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Sitao – Sifu: The Teacher Student Relationship

In traditional Chinese thought, the “Five Human Relationships” composed of Heaven, Earth, King, Parents and Teacher could usually be seen written on a scroll near the family Ancestral Altar, as a reminder of the important elements, in the development of a person’s life.

Heaven and Earth are said to provide the natural conditions of life, the King symbolized the state and society which people depended upon for existence, Parents are the blood tie and the Teacher shouldered the great responsibility of initiating a person into cultural life.

From the viewpoint of society and culture, the teacher was exalted on par with the King, and to betray one’s teacher was as immoral as to betray one’s own parents.  In fact, the teacher was considered equivalent to a “second set of parents.”  The respect of a student toward his teacher was seen as an unimpeachable moral principle.  The teacher represented unchallenged authority.
This was regarded as the “teacher-student” relationship.  It was expected that the teacher would impart the principles of benevolence, forbearance, etiquette and justice, as he set an example, before his students.

However, there was one basic difference in the teacher-student relationship, namely, “teachers can be chosen.”  In the traditional “wuguan” or kungfu school, the Sifu attracted students who admired his beliefs and strength of character, while sharing his moral convictions as a “sifu” teacher.  Students came to learn not only knowledge, but the “spirit” of it’s practiced application.

The Li-Ching, “Book of Rites” states a teacher is someone who imparts knowledge and relates it to virtue.  The Confucian Analects said, “One who reviews the old and reaches new understanding can serve, as a teacher.”

In short, the teacher was expected to put both knowledge and morality into practice.  Because teachers and students often spent long periods of time together, sometimes even living under the same roof, the teacher had an opportunity to gain keen insight into each student’s character, thereby adapting his teaching to each students ability and need.  Thus, knowledge was imparted and character building took place naturally through daily life.  They became “like family” and so it was quite natural that the students willingly did all kinds of chores for their teacher, even emptying his spittoon.

This naturally resulted in a superb relationship between teacher and student, as can be seen in the story of Chu Shi, a philosopher, of the Sung Dynasty.

When Chu became a victim of false accusations, in a political plot against him, his students and followers also suffered as a result.  His most outstanding student named Cai, preferred to be arrested rather than recant his teacher and his doctrines.  Later Cai died on the way to prison:  Thus, we can see the student may give up his life for the teacher and his principles.

In traditional China, the teacher was the embodiment of “truth” and was considered to be of the highest virtue. “To betray the teacher was to betray one’s ancestors and to rebel against the teacher was to betray morality.”  And so the traditional school was based on the seniority of its students.  To offend a senior was greatly frowned upon just as if he were the teacher.  This was the “si-tao” or code of behavior governing the relationship, of the teacher and student.

In Chapter 15, of the “Book of Filial Duty” Confucius states, “I have heard all that you said about parental love, filial love, reverence to elders, how to treat parents every day and how to please them by making oneself known for good conduct; and now I will venture to ask you whether it is filial that a son should obey every command of his father, (his master or his King) whether right or wrong?

It is said, “Once upon a time there was a certain Emperor who would have lost his Empire through wickedness and wrong-doing, but that he had seven good ministers who checked his actions by strong protest;  there was also a feudal baron who would have lost his estate through wantonness, but for the fact that he had five good men who often made remonstrances to him; and there was also a statesman who would have brought calamity upon his family, except that he had three good servants, who often strongly advised him not to do what he ought not.”

“If a man has a good friend to resist him in doing bad actions he will have his reputation preserved.”  “If a father has a good son to resist his wrong commands, he will be saved from committing serious faults.”  “When the command is wrong, a student should resist his master, the son his father, the minister the King.”  The maxim is “resist when wrongly commanded.”  How can one then be called filial who obeys his father or teacher when commanded to do wrong?”

copyright 1996, Roger D. Hagood