I’m spending the afternoon preparing for upcoming exams. You may say, well traditional Kung Fu doesn’t have tests and never had rank or belts or a ranking system and so on and so on. And I would say, you’re right. But traditionally speaking there was no need for testing. What people don’t seem to understand about today’s martial arts and the martial arts of ages gone by is that several hundred years ago, Kung Fu was their survival tool. It was the ways and means for an individual to protect themselves, their family, their village and so on. If you can imagine what a feudal society was like, there was no 911 coming, no cavalry over the hill, no one coming to save you. In fact, you were more than likely surrounded by marauding bandits who also had a great deal of experience with Kung Fu. These individuals were tested by their times and had no choice but to make it work. 

Today, many students don’t understand the process and reasoning behind the testing procedure and why it must be done. Testing is incredibly important for today’s society because it sets up goals and challenges that were not necessary for our forefathers in Kung Fu. They didn’t need external incentive to train hard; the incentive was to survive and make it work. For for those of us that descend from the southern Shaolin tradition, the goal was revolution and to overthrow the Ching empire. It was a very different mindset, and also at that time the physical livelihood of the individual was so much more strenuous than it is today. Today, if you want some water, you turn on the tap. If you want the house to be warm, you turn up the thermostat. In those days, you had to go and fetch a pail of water from the well or chop the wood to build the fire. Their existence was much more rigorous and austere. 

We in our more modern and technologically advanced society have many, many luxuries that they didn’t have in those days, and to some degree these luxuries have made us a little soft. Just entreat this idea for the moment. If you imagine a kid growing up in the street where it’s dog-eat-dog, that individual is going to grow up a certain way. Be they well-schooled in martial arts or not, they’re going to have to fight from day one because it’s their mode of survival. Fortunately for most of us, this is not our lot in life, and I know some of you have romantic ideas about it, but this is not a movie. Growing up and fighting in the streets is not fun, and any one of those kids would love to change places with you any time. But, I digress. 

Now maybe you understand the first thing I’m going to say why about we need to test. Testing puts us in a position to face ourselves, to more or less put ourselves on the firing line. It’s very easy to practice something and become comfortable with the way that you’re doing it but never have a catalyst introduced to rattle your cage and see what shakes out. Now, I’m not advocating that you go out to the street and pick a fight to see how good you are. This is not what I’m talking about. The test in this instance is the test of your mentality, your inability and/or ability to deal with the stress, the stress of the test. The stress is what we all feel and is what we all have to overcome. If you understand how to use and manage your stress appropriately (you can never totally get rid of it because life is stress) you will be able to take this seemingly negative energy and turn it into a positive. You have to find a way and a mechanism to train yourself to process stress and be able to turn it into a positive force that will propel you further. 

I know I’m using a lot of clichés, but everybody sounds good singing in the bathtub. No one’s watching you. When you do something alone in the privacy of your room, you may do it rather well, because you don’t have prying eyes. Knowing someone is watching you can affect your mentality and your ability to do your job. Many people struggle with that anxiety. If you approach the test as a learning tool, this allows the individual to be able to help themselves get over that anxiety. The only way that someone can get over something like that is if they actually face it, at least in my personal opinion. Trying to get “around” the subject in a passive manner is not going to alleviate the fact that it’s there. Just because you don’t see the moon when the sun is shining doesn’t mean that it’s not in the sky. So, testing on a regular basis allows the Kung Fu student to be able to build up their strength and tolerance to those peering and judgmental eyes. In life, you’re going to be judged severely and harshly by the world at large, so the sooner you learn to deal with something like that and develop a thicker skin so to speak, the better off you’re going to be.

Many times I say to my students, “Your test is my test.” As an instructor and a teacher, I teach on a daily basis, so my students’ test is also my test in the sense that I get to see pretty much what I already know, but can verify what they need and what I need to work on with each individual. Testing allows me to see the progress that the student has made, their shortcomings and their reactions to the pressure. The pressure and the stress of the test is actually one of the most important components in testing a student. You get to see character traits, psychological profile, their overall attitude and how they deal with problem solving and situations. This is a giant chunk of what’s going to make them as a martial art practitioner, because learning the movement techniques by themselves is not enough. The internal aspect of the individual also needs to be tested and this is why putting pressure on the individual during that testing time is important. This is just like when building material that engineers use to construct a bridge is put under certain stress tests to see if it will be able to sustain the weight and tension that is required. When this is done properly, you have a good outcome, and when it’s done improperly you have disaster. 

Every time the student gets an opportunity to be tested for rank, they’re not testing for the rank. This is what many students miss. You’re testing to be tested, to see where the cracks come, where you need to do the work. The test is not about anything other than learning more about where you lie within your range of skills that you are training. Therefor, if this is the case, the test is really about feedback. It’s physical, mental and, to some degree, also spiritual feedback, that comes back to the testee as well as the instructor. After you take the exam and you receive your new rank, a lot of people misconstrue that because you were given this belt/sash/ranking that you ARE that rank. You’re not. The belt that you hold is the rank that your instructor believes you can aspire to become, not necessarily what you’ve attained. So also in that sense, it’s a daily work. It’s a daily struggle. 

Because our lives are relatively easy compared to what was, the students of modern Kung Fu need more goals to aspire to, hence the idea of a ranking system or colored belts and sashes and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the understanding must be that eventually you will transcend all these things. If you hang around long enough, you’re going to get to a point where there are no more belts to test for, so when is the test? How do you test yourself if there’s no longer a test to take? This is another concept that I try to teach my students. The test is not only on that given day, but rather, we are being tested every moment of every day that we are alive. If you step back and reflect upon this, then you will start to understand that once you’ve gained the rank of black belt or black sash or you’ve gained your master degree in whatever art you’re studying, it is just another beginning to bring yourself to another level of learning and testing. We have to take the approach of looking at ourselves every day that we practice and teach and calculate our own grade. We have to grade ourselves on a daily basis and see, how well did you do? The students wait for every three to six months to be tested to receive their new stripe, their new belt, their new rank. And they’re so happy (the woohoo moment… but just for a moment… see last week’s blog) and that acts as an impetus to propel them forward, keep them going until they can get a footing on their new level and start working hard again. But as we said before, the true test is every day. Are you able to maintain the right mentality and frame of mind to get the job done the way it’s supposed to be done on a daily basis? 

So in conclusion, even though the traditional masters had no “test” and/or rank, and today many schools use ranking systems or colored belts to motivate and help their students set goals, the truth of the matter is, it boils down to you and what you put into it on a daily basis. The true test is every moment as the clock ticks off, and what you’re putting behind it. So, I hope you pass your test, but in the end it’s got nothing to do with that. Belt or no belt, rank or no rank, test or no test, you are who you are, and you have to own up to how well you’ve done the job. Let’s strive for all of us to make the grade every day. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅