In all ancient cultures, whether Eastern or Western, the role of a teacher is very important. Teachers are considered the icons and role models of the communities they lived in. They are the elders, imbued with wisdom and virtue from much learning and experience. They initiate the younger generation into the secrets and mysteries of life.
In modern times, most of the role of the teachers and elders has been taken over by the educational system where school teachers and lecturers are paid to do their job. The traditional respect and sacredness of the elders is very diminished. Nevertheless, school teachers still command a certain level of respect.
In traditional communities, the teacher commands more respect than in urbanised and modern communities. Similarly, teachers of traditional arts command more respect.
Because of the way of life in the West, Tai Chi Chuan teachers have to ply their art in a commercial way. Students pay a certain set fee for class instructions, just like any other classes. This dilutes the respect that are due to teachers. Students think “We pay you, so you have to teach us. That is the end of it. No more, no less.” This is a sad state of affairs.
In Chinese martial arts and secret lore, there is a difference between a student (Shue Sheng) and a disciple (Tu Di). This is related to the difference between a teacher (Lao shi) and a master (Shi fu).
A student is someone who is learning something from a teacher. While the relation is sacred, and there are mutual obligations between the student and the teacher, there is no commitment between them.
A disciple, on the other hand, has committed himself to the master, and the art of his master. The disciple has committed to entering and mastering a secret branch of knowledge and has requested the master to accept him into the arcane path. The relationship is very sacred and the obligations are binding.
Upon entering this sacred master-disciple relationship, the disciple acknowledges that the teacher is his master in the art, who he serves as the master as far as the art is concerned. This should not be misunderstood to mean “master” in the sense of a master and a slave. A “shifu” is not the dictator of the disciple’s life in everything. Disciples are not slaves for the master to use and abuse at every whim and fancy. The community of the master’s disciples is not a cult group.
Although it is understood that the disciples should maintain and support the master, the disciples are not expected to work as the master’s slaves to financially support the master who does no work, does not teach much, does little practice, leaches on the disciples, and even uses the disciple’s money to gamble! The disciples maintain the master who must practice hard in order to maintain and improve his skills so that he can impart them to the disciples, and he must teach them the skills he has been maintaining and improving while on the support of his disciples. It is a two-way street. It is like ‘We give you this money in order that you may train harder and improve your skills. In return, you teach us what you have attained’
The obligations between masters and disciples is akin to that of parents and children. As far as the art is concerned, the teacher is the master and the authority. The disciples should serve the master and maintain him in as far as promoting and propagating the art is concerned. They should provide whatever services and assistance to the master to this end. They should assist in looking after his school of martial arts, including his other students. They should help him acquire more students. They should look after his personal wellbeing and that of the school and the art. If necessary, they should help him with his livelihood – which is usually in the form of helping him in his business or school.
Disciples also have to assist in the further development of the master. For example, the master may wish to undergo further training in particular aspects of the art to attain higher levels of attainment so the disciples have to assist the master by, for example, being a training partner, or building some equipment of a room for him to engage in his secret practices. If the master is in retreat for intensive training, the disciples have to ensure he has adequate provisions, and prevent other people from entering his premises to disturb him.
As an example, the great Tai Chi Chuan master Cheng Man Ching (1901 – 1975) of Taiwan developed his Nei Gong with the aid of his live-in disciple William Chen. Many other Tai Chi Chuan masters developed higher skills with the assistance of disciples who served as their training partners. In turn, after the master has attained higher skills, he would teach the disciples his new insights into the art. Thus, the relationship between the master and disciple is a symbiotic one of mutual assistance. “Hep me master and develop this skill further so that I may teach the skill to you”.
The obligation of the master is to look after the progress of the disciples on the path. After receiving students as a disciples, the disciples are the master’s children. They are his extended family. They are entitled access to him, and he has to consider their requests for inner teachings.
The word “fu” in “shifu” has different meanings when combined with other words. To understand the word “shifu”, one must understand the different connotations and implications of the word when combined with other characters.
Combined with “mu” to become “fumu”, it means “parents”. The relationship to one’s parents is very sacred. They gave birth to us and they toiled and sweat and worry over us until they die. They tried their best to bring us up, to discipline us, and to make sure we become good contributing members of the community. They sacrificed money, properties, opportunities, and basically everything for us. A real “shifu” is like one’s parents in the art. They are always looking to see that we are practising properly and excel in the art, and our health and conditions in life are favourable etc.
A real “shifu” is like a god-parent. When children are still young, the parents labour to bring them up. When the parents are old, the children help to take care of the parents. Similarly, when the disciple is still new in the art, the “shifu” labours to ensure safety and excellence in the student so that the student may turn out to be the best in the art. When the “shifu” is old, the disciple takes care of him and his school and other students. This also teaches the disciples filial piety and how to take care of their own blood-parents. This is how the master-disciple relationship is similar to the parent-child relationship.
Combined with “chiang” to become “chiangfu”, it means “husband”. Traditionally, when a woman becomes a wife, she marries into the husband’s family. The husband is the bread-earner who obtains money from outside the house. She is the caretaker of whatever is in the house, including the husband. Each protects and tries to take care and support each other so that the other can perform their duties well.
They are devoted to each other and they nurture each other. A real “shifu” is like one’s husband or wife. The “shifu” takes care and protects the disciple with love and care, and the disciple takes care and protects the master with love and care. The disciple and “shifu” support each other and grow old together. This also teaches the disciples to support their spouses and be with them always to share their joys and hardships together. This is how the master-disciple relationship is similar to the husband-wife relationship.