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Meeting a Master the First Time – What You Should Do

When coming to China to train Kung Fu, many people are unsure how to act when meeting a master. China is a heirarchical society, and if you are meeting a master for the first time there are certain things that should be considered. Don’t get too worked up over it, Chinese etiquette is incredibly complicated and even they realise that. This is one of those times when you can “pull the laowai card”, although if you follow these steps you will be sure to impress! For a glimpse into the relationship between master and student, I recommend Steal My Art: he Life and Times of T’ai Chi Master T.T. Liang.

Gift Giving

When meeting someone for the first time, it is common in China to give a gift. If you are meeting a master for the first time, it may be a good idea to bring a gift. Typically in China, common gifts will involve alcohol, cigarettes or tea. My personal suggestion will be to give tea, as while most Chinese over the age of 50 smoke and drink, some may not. Typically, Chinese like things in even numbers, so you should give either two or four jars of tea, rather than one or three. If you are tight on money, going to the market and buying some fruit is an acceptable alternative. How much you spend isn’t important, and nothing will be expected, but going the extra mile will show you understand Chinese culture, and are a person who is appreciative and respectful.

Refusing to Receive and Being Pushy to Give

Ok, this one is the most difficult for most people to get their head around. Generally speaking, if Chinese people offer you something, it is rude to accept it outright. You should make a scene by refusing several times and making them force it in your hand. Then you should make out that them giving you this thing (no matter how small or insignificant it is) was really a big deal to you and you are totally embarassed to take it. However, when somebody you don’t know very well invites to buy you dinner or have you come to their home for dinner, it would be over-stepping your boundary to accept. If on the secone or third meeting they still insist, then you can agree.

On the other hand, when you offer something to someone, be VERY pushy. Force it into their hand, shove it in their pocket, pretend to be angry that they haven’t accepted it. You may have seen Chinese people fighting to pay the bill in restaurants. The key here for both the giving and receiving is generosity is considered a virtue and greed a vice, so people want to appear as much the former and little of the latter as posible.

Train Hard and Dont Slack Off

If your first time meeting a master involves training, then you best train like you never have before! The first impression will really decide whether a master accepts you or not. It’s common that at first you will be taught by a senior student, not the master himself, and they may not pay much attention to you. Actually, they are! Just repeat whatever has been taught, drill it again and again. Don’t ask too many questions in the early stages, as you don’t wanna come across cocky. I say this not because I think questioning is wrong, but because I see many people ask questions in a way that appears to be challenging the authority of the teacher. It’s better to build a rapport first, as like I mentioned earlier, heirarchy is important in Chinese culture.

Don’t Brag

There’s nothing worse than when someone is meeting a master the first time, and they reel of their CV of previous martial arts training or masters they know. In China, being humble is considered an important virtue. In time, people will come to know more about you, there’s no need to tell them more than “I have trained before, so I’m familiar with the basics”. It’s possible you will be asked to show a form, or perhaps spar a senior student. In this case, perform at your best, but be humble. As there is a lot of inter-style rivalry, also be prepared to be told what you have done before is totally wrong. Take it with a pinch of salt, and show you are willing to learn and improve.

So these are just a few suggestions to make things go smoothly. As I stated, people will understand you are a foreigner, and so will make exceptions if you break etiquette. Don’t stress about it! Take it as part of the fun of living in another culture!


6 thoughts on “Meeting a Master the First Time – What You Should Do

  1. […] and what they entail, you want to consider if you want a full-time kung fu school, or you want to find a teacher “among the people”. The advantage of going to full time Kung Fu schools have is that […]

  2. Very informative post, I’ve seen quite a few foreigners disregarding those cultural customs . I recall when I first had to pay my Ziran Men master and had no red envelope at hand. I hurried to the nearest convenience store to get one, and then respectfully handed my shifu the hongbao.

    1. the old hong bao… hahaha

    2. So you recommend giving a Chinese person FOUR of something? How ignorant are you? Quick, what is the word for death in Chinese? Quick, what is the word for four?

      1. No need to have a sissy-fit! Giving four of something is totaly appropriate, while it does sound like “death”, four is also the most common number for groups of things considered good: four virtues 四德, four treasures of scholars 文房四宝, fours generations under the same roof (means fortunate) 四世同堂. Four is two pairs, and so considered “complete”

  3. […] with Kwok taught me a lot, and it was definitely worth it. Sometimes you meet a master, and although you only spend a short time under their tutelage, you grow in leaps and bounds. This […]

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