It is written with the Chinese characters: 師傅 and 師父. The character 師 means "teacher", while the meaning of 傅 is "tutor" and the meaning of 父 is "father". Both characters are read fu with the same tones in Cantonese and Mandarin, creating some ambiguity. A similar term often used in Chinese is 老師 (Cantonese Chinese pronunciation: lou5 si1; Mandarin Chinese pronunciation: lǎoshī), meaning "teacher".
Though pronounced identically and bearing similar meanings, the two terms are distinct and usage is different. The former term (師傅) bears only the meaning of "master", and is used to express the speaker's general respect for the addressee's skills and experience. Thus, for example, a customer may address a motor mechanic as such. The latter term (師父) bears the dual meaning of "master" and "father", and thus connotes a linearity in a teacher-student relationship. As such, when addressing a tradesperson, it would only be used to address the speaker's own teacher or master. In the preceding example, the motor mechanic's apprentice would address his or her master as such, but the customer would not. On the other hand, a religious personality, and by extension, experts of Chinese martial arts, can be addressed as "master-father" (師父) in all contexts.
In Chinese cultures, the term is used as a respectful form of address for people engaged in skilled trades, such as drivers, cooks, house decorators, as well as performing artists, and less commonly, for visual artists such as painters and calligraphers. The more usual term of address for those accomplished in the visual arts is dashi, "great master". While there is no clear delineation on which trades the term sifu or shifu can be applied, traditionally it would be used to refer to traditional trades where training is by apprenticeship, as "master" (shīfu 師傅) corresponds with "apprentice" (túdì 徒弟). Likewise, since religious instruction involves a teacher-student relationship akin to apprenticeship, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests are also addressed as sifu or shifu.
Practitioners of the learned professions, such as doctors and lawyers, are rarely referred to as "sifu" or "shifu", and some members of such professions may indeed find such a term of address disrespectful. Likewise, academics and teachers are not generally addressed as "sifu" or "shifu". In mainland China especially, but also traditionally in Taiwan and elsewhere, the preferred term for academic and learned professionals without special titles (i.e. excluding medical doctors) is often laoshi (老師). Even for medical doctors, the title "laoshi" can be considered superior to "doctor". Those who have "earned" a right to be addressed as laoshi, such as medical professors or medical professionals who hold a research doctorate (i.e. a doctoral degree in the field of medicine and higher than a first professional degree) should be addressed as laoshi rather than "doctor". The same term can also be used for those engaged in other occupations which can be seen as analogous to academia and the professions, such as accomplished writers.
In colloquial usage, the term can be more generally used to establish rapport with those with whom the speaker is not familiar, somewhat analogously to English terms such as "boss," "gov'nor"/"guv" (chiefly British), or "chief" (chiefly American). For further discussion on the role of relationships and relationship-building in Chinese culture, see Guanxi.
Use in martial arts
Traditionally, in Chinese martial arts, sifu was used as a familial term and sign of respect as in the general usage.
The term takes on a more intimate context when a student becomes a formal student or disciple of the teacher. The acceptance as a student is a very formal event, usually requiring a discipleship ceremony called bai shi. After the ceremony, the relationship is defined as a more direct parent–child context and usage takes on this term rather than a generic sign of respect for skill and knowledge.
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- Crescione, Dr. John. "Bai Si - Art of the Disciple". Retrieved 2014-02-10.