In Shifu, disciples are totally independent from the main characters, whereas the playing method is more novel and comprehensive compared. To experience the specialty of disciple system, recruiting disciples is the first step. You can judge the strong or weak disciples from their star ratings. Generally speaking, the disciples of star rating below 3 are useless for you. In the game, you can recruit one disciple of stars rating 3-4 or 4-5 for free each day. Supposing the disciples you recruited perform unsatisfactory, you can recruit another one with ingots.
If you want to get how to upgrade and embattle your disciples, just click here: strategy for upgrading and embattling disciples in Shifu