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Author Guest Blog: “The Teacher”

September 3, 2010

Phillip Starr has authored three books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, with a fourth book, Hidden Hands: Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Martial Arts Forms on sale November 23, 2010 (pre-order here!). Starr shares his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts in a monthly article on our blog, and writes books to help martial artists not only improve their skills on the mat, but strengthen their minds. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, just click on their covers.


“The Teacher”

By Phillip Starr

The word shihfu (which is Mandarin; the Catonese equivalent is “Sifu”) is comprised of two characters. The first character, shih, is made up of two radicals. One is the radical which means “legion” and the other is the radical for “surrounding”, which has been altered to read “teacher, master, specialist.” The second character translates as “one who enforces rules with a stick.” Appropriate enough.

The teacher was often referred to as “father” and in many schools he was actually regarded as the student’s psuedo-father, especially if the student was a juvenile. Even the student’s actual parents deferred to him and he had more authority (regarding the child) than the birth-father. The character of “fu” in “shihfu” can also be read as “father.” In modern usage, the term “shihfu” means simply, “teacher-father.”

In Japanese, students refer to their teachers as “sensei” which means roughly, “one who has gone before.” As one of my senior students pointed out, it is somewhat awkward to refer to someone younger than yourself as “sensei”, even though he or she may actually be your instructor. The Chinese term does not infer “one who has gone before.” It means simply, “teacher-father.”

I will actually address anyone who has trained me, regardless of how small that training might be, as “shihfu.” For instance, Mr. Arthur Lee (who has more time in kung-fu than I do; hence, I am junior to him in terms of length of time in training) taught me several points about his art of Fut-Ga and kung-fu in general. To his dismay, I always address him as “shihfu” whenever we first meet.  After a verbal beating, I address him as “Arthur.” But the next day, I’ll start off by calling him “shihfu” again.

One of my teachers, the late W.C. Chen, regarded teaching as the noblest profession. “Without teachers, where would we be?” he would ask. Naturally, he felt that martial arts teachers and those who teach medicine were at the top of the list.  These things, he felt, had more impact on people’s lives than anything else.  His feelings are arguable, but I won’t go there right now….

In old China, the village kung-fu teacher was usually the village doctor, as it were.  He had seen and dealt with more injuries than most other people. Additionally, highly-trained kung-fu teachers had to have a detailed understanding of the body’s energy system and how it worked. This is identical to the knowledge required of traditional Chinese physicians and it became something of a tradition for persons desiring to acquire high skill in kung-fu to become skilled in at least one of the fields of traditional Chinese medicine (acupuncture, massotherapy, herbology, or qigong). Mr. Mark Salzman, who authored the book “Iron and Silk” relates how people would flock to him when they found out that he was skilled in kung-fu. They came to him to be healed of various maladies rather than to learn fighting techniques. Clearly, the old tradition of the kung-fu practitioner/teacher being skilled in the healing arts is still alive even in modern China.

This wonderful tradition began to die out decades ago. Nowadays, it is rare to find a kung-fu teacher who is skilled in any form of Chinese medical therapy. I try to maintain the old tradition by requiring senior students to study one or more of the traditional (Chinese) medical fields. I think that this is something that makes us unique and sets us apart from most contemporary kung-fu groups.

It was (and still is) felt that the shihfu took a part of his life, in terms of time and consideration, and gave it to the student. Thus, the close bond between the two. Although the teacher could have spent his time practicing on his own and not have to deal with the responsibilities and aggravations which teaching entails, he elected to use a portion of his time on this earth to transmit what he had learned to someone else. This made him a very special person, especially in the eyes of his students.

It was quite common for students to take money, food, or other gifts to the teacher each week and in some cases, for each class! Fortunately, this is done today with money rather than food. I’d hate to think of what I’d get from a couple of my students who are hardcore bachelors; I can only choke down so much macaroni and cheese. But the notion that “traditional” kung-fu teachers never charged tuition of some kind is entirely erroneous. In many ways, the old way of showing gratitude/paying the teacher was a good deal more expensive than it is today.

Another reason why teachers expected some form of compensation (although they might not have stated it) was because, as one of my teachers put it, “The student must have an investment. If he has no investment, he loses nothing if he does not come to class.” I have found this to be true.

The shihfu was held in the highest regard because he would teach the student things which could save his or her life; things which could be used to defend against aggressors, and things which could be used to maintain health. He would also serve as a sort of spiritual guide to the student (at the higher levels). This made him unique among teachers. Teachers of mathematics, language and writing, and so on, were not even in the same league as the martial arts teachers because their teachings would not necessarily save the student’s life.

The training which the shihfu provided for his students and the knowledge he shared with them would build a bond of iron between them. Any student who turned his back on his teacher without very good reason(s) was considered an outcast not only in the martial arts society, but in Chinese society in general. He was regarded as a person without personal honor or integrity.

At the same time, the shihfu regarded the student (or his closest student/s) as his “son” or “daughter” (although it was very rare for a female to undertake the study of martial arts). This went much deeper than mere lip service. It was a sort of spiritual bond that even death could not break.

There are some who believe that “shihfu” is the Chinese equivalent to “master” and this is incorrect, at least insofar as how we Westerners interpret the word “master.” Some teachers insist on being called “master” and I have never been comfortable with this. After all, what is a master? What does it really mean to master something? I am not sure. I think if I have really mastered something, I don’t need to “practice” or try to improve it any further and since I am still striving to learn how to punch correctly, I am not a “master.”

Those who insist on being called “grandmaster” are something of a mystery to me. Such terms were never used in the old days. And what comes after “grandmaster?”…”grand-ultra-cosmic master?”

Nah. I’m just a teacher. And I’m that because I love to teach. I can’t help myself. I thoroughly love teaching.

So next time you go to class, consider what your teacher is giving you and the sacrifices he or she makes to do so. He or she doesn’t have to be there; doesn’t have to teach. Your teacher is there because he or she cares. Your teachers give you a part of their lives; a part of their spirits. Nurture it.

How do you show gratitude to your instructor? Do you agree with Pete Starr? Give us your 2 cents in the comments below, and you could win the following set of Pete Starr’s books! Don’t forget to include your email with your comment so that we know how to contact the winners!

Other must-have martial arts books from Philip Starr:

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