BAI SHI by Dan Docherty
The character for "Bai" symbolises two hands held down together. This is the pose adopted by Chinese when showing respect or reverence to the gods,or to a superior in status such as a teacher; by extension it can mean to worship. We know that in Cantonese "Sifu" is the formal term of address for an instructor of the Chinese martial arts (as well as for a skilled practitioner of any discipline).
The Mandarin term is "Shi Fu". The character "Shi" is a drawing of one (the first) banner that stayed at the capital and by extension meant the one above the others and thus commander-in- chief, master etc.
There are two different characters which can be used for "Fu" in the context of Shi Fu/ Sifu. The first one means one who acts or arranges, ie a teacher or instructor. The second character for "Fu" means father and is composed of a hand and a stick or axe - the father was considered the chief and the instructor of his family.
Another term used for teacher is "Lao Shi", meaning literally "Old Master" - in traditional Chinese society the old were revered for their experience and knowledge. However, this term is more often used to refer to a calligraphy or painting tutor rather than a martial arts instructor. Since the Revolution, the Chinese government in its attack on "feudalism" has discouraged the use of these terms and encouraged use of the term "Jiao Lian" meaning coach/trainer.
Why the opposition ? Why do most practitioners of Chinese martial arts in the West know nothing of Bai Shi ? Why is it not more widely practiced ? What is its purpose ? Is it still relevant in modern society ?
Let us consider the cultural context out of which Bai Shi came. Firstly, every society sooner or later becomes hierarchical; with the influence of Confucianism and its concept of filial piety - i.e. respect for one's elders, Chinese society proved particularly prone to this. Secondly, there is the long and sometimes uneasy relationship which Chinese martial arts have had with Chinese religion and philosophy; this has led to the adoption of certain ritualistic, meditative and philosophical elements into martial arts practice. The use of the character Bai emphasises this.
So what is Bai Shi ? In the context of Chinese martial arts it is a ceremony with ritual elements conducted by a master in which one or more students "Enter the Door" and become disciples.
After the conditions of Bai Shi have been read or told to the students, they agree to accept them and the ceremony begins. Normally this would be at the master's home or studio where there would be a portrait of the founder of the style. Usually, but not always there is a fee paid by the student traditionally in a red packet as red is a propitious colour and it is considered indelicate to display money openly. The master then places an offering of fruit in front of the portrait of the founder and lights a ritual number of incense sticks which he gives to the student who then kneels down before a portrait of the founder of the style and gives the koutou (literally knocks the head) three times to show his respect to the founder's memory.
The student then faces the master and again gives the koutou. The incense is then placed in an incense burner in front of the founder's portrait. The ceremony is over; the student has entered the door.
So what firstly are the implications of the ceremony ? The student by undergoing Bai Shi has made a commitment to the school, to the founder, to his kung fu brothers and sisters as well as to his master. The master recognises this commitment by allowing the student to enter the door and in turn makes a commitment to give the student the true transmission of the art and to start to give him inside the door training such as Nei Kung. The student can now be referred to as Men Ren, literally "door person" and is no longer a mere student.
This type of initiation ritual is mirrored in Chinese secret societies, in Buddhist and in Taoist religious orders. In all of these initiations the initiation ceremony was only the first step in a long process of transmitting the inner teachings to a disciple - a process which could take decades. The process was designed to produce a band of brothers (sisters in the case of nunneries)who could recognise one another as such by special jargon or knowledge of certain techniques.
The desire for freedom from an oppressive government is expressed in the phrase "Mountains high, Emperor far", meaning that in a remote place there was less chance of government interference. This led to martial arts being practised in monasteries and temples in the mountains; places such as Er Mei Shan and Wudang Shan. It is not surprising therefore that Bai Shi grew up in this type of environment.
How could a student merit selection for Bai Shi ? Traditionally he had to visit the master for three years and then the master had to visit him for three years. Then after 6 years, if the student showed sincerity and commitment he would be accepted. Naturally this meant that if these rules were rigidly applied many people did not go through Bai Shi. This is indeed true.
On a visit to China in 1995 at my teacher's villa in Zhongshan, I met a doctor from Shanghai who had trained for many years with Ma Yue-liang and Wu Ying-hua, who is the daughter of the great Wu Jian-chuan. He told me that he had come from Shanghai in the hope of undergoing Bai Shi with my teacher as Ma Yue-liang and Wu Ying-hua were unable or unwilling to teach the 24 Tai Chi Chuan Nei Kung exercises.
In fact Cheng Wing-kwong, my teacher's uncle, was one of only three people to undergo Bai Shi with Wu Jian-chuan in Hong Kong and even then he only learned 18 of the exercises. Fortunately my teacher was taught them all by his master Qi Min-xuan.
Why is it that great masters like Wu Jian-chuan gave Bai Shi to so few students ? I believe that part of the reason was a misguided belief that such things should be kept within the family, partly also so that there would not be competition.
It used to be that would be students of Tai Chi Chuan were taught Nei Kung first. This meant that they underwent Bai Shi at a very early stage; as Tai Chi Chuan was taught commercially this changed and the form was taught first and so it came to pass that the form was all that most people ever learned and that the form was all that most people were able to teach.
Now we live in a very complex Tai Chi world where many teachers in the Far East although they offer Bai Shi to students, they abuse it. Nigel Sutton told me of a a well known Cheng Man-ching style master who charges a lot of money for Bai Shi, but teaches nothing in return. Some people are happy to pay so that they can have a higher position in the pecking order and say that they are not just a student, but a disciple of the said master.
The converse is also true; many students claim to have trained with a master, or even to be an inside the door student when they have at best a nodding acquaintance with him. Often masters of one style will train also with masters of another style but not acknowledge the latter as their master. A case in point is Chu King-hung of the Yang style who learned some pushing hands and applications from my master, but they agreed between them that there was to be no formal teacher student relationship - it was essentially a commercial transaction. Occasionally people from other systems have done Bai Shi with me - this is subject to their being sincere and of good character.
Other masters, particularly when they get old, have students do the Bai Shi ceremony with them, but then do not teach them personally, delegating the task to a senior student. So many people who have actually learned Nei Kung or other "inside the door" training after Bai Shi have not actually had it first hand from a master.
It was only this year on my recent trip to China that I got the feeling of how it was to train Tai Chi in the days before Yang Lu-chan brought the art to Beijing. In 1984 I had visited Wudang Mountain where Chang had lived for some years, but following my reading of the fascinating Researches into Tai Chi Chuan edited by Ma You Ching based on the work and experiences of the late, great Chinese martial arts historian, Wu Tu-nan, I went to Bao Ji and the Chen family village.
Bao Ji is in Shaanxi province about 5 hours by train from the ancient capital of Xian. Chang San-feng lived there in the Taoist Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It was there that Wang Zhong-yue learned the art. It is interesting that the art was truly taught "inside the door" i.e. in an enclosed religious community and this goes a long way to explain the ritual ceremony and use of incense sticks.
In the Chen family village I visited the house where Yang Lu-chan was taught by Chen Chang-xing. This is now being turned into a museum with money from Taiwan. Standing outside the large wooden doors and the high wall which surrounds the house you can see nothing of what is going on inside and I believe that the training was done here rather than in an open area so that practitioners of the Chen family Pao Chui (Cannon Punch) method could not see the Tai Chi training.
Historically then it seems that Tai Chi training was only done in very small groups so the teacher and students knew one another intimately. the rule of waiting for six years before being able to start learning "inside the door training seems then to be a more recent one. It is one that my teacher refused to follow.
At the time he was in his early twenties teaching Tai Chi Chuan professionally in a Hong Kong with many famous teachers of the Yang and Wu families. People went to
him for two reasons - because he could teach the art in a practical way and because they could learn quickly.
Unfortunately this led to a delegation of older masters beating a path to his door and telling him to stop this practice. He agreed to stop, but only if they took over the upkeep of his family. Naturally they refused.
We have dealt in some detail with who can receive Bai Shi, but who can give it ? Normally only when a master has given formal permission can a student give Bai Shi. Unffortunately there are many loose cannons in the Tai Chi world who want to be seen as great masters, but who lack the knowledge and ability.
I know in Canada a Chinese master of Tai Chi Chuan who trained both with my teacher and his uncle. He is a large and corpulent gentleman and is renowned for his ability to take punches to the stomach. Unfortunately he has had no correction since the 1950's. Some years ago he was approached by a master of Yang style Tai Chi from San Francisco who wanted to undergo Bai Shi and learn Nei Kung from our friend (who has only learned 12 of the 24 exercises). Our friend charged him a lot of money. The Yang master, believing that he now had Nei Kung then tried a demonstration which is done in my teacher's school of having a student jump onto his stomach from a height of six feet.
My teacher received a phone call from said Yang stylist who was bleedind from the rectum as well as coughing up and urinating blood. On hearing who the poor chap had learned from my teacher told him it was hardly surprising and sent him to learn anew from one of his old students who worked as a rubbish collector in Chinatown. This cured him.
In Tai Chi Chuan, in Bai Shi, in life the rule is caveat emptor.