Belt Systems

My Chinese School students recently earned their white belts! Some were psyched about testing while others were nervous and opted to wait until they were ready. I reassured them that as long as they listened and practiced, they would pass. A part of me is glad they were nervous because it shows that they care and they’re a little humble (sometimes).

My Sunday students were on their best behavior. I had them do push ups, sit ups, meditation, 6 basic stances, hold ma bu, 5 kicks, punches, circle blocks, and circle block punch. I usually show them what to do, but this time I only called out the names. I also asked questions like, “Which way is your toe pointing?” “Which leg should be straight?” “What part of your foot is hitting the target?” They’re smart and good listeners. Even the once-shy kids are now raising their hands and giving me answers. My youngest and smallest one can barely do stances without falling over, but he can tell me how they should be done :) The only thing they really struggled with was Tan Tui #1, which I expected.

Me and a few of my students

Before awarding them with belts, I told my students what I thought the belts represented: hard work and knowledge. “When you get home, should you take your belt off and throw it on the floor?” Students: “No!” “Respect your belt by folding it up neatly and putting it away.” During my few weeks as a karate student, I remember the Sensei saying that the belt wasn’t even allowed to touch the floor. Respect should also apply to teachers, fellow students, weapons, training equipment, and pretty much everything. In the olden days, a person wasn’t worthy of training if he or she did not have respect. My students are too young to fully understand this, but I often repeat the message and hope some of it will sink in.

In traditional Chinese martial arts, there are no colored belt ranking systems. Belts or sashes are worn to keep your insides from moving around during intensive external training. They are also used in internal training by providing resistance when you push your abdomen out. Belt ranking systems aren’t used because the teacher knows where each student is in his or her training. When they are ready, they will be taught new material. Belt systems are more prevalent in Japanese and Korean martial arts. “These disciplines descend from a more formal warrior class that enforced rank like the military. …The Chinese martial arts are more clan based.” * I don’t know if this tidbit has an origin in the days of ancient training, but I’ve heard that a belt starts off white when the student is new. It gradually becomes dirty and turns black after many years of training, thus marking the progress of the student.

My black sash is 5.5 inches wide – better for training purposes

The main problem with the belt system is that there is no universal system. A green belt student at one school could be at the same level as a black belt student in a different school. Also, sometimes people mistaken having a black belt as having mastered a set of skills, although, it’s probably less of a problem now when black belts are being handed out like traffic violations.

Why am I awarding belts to my students? The system gives students a goal. It breaks down the curriculum into sets of skills and techniques. It’s a physical prize that can be taken away if a student misbehaves. Ideally, it differentiates students by skill, knowledge, experience, maturity, etc… Lower ranked students are expected to respect higher ranked students. Higher ranked students are expected to be role models, help teach lower ranked students, and are familiar enough with the material to do so. I would like to have a belt system for kids in my future school and integrate it with YMAA’s 10 stripe system. I don’t want to make it easy for them to pass each belt test. One of the biggest challenges is maintaining the integrity of the system while keeping students from quitting because they get bored with the monotony of training or feel stuck at a level.

Belts from my days in the Teens’ class

My advice to people seeking a martial arts school is to research the school and lineage and take trial classes before signing up. Observe how students interact with each other and with the teachers. Ask about the curriculum and how much dedication and training it takes for their child to earn belts. Don’t ask how long it will take, but how much effort and what qualities it takes to earn a belt. I’ve heard of some schools charging $100 for a white belt test. Unless they do a lot of old school training, chances are, those schools are looking to make a quick buck.

*Ching, Gene. Shaolin Trips. Fremont. TCM Media International, Inc. 2010

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