The modern Southern Shaolin Monastery, picture taken from Google
The following legends, which are based on historical facts, are translated from the book, “Legends from Southern Shaolin” 南少林傳奇, written by Chiew Sek (Cantonese Chinese) in 1993, which Grandmaster Wong bought more than 20 years ago in 1995.
There are some differences between the legends here and those that Grandmaster Wong heard from his father more than 70 years ago in the late 1940s from a Chinese magazine entitled “Legends from Kungfu Knights” 武俠小說王. In reproducing the legends here, Grandmaster Wong made some modifications according to what kungfu masters knew. Some Chinese terms are in figurative language, and their meanings are explained in parenthesis, thus adding to the fun and beauty of the language.
These legends happened after the first burning of the first southern Shaolin Monastery at the City of Quanzhou in Fujian Province, where our patriarch, the Venerable Jiang Nan, escaped. Little is known of the Venerable Jiang Nan because he ran out of China, thus missing the legends that many kungfu exponents were fond of, and passed the Shaolin arts to Sifu Yang Fatt Khuen, who then passed to Sifu Ho Fatt Nam. Grandmaster Wong learned from Sifu Ho Fatt Nam in the 1970s.
Another of our patriarch, the Venerable Chi Seen, also escaped from the first burning of the southern Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou. He established a second southern Shaolin Monastery on Jiu Lian shan, or the Nine-Lotus Mountain, also in Fujian Province. These legends, which were popular among many Chinese-reading public who were interested in kungfu, occurred after the first burning of the southern Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou and before the second burning of the southern Shaolin Monastery on the Nine-Lotus Mountain by the Qing army led by Pak Mei.
The northern Shaolin Monastery at Henan was still intact. It was razed to the ground by warlords in 1927, and its burning had nothing to do with kungfu. Before that, an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which preceded the Qing Dynasty, moved the imperial status of the Shaolin Monastery from Henan to Quanzhou.
These legends from Southern Shaolin were well known among kungfu exponents, especially old masters, of the 20th century. It is highly recommended that our Shaolin Wahnam family members also know of these legends.
Sifu Wong at the International Congress for the Unity of Science in Seoul in 2000
Five Steps to Maximum Results
Why can some people attain in six months what others may not attain in six years? This is not an exaggeration; indeed, many of my students have reported that they have benefitted in a few months what they could only read about in books but never experienced although they had previously practiced the art in question for many years. Chi kung and kungfu (including Taijiquan) provide some glaring, if not disturbing, examples.
It is not uncommon today to find practitioners who have been in chi kung or kungfu for many years, some of whom are even instructors themselves, but who have no experience whatsoever of energy flow or any ability of self defence. Yet, the very fundamental of chi kung is energy flow, and that of kungfu is self defence. It is even more disturbing when some people, irrespective of whether their intention is good or selfish, start to teach chi kung or Taijiquan, which is actually a very effective form of martial art, after they have learnt some chi kung or Taijiquan movements for a few weeks, some even for a few days!
If you learn from such self-taught “masters” you are not going to get good results even if you practice for a whole lifetime. On the other hand, if you learn form a genuine master, you will get better results in a much shorter time. Nevertheless, while learning from a genuine master, or at least a competent instructor, is important, there are other contributing factors too, and they are generalized into the following Five Steps to Deriving the Best Benefits from Your Training:
Have a sound knowledge of the philosophy, scope and depth of the art you practice.
Define your aims and objectives clearly.
Seek a master for the best available methods to attain your aims and objectives.
Practice, practice and practice.
Assess your progress or otherwise with direct reference to your set aims and objectivs.
Philosophy, Scope and Depth
Understanding the philosophy, scope and depth of your chosen art is the essential first step if you want good result. Such an understanding acts like a map; it not only shows you the way and how to get there, but also the potential result at the destination.
Without this understanding, many people not only waste a lot of time and are often lost along the way, but also they do not actually know what they are working at. If they understand, for example, that to practice chi kung or Taijiquan, actually means to work on energy flow or to train for combat efficiency, far less people would have wasted their time over exercises that at best are gymnastics or dance.
If they further understand that the scope and depth of chi kung are much more than just energy flow, though working on energy flow is its essential foundation; and that the scope and depth of great kungfu like Shaolin and Taijiquan ae not just combat efficiency, though combat efficiency is the basic starting point, they would go beyond the foundation and basic to greater heights like vitality, longevity, mind expansion and spiritual fulfilment.
Where can you obtain knowledge on the philosophy, scope and depth of your chosen art? There are two main sources: living masters and established classics. Obviously if you hear it from a self-styled scholar who himself has not experienced what he says, or read it from a book which merely repeats cliches, you are unlikely to benefit much. Living masters were rare even in the past; they are rarer nowadays.
If you are so lucky to meet one, treat him with the respect as you would treat a living treasure. Showing Respect to the Master suggests the minimum you should do when meeting a living treasure. If you politely ask him relevant questions, he would answer them. If he gives excuses like the answers are too complicated for you to comprehend, or they involve secrets that you should not know (unless they really are secrets, which are not frequent in general questions), you are justified in suspecting whether he is a real master.
Established classics were also rare in the past, but they are more readily available today. You need to overcome two obstacles to understand the classics. One, you need to know classical Chinese; and two, you need to have some background knowledge. Most people, especially in the West, have neither of these two conditions. Their alternative is modern, easy-to-read books clearly written and well illustrated by practicing masters. Therefore, in chosing a book for your prior reading, you should decide on the following three factors: whether the book is dull or interesting, whether it is written in jargon or simple language, and whether the author and his material are authentic.
It is so evident that without aims and objectives much of the learning or training is usually unfruitful, that mentioning this fact may become trite. Yet, most people practice chi kung or kungfu without set aims and objectives! Try asking some practitioners why do they practice chi kung or kungfu, and many of them will start searching for their aims or objectives after, not before, they have heard your question. Even if they have prior aims and objectives, often they are merely fashionable slogans, rather than real definitions to remind them of the direction of their training.
For our purpose here, aims are general in their definition, and long-term in their attainment; whereas objectives are specific and short-term. For example, to be able to defend yourself is a general aim in your Taijiquan training, whereas to be able to release yourself from some particular locks and holds constitutes an objective. You should also set a time frame within which to accomplish your aims or objectives. Needless to say, you have to be realistic and reasonable when setting your time. For someone who has been suffering from an illness for years, for instance, it would be unreasonable to expect the disease to be overcome by just practicing certain chi kung exercises for only a few weeks.
For convenience, objectives may be classified into personal objectives and course objectives. The choice of personal objectives depends on the needs and abilities of the person in question, and sometimes on his whims and fancy. Developing the art of tiger-claw, and performing well the Five Animals kungfu set are examples of personal objectives in Shaolin Kungfu training.
Course objectives are related to the particular set of chi kung or kungfu exercises you intend to train for a period of time. For example, you may wish to spend six months on Golden Bridge training in Shaolin Kungfu, or on the Three Circles Stance in Taijiquan. In either case, developing powerful arms and solid stances is an appropriate course objective.
To define your aims and objectives wisely (please read the webpage Aims and Objectives of Practicing Kung Fu), it is necessary to have some sound knowledge of the philosophy, scope and depth of the art in question. For example, if you do not understand that chi kung also promotes mind expansion and spiritual cultivation, you will be in no position to touch on the mind and spirit while you define your aims and objectives. If you think (mistakenly) that Taijiquan is merely moving your body, arms and legs gracefully, the aims and objectives you set for your Taijiquan training, no matter for how long you may practice, are necessarily limited by your narrow perspective.
Seeking a Master for the Best Available Methods
Sifu Wong posting with his teacher, Sigong Ho Fatt Nam, many years ago
Having set your aims and objectives, the next logical step is to seek a master to help you realize your aims and objectives. Good masters are hard to find; you have to spend some time seeking them, but it is worth all your time and effort. The webpage Qualities of a Good Master will give you some ideas what to look for in your search. Remember it is you who seek the master; he may have neither the need nor the obligation to teach you. It is simply amazing why some people presume that just because they want to learn, a master is duty-bound to teach them. It is also illogical to presume that a master would not charge any fee for his teaching, that he could live on sunshine and water. The right attitude, which often turns out to be the best approach to a master, is for you to prove yourself to be a worthy student.
If you cannot find a master, at least look for a competent instructor, who must qualify in the following two conditions. One, he must be professional, i.e. he knows what he is teaching. Someone who teaches a profund art like chi kung or kungfu, after having learnt it for a few months, literally does not know what he is teaching. He does not know, for instance, that he is teaching chi kung-like or kungfu-like dance or gymnastics and not real chi kung or kungfu. The second condition is that he must be ethical, i.e. he ensures what he teaches is beneficial, and if his students develop adverse side-effects he knows about them and is capable of rectifying them.
A good master will choose the best available methods for you to achieve your aims and objectives. The selection will depend on numerous variables, such as your needs and abilities, the master’s repertoire as well as environmental factors and supportive resources. You may sometimes wonder if the choice made is a good one, but if he is a good master and has accepted you as his student, it is almost always certain that he will choose the best method and procedure for you.
Alternatively, you may have known from your reading or elsewhere some useful methods to accomplish your aims and objectives. Your task, therefore, is to seek for a master who can teach you your selected methods. However, if he advises you to make any changes — such as in your aims or objectives, your previously selected methods, or the procedure of training — it is again almost always certain that with his wider perspective and experience, he knows your needs and how to fulfill them better than you do. It is not without justification for the saying that real masters are worth more than their weight in gold.
Practice, Practice and Practice
The fourth step is the most important and takes the most time. It is significant to note that this step is “practice, practice and practice”, and not “learn, learn and learn”. In fact, frequently in chi kung and kungfu, especially at this stage, the more you learn the less you accomplish! This does not mean that learning is detrimental; in fact, learning about the philosophy, scope and depth of chi kung or kungfu is the first essential step to obtaining the best result in your training. But if your training is geared towards chi kung or kungfu proficiency, it is detrimental merely to learn, learn and learn.
There are some crucial differences between practicing and learning. Practicing is practical and experiential; learning is theoretical and intellectual. Practicing deals with what has been known; its purpose is to develop and consolidate skills, force or ability. Learning deals with what is to be known; its purpose is to obtain new knowledge.
Masters are made through practice, scholars through learning. Masters perform, and directly experience what they profess. Chi kung or kungfu masters, for example, can demonstrate internal force, and experience vitality and mental freshness. Scholars merely talk, but often have no direct experience of what they know. Nowadays there are many chi kung and kungfu scholars, especially in the West, but there are very few masters, even in the East.
If you want to become a master, or just to be proficient, in chi kung or kungfu, you simply cannot escape this long process of practice, practice and practice. You do not practice just three times, or for three months, but preferably at least for three years. There is a saying that “three years of practice will bring a small success; ten years a big success”. What you practice may be simple, and usually consists of only one or a few techniques!
Actually it does not really matter what you practice, so long as you practice, practice and practice long enough, you will become a master of what you practice — even if your chosen method is inferior. If you continuously strike your palms onto a sand bag, or strike your leg against a coconut tree every day for three years — methods which are considered “inferior” in our Shaolin Wahnam School of Chi Kung and Kungfu — you will become a master of iron palm or iron leg, and may have the power to kill a person with just one strike. Unless you are particularly fond of showing off your brute strength, breaking bricks or someone’s bones with your palm or leg is normally not a rewarding thing to do. Hence, if you have acquired a good philosophical background in your first step, you will be in a better position to choose a “superior” method to practice in this fourth step for more rewarding results.
Assessing Progress According to Aims and Objectives
Combat Application of Shaolin Kungfu
You should access your progress, or otherwise, according to your set aims and objectives. You must, of course, follow your master’s advice and the conditions required by the method of training. If your master asks you to breathe slowly and gently, it is sheer folly to attempt to be smarter than the teacher by breathing fast or forcefully. If the method requires you to practice daily for six months, it is a waste of your time and your teacher’s effort if you discontinue your training after three weeks because you have not experienced any effect.
If you follow your master’s advice and practice according to the requirements of the established method, you will obtain the results that method is reputed to give. For example, Self-Manifested Chi Movement is reputed to clear energy blockage and balance energy level, and the pattern Grasping Sparrow’s Tail in Yang Style Taijiquan is reputed to be an effective counter against all modes of attack. If you have practiced them correctly and adequately, you will have your energy blockage cleared, and be able to defend against all attacks. Why is this so? It is because the methods are established, which means they have been time tested for centuries to produce the expected results.
If you do not derive the expected results, which may sometimes happen, the fault is usually traceable to one or more of the following three causes:
the practice is incorrect or insufficient
the teacher is incompetent
the student is inadequate
Rectify the fault and the expected results will follow as a matter of course.
Your assessment is made not only at the completion of the training but also regularly during the course itself. Of course modifications, but not complete changes, are made when necessary, but they should be done with the master’s approval and supervision.
These Five Steps to Maximun Results may enable you not only to obtain remarkable results in shorter time, but also to approach the full potential your training can offer. For example, students who do not have the benefit of these five steps may be quite contented in their chi kung or kungfu training once they can cure their illness or attain combat efficiency, thinking that is all what chi kung and kungfu can do. Others who follow the five steps will understand a wider scope and greater depth of their art, and will therefore in a position to derive other benefits like mental clarity and spiritual joy.
The Five Steps show not only the procedure to follow but also the relevant dimensions to cover, involving all the three essentials in any training, namely the method, the teacher and the student. Hence, with this understanding one can appreciate that to get the best results in any training, be it chi kung, Taijiquan, Shaolin Kungfu, playing the piano or painting, merely having good techniques is not enough, he (or she) must also have a good teacher and himself be a good student. With such advantages and foresight, it is not surprising you can achieve in six months what others may not be able to do so in six years.
Kungfu is for fighting — using kungfu techniques, not kick-boxing or techniques of other martial systems
I want to learn kungfu.
— Ali, Pakistan
Answer by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
Many people want to learn kungfu, but end up learning kungfu forms or kick-boxing instead. Learning kungfu forms or kick-boxing is fine, but it is different from learning kungfu.
Before you learn kungfu, or any art, it is wise to know what that art is. This may sound trite or unnecessary, but it will not only save you a lot of time but also prevent you from much injury.
For convenience we may classify kungfu into three types: ordinary kungfu, good kungfu, and great kungfu.
Ordinary kungfu is for self-defence. There are also other arts of self-defence, like kick-boxing, karate and taekwondo. The main difference is their forms. Kick-boxing uses kick-boxing forms, karate uses karate forms, taekwondo uses taekwondo forms, and kungfu uses kungfu forms.
There are different styles of kungfu, like Shaolin, Taijiquan, Praying Mantis and Baguzzhang. Praying Mantis kungfu forms can be very different from Baguazhang kungfu forms.
About 90% of those who say they practice kungfu only perform kungfu forms. Strictly speaking they do not practice genuine kungfu because they cannot apply their kungfu forms for fighting. Many of them may not admit this fact. Some may not even realize it.
Of those who practice only kungfu forms and cannot use their kungfu forms for fighting, 70% of them perform their kungfu forms for demonstration. Past masters referred to such demonstrative kungfu forms as â€œflowery fists embroidery kicksâ€. 30% of them use kick-boxing or other martial techniques, but not kungfu, for fighting.
I would like to clarify that personally I have nothing against them. What and how they choose to practice is their right and business. Actually many of those who practice â€œflowery fists and embroidery kicksâ€ are very nice people â€“ the type of people I would like to have tea with, though I disagree with their concept and practice of kungfu.
So, kungfu is quite rare. Kungfu is for fighting. But the great majority of those who say they practice kungfu, cannot use their kungfu for fighting, though some of them are good fighters using kick-boxing or other martial techniques.
For every 100 persons who say they practice kungfu, only about 10 can use their kungfu for fighting. In our classification, we call this ordinary kungfu.
But kungfu is not just for fighting, though combat efficiency is its most basic requirement. Good kungfu contributes to health, vitality and longevity. While the percentage of those who practice genuine kungfu is low, only about 10%, amongst those who practice genuine kungfu, the percentage of good kungfu is high, about 70%. So about 7 out of the 10 practitioners of genuine kungfu have good health. They also have high moral values.
Amongst those who practice â€œflowery fists embroidery kicksâ€, the percentage of good health is also very high, about 90%, or about 63 of 70 practitioners. But they cannot be said to practice good kungfu, not even ordinary kungfu, because they cannot use their kungfu for combat.
Why is the percentage of good health amongst â€œflowery fists embroidery kicksâ€ practitioners, 90%, higher than that of genuine kungfu practitioners, 70%? It is because genuine kungfu practitioners engage in combat where they may tense their muscles to generate mechanical strength. Those who practice kungfu forms but use kick-boxing or other martial techniques for combat do not have good health because they sustain a lot of injury which is routinely left unattended to.
Great kungfu, which is not only for combat and good health but also for spiritual cultivation, is very rare. Only 1% of those who say they practice kungfu may have a chance to practice great kungfu.
Please take note that spiritual cultivation is different from moral cultivation, though they are closely related. A morally cultivated person is kind and considerate, but he may or may not believe in his own spirit. He may think that he is only a physical body. Spiritual cultivation is the cultivation of the spirit. A spiritually cultivated person is relaxed, peaceful and happy, and at high levels may have glimpses of Cosmic Realty.
Please also take note that spiritual cultivation is non-religious. Any person of any religion or without any professed religion can cultivate spiritually. Spiritual cultivation will enable a religious person to be a better follower of his own religion because it makes his religions teaching come alive.
To sum up, kungfu is rare. Most people practice only kungfu forms, and use kick-boxing or other martial techniques when they have to fight. Genuine kungfu may be ordinary, good or great. Ordinary kungfu is for fighting. Good kungfu is for fighting and good health. Great kungfu is for fighting, good health and spiritual cultivation.
It is a golden opportunity to be able to practice great kungfu. But because kungfu today is so debased, the public generally does not have a good impression of kungfu practitioners. They think of them as rough and aggressive. In fact it is the reverse. A genuine kungfu practitioner is gentle and considerate to others, relaxed and happy to himself.
I made a mistake regarding addressing family members, and of course it is not late to correct it. Chee Seen’s students, like Hoong Hei Koon and Lok Ah Choy, addressed Ng Mui, who was Chee Seen’s sijia (elder kungfu sister) as sipak (elder kungfu uncle) and not as siguma (elder sister of father).
Hence, you should address the senior female kungfu sister of your sifu (kungfu teacher) as sipak, and the junior female kungfu sister of your sifu as sisook, and not as siguma and sigujie as we have been doing. For example, the students of Leo (Sifu Leonard Lackinger) would address Joan (Sifu Joan Browne) as sipak. Joan’s students would, of course, address Joan as sifu.
We are proud (in a good way) that we are one of the very few kungfu and chi kung schools today that keep this tradition, which, amongst other benefits, contributes to our effectiveness in learning and in everyday life. It is rude to call your sifu by name, whether talking to him or her personally, or talking to other people. Your sifu, who has brought you good health and happiness, is always addressed, with a sense of pride and gratitude, as “Sifu” when talking to him or her, and as “my Sifu” when talking to others.
Would you consider gratitude a very important attitude?
– Sifu Sippe Douma, New Zealand
Answer by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
Yes, it is a very important attitude, more important and more influential than what many people think. It is also an attitude we cultivate and cherish in our school, and the evidence of its benefits can be clearly found if we examine closely.
I have led a very happy life, and I sincerely believe one very important reason is that I am always grateful. I am very grateful to all the divine beings who are so very kind to guide and protect me, my family and our school. I am very grateful to all my teachers who passed the wonderful arts to us. I am very grateful to all my students who have shown much dedication in their practice and have shown much respect and care for me. I am very grateful to you for taking time off work to show me beautiful New Zealand and for paying almost all my meals.
On the other hand, those who are ungrateful suffered the bad karma of their ungratefulness, though some may never realise it. It is helpful to remember that there is nothing religious or superstitious about karma. It means cause and effect.
The effect is immediate. When a person is ungrateful, he has resentment. The person he should be grateful to may not know it, but his resentment immediately makes him less peaceful and less happy than what he should be. Severe or prolonged resentment brings forth physical or emotional illness.
When a person is grateful, the immediate effect is that he is appreciative, resulting in his feeling more peaceful and happier than other times. It contributes to his good health and longevity. In the history of our school, I came across some people who were ungrateful, and they did not have good karma. Here is one example. A woman had cancer, but after learning chi kung from me, she recovered. Besides taking my regional course, she also took a special course from me, for which I charged her only US$1000 instead of the usual US$5000 for a personalised course. I also transmitted chi to her from a great distance for free to help her to recover. But she paid me 1000 Canadian dollars instead of 1000 US dollars, despite the organizer telling her and she knowing it beforehand.
Later her cancer relapsed. She phoned me asking whether I could continue to transmit chi to her. I replied that I would consider. Had she asked me again I would continue to transmit chi to her for free, despite her breaking her promise and showing ingratitude. But she did not ask again. Her breaking her promise of not paying the agreed sum might have affected her thinking. I later learned from the organiser that she died from cancer.
A priceless photograph showing Sifu Lai Chin Wah demonstrating the Kwan Tou. Sifu Lai Chin Wah was Sifu Wong’s first kungfu teacher. Sifu Lai was better known in kungfu circles as Uncle Righteousness.
Having a good master is definitely a tremendous blessing in kungfu, taijiquan and chi kung training. As mediocre instructors are so common nowadays – some even start to teach after having attended only a few week-end seminars – finding a great master is like finding a gem in a hay stack. Here are some guidelines to help you find one.
A LIVING EXAMPLE
A good master must be a living example of what he teaches. A kungfu master must be able to defend himself, a taijiquan master must have some internal force, and a qigong master must exhibit radiant health, as these are the basic qualities these arts are meant to develop.
A master of kungfu, taijiquan or qigong does not enjoy the luxury of many coaches in modern sports like football and athletics who often cannot dribble a ball or run a race half as well as the students they teach. There are also some kungfu, taijiquan or qigong instructors today who cannot perform half as well as their average students, but they are certainly not masters, although as a form of courtesy they may be addressed as such by their students, or the general public.
UNDERSTANDING DIMENSION AND DEPTH
Besides being skillful, a good master should preferably be knowledgeable. He should have a sound understanding of the dimension and depth of the art he is teaching, and be able to answer basic questions his students may have concerning the what, why and how of their practice. Without this knowledge, a master will be limited in helping his students to derive the greatest potential benefits in their training.
However, especially in the East, some masters may be very skillful, but may not be knowledgeable. This is acceptable if we take the term “master” to mean someone who has attained a very high level in his art, but who may not be a teacher.
The reverse is unacceptable, i.e. someone who is very knowledgeable, but not skillful – a situation quite common in the West. A person may have read a lot about kungfu, taijiquan or qigong, and have written a few books on it, but has little kungfu, taijiquan or qigong skills. We may call him a scholar, but certainly not a master.
Sifu Ho Fatt Nam demonstrating “One-Finger Shooting Zen”, a fundamental internal force training method in Shaolin Kungfu. Sifu Ho was the other Shaolin master whose teaching on Sifu Wong was decisive. To honour his two masters, Sifu Wong name his school Shaolin Wahnam.
SYSTEMATIC AND GENEROUS
The third quality of a master as a good teacher is that he must be both systematic and generous in his teaching. Someone who is very skillful and knowledgeable, but teaches haphazardly or withholds much of his advance art, is an expert or scholar but not a good master.
On the other hand, it is significant to note that a good master teaches according to the needs and attainment of his students. If his students have not attained the required standard, he would not teach them beyond their ability (although secretly he might long to), for doing so is usually not to the students’ best interest. In such a situation he may often be mistaken as withholding secrets.
The fourth quality, a quality that transforms a good master into a great master, is that he radiates inspiration. It is a joy to learn from a great master even though his training is tough.
He makes complicated concepts easy to understand, implicitly provides assurance that should anything goes wrong he is able and ready to rectify it, and spurs his students to do their best, even beyond the level that he himself has attained.
HIGH MORAL VALUES
The most important quality of a great master is that he teaches and exhibits in his daily living high moral values. Hence, the best world fighter who brutally wounds his opponents, or the best teacher of any art who does not practise what he preaches, cannot qualify to be called a great master.
A great master is tolerant, compassionate, courageous, righteous and shows a great love and respect for life. Great masters are understandably rare; they are more than worth their weight in gold.
Creating the right mental frame for the best learning.
An old photograph showing Sifu Wong (in his teens) performing a Hoong Ka kungfu set with his master, Sifu Lai Chin Wah, popularly known as Uncle Righteousness (middle behind in white T-shirt), looking on.
An art is best learnt in its culture. One remarkable difference between the culture of the East and the West is the respect shown to a master. In this connection I have little complaint because my students, from both the East and the West, generally show much respect to me. But I have met many Eastern masters commenting on the lack of respect, sometimes utter disrespect, shown to them.
Often it is because of the Western students’ ignorance of Eastern ways rather than their wilful discourtesy that their Eastern masters of chi kung or kungfu (including taijiquan) regard as disrespect. The following are some simple and helpful points both Eastern and Western students may follow to show the respect deservedly due to their masters.
ADDRESSING THE MASTER CORRECTLY
Sifu Wong (in his 40’s) with his master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, the third generation successor from the Shaolin Monastery
First of all you must know how to address your master correctly, something which many Western students are ignorant of. Never, never, never call your master by his name, especially if he comes from a Eastern culture. In some Western societies it may be considered personal and desirable to call your senior or even your boss by his first name, but in chi kung or kungfu culture it is considered extremely rude.
It is worthwhile to remember that your master is not your peer or equal. Your master is at least one, but usually many levels above you, otherwise he cannot and should not be your master. The proper way to address your chi kung or kungfu master is “Sifu”, which is the Cantonese dialect of the Chinese language for “Master”. The Mandarin pronunciation is “Shifu”.
Actually if a great master answers you when you call him “Sifu”, you are, not he is, honoured; it shows he accepts you as a student. I always felt greatly honoured whenever I called my masters Lai Chin Wah and Ho Fatt Nam “Sifu”, because they were two of the greatest masters I had found.
If your master’s surname is Chen, you should call him “Sifu”, or “Master” if you want to sound Western, but strictly speaking not “Sifu Chen” or “Master Chen” for that is the address the public, not his students, would call him. If you call him “Sifu Chen” or “Master Chen” you are distancing yourself from him.
Besides showing propriety in your address, you should also show propriety in your behaviour. Do not, for example, put your hand around him, pat him on his shoulder, or hug him — leave that to his wife, which following Eastern social etiquette is also only done in private.
When you stand or sit in front of or near him, hold yourself upright. You need not stand at attention like a private in front of his sergeant major, but you should not stand sloppily, with arms akimbo or hands in your pockets. When you sit do not cross your legs with a foot pointing at him, or expose your groins to him even though they are hidden by your pants.
It is only sensible that you should listen when your master speaks, especially if he is explaining some points. Yet, it is not uncommon to find some adult students (male as well as female) lying on the floor, sometimes with their hands folded at the back of their head, their eyes close and their legs open in an inviting position! This shows not so much a disrespect to the master, but an utter lack of good manners on the part of the students.
ENTERING AND LEAVING A CLASS
It is also bad manners to arrive at your class late. In the past in the East, late students would be asked to go home, or to leave permanently if they were late habitually. The logic is simple: the master has something invaluable to offer; if you come late you tacitly show that you do not value his teaching. But if there is a valid reason for your being late, you should first greet him from the door, walk quietly but briskly to him, respectfully wait if he is pre-occupied, then explain your reason and apologize.
On the other hand, you should wait patiently if the master is late — even for hours! If you think this is unfair, you are probably not ripe for great arts. There are stories of great masters who purposely arrived late, not for hours but for days, and then passed on their secrets to the few wise, patient students. Although it seldom happens nowadays, it will reflect a splendid grasp of chi kung and kungfu culture if you and your classmates stop whatever you are doing, stand up respectfully, bow and greet your master as he comes in.
Do not leave your class half-way. But if you have to leave early for some reason, explain that to your master before-hand and politely ask his permission. At the appointed time, ask his permission again, then bow and thank him before leaving. At the end of a class, the students should leave after the master, not before he does. However, if the master stays back for a considerable length of time, such as explaining some points to some students who stay behind to ask him, other students may leave first, after bowing to the master.
In the East, it is customary for the teacher to arrive last and leave first. Interestingly, it is often the reverse in the West. The teacher, Western in culture if not in race, often arrives the earliest, sweeps the floor and prepares cookies and drinks which he will serve during recess to his students, who will joke and laugh. At the end of the class, the teacher will stand at the door, shake the students’ hands and thank them for their attendance. He will then throw away the garbage his students have left behind if he still has energy left, and check that everyone has gone home before he closes the door.
OFFERING A CUP OF TEA
In Eastern culture it is always the students who offer drinks to the teacher. When you offer your master a cup of tea, it is preferable to do so with two hands. In Eastern societies, accepting a cup of tea and drinking it has deeper significance than merely quenching thirst.
In the past, even if someone had done you great wrong, if he or she offered you a cup of tea, usually while kneeling down and then knocking his or her head on the ground, and you, sitting down in front of other witnesses, accepted and drank it, it meant that you accepted his or her apology, were ready to forgive all the wrong, and would not take any action whatsoever in future.
The students should also offer a seat to the master, and the seat chosen is usually the best one available. If the master is not seated, the students should remain standing, unless the master asks them to sit down. If they dine together, the students would wait until the master has made his first move to eat or drink.
DON’T BE INSULTING
When your master is explaining or demonstrating something to you, listen attentively and respectfully. Do not bluntly say you already know what he is teaching, even if you really know. In chi kung and kungfu culture, doing so is not being straight-forward, it is being insulting — you are implying that the master does not know what he is doing.
I recall some occasions when my masters taught me something that I already had learnt quite well. Thanks to my training in Eastern culture, I followed their instructions faithfully although they appeared very simple and below my level then. Only much later did I realize that had I not follow these apparently simple instructions I would not have acquired the foundation necessary for advanced development.
Do not ever make the fatal mistake of telling a master what or how to teach you. This is not only unbecoming, it is also very foolish, for you will be denying yourself the very purpose why you need him. If he is a master, he knows best what and how to help you attain your best results; he is able to see your needs and development in ways far beyond your limited perspective.
FOR THE STUDENTS’ INTEREST
Some westerners may find the above-described master-student relationship odd, just as those accustomed to Eastern culture would find the behaviour of some western students unbelievable. It may be more surprising, especially for those who think they are doing the master a favour by paying him a fee to learn, to know that all these customs of respect for the master are actually for the students’, not the master’s, interest.
Someone who teaches kungfu dance or gentle exercise for a living will probably care more for your fees than your respect, but a master whose art gives you good health, vitality, mental freshness and spiritual joy actually does not care whether you respect him more or your dog. But those students who have experienced the wonderful benefits of genuine kungfu and chi kung will understand that the respect given to the master is not only a sincere token of appreciation to the master for sharing his art, but also constitutes an ideal psychological state for the training to take place.