Tag Archives: psa: cultural sensitivity

PSA: What Do You Call A Chinese Martial Arts Master?

I’m not going to name names, but I read a novel recently that left me very upset. So, I’m going to talk about an aspect of martial arts that I’ve discussed before but this time I’m going to go in depth. Again, I’m not naming names, but if the fans recognize who I’m talking about…well, I’m sorry.


When you choose a martial art, or a distinctive weapon from a martial art, please, please, please get at least some of the terminology right. In the novel I read, the heroine refers to the Chinese martial arts master who trained her on her weapon as “sensei”. Did you just cringe? I did. FightWriters, this is a five minute Google search. Really. If the character is trained in the martial art’s country of origin, they should know at least some of the basic terminology. “Sensei” is correct for the heroines other two martial arts, which are karate and aikido. However, “Sifu” is appropriate to China.

It might seem like a common mistake, especially if you’re practicing multiple martial arts at the same time. It’s not. The terms become an easy way to distinguish between instructors. I have never confused my Sifu with my Kwanjangnim or my Sabumnim with my Sensei.

So, please, don’t get caught out like that. It sends the message to the readership who knows that the author didn’t care at all about the culture, the country, or the martial art in question, that they were just looking for something cool or an easy out to make their character sound legitimate. I’m not even going to point out that most of the Chinese martial art traditions have a fairly strict hierarchy about when a trainee begins to practice the weapon and that learning the weapon in absence of any other martial art instruction is weird. A simple wiki search will tell you that this one goes with Baguazhang, the same martial art that was used as the basis for Airbenders in Avatar.

Movement Style and Philosophy

When you choose a martial style, it’s a good idea to work out through study (even just through instructional videos on YouTube) what the style looks like and how it behaves in a combat situation. In the novel, the main character is aggressive. We have her leaping over couches to slam another character into a wall, pressing guns into eyeballs, and other similar actions that represent a very swift, mobile style that requires an actively aggressive mentality.

Aikido and Karate on the other hand…

Aikido is a style that entirely about non-aggression. In fact, its philosophy involves hurting the aggressor as little as possible. A perfectly executed technique is meant to send an enemy away with such perfect control that they bounce on the ground and roll away entirely unharmed. It functions off of a concept called “The Dynamic Sphere”, in which the practitioner acts as the center of their axis and uses their body as the centralized point to redirect their opponents away from them. An aikido practitioner does not chase their opponents; they wait for their opponent to come to them. This is part of why aikido is such a popular self-defense style. It’s perfect for a character that genuinely does not want to hurt someone else and actively discourages aggression.

There are many different variations of karate and since the novel never specified, I’m going to assume that the author was referring to shotokan which is one of the most common and easily found outside of Japan. Karate is also not really movement based, compared to most modern forms it’s actually fairly stationary. If I was going to describe it in a fight scene, what comes to mind are the powerful fluid movements and solid connections when it hits. Shotokan, in particular, is very mechanical when compared to other martial forms like Muay Thai or Krav Maga. In the right circumstances, karate can be devastating, but those circumstances don’t really involve leaping forward to slam someone’s head into the wall as the opening move.

I can guess why the author chose aikido and karate. In America, they are both well-known and popular martial art styles. Karate specifically is one of the most recognizable “buzzword” martial arts. It’s like “black belt”. Say it and the average person on the street will know what it means, or at least, they’ll know the culturally accepted meaning that exists within the mass social consciousness.

Throwing the words out there just doesn’t convince me unless they get backed up and to back them up, you have to start by developing a basic respect for the style you’re inputting into your novel. You don’t have to get it 100% right. In fact, even just the basics that can be gleaned from Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos will be sufficient.

“What do you call a Chinese martial arts master?”

This has been a Michi rant.


ofsevenseas said: Depending on which dialect region of China they’re in, it might also be inappropriate to use ‘sifu’, which is the Cantonese word for ‘master’

That’s true, I was trying to keep the rant uncomplicated. But the truth is that in depth research is always important and China is a diverse country with many different dialects.