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On Discipleship

by John Groschwitz, Menlo Park, CA


To many, the concept of discipleship may seem out of place in modern society. In an era where we now rely heavily on tests, certificates, and academic degrees to ascribe proficiency and legitimacy in a given subject, the vague and seemingly arbitrary nature of discipleship may seem anachronistic—insufficiently rigorous and overly subjective in its application, and thus unfit for “modern,” “scientific” times. However, it is specifically the malleable process of becoming a “disciple” that allows for a transmission to surpass wrote learning.


A disciple—a follower of a teacher—goes beyond simply repeating learned material; they follow the ideas, convictions, and actions of the teacher and seek to preserve these in the process and experience of teaching others. In this way, there remains a continuity of understanding and thought across generations that is not easily describable but still visceral. This is exactly what is meant by the Chinese saying “it can only be gained by insight, and cannot be transmitted in words” (只可意会不可言传). Becoming a disciple is not a symbol of superiority or mark of entitlement—it is a proclamation and confirmation by both student and teacher that there exists a mutual understanding and connection which binds them together. They are two people who walk together on the same path; one leading, one following. This is pictorially reflected in the Chinese characters for the word “disciple” (徒弟).


Discipleship has always been an important component of Chinese martial culture which reflects complex and sometimes overlapping relationships. Though each school or group may have its own vocabulary for delineating students, in general, they can be broken down into three types:


General Students/Non-Disciples (学生/非入门弟子)

Inner-Door Disciples (入门弟子)

Inner-Chamber Disciples (入室弟子)


General students/non-disciples may be short term and temporary or may study more extensively with a teacher, but do not formalize the relationship and cannot claim the right to teach, or to represent their teacher/lineage in any way. Inner-Door Disciples have a closer relationship with their teacher, and are officially considered part of their teacher’s family, but may not receive complete instruction in the art, and generally are not expected or permitted to teach. Inner-Chamber Disciples are those who work most closely with their teacher, are considered to have received complete and true instruction in their art, and have a responsibility to carry on the lineage through their own teaching.


Among disciples there are also often a number of specialized terms that may or may not be used. The first Inner-Chamber Disciple accepted by a teacher is called the Elder Disciple (大弟子). The most virtuous and esteemed disciple who leads and organizes others is called the School-Leading Disciple (掌门弟子). A Family-Taught Disciple (家传弟子) is a blood relation* of the teacher and generally considered to be the closest and most well-taught of all the disciples.[1]   The Shutting-Door Disciple (闭门弟子) is the one who is considered most knowledgeable in terms of theory and forms, though not necessarily the one who is most accomplished in performance or fighting. The Closing-Door Disciple (关门弟子) is the last Inner-Chamber Disciple accepted by a teacher.


Discipleship is normally not initiated by the teacher—it is the responsibility of the student to ask their teacher to become a disciple—but becoming a disciple can happen in a number of ways. A teacher who works with a student and finds them promising may make them a Name-Recorded Disciple (记名弟子) to signify their relationship, but there is no official ceremony and there may or may not be a public announcement. A student seeking a more formal connection may provide his background and personal information to the teacher in written form and become a Card-Presenting Disciple (递帖弟子)—for example when being sent by his first teacher to seek further instruction. This usually also does not require a formal ceremony or public announcement. Still more formal is the Kowtowed Disciple (磕头弟子), who bows to the ground to show adherence to the teacher and the rules of becoming a disciple. Kowtowing has long been the highest form of veneration in Chinese culture, used to show respect to parents, elders, officials and royalty. This type of ceremony highlights the gravity of the relationship in question. A Kowtowed Disciple can be someone who requests to be accepted “on the spot,” or can even be someone who is accepted into a lineage after the teacher has died, through the authority of the teacher’s other disciples. This usually involves some sort of ceremony to publicly acknowledge and record the relationship. The most formal relationship is the Card-Exchanging Kowtowed Disciple (换帖磕头弟子). Here both the student and teacher exchange written documents stating their backgrounds and their relationship, and the student Kowtows to show obedience to the teacher and the lineage. This is always undertaken with a formal ceremony to bear witness and as a public announcement. 


Additionally, discipleship may be undertaken within a variety of contexts and timeframes. Some students may become disciples after a relatively short time with a teacher, while others may be with someone for many years before the relationship is formalized. Li Runxi was the first teacher to accept North American Tang Shou Tao members as disciples in 2006. At the time, he had been working with Tang Shou Tao members for only two years, but accepted this group of disciples based on the recommendation of our founder, and to further the work with us that was begun by his father Li Guichang and Vince some fifteen years earlier. Liu Shuhang was the second teacher to accept a disciple group in 2012. He had been working with the Association for nearly twenty years by then, and most of this group had trained with him for a decade or more. Also in 2012, our founder Vince Black accepted his first group of disciples, with two subsequent groups in 2014 and 2016. These students had all worked directly with Vince in both the martial and medical arts for varying lengths of time, from months to decades. In October of this year, Master Li Cang accepted twelve Tang Shou Tao members as Card-Exchanging Kowtowed Disciples in his xingyi lineage. We first began interacting with Li Laoshi nine years ago, and our members have been training with him since 2013. This year’s ceremony was an important step in solidifying the connection between the Association and the Ji’nan Li Jingxuan Xingyi lineage, and in establishing a firm foundation for passing on his art.


Over the last ten years, the process of adding the category of “Disciple” to the existing North American Tang Shou Tao structure has led to some misunderstandings, as people have misinterpreted the nature and meaning of the word. The status of “disciple” is not an award or accolade, it is an obligation. It signifies more work and more responsibility; more forbearance and more humility. Each of these four disciple groups have committed to furthering the arts of their respective teachers here in the US, and must now work together not only to improve their own practice, but to develop the next generation of practitioners. In some sense, it is exactly the same work as an instructor; it is simply that the level of responsibility is greater. These disciple groups do not supersede the instructors, and these new groups do not convey some new set of authority which is to be wielded like a weapon. They are simply the natural evolution of our association after many years of growth and maturation internally.


[1] This is the case for Liu Shuhang, who was taught from the age of fourteen by his grand-uncle Liu Fengcai.

Gongfu Montréal

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