Rank and Advancement

Americans think about advancement in martial arts in terms of military rank: rigidly stratified categories marked with visible badges — colored belts, stripes, patches, and the like. In the vast array of martial arts across the globe and over the centuries, that scheme is actually pretty rare. How we came to use it for nearly all martial arts in America is an interesting tale of multiple cultures intersecting, but for now, the point is that there’s nothing inevitable about lining up in rows and wearing colored belts.

In the village arts of Indonesia, advancement works very differently. For one thing, no one thinks of it as “advancement.” They think of it as “learning.” While village society is rigidly stratified, there’s little concern about badges of rank; everybody knows everybody. You are who you are, and whatever skills you have show on the practice floor for all to see. 

In the American iteration of these arts, insofar as we have rank at all, we have teachers, students, practitioners, and practice leaders. Teachers are people who are qualified to accept students. Students are what you think: people who are learning. Practitioners are finished students — the curriculum is finite — who aren’t necessarily teachers. It is both possible and common to learn the art for the purpose of using it yourself without having any aspiration to teach it. The practice leader is whoever is leading today’s practice. Might be a teacher, an upper-level student, or Cousin Eddie from the next village, who has this cool trick he’s willing to share with us.

Even in the same system, different teachers teach differently, and any given teacher will have particular emphases and specialties. The system remains more or less the same, albeit embodied in different people, but the particular curriculum varies widely depending on the situation and the students. Curricula in these systems are not infinite: there is such a thing as a “finished student.” In Four Creatures, it takes four to six years.

Regardless of the curriculum you might be using, the bottom line is that you learn how to learn, and then you learn how to embody the essential principles of the system for yourself. As a practitioner, you’re expected to adapt what you learn to suit your needs. The art contains an ‘old man’s style’ for less able bodies, a ‘women’s style’ for slighter frames, and so on. It must work for you, and only you can choose the styling that suits your situation.

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