In traditional CMA, there is a saying “the teacher observes the student for 3 years, the student also observes the teacher for 3 years” (shifu kaocha tudi san nian, tudi kaocha shifu san nian). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that in the past you always had to wait for 3 years to become a tudi (disciple) of a teacher – but it does mean that generally there is a period where the student is effectively ‘on probation’ while the teacher decides if his various qualities (behaviour, diligence, aptitude for MA, etc) warrant him being accepted as a disciple. The length of this probation period varies tremendously – I personally have heard of people being required baishi just to learn anything from a teacher, to people waiting 3-4 years for baishi, to people who can have studied with a teacher for 20 years but never baishi.
To give a bit of context to this post, I have now been training with my current xingyi teacher (Dai Xueqi) for just over 3 years. In that time, we have talked about me becoming his disciple (baishi ceremony) a few times but had agreed that it would have to wait until the next time that his teacher (Song Guanghua) was in town. As Song shiye was in Nantong for the wushu tournament I had blogged about previously, it seemed like too good an opportunity for us Shanghai students to pass up. After some behind the scenes phone calls from my shifu to shiye and the other students, it was arranged that the Shanghai students were to baishi the day after next. Due to shiye’s tight schedule, the whole thing was very rushed – I got a phone call from my sifu on a Wednesday night and the ceremony itself was held two days later.
Although I had witnessed a baishi ceremony once before a few years back, understandably the whole thing was very foreign to me as a Westerner – many of the elements of the traditional baishi ceremony, such as burning incense to the founder of the art or kowtowing (full kneel with head touching the floor – see the photo below), were outside of my experience and required several whispered conversations with my shixiong to make sure I was doing the right thing.
For the benefit of those readers who may one day end up undergoing baishi, a quick description of the sequence of events is probably in order. First the pictures of the founder / earlier generations of the art are hung on the wall, as well as a banner saying “XXX discipleship ceremony”. Then, a small table is set up underneath the photos with various offerings of fruit as well as a rice bowl (for placing incense). Generally, the baishi ceremony will have ‘observers’ – these are generally also martial artists who are friends of your teacher, not necessarily from the same art. In the case of my ceremony, these were my teacher’s shixiong, who between them practice Fanzi quan, Xinyi Liuhe quan and Sun style taiji. Generally for the ceremony itself only your teacher and shiye will be seated (i.e. observers and MC will remain standing). The first step of the ceremony officially is to offer incense to the founder of the art. Then, you kowtow to both your shiye and your teacher – in my case a full kowtow 3 times (forehead touching the ground). Whilst still on the ground, you will normally also have to offer tea to shiye and your teacher. Once this is over you may stand up. The third section of the ceremony involves reading out the rules (men gui) of your particular style – these vary between styles but generally exhort the disciple to train hard, refrain from using their skills to bully and intimidate others, spread the art, etc.
Probably the most interesting part for me was the final part of the ceremony, where the shiye and shifu can give a short speech. Song Guanghua gave quite a long speech (5-10 minutes) to us new disciples, which is the longest I have ever heard him speak (he is normally pretty monosyllabic, at least to us grand-students). He emphasised that, as disciples, we not only had a responsibility to train, understand and master Song style and its various requirements, but also to spread and improve the art. Obviously, as the only foreigner in the group, there were pointed glances at me at this point. Other Western students of traditional CMA will testify that teachers here often hope that their Western students will help them spread their art, and so often will receive ‘special attention’. Of course, it should be noted that this special attention is no guarantee that you will learn the complete system or that ‘secret’ teachings will be passed on to you.