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Grades or belts?

Belts were invented by a Japanese Judo instructor teaching in France in the early 20th Century. They have no historical/traditional significance and were intended as a learning tool not a status symbol.

When you get a black belt ranking it doesn't mean you've gotten a foot in the door. It means you have learned how to find the doorknob.

(Dave Lowry)

Kung fu

Chinese martial arts sometime use belts, sometimes not. It depends on the individual system/style/school. If belts aid learning, then they are useful. If not, they are just fabric.


It is difficult to compare a tai chi syllabus to an external martial art because the material being explored is fundamentally different. How so?
In tai chi, the initial concern isn't combat. It is health, fitness, composure, concentration and the cultivation of whole-body movement. The latter in particular is unique to the internal martial arts.
Performing a technique/application/movement using aggression, muscular tension, force and isolated limb movement simply isn't the tai chi way.  


Our tai chi syllabus contains a lot more material than an 'external martial arts' belt does. Much of the training is not directly about combat.
Rather, it underpins the use of the body and this is then utilised when fighting.
An external martial artist might pass their yellow belt in just 3 months, whereas a tai chi student could take over 6 months to complete the introductory material at a basic level of competence.

Learning curve

Tai chi students learn how to move first, then fight later. This means that their learning curve is quite different to the external martial arts. Martially, students do very little fighting at first.
But this changes as they become more advanced - both the body use and combat concerns start to become increasingly sophisticated. Topics such as jing and neigong require an immense amount of study.

Tai chi is an art where all the principles of other martial arts have been turned upside down.
They practice fast, we practice slow.
They practice hard, we practice soft.

(Cheng Man Ching)


The external martial arts often plateau at a certain stage. A block is a block is a block. There are no new insights to explore. This is not a bad thing. Their chosen art is usually still very effective.
People may get better but there is often little to discover as the student attains the higher ranking belts.

Tai chi fighting method

There are no plateaus in tai chi. If a student fails to make continual on-going progress, then the fault lies either with their teacher's limitations or their own personal attitude/approach.
Tai chi was designed to be a journey without a destination. You just keep going. There is no conclusion. No end point. No certificate, trophy, reward or belt.

Consider judo belts...

A judo student attends lessons 2-3 times a week, passes a belt every 12 weeks and usually passes all of the coloured belts within a couple of years. This is standard practice in most martial arts.

External expectations

The typical martial arts expectation of passing a new belts every few months simply doesn't translate to tai chi. Usually the students are adults, whereas most external martial artists start out as youngsters. Tai chi adults won't usually attend 2-3 times a week, nor pass a belt every 3-6 months, nor reach black belt anytime soon.

Less commitment

In lieu of the mainstream martial arts level of commitment, students tend to do less and expect more. They make excuses: job, family, commitments, you name it...
And they still expect to move up a grade. When the higher rank is not forthcoming, students resent their teacher.

As you like it

Tai chi students who continue training long term tend to work at a pace that suits their own personality.
They may have lofty aspirations/ambitions, but these are tempered by the reality of who they are and how committed they are. This is quite a Taoist way of being

A sense of perspective?

There are 20 belts in the tai chi chuan syllabus:

  1. White 1

  2. White 2

  3. Yellow 1

  4. Yellow 2

  5. Orange

  6. Green

  7. Blue

  8. Purple

  9. Brown 1

  10. Brown 2

  11. Black (1st dan)

  12. Black (2nd dan)

  13. Black (3rd dan)

  14. Black (4th dan)

  15. Black (5th dan)

  16. Black (6th dan)

  17. Black (7th dan)

  18. Black (8th dan)

  19. Red 1/Black (9th dan)

  20. Red 2/Black (10th dan)

It might take a student years to get good at the art. Remember though: most martial artists retire at 40.
Tai chi chuan is a lifelong art, so it will take longer to gain martial aptitude but (providing you practice) the skills may last a lifetime.

Beginner's belts

(i) Pale belts

White, yellow, orange & green belts are all about improving fitness. A student is required to work at notably improving their stamina, flexibility, coordination, cardiovascular health and agility.

(ii) Darker belts

The blue, purple, brown 1 & brown 2 belts are more martial than the pale belts. Applications, martial sets and weapons work predominate.

Intermediate belts

The first 4 black belts are intermediate-level tai chi chuan.

Experienced belts

5th - 8th dan black belts are for more experienced tai chi chuan practice.

Advanced belts

The next 2 black belts are for advanced-level kung fu (Chinese boxing) and are only suitable for instructors.

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Page created 18 April 1994
Last updated 05 January 2024