This year I have put great thought into the development of a sash system that would reflect the Taoist roots of our art as well a provide a sensible system for martial development within it. I looked at many other systems for inspiration and corroboration. In the end, I wanted something that was truly reflective of my beliefs, in line with other martial arts, progressive and developmental as well as serious and effective.
A couple of months ago, we began implementing this system with the students at the dojo. The system that I have developed is only applicable to students that are studying Taiji as a complete martial art. This may be incongruous with some people’s beliefs that Taiji is not only a martial art, but it is my belief and opinion that to study any aspect of this art requires that you must study all of its aspects. With all of that in mind the following system was developed, the basics of which have already been shared with current students. I wanted to post a more in-depth explanation of the system, its underlying philosophical derivation and its relation to internal martial arts.
First, I was totally at odds with myself over the need for a ranking structure for quite some time. Taoism and truly traditional Chinese martial arts as I understand it had no formal ranking or belt designations. You were either recognized as senior or junior and followed the Wude (Martial Etiuette of the School). For this reason, I had resisted a grading system for some time. I did however recognize the positive benefit a ranking system had when it came to student motivation (although this argument could also be undone by bringing up the issue of ego). Being associated with Musha Dojo however gave me a different view on the ranking and tests in general. Every time a student tests, he or she demonstrates competency in all the skills leading up to and comprising the rank that they are testing for. In other words, when testing for a blue belt, the student must demonstrate competency on the material needed for a yellow, orange and blue belt. In this way, it preserves the forms and skills of the student as they participate in the testing system.
Blinding flash of the obvious, if I had come up through such a system, I would not have lost the many forms that I had learned and then practiced enough. I would have tested on them periodically after learning them. Voila, that was just the thought that I needed to sway me. Now I needed to either adopt a system, create one from scratch, or modify one that existed to my needs.
I began looking at all of the grading/ranking/sashing systems that I could find for Kung Fu, Taijiquan and Chinese Martial Arts in general. I know that many of the early Chinese Systems that were taught in the US adopted the Japanese ranking system of yellow through brown and then black. I did not think that that was quite the way I wanted to go. The Magic Tortoise School in Chapel Hill has a ranking system based on the Five Element system, now that certainly rang as more Taoist and related to Chinese philosophy. The Yang Family Taijiquan has a ranking system of metal types(silver, gold, platinum) and animals (dragon, tiger, eagle). None of these seemed to fit my need.
With the highest respect to the Magic Tortoise School, Dr. Jay Dunbar, Almanzo “Lao Ma” Lamaroux and Kathleen Cusick, I decided that the 5 element system would be what I would use. With the emphasis on Martial Arts that I teach and hold, I did need to modify it. With no further ado, here it and its justification are:
After 6 months of training the student is eligible to test for their green sash. The green sash represents wood. This representation further shows the commitment to the art, the commitment to have taken the time to plant the seed, the commitment to nourish that seed through continued study, the commitment to grow in the art, as a seed grows into a tree. This commitment is measured through testing of some very basic knowledge and applications and knowing the choreography of the first section of the Yang style form.
1 year of continuous study after receiving the green sash, participants are eligible to test for the yellow sash. The yellow sash represents earth, and as such is all about learning the foundation of the art. Whereas the green sash acknowledges the planting of the seed, the yellow sash is about the cultivation of the foundation represented by knowledge and competency in stances, chansijing(silk reeling), the 8 gates or eight applications of Taiji, the 5 directions or steps, etc. It is this foundation that will allow the student to reach higher skill level in Taiji than practitioners that focus excessively on form or application.
1 year of continuous study after receiving the yellow sash, participants are eligible to test for the silver sash. The silver/grey sash represents the element metal; it is representative of intention and shown through application. Once the foundation is complete, elements from the earth are brought forth, applications of forms are integral to this stage. Practitioners will be tested on their first weapon, they will also show competency in one step sparring. This focus on application will ensure that practitioners move towards a level of knowledge that allows for martial self defense and effectiveness.
1 year of continuous study after receiving the silver sash, participants are eligible to test for the red sash. The red sash represents the element Fire. This stage indicates effectiveness. It is fire that forges the elements from the earth into weapons. At this level the practitioner will demonstrate two person form work, utilization of internal principles in a sparring environment, and two person live weapon play(in the form of the san cai jian). If it isn’t obvious, this is the stage that martial development comes together. Fire’s representation of effectiveness translates in the practitioner’s ability to utilize Taijiquan in self defense, combat and competition. The Red Sash should indicate the transition from the Hand Stage of learning and performing Taijiquan to the Whole Body stage. Red Sash holders will be eligible to be assistant instructors for any Rou Long Ma program. Those interested in teaching will participate in additional teaching curriculum.
1 year of continuous study after receiving the red sash, participants are eligible to test for the purple sash. The purple sash represents water. This stage is all about flowing and non-resistance. Participants are tested on more weapons forms, and are expected to show self-defense against multiple attackers. Participants should embody the master key to taiji, shou e bagua, jiao ta wuxing. This will be demonstrated through the Bagua eight direction application drill. Water’s representation of flow is exhibited in the soft overcoming the hard; this sash is awarded when the practitioner’s movements flow like water. Purple sash holders that are involved in the teaching curriculum will be eligible/able to act as instructors for classes.
1 year of continuous study after receiving the purple sash, participants are eligible to test for the black sash. The black sash is representative of the return to wuji(balance, nothingness, void). At this stage the practitioner will be tested through additional weapons forms, will embody nothingness with efficacy in two person work (San Shou, Tui Shou, Sparring), will be tested in multiple opponent sparring and the dantien penny toss. Two person work with black sash participants should be like fighting air. This stage represents the transition to the mind stage of Taijiquan learning. Participants holding the black sash that have completed the teaching curriculum will be considered Shifu and will be eligible/able to open their own school to train others. Promotion and testing to the rank of purple and black sashes will be overseen by the head of the school system. Black Sash holders with permission from the head of the school system will be able to confer sashes below those ranks to students.
Junior age students will focus on the Tang Quan system and will have a different sash system.
Those that have digested this system to this point should be notified that this represents my musings on this program to date. It seems that revisions to date have been almost continuous, but since the implementation of the program have been minor. What I have tried to focus on in this discourse are the framework and intent of the program.
I do not anticipate graded levels above the black sash, it is my current opinion that participants that reach the level of black sash will have risen above the need for arbitrary ranking. Certainly any input to any of my thoughts in this discourse is welcome.