Tradition and etiquette in martial arts is a sometimes vague and complicated area, perhaps especially in Chinese martial arts and to a cultural outsider it may be more so. Modern relationships between teachers and students on China have most likely changed with normal modernization of culture, yet still retain strong links to the past.
These days in Chinese training situations, from what I have heard from others and my own experiences in China, in traditional internal martial arts circles, the relationships between students and teachers tend to be fairly relaxed and not overtly formal. This is to say that neither students or disciples in my experience spend time bowing and saluting the teacher with hand over fist etc., nor is their training like that of military obedience.
More often, at least in Chen Taijiquan that I have seen, students, disciples, and teacher all have very friendly relaxed relationships. People show up to class, on time or somewhat near that hopefully, and are expected to practice diligently. Students are expected to show some respect to disciples, as disciples are expected to show some respect to senior disciples..and everyone shows respect to the teacher. This respect is shown in the way of simple courtesy and an acknowledgment that those above you have simply invested more time with the teacher. It is important to note, however that while not overtly formal, there are underlying gestures and levels of respect that are both very important and very subtle, that may denote just how serious a relationship is in this context.
However, it is also worthy of note that respect in the best cases also goes both ways. Skill is generally respected by all regardless of age or seniority, as seniority is no substitute for skill. Equally, in the Chinese martial arts tradition, like the family, respect is given to seniority, regardless of skill. Also, seniors and teachers etc. in a good case, will also respect those below them, basically by honestly teaching them, rewarding their hard work, and not hurting or abusing them.
Titles and positions:
Students, in mandarin called XueSheng, are normal people who come to train with a teacher of a discipline. They are not bound by many rules, they generally may study with whoever they like, and probably come and go as they please. Being a student does not mean that one cannot get very, very good. Students by being only students may, however, not have access to certain things that the teacher does not want to teach publicly, but there is no rule about this, it is up to the teacher. What distinguishes a student is that the student cannot claim to be a representative of the teacher’s lineage. The teacher can decide to tell others that he or she did not teach the student if he or she wants to, but students can still learn a lot depending on the teachers personality, and their own efforts.
Disciples, in mandarin called TuDi, or Dizi, are students who have requested (usually) and been accepted as indoor disciples. That is to say that they have in the traditional sense been accepted as the teachers surrogate son or daughter. They will usually have something in writing from the teacher to prove the reality of this situation. They have signed something along with the teacher called a “BaiShi Tie” that is a kind of agreement to carry on their Shifu’s gongfu lineage with various rules or other assertions that totally depend on the teacher.
Disciples are usually referred to by those below them as ShiXiong (ShiJie for women), and by those above them as ShiDi (ShiMei for women.)
What distinguishes disciples is that they are usually part of their teacher’s inner circle in terms of training or even helping to run the school etc.. Disciples may have access to special training if the teacher has chosen to teach anything more privately. The title of disciple does not in any way guarantee that the person will develop more skill than a student, that depends how hard they practice, and their specific talents. It does, however, legitimize the connection between the disciple and the teacher, as both claim openly that the disciple carries the teachers lineage, therefore the teacher has committed in writing that he/she has or will impart teaching to the disciple and the disciple has committed to carrying the teachers lineage by developing what he/she has been taught.
Some teachers accept disciples very easily requiring very little, while others require a lot from disciples. Equally, some disciples may be accepted easily and some may not, even by the same teacher. The teacher may have different ideas and motives for every disciple and student in some cases.
Teachers, in Chinese gongfu as well as most other contexts, are referred to in Mandarin as LaoShi. It is a generic term of respect. Students and anyone one else who is indirectly or directly referring to a teacher, whether or not it is their teacher, will use this term.
The word “Master” in English is a bit more complicated, as in Chinese as well as English is has several meanings. When a disciple refers to or directly speaks to their teacher (master) they will certainly call him or her, Shifu. Others including students and people who do not know the teacher will not likely call them Shifu, it would be too much.
When referring to a “master” of great skill that is not one’s own teacher or shifu, one might refer to them in Chinese as ZongShi, such as “Chen ZhaoKui Zongshi.” This term is never used in direct address nor in reference to one’s own teacher.
Wu De in mandarin translates to martial virtue, which refers to a kind of code of ethics or type character and behavior regarding martial arts. This is a concept which has much confusion surrounding it, especially regarding Taijiquan. Because of the misconceptions that have been attached to the popularization of Taijiquan over the years, there appear to be conflicts when considering WuDe.
Because of the slow and peaceful appearance of some Taijiquan practice methods, as well as its relationship to principles of non-resistance, the concept of WuDe has been a bit twisted in that to some, martial virtue means not hurting the opponent etc. In my experience of Chen Taijiquan, the methods of fighting along with WuDe certainly call for actually fighting when fighting. When protecting oneself or others from danger, injury or worse for the opponent if the situation requires it, has certainly been and still would be the goal for any serious student of these martial arts.
However violent the fighting art may be, Chen Taijiquan does still have a reputation for WuDe that ‘s roots can be found in stories from the Chen family, as well as Classic writings of old. Unlike Xingyiquan, which holds the saying “Yi Beng Kan Xue,” translating to something like “one hit, see blood,” Chen Taijiquan does have within its tradition a measure of restraint. through the family history the fist was taught with a bit of morality attached. Students of the fist were not intended to simply learn a fighting art and proceed to start trouble, rather responsibility towards family and society was also encouraged. Masters of the past have been noted as having strong moral character and decency toward fellow beings.
Besides perhaps reflecting the character of the family in general, one must also understand that Chen Village had an interest in not being at constant war with the close and surrounding areas, so moral behavior in practitioners of the fist was a very important matter for survival. No matter whether one wins or loses, even great fighters start trouble by fighting.
Eating bitter is a term that in mandarin is, “Chi Ku.” It has the meaning of working hard or accepting some pain to gain what it is one is hoping to achieve. A student of martial arts may have to eat bitter in terms of practice and even in some cases just in terms of taking social abuse from classmates or even the teacher. This is a situation, that I have personally been through and I don’t recommend it. This kind of social abuse is really a reflection and manifestation of latent insecurities of the teacher and/or the classmates, and has little to do with learning gongfu, nor will it likely lead to learning in any specific way, though in some cases one may put up with it to learn something. Anyhow it does not need to be like this, nor is it the mark or real gongfu, it is just the mark of mean-ness.
Truly eating bitter outside of the psychological context, means practicing very hard and enduring both the mental and physical pain that is required in gongfu to progress. this can be both the pain of practicing, which is not small thing in our line, or the pain of training applications, again, that can hurt.
Eating bitter (hard practice, not taking psychological abuse) should be required for discipleship, and likely was in the old days. However, in the present in many situations, discipleship is nothing special, or perhaps the implicit commitment of the disciple to practice hard is not honored. Some teachers may take some disciples seriously while not others, as some disciples may take their role more seriously than others. In a best case scenario, discipleship should be a serious commitment to develop the art, not just a title to flaunt.