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Etiquette in the Chinese martial arts


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More than any other single thing, the way we deport ourselves and treat each other and our teachers defines us in the Chinese internal martial arts. You may be a talented fighter or gifted student but if your behaviour towards your peers and your teachers is inappropriate you will not progress far in the martial arts nor will you be afforded the respect you may deserve for your own achievements.

Etiquette in the Chinese martial arts is based on respect for family and ancestors (much like etiquette in Chinese society generally). Students are afforded the status of junior and senior fellow classmates or younger and older brothers and sisters in the art, depending on when they started. Older brothers and sisters who are teaching are often referred to as Sijo (one who can do it). Full teachers are referred to as Sifu (one who can teach it) and are likened to a mother or father. Your teacher's teacher is like your grandfather or grandmother and the head of a style is Si Tai Gung or Great Grand Master. In fact, as my own teacher put it to me "Teacher is more important than father. Father must be father, teacher doesn't have to be teacher.".

Like any family set-up different rules may be applied to different situations. For instance; I was allowed to call my teacher, Master Lam Kam-Chuen, 'Kam', a shortening of 'Kam-Chuen', in private but in public it was always Sifu and this would apply even today. I am happy for my students to call me Ray in private or at an association event, like the seminars we run in Onecote for members, but they call me Sifu at a public event, such as the demo performed in 2003, this would still apply to Sifus Robertson, Kerr and Newman (my most senior students). On the other hand I would expect my student's students to call me Sifu or Sifu Rand at any event unless I ask them to call me Ray and even then I would expect them to call me Sifu or Sifu Rand at a public event. Students of one teacher should always call a different teacher, who is entitled to a title, by their title, unless invited to do otherwise.

It's important to use the correct titles for people for two reasons; firstly, because it identifies them in some way, like the term doctor, so you know what you can expect from them and, secondly, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to earn some titles and that effort should be respected. For this reason I always try to use the correct title for people outside the organisation, though this can be difficult because it's not always obvious what it should be, e.g. just because someone is teaching a class doesn't necessarily mean they are entitled to refer to themselves as Sifu and just because they don't generally use the honorific doesn't mean they wouldn't like to be referred to by it in a publication or public event if they are entitled to use it. I try, by every reasonable means, to work out what people should be called and as a last resort refer to them as they refer to themselves.

On meeting a teacher for the first time at any event or class the student should salute (usually right hand in a fist against the left palm) while bowing the head slightly though not taking the eyes off the teacher. The teacher may respond by raising a right fist, nodding to the student or with a salute (though a teacher does not bow to a student). Again I would greet my teacher in this way and would expect to be greeted like this by any of my students, it doesn't matter how advanced you get, your position with regard to your teacher never changes.

A student should never argue with his/her teacher. If you think your teacher has made a mistake or your understanding differs from your teacher over a particular point you should mention it respectfully in private. Most teachers will admit their mistakes if approached in this manner. Of course, it's more likely that it's you who are mistaken, or not in possession of all the information, and a respectful approach will mean that your teacher will be more likely to give you an explanation.

Teachers and students of other styles and organisations should also be treated with utmost respect. I have, in the past, witnessed some shameful examples of inter club rivalry, with teachers and students of one club or style being treated with ill-concealed contempt by students of another. Whatever your personal opinion there is never any excuse for lack of respect. In China of old this sort of thing would have led to a feud with fighting and possibly loss of life! Such things are not appropriate in this day and age but that is no reason to lower standards.

Finally, students should treat each other with respect also. All members of a group are brothers and sister in that art and should behave accordingly. I'm sure some of you will be thinking "Yeah right, brothers and sisters aren't always the best of friends." but of course such relationships are forged in childhood, martial arts students should be more adult. Students should also help each other wherever possible, both within the class and without.

Someone asked me recently what I would do if I saw someone from another style or group teaching something which I thought was wrong, misleading or dangerous. My reply was that if I thought it was merely wrong or misleading I would probably do nothing or at the most perhaps mention it to the teacher in private, if it were dangerous, however, I would point out the problem and, if necessary, challenge the teacher to repeat the technique on me. If the teacher succeeded I would admit my error and ask for instruction, failure would speak for itself. In fact this is the honourable thing to do. It is better to confront something you believe to be dangerous practice than to leave it be and talk about it behind the person's back.

Not long ago a Chinese Sifu was claiming to have mastered Ling Kong Jin (empty force or the ability to strike, push or throw an opponent without touching them). Another Sifu attended one of his seminars and confronted him, demanding that he defend himself with Ling Kong Jin and saying that if he could do so he would ask to be his student. The Sifu who claimed empty force failed to defend himself which should be enough to expose his claims as exaggeration. A number of people asked me if I thought the Sifu who challenged the claim of empty force had acted improperly. I replied that I thought it was an unfortunate necessity because students could be hurt if they were duped into believing it were possible to defend themselves by such means.

Etiquette in the Chinese martial arts extends even to such challenges because we are all working hard to achieve excellence in a most demanding practice and that hard work and endeavour deserves to be respected.

The Chinese have a saying "There is always a higher mountain" which basically points out that no matter how great you become there will always be someone greater. It is meant to inject a little humility but it also gives an insight into a basic premise of Chinese martial arts etiquette, which is that people should be respected for their Kung Fu (literally the time and work they have applied to training) as well as their ability, which may be a result of natural aptitude or talent, and not for their ability alone because there will always be someone with greater ability and that does not negate the work they have put in.

Sifu R Rand

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