt ranking system,most people think the higher the more” deadly,unstoppable ninja badass” ) you are. I’ve met both types,of the two I would like to be the one who smiles,then carries on training or coaching without comment.💞👍👌


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