In most forms of martial arts there are ranking systems within a school. The top dog is the one who has the most worn out black belt followed by the black belt that has the most yellow adornations upon it. Students will tend to line up according to rank with the newbies in the back. This is what I observed in my days of Tae Kwon Do (TKD).
Then I entered into the world of Chinese Martial Arts (CMA), more specifically, I began studying wushu. The class was small, just my cousin, the instructor, and I. That’s it. Three of us for 3 hours one night a week in the basement of our instructor’s house. When we got there, we bowed in and began training. Our instructor did not discuss ranks, belts or sashes with us. UNTIL…. we began entering local competitions.
I remember the first time we entered a local ‘open’ competition. By open, this meant that all martial arts styles were invited to participate. We had TKD, Karate, Chinese Kempo, Wushu, you name it. Anyhoo, during the registration I asked my instructor what level should I be competing it. He said, “Black belt. Here’s a sash. Go and get ready.” Umm… I had only been doing wushu for about 1 year and he wanted me to compete in black belt?!?! My instructor was also a bit nutty and insisted that we compete in BOTH forms and sparring. I tried to tell him I was not ready for ‘black belt’ sparring, but he would not have it. He just said, “You will compete in black belt”.
My cousin and I ended up doing quite well in the competition. Since there was a slight age difference between us, we were split into different age-based divisions. At the end of the tournament, we took pictures with our trophies and instructor. Our instructor asked us for the black sashes and put them away in his bag and began heading out the door. We both looked at each other like, “What?!??”. At that age, we felt we ‘earned’ the black sashes by winning our respective divisions, but I guess that was not good enough.
The next class went on as normal. We trained, trained and trained. He did not bring up the topic of rank and sashes and neither did we.. Every tournament my cousin and I entered, we always competed in black belt though we had no formal designation.
Fast forward about 10 years. Our instructor realized his dream by opening up his own martial arts school. He now had a ‘studio’ space with changing rooms and a public entry way. I was studying at the university when the school opened so didn’t have a chance to visit until summer break. When I came back, I noticed a big change. No longer did classes consist of 2-3 students, there were now in the tens of students. The adult class had roughly 30-40 students and they were all wearing colored sashes. The colors consisted of blue, brown and red.
I suited up (changed into sweat pants and a t-shirt) and began stretching before class. A couple of his students introduced themselves to me and asked if I was new. I said, “Not really. I’ve been a student of Sifu’s for a while but have been away studying at the university.”. One of them then inquired, “Oh.. cool. What’s your rank?” I said, “Uh.. I don’t really know.” Then one of the ‘back in the day’ students came up and said, “Don’t worry about him.. he’s one of Sifu’s first students.” We then began chatting and the ‘new’ students went about their way.
But then something dawned on me. The senior ‘back in the day’ student was not wearing a sash. I also noticed our instructor was not wearing a colored sash either. Also, the new students were not wearing sashes either. So, the rank went from:
none -> blue -> brown -> red -> none
After the wushu class, I stuck around to join the taiji class. The taiji class was a lot like my ‘old’ training days. Students came, warmed up and began training. There were no colored sashes and really no order to the line up. There was an ‘implied’ rank based on seniority, but this was not apparent in the bow-in lineup.
In my experience, most taiji schools follow the ‘implied rank’ format. Often times, this implied rank is based upon seniority and other times it’s based on who has ‘walked through the door’ and became disciples. While there are distinctions between inner and outer students, I’m really not sure how belts would apply in taiji.
So.. why all this chatter about belts and ranks? This topic seems to have made it way around the taiji blogosphere again. EmptyFlower Forum has a thread on Taiji Ranking Systems and most recently, I received a ‘pingback’ on my Do You Belong to a McDojo article from Renli on McDojo where the author proposes implementing a Taiji Belt System.
What’s my take? Personally, I do not believe in belt/ranking systems for taiji. I believe taiji to be a ‘personal’ art. Sure, there are certain things that can be graded upon like form choreography and alignment, but how can we judge if a person is using adequate intention? How can we judge if a person is circulating qi around their body? For me, it’s the intangibles that make taiji a martial ‘art’. It’s all in the details, the nitty gritty that perhaps only we may know.
You know, this reminds me of a quote from Good Will Hunting:
… Wonderful stuff, you know, little things like that. Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That’s what made her my wife. Oh and she had the goods on me, too, she knew all my little peccadillos. People call these things imperfections, but they’re not, aw that’s the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds. You’re not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn’t perfect either. But the question is: whether or not you’re perfect for each other. That’s the whole deal.
Source: WikiQuote – Good Will Hunting