Does Tai Chi have belts or a belt classification system?

There is no central organization or federation that controls the study of tai chi chuan (taijiquan) and, as such, there is no standard belt classification system. While for whatever reasons this makes some people uneasy, it is actually quite liberating, allowing for a high degree of flexibility and expression, as any art should be. And yes, tai chi is an art. Some place it in the realm of martial arts, others in the realm of healing arts, some say it is an art of self-development, while others argue that it is a combination of these.

Tai chi grew out of Taoist philosophy in China. Taoism is China’s oldest philosophy and formed the first foundations of its culture, popular religions, food, art, and science. Taoism seeks to understand and work with the patterns of nature. And like nature, Taoism does not “see itself” as needing any federation or man-made group to standardize any of its ancient beliefs or practices. While there has been some standardization recently in China, especially in tai chi tournament practice or qigong teaching, this is a modern endeavor, only observed under the current communist regime.

As the old joke goes between traditional kung fu and tai chi masters: “The main purpose of the belt is to hold the pants down!”

However, some schools have adapted their own version of a belt classification system to help their students celebrate their progress and achievement. The traditional style Chinese uniform does not wear a belt like Korean and Japanese martial arts. Instead, we wear a satin sash. It is wider, longer, lighter and more flexible. In Chinese it is called “yao dai”. Some kung fu schools have a standardized band system within their particular style or family lineage of kung fu. The same can be said for tai chi.

While I cannot speak to what other schools do, I can tell you that they are all different. As an example, in my school, I believe in basing a band system on something that follows patterns seen in nature rather than man-made band classifications. This is because tai chi has its roots in the philosophy of Taoism. Taoism recognizes man as a small part of nature rather than someone whose job it is to conquer nature. If you look at nature, you can see a progressive organization of colors across the rainbow. It is the “perfect” occurrence of yin and yang, the yin of rain and yang of the sun, which allows us to observe the different wavelengths of light. As such, I recommend this as a good tai chi school alternative to a belt grading system.

A good guillotine grading system allows students to see more clearly that they are progressing and allows the teacher to immediately understand what concepts and at what levels to adequately teach large groups of students. It also allows students to feel that they relate more closely to nature rather than a formal organization. In addition to the band being a sorting tool, a good traditional tai chi teacher can also share knowledge about how the band can be used as a tool for special exercises and martial arts purposes.

As tai chi enthusiasts, we should continue to embrace the freedom its philosophy gives us rather than arguing and worrying about how to standardize one belt classification system that is then imposed on everyone else.

After all, let’s not get too attached to an object whose main purpose is simply to pull up our pants!

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