TCMA: When the Sifu-Says Replaces Common Sense


There is a common theme when getting into an argument with a traditional martial artist. If there is a disagreement in regards to a technique or concept it is very easy for one exponent to counter with, “But my Sifu says that it’s done this way.” I am earnestly quite curious as to when this phenomenon started. 

The title of Sifu is often translated as teacher. With our western mind we create all sorts of images through the use of language; therefore, I think a better translation is mentor.

A mentor is someone who guides an initiate. A mentor is someone who has had real-world experience in the topic of study. A mentor is not a giver of truth, but someone who is, to borrow a phrase from Bruce Lee, a catalyst for change.

Many of my martial art instructors I met, save one, took the role of Sifu as Sifu-says. Rules, regulations, and cult-like thinking is rife in the martial arts world and I encountered it time and time again.

“Wing Chun doesn’t spar.”  “You aren’t allowed to ever show what you’ve learned.” “Don’t ever tell anyone you are training here.” “You are not permitted to cross-train.” “That technique isn’t real Wing Chun.” In this type of environment who wouldn’t feel like the Sifu is the all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful guru?

If you are training in environment that doesn’t allow personal growth, and stifles respectful questioning and creativity, it might be time to leave. I spent too many years with Sifu-says-type instructors to finally find an approach that gave me a framework while allowing me to self-express.

My approach is sound - for me. Non-Classical Gung-Fu improved my Wing Chun and made it functional. Training Jesse’s punching drills stopped me from having an unhealthy love-hate relationship with Kung-Fu. That’s what a good approach from a good mentor can do.

I implore you: don’t let your intuition and common sense be blinded by some newer-age tradition. Sifus were mentors. They were guides. They were battle-tested in the ring or in the club or in the street. They were open-minded. They cultivated healthy relationships with their students.

Ip Man said, 'Don't believe me, as I may be tricking you. Go out and have a fight. Test it out.'

Kenton Sefcik