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Sifu is the Cantonese spelling of shīfu (Mandarin Chinese) that has different meaning depending on the context. It is used as a title for and role of a skillful person or a master. It is written with the Chinese characters 師傅 (traditional)/师傅 (simplified) or 師父/师父. The character 師/师 means "skilled person", while the meaning of 傅 is "tutor" and the meaning of 父 is "father". Both characters 傅 and 父 are pronounced fu with the same tones in Cantonese and Mandarin, creating some ambiguity. A similar term often used in Chinese is 老師/老师 (Cantonese Chinese pronunciation: lou5 si1; Mandarin Chinese pronunciation: lǎoshī), meaning "teacher" or literally "old person of skill".
Though pronounced identically and bearing similar meanings, the two terms are distinct and usage is different. The former term (師傅/师傅) bears only the meaning of "master", and is used to express the speaker's general respect for the addressee's skills and experience, and is likewise the term frequently used for cab drivers or other skilled laborers. Thus, for example, a customer may address an automotive mechanic as such. The latter term (師父/师父) 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 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/师父) or as (師傅/师傅) in all contexts.
In Chinese cultures, the term is used as a respectful form of address for people engaged in skilled trades and low class, 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 shifu can be applied, traditionally it would be used to refer to traditional trades where training is by apprenticeship, as "master" (shīfu 師傅/师傅) 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 physicians and lawyers, are rarely referred to as "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 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/老师). 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.
Use in martial arts
Traditionally, in Chinese martial arts, shifu was used as a familial term and sign of respect as in the general usage.
The term takes on a less 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 拜師/拜师 (bài shī). 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.