I overheard a woman at lunch enumerate all the belt colors of her martial arts class to her party. I wondered if she knew that the belt progression was a Western notion. In the Eastern tradition, the day that you became a student at the dojo, you were given a white belt, that you were not supposed to wash. The belt would change color to yellow, to brown, and eventually turn black.
People who wore black belts were, no doubt, very skillful martial artists. But, that isn’t to say that they represented the most skilled group of students in the dojo. The Eastern belt system doesn’t allow for gifted students rising above their social elders, which was one of its values in the East.
Western teaching of Eastern martial arts falls into the expectations of the Western audience. Ideas such as: there are specific skills to be mastered and status is based on proficiency in these skills. These are incredibly reductionist, as opposed to holistic. Consequently, Western taught martial arts embody notions that run counter to the Eastern tradition. It is much like the fortune cookie, something you’ll find at every Chinese restaurant in America, but would be hard pressed to find in a restaurant in China.
What this means is that the majority of martial arts schools in the United States are not pillars of unadulterated Eastern culture. But, rather products of our culture and thus subject to our cultural expectations. I’m not saying that this is a good or bad thing, since anything that fails to evolve is subject to extinction. But, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between these two, and that we don’t mistakenly project values that simply aren’t there.