A Martial Artist is Not a Number

When you meet someone who does martial arts, it’s easy to ask what rank the person has. I won’t be so daring as to say the information is useless, but it certainly treats the issue in it’s broadest sense.

For the uninitiated, most martial arts rank their students by a two part system, most visibly represented by the belt a person wears. A ‘black belt’ is someone who has a good grasp of a system. Below black, there are a series of kyus or gups (they name varies by martial art) which are graded in the number of ranks until black belt. Often these are the ‘colored belts’. Our systems have ten ranks, where any beginner is 10th gup/kyu and his first test is to receive 9th. Our styles once again have ten ranks, or dans, of black belt. Ranks above black belt take linearly longer to achieve, and there might (might) be one 10th dan, the founder. (It doesn’t quite form a number line, since there is no ‘zero’.) Other systems have different numbers above and below. Don’t get me started on martial arts titles.

The assignment of rank varies by style and school. In other words, two people might look at the same student and label that skill level with two different ranks. And don’t even get me started on the colored belt system – our own school uses two different color systems and has changed one of them in my memory. I tend to try and refer to ranks by gups or kyus, because it at least transcends arts and color assignments. Assuming, of course arts that have the same number of grades, which I’m doubt all do. Beyond that, the assignment of a grade to a particular skill level is essentially arbitrary. I won’t even get into the rumors of people buying belts and certificates outright, with no skill basis.

Of course the real problem is the idea that you can quantify a person with a single number. At times I’ve toyed with a system of basing the single number on a series of subgrades – kicking, joint locking, teaching, spirit, and on and on. It was an attempt to come to grips with the fact that different people might have a particular rank for different reasons, and somehow rationalize using the same scale for both. Of course, it just postpones the problem to different level – you are still trying to squeeze a person into a limited set of limited-precision numbers.

“I’m not capable of imagining you in all your complexity and… perfection.” – Inception

Faced with a messy reality, we get the ranking system. Many martial arts derive from rigid oriental societies – people have to line up in a certain order. Teachers have to keep track of an ever changing body of students. Assigning a rank is ‘good enough’, a convenient kludge to contain the complexity of real people. There are nominal rules, but in reality they bend to try and bring the raking system in line with what we intuitively feel – one person has a high rank because he has an affinity for physical activity and executes technique well, while another is a loyal supporter and servant of the school that keep thing running smoothly. The cost is this: given only the rank, you can’t say if either of those (or both, or any other quality) applies.

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