What Is a “Grandmaster”, Anyway?

3 01 2013

The term “Grandmaster” is today an overused and meaningless term.

Grandmaster used to mean one who taught your teacher, a form of saying “martial arts grandfather”. The term for one who creates a style is actually “Founder”, or in Chinese we say Si Jo. The title that the Si Jo was called by his students is simply “Sifu”, meaning “teacher”. Not lofty enough of a term for today’s egotistic martial arts teacher.

Today, we have the term used for anyone who claims more than a 5th degree black belt, which would make him a “senior teacher”, or Dai Sifu. Appropriately, the top three or four students of the Master might be referred to as their school’s Dai Sifu–but only to differentiate those students from his other students holding an instructor ranking in the system or school. However, those few students with that denotion would be called by their students, simply, Sifu. Yet most traditional teachers who have instructor level students do not give their students this title. Some would say that the school’s Master would be that school’s Dai Sifu, but again no one would call him that title either. What would that school’s master call himself? Sifu.

And what would his senior students be called? Want to take a guess?

Si Hing. This mean’s “older brother”. The same title a student with 6 months of training would call his classmate with 10 months of training. The same title a student with 3 years of training would call his classmate with 17 years of training. This morning I received a call from my junior classmate who joined Jow Ga Association in 1986. Guess what he calls me? Si Hing.

Why all of these optional titles that no one uses? Because in the Chinese martial arts, respect is often earned three ways:

  1. Stay in the arts long enough and/or simply be older,
  2. Move up in rank,
  3. Possess skill.

While a man can walk around and call himself a Grandmaster, and insist that the community calls him a Grandmaster, we must be careful not to confuse titles with respect. Some will be in awe of a man with a lofty title, an interesting story to tell, or longevity in the art–but again, some may not. Yet when a man is in your presence and everyone around him knows without a doubt that he could kill anyone within 6 feet of him with his bare hands–and no one could do a thing about it–there exists a very rare form of respect that all martial artists understand, and everyone agrees.

Martial artists who do not posses the third category of respect must rely on the first two. In other words, he must be called names and throw around his resume and qualifications in order to receive the kind of respect that is earned the traditional way: years of study, thousands upon thousands of hours of training, a multitude of opponents therefore proving his ability, and finally possessing the skill that even when he says, “just call me ‘teacher’”–everyone knows they are in the presence of a master.

And a grandmaster is only an old man with a title.

Thank you for visiting DC Jow Ga Federation.

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