Teaching Titles in Chinese Kung Fu

When I first started in Chinese Kung Fu, I didn’t really understand the titles used for the teachers.  Like many people, I only knew the Japanese title Sensei (teacher).  This is where the Chinese and the Japanese titles start and end in their commonality.  In Chinese, the equivalent to Sensei is Laoshi ().  They are literally the same word pronounced differently but using the same characters between the languages.  In Chinese kung fu the titles are based on family systems, and thus they take on the family structure.  To my understanding, in Japanese this is not true.  While Laoshi () is a generic title for any instructor in any topic or material set, many of the kung fu titles for teachers and class relationships are not generally used outside of the kung fu context.   Also of note, none of these titles infer rank inherently.  A Shifu could outrank a Shiye, and a Laoshi could outrank them both.  They generally only define your relationship to the specific teacher.  Some times they are awarded and not used until that award is bestowed upon them, and sometimes they are assumed the moment the relationship begins.  Depending on culture and personal preference, some teachers may choose to simplify things and use the title Laoshi exclusively.  Some parts of China view Laoshi to be the more honorable title, while some places use it as a junior title in a series of progressions similar to what’s used in college settings with Instructor, Assoc. Prof., and Prof. titles.  Things can be further complicated by the prevalent use of both Mandarin and Cantonese for the same words as well as the different ways to write them in English alphabet.   Many people choose to use titles that they have claim to outside of the class settings such as Doctor or Professor, and many styles use the title Professor in English over the Chinese terms.

Here is a list of the titles, their characters, and translations per my research thus far: (simplified character sets represented here)

  1. Shifu (pin yin spelling)/Shrfu (Wade Giles spelling)/Sifu (Cantonese): Teacher (class) Father () also Master Teacher (). These words sound identical but can carry with them different nuances.  Master Teacher is more commonly used outside of the martial context (at least this is my understanding)
  2. Shimu/Sumu/Simou: Teacher (class) Mother ().  While in dictionaries this is translated as “honorific title for teachers wife”, I have in a rare scenario seen it used by a female teacher in place of Shifu.  Per my research, most female teachers use the Shifu title despite the male gender meaning.  Possibly the Master Teacher variant.
  3. Shiye/Suye/Sije: Teacher (class) Grandfather (). This is used in one of two ways, either as the teacher of your teacher, thus the same person might be called Shifu by you and Shiye by your student.  Or, as the head of a system, where only that individual uses that title.  Most commonly, it is in the former… again, per my research.
  4. Shigong/Sugong/Sigung: Teacher (class) Grandfather (). This is used the same way as Shiye, as gong is another word for grandfather (maternal vs ye as paternal).  Per my research this is often translated into English as “Honorable Master” and is used as the head of the system more often than Shiye might get used for that title.
  5. Shilao/Sulao/SilouTeacher (class) Grandmother (). Most often used as the wife of a Shiye or Shigong. Lao is a maternal grandmother title in typical Chinese conversation.
  6. Shizhang/Suzhang/Sizoeng: Teacher (class) Husband (). This is used for a husband of a female teacher.
  7. Shibo/Subo/Sibak: Teacher (class) Uncle (). This title is used for an older class uncle.  In typical Chinese conversation, Bo is used for your fathers elder brother.  So this would be for a class brother of your teacher who is greater in “grade” than your teacher – however your system defines this grade.
  8. Shishu/Sushu/SisukTeacher (class) Uncle (师叔). This title is used for a younger class uncle.  In typical Chinese conversation, Shu is used for your fathers younger brother. So this would be for a class brother of your teacher who is less in “grade” than your teacher – however your system defines this grade.
  9. Shixiang/Suxiang/Sihing: Teacher (class) Older Brother (师兄). This title would be used for a class brother who is your “elder”.
  10. Shijie/Sujie/Size: Teacher (class) Older Sister (). This title would used for a class sister who is your “elder”.
  11. Shimei/Sumei/Simui: Teacher (class) Younger Sister (). This title is used for a class sister who is your “younger”.
  12. Shidi/Sudi/Sidei: Teacher (class) Younger Brother (). This title is used for a class brother who is your “younger”.

Also “elder” or “younger” is generally used based on when the people started, not always based on rank or skill.  However, these titles can be adapted in each school for individual purposes, and often are, so you should learn how they are used in your school’s context.

About Shifu Read

Primary instructor of the school. Training in martial arts since he was 5. He started in kickboxing, then moved to XingYi at 18. At 32 he began training in BaGua. At 36 he began training in TaiJi. At 40, he began in BJJ. He loves to share his knowledge with his students and help them along in their own martial journey.
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