The word has a long history and comes from Cantonese (Sifu). Basically the two symbols have a dual meaning of “master” and “father”. Therefore Shifu is always a person of trust and for the student a part of the family. The second meanings of the traditional symbols are “skilled person” and “tutor”. Addressing someone as Shifu shows the same respect like a child shows respect to his father.
Academics, highly skillful or educated people are never addressed as Shifu, for them the term “Laoshi” (teacher or professor) would be more fitting. Addressing them as Shifu can be considered as disrespectful.
The Role of a Master and Father
Westerners often mistake this role and balance out their own life with commanding students around. The Shifu is not an army commander or someone who can boss around. Many people are weak to the feeling of having power over other people. The Shifu must never lose his paternal role and never put his own ego between the students.
The Shifu is not only educating his students but keeps in mind their individual development. The methods of a Shifu can be very different but most believe that a student must learn himself to become proficient in learning. There are times when a Shifu will be harder and more strict on a student, like throwing a bird out of its nest to learn flying. Handling the border between a caring father and a strict tutor is very important.
The role of a Shifu is definitely not to show off his developed skills. Instead the Shifu feels always responsible for his students and ensures their safety and growing. Traditionally a Shifu has always an open ear for personal problems or questions for the student.
For the role as a master it is important for the Shifu to strengthen his lineage and ensure his teachings for future generations.
What a Shifu has to teach
Primarily a Shifu does not teach smart moves or clever things. Shifu is always teaching from real life experience. Only this is considered as true wisdom and worth respecting. Like a father teaching his child all kind of things that he managed to overcome in his own life.
Sometimes setting the right path behind the scenes to make students encounter this teachings is also considered as teaching. Therefore a Shifu does not have to appeal as tutor. He might not even talk much to students at all.
Learning with a Shifu
The students should always take to heart what a Shifu tells them to do. You might not realize it but every Shifu who takes his role seriously will closely observe you and your progress.
Never go into a direct discussion with a Shifu during his teachings, this is considered as very disrespectful. If you truly doubt the teachings you may ask him alone and directly in person when the training ended. But you should be careful with this and may think a bit longer, there is a possibility that the meaning is for you to discover.