Ranking Systems

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


About wujimon

taiji, meditation and health
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10 Responses to Ranking Systems

  1. Inside the body, qi and blood move together. Yi leads qi. With EEG and thermal imaging, is it really so hard to measure?

  2. wujimon says:

    Ok… maybe if all instuctors had an EEG thermal imaging machine on-hand then perhaps ranking will be acceptable.. 🙂

  3. zenmindsword says:

    how does a zen master know if you have achieved enlightenment? after all he can’t read your mind and can only reach a conclusion after hearing your apparently nonsensical answer to his apparently nonsensical question.

    so the taiji masters in the old days had no knowledge of science that we have now. how did they come up with the things that today science is starting to discover is true and even then there are still things in taiji that science cannot explain nor measure.

    its like God. how do you know he exists? you don’t and yet you believe in God. its strange how people can have faith in a God that cannot be proven to exist yet cannot believe an art that is right before them.

    in Malaysia an opposition Islamic leader said that if his followers die they will go to heaven to which the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir retorted “how do you know, have you been there before?”

  4. wujimon says:

    Hey ZMS.
    Your thoughts reminded me a bit about this conundrum I’ve heard about. We are able to build a computer that can beat the best chess player in the world, yet this same computer cannot beat a mid-level weiqi player (aka Go Boardgame).

    Why is this the case? Does the computer not have enough processing power? Does the computer not have a lexicon of possible moves and scenarios? What’s the difference between these 2 games?

    One is a game of destruction while another is a game of creation. What a computer lacks is intuition.

  5. chessman71 says:

    I like the last part of the quote from Good Will Hunting. In other words, if the teacher is good and the material is good, the belt system doesn’t matter.

    I’ll tell you guys, one system that I used to do had a belt system a long time ago and they let it slip away. They were so much more organized back then and had to fight at each belt test. But guess what? No more belts equals no more belt testing. Result? No more fighting.

    Sometimes belts add organization and that’s something that CMA can never, ever have too much of IMO.

  6. Zen masters who can’t read minds? Sounds like an oxymoron to me. 🙂

    I did not mean to imply that these machines are the *only* way to measure skills; only that their existence disproves the theory (or, more accurately, the desire) that MA skills cannot be measured at all.

    Without measurement there are no masters. Not now, not then, not ever.

  7. taiwandeutscher says:

    What about the master grades given away for contribution to the organisation, for teaching so and so many years, for publishing on the field, for any other honours achieved?
    Are there wen (cultural)- und wu (martial)-degrees necessary?
    What about the Taiwan Judo coach in the Olympic training center in Zuoying/Kaohsiung, who got a read and white belt (forgot 4th or 6th dan?) and then was beaten up by a visiting German brown belt?
    I still tend to feel suspicious on all these organisations and associations which make a sport out of an art.
    On the other hand, I also see your points of evaluating one’s abilities, especially fot the younger people.
    Being nearly 40 myselt, I know what am I’m able to and also know what I want out of IMA. For sure it isn’t any belt or duan-degree.

  8. wujimon says:

    You’re right about the aspect of sparring within belt systems. I recall everytime I tested for the next rank, I *had* to spar. Taiji could use a bit of sparring.. 😉

    While I agree there will always be some form of measurement, I don’t necessarily believe everyone is qualified to make such measurements. In addition, I still don’t have a good feeling about belts/rank as I think that’s the wrong goal within taiji. Again, my own personal take.

    My post was specifically geared towards a ranking system within taiji. Like you, over time, I began caring less about belt and ranks b/c that’s not my goal in IMA.

  9. taiwandeutscher says:


    I’m sure you know about the grading system of the official Yang family, mainland Chinese wushu-orgs (there are several now) for Taiji. Or here in the Taiwan taiji scene. Some have duans and teachers’ certificates directly bought, some did contribute to their associations, some are pruely nice people and very few really have earned it.

  10. wujimon says:

    Hey TaiwanD:
    Yup, I’m aware of the movement to adopt the duan system. Again, this is something I’ve never been a fan of and will not take part it. It may hurt me down the line, but oh well… 😉

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