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In your own school, you have a Sifu (師傅 or 師父) or sensei (先生), which is frequently translated as master or teacher. In the same way you have a grandfather, who is the father of your father, you have a grandmaster, the master of your master or the teacher of your teacher. Within your school you can use words that describe your relationship with other school members.

How is the term grandmaster used for schools outside your own? Is this just someone who has grandstudents, or is there some other understood qualification? Why would you choose to title someone with grandmaster over master?

This is related to the question Correct usage of the title "Master"?, but I am really interested in why people on this board choose to use the term grandmaster.

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The short form of the answer is that it is entirely dependent on the organization and its standards and customs.

For the longer answer, start by looking at the way the word "master" is used in English and notice that it has several meanings that are only loosely related. "Master" can mean "teacher", it can mean "lord" especially when referring to the "master of an estate" or "master of slaves", or it can mean "expert" as in master of the art. Its worth noting that the division between these meanings is clearer in some other languages. In Latin, both "magister" and "dominus" are often translated into the English word "Master" but their meanings are distinct in Latin. "Magister" refers to a master of an art or an expert while "dominus" referred to someone in authority as in a "master of an estate" or "slave master". Etymologically, our word "master" derived from the Latin "magister" but went through several changes and the definition broadened substantially.

You can see all of these intermingled in martial arts, and as Dave Liepmann pointed out, often in confusing ways. Some organizations, both in and out of martial arts, have specific and detailed criteria for attaining the rank of master in their art. A master of chess has an ELO rating of at least 2200 and meets certain other criteria. A master penman has been recognized by IAMPETH as being a master of their craft. In ITF a master is someone who has been recognized as a 7th or 8th Dan and a grandmaster is someone who has been recognized as 9th Dan.

In the sense of someone being a teacher, I do not think it would ever be wrong to call your sensei/coach/instructor "master". But that can easily get confused with other meanings of the word, especially if you are in an organization that has precisely defined the term. I have never seen the term "grandmaster" used to refer to the "teacher of my teacher". Grandmaster as a term generally either refers to a precisely defined rank (ITF 9D for instance) or else to someone who outranks the masters in an organization that recognizes masters.

All of this is a long way of saying that referring to a teacher as "master" will not be wrong, but can be confusing and ambiguous. For any other meaning of the word you need to look specifically at the culture and standards of a particular organization.

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    "I do not think it would ever be wrong to call your sensei/coach/instructor 'master'" — a lot of teachers would take being called "master" as an extremely weird assumption. And quite rightly. The terminology has a lot of undesirable cultural baggage. – Dave Liepmann Sep 10 '15 at 12:12
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    @DaveLiepmann You make a good point. I meant in terms of word definitions and grammar, not that it would always be socially correct. – TimothyAWiseman Sep 10 '15 at 12:30
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There's no worldwide definition for master or grandmaster. Some schools or lineages might apply it if you've been at a certain rank for X number of years, or if you can complete certain tasks or tests... outside of that, it's pretty much what anyone chooses to call themselves or others choose to call them.

In my own personal view, someone who has good movement and power and can adapt well (not necessarily perfectly) to dealing with different styles or opponents? I'd consider them a master. And someone who can do that AND constantly pull out new things from their training, adapting it in new, deeper ways? That's a grandmaster to me. However, you kinda have to spend some time with folks and really see how they move and feel how they act/react to really say anything.

Outside of that, mostly I use grandmaster when the lineage/school calls that person a grandmaster. It doesn't hurt me any to call people whatever they want to be called - at the end of the day it's the movement, not the title that's going to matter.

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Ain't nobody my master. For sure ain't nobody my grandmaster. I've got sensei, I've got coaches. Those are personal relationships with reciprocal obligations of their own, and I choose them. But the idea of a man having a master is outdated feudal* bullpuckey. Similarly, my coaches have coaches, and sometimes they teach me. In that case they're my coach, and my coach's coach, and there's no need for flowery language.

This is doubly true when that flowery language has a tendency to go hand-in-hand with self-aggrandizement, fraud, and cult behavior. An organization with "masters" and "grandmasters" is, in my experience, more likely to involve extreme and unnecessary hierarchical behavior, slavish obedience to party doctrine, and a strong sense of unquestionable orthodoxy.

"Masters" and "grandmasters" have too many weird connotations and cause too many misunderstandings to both outsiders and insiders to use them. I recommend being very, very wary of anyone use of those terms in the martial arts.

  • or, worse, pseudofeudal!
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    I would like to think the term "Master" is not a term of possession of a person or student (e.g. Master and Slave), but a Master of the art. – paperclip Sep 9 '15 at 1:59
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    @paperclip Then they aren't my master. And master-of-the-art terminology gets misused and abused and misunderstood, too. If they've mastered judo (for example) then say that, recognize their high-dan rank, and call them "Miss Fukuda" or "Mister Kano". Ain't no need to call someone "master" unless you're starting a cult. – Dave Liepmann Sep 9 '15 at 7:07
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    While I agree that "master-of-the-art" terminology is often misused and abused, it remains in common usage, often with very precisely defined criteria, in many fields. A chess master is defined by an elo rating, etc. – TimothyAWiseman Sep 9 '15 at 17:08
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In Taekwon-do, a Grandmaster is a practitioner who has attained the rank of 9th Degree Black Belt (also known as 9th Dan, for some). He is called the "Sasung-nim".

A Master is one who is 7th or 8th Degree Black Belt. Ranks below that are commonly known as "Sabum-nim" (Instructor) or "Boo-Sabum-nim" (Asst. Instructor).

Whether or not a person should be deemed a Grandmaster, is another matter. I know people who promote themselves to the title through shortcuts. This is very unfair to the others who worked hard. Likewise I know some old timers who were involved in the art since many years ago and their level of knowledge and skill deserves the title.

  • Master as a 7th or 8th degree is very organization dependent. ITF Master is 7th, WTF Master is 4th, ATA Master Instructor is 6th (And the master title is independent of rank, you have to be a 6th to be eligible, but not all 6th degrees are awarded the title Master Instructor). – JohnP Sep 16 '15 at 15:56
  • Note that I spelt Taekwon-do as such because I was referring to ITF. WTF members usually spell it as Taekwondo. I have no idea about WTF because I come from the ITF background. Thanks for your input on WTF! – paperclip Sep 29 '15 at 7:12
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Generally speaking, a grandmaster is someone who has attained the top rank in a martial art. In some, the title is reserved for those who have received an honorary rank due to their commitment to the sport. To look at it from an academic perspective, a grandmaster would be a professor with a PHD or an honorary doctorate.

  • Mmm...not really on the academic comparison. There are tons of professors in various fields with PhD certs. Closer to the Dean of a college, maybe? – JohnP Sep 22 '15 at 20:51
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In my art Tang Soo Do, we have Gups (colored belt, or beginning students), Dans ("black belts"), Ko Sa Nim (Instructor, generally about 2nd degree) Sa Bom Nims (Master instructor, 4th degree +). Grandmasters (8 degree +), Kwan Jang Nim (Is the head of the federation or the master of all the masters in a given group of schools for example WTSDF Word Tang Soo Do Federation. You also have Chun Jang Nim or a President of the federation.

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In Kukki-Taekwondo (WTF) the definition varies. Officially the Kukkiwon doesn't award Grandmaster titles. Most people generally assume that 8th Dan Kukkiwon and upward is Grandmaster - the Kukkiwon staff will frequently refer to 8th Dans as Grandmaster, but often slip to Master.

I asked my contact at Changmookwan HQ in Korea to ask the head of Changmookwan and he said "9th Dan Changmookwan is Grandmaster".

When my instructor (8th Dan Kukkiwon, 9th Dan Changmookwan and at that time 2nd Class Kukkiwon Master Instructor) was at the Kukkiwon with me a couple of years ago on the Master Instructor course; someone said to him "you shouldn't use the title Grandmaster as that's reserved for 9th Dans who hold a 1st Class Kukkiwon Master Instructor". His answer was "my teacher, Grandmaster Kim Soon Bae calls me Grandmaster, so you if you have a problem with it - take it up with him". Unfortunately, GM Kim died almost a year ago.

My Grandmaster's feelings (which I echo) is that it's normally between 7th and 8th Dan when the title of Grandmaster is given. When a Grandmaster refers to you as a Grandmaster, then you should feel comfortable using the title. If you reach 9th Dan, then you are a Grandmaster without needing another one to call you one.

On a side note, I've accidentally used Master X to refer to various 9th Dan grandmasters in Korea, not one has flinched or corrected me. They are much less hung up on titles than we are over here (which is surprising because Korean culture is quite hung up on using job titles). The Korean seniors go more by "noonchi" (the feeling behind someone's eyes and therefore behaviour) than rank and title.

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I agree that for many people, the terms master or grandmaster are just there to make the person feel more important. The only time that I've used either of these terms is with my teacher's teacher, but he's a ninth degree, so out of respect, you could say that he's earned the title.

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