There is no central organization or federation controlling the study of tai chi chuan (taijiquan), and as such, there is no standard belt-ranking system. While for whatever reasons this unsettles some people, it is actually quite liberating, allowing a high degree of flexibility and expression – as any art should. And yes, tai chi is an art. Some place it in the realm of martial arts, some in the realm of healing arts, some say it is an art of self-development, while others maintain that it is some combination of these.
Tai chi grew out of Taoist philosophy in China. Taoism is the oldest philosophy of China and formed the earliest foundations of its culture, folk religions, food, art and sciences. Taoism seeks to understand and work with the patterns of nature. And like nature, Taoism doesn’t “see itself” needing any manmade federation or group standardizing any of its millennia-old beliefs or practices. While some standardization has occurred recently in China, especially in the tournament practice of tai chi or the teaching of qigong, this is a modern endeavor, only observed under the current communist regime.
As the old joke goes amongst traditional kung fu and tai chi masters: “Main purpose of belt is to hold up pants!”
However, some schools have adapted their own version of a belt ranking system to help their students celebrate their progress and accomplishments. The traditional style Chinese uniform does not use a belt like the Korean and Japanese martial arts. Instead, we use a satin sash. It is wider, longer, lighter and more flexible. In Chinese it’s called a “yao dai.” Some kung fu schools have a sash system standardized within their particular style or family lineage of kung fu. The same can be said of tai chi.
While I cannot speak for what other schools do, I can tell you that they are all different. As an example, in my school, I believe in basing a sash system in something that follows patterns seen in nature instead of man-made sash rankings. This is because tai chi is rooted in the philosophy of Taoism. Taoism recognizes man as being a small part of nature instead of being someone whose job it is to conquer nature. If you look at nature, you can see a progressive organization of colors by way of the rainbow. It is the “perfect” occurrence of yin and yang – the yin of the rain and the yang of the sun – that allows us to observe the varying wavelengths of light. As such, I recommend this as a nice tai chi school alternative for a belt-ranking system.
A good sash ranking system allows the students to more clearly see that they are making progress and it allows the teacher to immediately understand what concepts and at which levels to properly teach large groups of students. It also allows the students to feel like they are relating more closely to nature instead of a formal organization. In addition to the sash being a ranking tool, a good traditional tai chi teacher can also share knowledge of how the sash can be used as a tool for special exercises and martial arts purposes.
As tai chi enthusiasts, we should continue to embrace the freedom that its philosophy grants us instead of arguing and fussing over how to standardize a belt-ranking system that is then foisted upon everyone else.
After all, let’s not get too attached to an object whose major purpose is to just hold up our pants!