Grandmaster (martial arts)

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Grandmaster (or Grand Master) and Master are titles used to describe or address some senior or experienced martial artists. Typically these titles are honorific in nature, meaning that they do not confer rank, but rather distinguish the individual as very highly revered in their school, system, or style.

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 Eastern to Western society in the 1950s with stories of martial feats seen in Asia.


Asian 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][clarification needed] 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[edit]

The use of "master," "grandmaster," etc. is decided within an individual art or organization. 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 formalised 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 and Red belt in martial arts both derive from Judo where they were adopted by its founder Kanō Jigorō.[2]

Traditional systems[edit]

There are many terms similar or equivalent to 'grandmaster' used by various martial arts traditions. Some of these terms derive from older systems, while others are relatively modern.


Japanese martial 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 sabomnim (사범님 Sabomnim 師範님) is used by some when talking about American martial arts instructors that might not yet be 4th Dan. The World Kuk Sool Association (WKSA) and the National Korean Martial Arts Association (NKMAA), and many others, utilize the same titles: Brown/Black (brown belt with 2+ black stripes): dahnbo; 1st degree: jokyo; 2nd degree: kyosa (teacher); 3rd degree: pusabom; 4th degree: sabom; 5th-8th degree: kwanjang; chief master: chungkwanjang; saja (inheritor (Kevin Janisse Sajanim was given inheritor of Kong Shin Bup August 22, 2014 by NKMAA's Rudy Timmerman)) [6]

The term kwanjangnim (KwanJangNim 舘長님 or 館長님) is used for the owner of a martial arts school. A chaeyookkwan is a fitness center. A jang (장 Jang 長) is the general term for a head, chief or director. nim (님 任) is a suffix of respect, just as "san" or "sama are in Japanese, for a person. In the United States a black belt might not necessarily be a master but still might be the kwanjangnim (관장님 KwanJangNim 舘長님 or 館長님) owner/operator of the school. The head or chief of several kwanjang (관장 KwanJang 舘長 or 館長) is the chongkwanjang (총관장 ChongKwanJang 總舘長 or 總館長). The haejangnim (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 common romanization, although the term and pronunciation are also used in other southern languages. In Mandarin Chinese, it is spelled "shifu" in pinyin. Using non-rhotic British English pronunciation, in Mandarin it would sound something similar to "sure foo". Using IPA, 'shi' is pronounced 'ʂɨ'. The 'i' is a short vowel. Many martial arts studios incorrectly pronounce this like "she foo". In Cantonese, it is said as "see foo" (almost like "sea food", without 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" (師父) or a combination of the characters "teacher" and "mentor" (師傅). The traditional Chinese martial arts school, or kwoon (館, guǎn) is an extended family headed by the Shifu. The Shifu's teacher is the "師公 honorable master" or Shigong. Similarly the Shifu's wife is the Shimu "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 Shixing "teacher older brothers" and 師姑 shi gu "teacher's sisters". Women in traditional society did not have the same status as males (despite what modern movies depict). Students junior to you are your Shidi and Shimei. 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" (徒弟, pinyin=túdì). After a formal Tea Ceremony, where everyone dresses up in their best attire, the Tudai kneels while serving his Shifu tea and becomes virtually an adopted son. The Todai assists the Shifu in minor school duties such as housekeeping and tuition collection. Modern mainland Chinese sometimes also use the term laoshi (老師, lǎoshī) which also means teacher but implies a relationship more similar to that of Japan than the traditional family relationship.[1]

See also[edit]


  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.