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.

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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!

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