Each system has a different approach to testing. I’m not suggesting that one method is better or more valid than another but, it does demonstrate different mindsets. This is another reason why all Black Belts will never be equal.
My first Black Belt test was for Kodokan Judo, in Japan March 1979. Judo is the first system to use the belt system. Judo was taught in the public school system. In Japan at the time most practitioners attained shodan (1st degree Black Belt) somewhere during High School (if they ever got that far). Kendo, and Karate were also taught in the school system there. My understanding is that students had to choose one of the three to learn. I’m not clear on if it was approached like gym class or being on the football team in school here. Many other students were U.S. military personal stationed there (I was one of those). For each rank from white belt up in Judo you had to learn the basic material and win a minimum of ten matches in official tournaments to be eligible to test for the next rank. Testing was done in large groups at a few authorized locations. Since it was in line with teaching/education they lined people up in groups and went through all the material for the rank. If someone didn’t do things perfectly the first time they were taught/corrected on the spot to get them through the test. It was always a positive experience. Shodan meant that you were now a practitioner of the system, not that you had mastered it.
Many if not the majority of systems taught in the U.S. for decades were brought back from the orient by GI’s that had trained in Japan, Korean, Taiwan, etc.. These being strong men with a military mindset, impacted how they trained and how they perceived and conducted Black Belt tests for their students. Hawaii was a melting pot with lots arts coming in from the orient. You had a large number of GI’s there as well as civilians that needed to be able to defend themselves from people that were not on their best behavior. These systems were tested constantly in the bars and streets, and had to work. This lead to some systems testing as a right of passage designed to take you to your limits physically and mentally. You either came out the other end of the test changed or you failed. You would experience things that reminded you of boot camp during the tests. I remember going home after one test and waiting for a heart attacker that never happened (thankfully). One man I trained with says his first test was that he was taken to a biker bar and had to go in the back room and fight a biker his teacher had set it up with. This was another common testing method in the day. He got his butt kicked the first time (failed the test) and had to go train another year to be brought back to the bar to fight the same guy again.
There are other systems that when your teacher decides you have earned it, he just comes up and presents it to you in class one day with no test.
Today many of the schools have open door tests where friends and family are invited, instead of closed door tests with no witnesses. They are used as marketing and sales events. You will see very well organized, structured events where everyone gets to come up in turn and demonstrate the required skills. There is lots of moral support, with many having lots of applause throughout. It allows the school and students to showcase what is being taught there. It is a great recruitment tool for some schools.
When considering joining a school you need to know what you are looking for, and what you want out of it. Understanding how they approach testing can give you many insights to help you pick the best school for you.
I was talking with an old student the other day and the topic of why black belts aren’t equal from one system to another. We also talked about if they should be and how would you accomplish that. Anyone that has been around knows that today anyone can hang a shingle and declare himself any rank/title he wants too. This is because you can no longer just go into a school and challenge them, where they would have to put up and win or close down. There are pros and cons to that approach but, I repeat you can’t do that anymore. After all we live in a modern society with laws today. For many running a school, or chain of schools is big business. Could you imagine the owner of the local MacDonald’s marching all his employees over to Burger King and challenging them to a fight where the loser had to close down and leave town? Today the way you close down a competitor and run them out of town is by out selling and out marketing them. Of course it helps if you have a superior product but, that isn’t necessary as long as you out sell them.
Some think that having government regulation will standardize the arts and eliminate frauds. I’m not a believer in that approach. After all when have you ever seen the quality and efficiency of anything go up once the government got involved? Not to mention there would be factions lobbying for control making sure they were calling the shots, making the most money and keeping anyone not in their “good ole boy” club out.
There are several governments in the far east that do have government sponsorship and regulation. This is because after the Meiji restoration in Japan Jigoro Kano created judo to preserve the martial arts and was able to get it taught in the public school system. He later helped Ginchin Funakoshi get Shotokan into the school system. An important note is that these systems were watered down from their true origins so they could be safely taught to children. In 1922 Funakoshi promoted the first Black Belts in Karate. At that time Funakoshi had no rank of any kind. It was 1938 before the Japanese government called for registration and official sanctioning of ranks. Since then there have been many organizations seeking to standardize and control ranking. The founder of Tai Kwon Do had learned karate in Japan while going to college there and bought the idea of belt ranks back to Korea. Today even some Chinese martial arts have adopted the belt system, though not many.
Now days you have different groups forming and awarding each other rank to help promote their business. After all if a prospective student doesn’t know anything about the martial arts and there are two schools to choice from. One instructor is a 1st degree black belt and the other is a 10th degree black belt, it goes without saying the ignorant perspective student will automatically go to the one with the higher rank which is back to marketing and sales.
So how is a student to choose? After all some schools don’t use rank at all. I suggest you need to go watch classes at several schools. Try a class at each school. Ask lots of questions. Do your research into the arts you are considering. Then select the teacher and art that you feel is the best fit for you. Don’t worry about fluff like belts. Belts were designed to help motive elementary students (though they are taken very seriously by some adults). They were also intended to insure that if they are competing in a sport with their peers they are evenly matched. To quote Bruce Lee, “Belts just hold up your Pants”.
While the merits of forms training are debated, the point of this post is to discuss methods of practicing forms, their purpose, what you can get out of them , and how.
Forms practice is one of many training tools. A tool is only of value if used correctly. If you are silly enough to think that after 20 years of practicing your forms alone you will magically be able to fight you are an idiot.
The only way to be good at fighting is to fight a lot. There are many drills (forms training is one of those) that can help you develop skills to work up to that eventuality, but again the only way to be good at fighting is to fight. Once you have some experience you can discover what skills you need to develop. However let’s talk about what you can gain by practicing forms.
In general in traditional arts forms consist of a catalog of techniques. Each system has a set of principles at it’s core. Practicing these forms with the correct instruction allows you to better understand and ingrain those principles and the fundamentals of the system. Many systems teach the forms with a basic footwork, then other footwork patterns to teach other principles and skills. Some systems have an out door version of the forms done on a line but an indoor student is taught that different techniques have unique footwork and positioning on the opponent that are needed for the technique to actually work. You will see people practice forms in different methods such as very slow and flowing and that same person do the same form Fast with explosive power. Both methods are used to develop different aspects of your art. This is a good training method as everything has Yin and Yang.
There can be a difference in the approach of external and internal practitioners. Some external stylist focus their training more on timing, distance, positioning, and their opponents structural alignments more than on their own internal structure. Internal stylists tend to focus more on their own structural alignments and movement. They tend to spend less time on positioning, distance, and timing. Both visualize imaginary opponents as they train the principles and concepts embedded in their techniques/forms.
I constantly hear external stylist explain how their training eventually becomes internal. In my opinion that isn’t exactly true. I had at one time believed it was when I was purely an external stylist. Martial arts is all about physics. While both methods of training can cultivate energy and health, I believe their are principles and skills in internal martial arts that have to be taught. Things like using reeling silk energy,the six harmonies, the thirteen postures.
Forms training should not be a choreographed dance or acrobatic routine. If you are training forms and that is where you are at with them I suggest you seek out a qualified instructor to help you get more value from your training. If forms training isn’t part of your routine perhaps you may want to consider adding some to enhance your training.
When I say ” All martial arts begin as mixed martial arts” I don’t mean that all martial arts begin as the modern sport of mixed martial arts. I mean that the current sport is a modern expression of an age old concept. As a general rule the founder of any system whether traditional or eclectic first mastered several martial arts. They then took what they felt to be useful from each and combined them into their new system.
In systems created before the 20th century when guns became prevalent it was common for empty hand systems to be derived and developed from weapons systems. Men fight with weapons, empty hand fighting is for when you have lost your weapon, you are in a place where weapons are not allowed, or when you are looking to subdue and capture an opponent. Examples of this would be Xingyi which is said to be developed from spear fighting, Jiu Kung which is developed from sword fighting, Escrima and Kali still teach weapons first and then show the empty hand method of applying the same techniques/concepts. I would also suggest that the equal push/pull action of the striking and retracting hands in Karate may have originated with handling a staff or spear.
Each system is derived from the systems the creator of the art knows. Each has a different breadth of arts and understanding. For example in Japan there were over 700 distinct styles of jujitsu. Jujitsu was developed by the samurai for use on the battle field if they lost their weapon, or had to capture someone. When the systems were created it would be assumed the student learned or was learning weapons. With that in mind the focus was on grappling, throwing, locking and striking the opponent. Ground techniques could be used when capturing an opponent, or to escape being captured if your opponent was trying to capture you. However going to the ground in combat with fighting all around you normally meant your death. The most popular martial sport today derived from jujitsu is Judo created by Jigoro Kano. Kano first trained in Tenjin Shin Yo Ryu which is derived from Yoshin Ryu and Shin no Shindo Ryu. He trained with many masters through his life time. He experimented with sumo techniques and even added the fireman’s carry from western wrestling to his art because it worked. Kano believed that to be truly superior you had to combine the best methods of several ryu (schools).
An approach many have taken was to get a black belt (or equivalent) in a grappling system, a striking system, and a weapons system to be well rounded. There are many arts to choose from to fit each category. I would recommend earning your black belt in one system before adding the next. It is the way my teachers told me to approach it.
Chen style is an example of an art that developed over centuries. Chen Bu is accredited with originating this art about 1374 AD. His descendant Chen Wangting (1580-1660) is credited with incorporating theories from 16 different martial arts systems described in the classic text Ji Xiao Xin Shu. Chen Wangting is also accredited with being the originator of internal martial arts.
More modern examples would include the arts such as Jeet kun Do created by Bruce Lee, or any of the Kempo systems in America. These systems certainly took and still take today things they like from any other system they discover, and discard things the don’t find useful.
The current sport of MMA is the most recent sport oriented expression of this mind set. Reality Based Martial Arts are the newest expression of this mind set for those focused on street self defense. Each system and approach to the arts has to be viewed and stands on it’s own merit.
There are two approaches to teaching martial arts systems. The “Closed Door” approach and the “Open Door” approach. “Open Door” meaning it is open to everyone to see. “Closed Door” meaning they are hiding something behind closed doors from everyone. Most systems through the centuries started out as “Closed Door” systems to some extent. This was for very practical reasons up until the spread of modern firearms. After all the defense of your life, family, and property realistically depended on your ability to defeat attackers in a life or death hand-to-hand situations. With that in mind, knowing how to fight, and your opponent having no idea what you knew or how you fought gave you a distinct advantage. These fighting methods could be kept closed to specific groups using various criteria such as family, village, or students accepted into a school with its own criteria.
The spread of modern weapons like the gun is a major reason for the disappearance of many great martial arts systems. There were great martial arts systems, and schools all over the globe at one time. European countries had many schools (fencing schools are an example)and methods of martial arts at one time, but are lost today. I believe this to be because guns became prevalent there first. Once firearms are available the practical need for hand-to-hand skills becomes greatly diminished. This eventually spread all over the globe. The orient was the last place that guns became widely available and used.
A major reason that most systems of what is commonly thought of as martial arts today come from the orient is that it was that last area of the globe where guns became prevalent. Another major reason is that some martial artists living during the transitional phase in their societies, from no firearms to widespread use of firearms sought to preserve their arts.
To preserve the martial arts “Open Door” systems spread. Some new systems were created at this time based on various martial arts to enable the concept of a martial way to develop. If you see a system that ends in “Do” or “Tao” it means “Way”. This implies that it isn’t a martial art, but is based on martial arts. The goals are more lofty then a martial art. They are trying to spread the virtues developed by serious training in the arts. Things like building character, improving health. These arts tend to focus on techniques and training methods where you can engage in sport without seriously maiming or killing each other.
Paul Brennan has another great translation that if you haven’t seen I want to bring to you attention. If you have ever wondered about how an internal stylist approaches things compared to an external stylist, this is a must read.