Bai-Si Ceremony and Old Man’s Tea
The practice of drinking tea is a long-standing tradition in China. Legend says that Chinese Emperor Shennong discovered tea when a leaf from a camellia sinensis tree fell into a pot of water that he was boiling.
One can drink tea at many times during the day such as morning, during meals and even before bed. Chinese tea is normally classified into five categories: oolong, green, white, red, and post-fermented. Tea is considered one of the “seven necessities” of Chinese life, along with rice, oil, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, and firewood.
“I can remember that Sigung Moy Yat loved his tea. If I recall correctly, he drank oolong, but maybe it could have been jasmine.”
I grew up watching kung fu movies from the 70’s and in every movie you would always see the Kung Fu Master accept a person into his inner circle only after being served tea by the disciple. There was usually bowing involved as well. In modern times, this custom has mostly vanished from western martial arts schools, but the practice has stayed alive within the Moy Yat Kung Fu Family.
The custom of a todai (student) offering tea to a sifu is known as the bai-si ceremony and should be considered one of the most important ceremonies a kung fu practitioner can be invited to perform. The ceremony is what sets the disciple apart from the “outdoor students”. Historically, a sifu would share 100% of his kung fu secrets only with disciples who had earned the opportunity and demonstrated that they could be trusted with this knowledge.
Outdoor student vs. Disciple
What is an “outdoor student”? Many traditional Chinese martial arts were taught privately as family styles, and classes were taught within a sifu’s home or a family’s hall. Only the trusted disciples (those who went through the bai-si tea ceremony) were allowed in the indoor areas for training or “Kung Fu Life”. The “outdoor students”, not yet having the trust of the family or sifu, would wait to train outside in the courtyard. These distinctions continue to hold true in the modern kung fu school. Normal clients are the”outdoor students”, and those who wish to take their kung fu to the next level are invited to participate in the bai-si ceremony and become “indoor students” or disciples.
A todai who has been invited to perform the bai-si ceremony will kneel before the sifu who will seated before him (or her). He will recite a school code, kuen kuit, or maybe even just explain why he wants to commit himself to the sifu and the kung fu. If the sifu accepts, the todai will kowtow, bowing three times with his head touching the floor. This is considered the highest sign of reverence. The todai will then be handed a cup of tea to drink by someone who is assisting. Another cup of tea will be handed to the todai who will bow again and offer it to the sifu. If the sifu accepts the todai as an “indoor student” or disciple, he will accept the tea and will drink. This confirms the ceremony, and the todai will offer his “kung fu father” a gift such as lucky money in a red envelope to end the bai-si.This is just a basic, simplified explanation of the ceremonial process. There are many variations of the bai-si, and some ceremonies may last for many days.
A disciple who completes the bai-si ceremony becomes like a son or daughter to the sifu and the sifu will even bestow a kung fu family name. My sifu was a disciple of Moy Yat and was given the name Moy Tung, meaning Moy East or “Man of the East”. When I became a disciple of Moy Tung, I was given the name Moy Saup Tung or Moy 10 Tung.
It is important to keep in mind that a discipleship does NOT mean blind obedience; it truly means mutual loyalty between the Sifu and the disciple. The disciple pledges to continue training hard, learning everything the sifu teaches while maintaining the integrity of the school and the kung fu. In return, the sifu pledges to completely pass his kung fu knowledge to the disciple to the best of his ability. That said, loyalty does demand some obedience and supplication – that is the nature of relationship between master and student. However, it must remain positive and must not be abused by the master.
The bai-si should not be taken lightly, for it is a big leap. Although I have students who are considered inner-circle, I have not yet had a student perform a bai-si ceremony with me. I never thought I was ready for the responsibility, but my kung fu and my students’ kung fu have grown to the point where it really should not be put off any longer.
I can remember that Sigung Moy Yat loved his tea. If I recall correctly, he drank oolong, but maybe it could have been jasmine.I learned a few years ago, while visiting my kung fu uncle, Miguel Hernandez, that in Sigung’s later years, he drank Shau Mei tea. Which is a type of white tea that he called “Old Man’s Tea”due to its strong, bitter flavor.
A few months later, I was in Boston’s Chinatown eating Dim Sum at China Pearl with my Sifu and Sigung Bak Moy Bing Wah. There were a few types of tea at the table but I noticed that a special tea was brought for Sigung Bak, I tried a cup and it had a really strong bitter taste. When asked what type of tea it was, Sigung Bak replied that it was Shau Mei.
So I finally had my chance to try Sigung’s “Old Man’s Tea”. Now it is a taste to which I have grown accustomed, and now I drink it every night before bed. Could it be perhaps that I am getting old?
Tea was very important to Sigung, and the bai-si ceremony carries a lot of meaning. The last person to bai-si as a “Grand-Special Student” to Sigung Moy Yat was my kung fu brother, Barry, who is a sifu in Richmond, VA. The tea ceremony is a traditional element of Chinese kung fu that I am glad to see live on, even after the death of MoyYat. Originally posted on http://txkungfu.blogspot.com/. Special thanks to Moy Yat Kung Fu Academy and Sifu Vyvial for the inspirational essay.
We are all alone in this together.
Moy Yat Kung Fu Academy