Having studied martial arts in several different schools myself, both with and without belt ranking systems, the question has been asked of me whether or not such systems should be used. Unfortunately, the answer is not so cut and dried, but I’ll do my best to shed some insight into my own experience and perhaps help you decide whether your own school should use belts or not.
Karate Belt Ranking Systems
Okay, so let’s start with the most common martial arts in America – karate and taekwondo. I’m going to go ahead and say unequivocally that yes, these sports should definitely have belts. It’s expected, and they are point-centric tournament sports that rely on using belts and weight classes to match people up against appropriate opponents. They tend to have a ton of kids in class that need the belts to stay focused and give them a sense of accomplishment.
These sports (at least the westernized versions of them) are meant for fun and exercise and need the trappings to make money. Without belts and trophies, they wouldn’t survive here. That’s just the reality of the black belt business that is American karate and taekwondo. You pay for belts and trophies, so that’s what you get.
I’m not trying to disparage these sports; they are great exercise and a fun way to play, so they make really good hobbies (especially for children) as long as it’s understood that that’s what they are. Ranking systems for the martial arts based American sport fighting business – yes. Of course.
Kung fu ranking systems
Okay, so this one’s highly dependent upon the purpose of the school. Now, I’ve studied at a couple of kung fu schools – one with belts (well, actually silk sashes) and one without. School 1 had two different systems being taught. One was more for sport, and one was actually taught by a sil lum monk.
Both used ranks, but they were vastly different. The sport kung fu started (of course) with a white sash, then yellow, green, and so on. The temple system started with no sash then green, then yellow, and a few others after. The curriculum to earn the sashes in one was just like many of the karate schools out there, which was to attract a broader student base. This was the primary business model, which makes total sense. You can’t run a business if you don’t provide what most customers (students) expect.
The temple system was, again, very different. Sashes were earned by showing a depth of aptitude I’d never seen at any dojo or kwoon before. You really had to work hard to earn them, and there weren’t that many. It took a long time to advance because you had to be very, very good at each level before you could move on. You couldn’t just show basic proficiency; you had to show mastery – or at least a very advanced level of proficiency since the next stuff was going to be impossible if you didn’t have things nailed down.
Onto school 2. No ranks, no uniforms, no trappings at all. No formal curriculum, just a mix of Chinese and Tibetan martial arts including tai chi, bagua, choy li fut kung fu, Tibetan hop gar, and hsing i. Our measure was not rank-based; it was based on the question “how do you compare to you 100 days ago?” It was one of my favorite schools I ever attended. Hands down. We worked our asses off and we got good. We made our own equipment and fought outside in the dirt. We hit telephone poles and posted (standing meditation for extended periods, sometimes and hour or more), beat each other with no pads, and learned the skill of fa jing – exploding power. What would we have done with belts? When we were ready to learn more, we were ready to learn more. Period. It’s kind of hard to break all that down into belt levels, especially when all of the different branches were taught together and integrated.
Long and short – school 1 needed the sashes. It helped us know what to learn next and what we needed to focus on for the time being. School 2 would have been hurt by trying to use belt ranks because it would have simply limited our ability to move on. There was too much to try to assign a curriculum to. We all got different things from it, but we all got good in our own ways.
Aikido ranking systems
Aikido is a much newer art. In fact, here’s a video of O Sensei Ueshiba in 1960 with his son, grandson, and other students for you to enjoy…
Man, you just don’t get much cooler than that, do you? Okay, with that out of the way (alright, I’ll give you a few minutes to watch that again…), NOW with that out of the way, there’s something really interesting about ranking in the hombu aikido system, at least as I learned and understand it. There are several ranks but only two belts – white and black. When I studied under Sensei Bill Lynch (student of Sensei Yoshimitsu Yamada, one of the most important and influential aikido masters that wasn’t Ueshiba), that was how we were taught. We had 6 levels of white belt then 7 levels of black at the time. Lynch Sensei moved before I could advance too far, so I lost my tie to hombu aikido. What a shame. :'(
Anyway, there weren’t exactly tests; you just got recognized for having a level of skill that was beyond where you once were. Then you would test for your black belt. It was really kind of cool. It worked for the art, as aikido is not really complicated, at least not physically. It was the mental and spiritual side, the energy redirection side, that was so damn hard.
This is what I do now (Kazan Ryu Bujutsu – not many pics of me there, but there are some of both my kids, Alaina and Lorenzo). Yep, we have belts. Yep, it’s some of the best training I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like how our curriculum is divided and the way we earn rank. We don’t always test; sometimes Dai Sensei just calls us out before closing to award us a new rank. You just never know.
One thing that I recently learned – or figured out – changed my view of one thing in particular. I’ve been studying there for about 9 months. We start with no belt as a candidate. We have to earn our white belt, which is pretty cool. I’m currently a yellow belt and I mentioned to Sensei that I would not make it out of the summer with the same belt. The first thing he asked me was, “when did you earn your yellow belt?”
Wait, what? Why does that matter? If I’m ready, I’m ready!
Ah, but there is a reason for this limitation to advancement: patience. Although I’m clearly not “yellow belt material”, I showed impatience to move on, as if I were not able to be content with mastering what I already have on my plate. And let’s not mince words; I’m pretty damn good, but I have not mastered my material. I can move on, but I can also improve what I already have – and the fundamentals are always the most important material, aren’t they?
Yes, our belts are important, as well! I never really thought of it before, but I have a new appreciation for why we have them. Not only do they keep our curriculum in order (each level builds on the previous), they keep us focused on what we are currently studying so we don’t jump ahead. They keep us patient and humble. There is nothing that will bring a martial artist down faster than his own pride and arrogance.
I’ve given some examples when ranking systems have been both beneficial and detrimental to different martial arts disciplines. What do you think? Do you have ranks in your school? What are they, and do they tend to help or hurt? If you run a school yourself, does this article make you think about your own approach? Let us know!