Grandmaster (martial arts)

Grandmaster (martial arts)

Grandmaster (or Grand Master) and Master are titles used to describe or address some senior or experienced martial artists. Such titles may be, to some extent, aligned to the elderly martial arts master stock character in fiction. In Oriental martial arts, traditional titular systems vary between nations and arts, but terms such as "teacher"[1] were more common than "master." The modern use came from to Western society in the 1950s with stories of martial feats seen in Asia.



Oriental martial arts traditionally use terms that are usually translated as "teacher"[1] and the use of "master" was a Western invention derived from 1950s United States war veterans returning home[1] with stories of the incredible martial feats of certain individuals and groups. Subsequently, they found their way into martial arts culture as marketing tactics to the extent that the titles are aligned to the 'elderly martial arts master' stock character. In Asian countries, such titles are more commonly reserved for religious leaders and saints.[1]

Modern use

The use of 'master', 'grandmaster' etc. is decided within an individual art or organisation. The use may be self assigned; for example having promoted a student to 'teacher' level, or may be assigned by a governing body in arts with a more formalise structure, and some do not use it at all, for historic reasons or to avoid the 'elderly master' stereotype. The modern use of Dan rankings and Black belt in martial arts both derive from Judo where they were adopted by its founder Kanō Jigorō.[2]

Traditional systems

Some use equivalents of 'grandmaster' other have no directly equivalent term these derive form older systems, others are relatively modern.


Japanese and Japanese derived arts commonly use Sensei (先生) meaning "teacher" or literally translated, "born first"[1] or "one who has gone before".[3] A Sensei is a person who has knowledge and is willing to teach that knowledge to another. A Sensei assists students in ken shiki "the pursuit of knowledge".[3] Some organizations, such as the Bujinkan, Kodokan (Judo), and Shodokan Aikido, use the term shihan for high-ranking or highly distinguished instructors. Sōke (宗家?), means "the head family [house]."[4] is sometimes used to refer to "founder of a style" because many modern sōke are the first generation headmasters of their art, but most correctly refers to the current head. A sōke is considered the ultimate authority within their art and has the authority to issue a menkyo kaiden certificate indicating that someone has mastered all aspects of the style.[5]


The actual Korean word for a student's master is suseung-nim. This term is only used by the student when speaking to the instructor. The student is hakseang.[6] (학생 HakSaeng 學生)

Many Korean titles are often mistakenly translated as "grandmaster" (태사님 TaeSaNim 太師님). Sonseang-nim (선생님 SeonSaengNim 先生님) is a general term for a teacher of any subject as well as a respectful form of the word “you”. Martial arts instructors (in Korea 4th Dan and above) are called Sabom-nim (사범님 SaBeomNim 師範님). Since Black Belts of any level in the United States may teach martial arts, the title sabom-nim (사범님 SaBeomNim 師範님) is used by some when talking about American martial arts instructors that might not yet be 4th Dan.[6]

The term kwan jang-nim (KwanJangNim 舘長님 or 館長님) is used for the owner of a martial arts school. A chae yook kwan is a fitness center. A jang (장 Jang 長) is the general term for a head, chief or director. Nim (님 Nim) is a suffix of respect for a person. In the United States a black belt might not necessarily be a master but still might be the kwan jang-nim (관장님 KwanJangNim 舘長님 or 館長님) owner/operator of the school. The head or chief of several kwan jang (관장 KwanJang 舘長 or 館長) is the chong kwan jang (총관장 ChongKwanJang 總舘長 or 總館長). The hae jang-nim (회장님 HwoiJangNim 會長님) is the president or head of the association.[6]


Various dialects of the Chinese language use different terms.

"Sifu" is a romanization, although the term and pronunciation are also used in other southern languages. In Mandarin/Pinyin Chinese, it's "shifu". The pronunciation in Mandarin is like "sh foo" (using typical English pronunciation). The 'i' appears to be silent. Many martial arts studios incorrectly pronounce this like "she foo". In Cantonese, it sounds like "Sea foo" (almost like "sea food", minus the "d" on the end). (師傅 or 師父; Pinyin: shīfu, Standard pinyin: si1 fu6) a modern term for "teacher".

The term Shifu is a combination of the characters "teacher" and "father." The traditional Chinese martial arts school, or kwoon is an extended family headed by the Shifu. The Shifu's teacher is the "師公 honorable master" or Sigong. Similarly the Shifu's wife is the Simu "teacher mother" and the grandmaster's wife is known as: 師姥 shi lao; or 師婆 shi po. Male and female students who began training before you and are thus senior, are Sihing "teacher older brothers" and 師姑 shi gu "teacher's sisters". Women in traditional society did not have the same satus as males (in spite what modern movies tell you). Students junior to you are your Sidai and Simui. The pattern extends to uncles, aunts, cousins, great uncles, and so forth (see above for a complete list of relational terms).[1]

A teacher might be referred to as '始祖 shi zu "founding teacher". e.g. Bruce Lee is the Shi zu "founder" of Jeet Kune Do.[1]

A closer relationship is formed between the Shifu and the Todai "disciple". After a formal Tea Ceremony, where everyone dresses up in their Sunday's best, the Todai kneels while serving his Sifu tea and becomes virtually an adopted son. The Todai assists the Sifu in minor school duties such as housekeeping and tuition collection. Modern mainland Chinese sometimes also use the term laoshi which also means teacher but implies a relationship more similar to that of Japan than the traditional family relationship.[1]

Family systems (家 Jia)

Chinese martial arts lineages are based on one of three systems: Men 門 (Buddhist/religious ); Jia 家 (military/family) or Pai 派 (faction or branch school of one of the 'men (門)' systems). Shigong (Pinyin) 師公 which literally translates 'honorable master'. This dates back to the family systems (家 jia) of martial arts where the Shifu is the master and 'father figure' of the students. The 'honorable master'/師公 shigong' is an earlier generation in the lineage is also connected to the Men 門 Buddhist systems and military based Jia 家 systems. However this term, although it parallels the traditional family, is distinct from the familial maternal grandfather.

Lineage based systems (門 Men)

Shaolin martial arts lineages, parallel monastic "dharma transmission", and "tonsure". The traditional idea of lineage is generally not understood very well. In Chinese Buddhism – tonsure (chin.: ti du 剃 度 ), that is the master-disciple relationship - entailed no vows and was clearly distinguished from ordination (chuan jie 傳戒; shou jie 受戒). Ordination came years later. Through tonsure a monk entered a "family". The 'tonsure family' was a private structure so to speak within the public body of the sangha (congregation of monks and nuns).

In Lay Shaolin traditions, lineage norms – the special relationship between master and disciple – came from Buddhist traditions followed by the monastic sangha (congregation of monks and nuns). As with a tonsured monk, the student entered a marital family, the head of which was his master (Shifu 師父) or his/her grand master (Shizu 師祖; shigong 師公 shigong; Shiye 師爺). The rest of the family, including members of various generations, were called older-brother-masters, nephew-disciples ,” etc.

Dharma transmission (chin.: chuan fa 傳 法 ) is a complicated affair. Basically "to transmit the dharma" means to transmit an understanding of the truth. In this regard, instead of acknowledging only one disciple, Chan masters began to transmit the dharma to several disciples. This often created situations where the lineage fanned out so that it became unwieldy and it was not clear who was senior. Because of this, many sub-sects arose within Chan. As a result some lineages in Chan, as with lay Shaolin lineages adopted a quota system limited the number of students any one master may passed (graduated) the lineage to. In more recent history the custom arose of giving a written attestation, called a "dharma scroll" (chin.: fa juan 法卷), to 'graduated' disciples. In many of these cases monks were actually not given these but made their own copies. Typically these scrolls began with a story of Buddha then continued with the founder of the sub sect followed by a list of every master. Each name was assigned a generation number based on a piece of text. The scroll was used as proof of orthodoxy. In effect what was being transmitted was the authority to teach. Transmission of the dharma as a seal of office was the practice at most Chinese monasteries. However it should be pointed out that dharma was often transmitted from monk to monk without any reference to abbot-ship of a monastery but simply as a private transmission.

What further complicated records was secrecy. This kind of secrecy surrounded not only martial arts but also Buddhist and Taoist medication practices (kung fu). “Do not pass to anyone outside the temple the religion and the teachings.” Historical records also show that there was official (government) disapproval of Shaolin monks teaching martial arts to outsiders. This in effect created a situation were the names of monk masters were kept secret or simply not divulged. However, at lest since the Ming Dynasty historical records suggest that Shaolin martial arts were passed on mainly through monks and their lay followers most of whom kept very poor if any records. In many cases because of the all to common tumultuous times these were lost or destroyed. Most were left to relied on oral transmission, master to disciple. Even in cases, where the equivalent of 'dharma names' (chin.: fa ming 法名) was used to keep track of generational seniority and ancestry, these have been forgotten or were not rigorously used (a common problem with many Buddhist lineages as well). Be that as it may, most if not all, Shaolin martial art methods practiced today, including that which is practice today at Shaolin, survived because of lay Buddhist practitioners and lay lineages.

Most transmission-chain have little or no other evidence of being unbroken they remains useful in that often several recent generations are verifiable provide some validation of the consistency of the experience and teaching that is transmitted along that line.

In old school northern Chinese martial arts lineages such a Shaolin or Baqua, seniority was decided by a generational system. Here teachers (shifu) could have a number of students each qualified to teach (to graduate) and pass on the next generation. The most junior member of one generation was senior to the most senior member of the next. In other words 'grandmaster' is not a title as is claim by some in the west, but is rather is a relational term. A person addressing or speaking about the teacher of his teacher, would use the word 'grandmaster' ('shi ye' or 'shi zu'), however if that same person was ones own teacher, the title 'teacher' (師父 shifu) would be used instead of '師公 'shigong'.

The relational terms in Shaolin martial arts are as follows:

  • Teacher: 師父 Shi fu
  • Teacher's senior brother: 師伯 shi bo
  • Teacher's junior brother: , 師叔 shi shu
  • Teacher's female classmate: 師姑 shi gu
  • Teacher's wife: 師母 shi mu
  • Female master’s husband: 師丈 shi zhang
  • Teacher's teacher (grandmaster): 師爺 shi ye; 師祖 shi zu; or 師公 shigong (the term 'shigong' means: 'honorable teacher', not 'grandfather teacher')
  • Grandmaster's senior brother 師伯公 shi bo gong
  • Grandmaster's junior brother 師叔公 shi shu gong
  • Grandmaster's female classmate: 師姑婆 shi gu po
  • Grandmaster's wife: 師姥 shi lao; or you can use 師婆 shi po
  • Great Grandmaster: 師太爺 shi tai ye; or you can use 師太祖 shi tai zu

In some lineage (non-Chinese) based systems there is only one grandmaster who is the head or father figure of the entire style and acts as the overseer and example to all the style's adherents. It is the grandmaster's duty to see that the style continues on intact to the next generation of students and masters as well as look deeply into the style itself for anything that can be strengthened in any way. As the grandmaster it is him only who has the authority to change the style's format for future generations legitimately. In some cases, the grandmaster from one generation to the next is a prized disciple of the last grandmaster who has trained and mastered all the style's aspects including fighting techniques, theory and philosophy, and is publicly named the next grandmaster upon the current one's retirement. In various systems there are different traditions regarding this passing on of the title. More commonly a number 'graduates' from the same generation are included.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Master vs. Sifu in Chinese Martial Arts Traditional Asian Health Center
  2. ^ Ranking Systems in Modern Japanese Martial Arts: Modern vs. Classical by Donn F. Draeger, Lecture on 1 April 1976.
  3. ^ a b What is a Sensei? Neil Ohlenkamp,
  4. ^ Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary
  5. ^ Soke: Historical Incarnations of a Title and its Entitlements by William M. Bodiford
  6. ^ a b c Korean Terminology Martial Arts Fitness Centers, Inc.

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