When you want to learn Tai Chi, you will notice many more or less strange things. People wearing silk pajamas as martial arts clothes, Yin Yang symbols and martial arts weapons everywhere, not to speak of all the strange Chinese words (e.g. 太極拳 or 氣功). And if you’ve read your fare share of martial arts books and movies, you probably ask yourself: should I call my teacher “Sifu”?
Over the last decade I met around a dozen different teachers in Tai Chi classes and workshops. Most of them I simply called by their first name. Some of them I call Master + their first name.
However, I know that many teachers get called other names, e.g. Sifu. And I always wondered: what does that actually mean? While I researched for my book (on Amazon: The Taijiquan & Qi Gong Dictionary), I stumbled upon different names for teachers. And I would like to share the translations and meanings with you:
Sifu and other names for Taijiquan teachers
Sifu is a title for and role of a skillful person or a master. Actually Sifu is the Cantonese spelling, while Shifu is the Mandarin Chinese spelling. To make things even more complicated, there are two ways of writing Sifu: 師傅 or 師父. The first sign 師 is the same in both versions and simply means “skilled person” or master.
If the second sign is 傅 (=”tutor”), you can use Sifu to address people like cab drivers, cooks, skilled laborers etc. By calling them Sifu, you show your respect for their skills.
The second sign can also be 父, which means “father”. Calling someone a “master-father” emphasizes the teacher-student-relationship. This version is usually used in apprenticeships.
However, the pronunciation of Sifu (師傅) or Sifu (師父) is the same and is also appropriate for women. So you actually don’t need to bother which version to use, unless you want to write a letter in Chinese ;).
Just one more detail: if you want to refer to your Sifu’s Sifu, say Sigung (as Gung means grandfather in Cantonese). There are names for all parts of the (martial arts) family, but they are usually not very common anymore. If you are interested in them, read this overview.
Another name for a Taijiquan teacher is Lao Shi. It literally means “old person of skill” and translates as teacher. You can use it to respectfully address people like physicians, lawyers, other academic professions etc.
Actually, I know of one case where students called their teacher “professor”. That was Cheng Manching, who was a master not only of Taijiquan, but also of Chinese medicine, calligraphy, painting, and poetry!
Jiao Lian is the Chinese word for instructor, sports coach or trainer. However, I never heard any of my friends say it during Tai Chi training.
Master. Well, anyone can call themselves a Master or Grandmaster. Just like anyone could call himself a Sifu. However, traditionally that title was GIVEN to you by OTHERS. And even though there are really accomplished and skillful people who are called Master or Grandmaster, there are also a lot who are, well, not as skillful. So whenever you meet someone who calls himself a master, watch out!
Now if you are new to Taijiquan and you are not sure how to call your teacher: just listen to what the other students say. Or you could also ask the other students (or even the teacher!). I am sure they will gladly tell you how to address the teacher. I mean, we are all humans after all!
P.S.: If you need further help to find Tai Chi lessons, read my blogpost about what you need to know if you search “Tai Chi near me” and how to identify a good Tai Chi teacher.