Tai Chi Levels of Skill
One of my teachers and colleagues, Sam Masich, has the first of two articles on this subject at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5abf34fd372b96dd30538cc7/t/5af776112b6a287aca250ea6/1526167058304/*+taiji-skill-evaluation-1.pdf
The article has been through several iterations. I believe his approach is very sound. With due acknowledgements to Sam, I here offer my own adaptation which I feel is better suited to our experience at Cold Mountain Internal Arts.
My first exposure to combative training was from my father when I was quite young. What he taught me was a mix of old Irish pugilism, street Jujitsu (ca. 1900), and a smattering of Chinese Long Fist (probably Tongbeiquan). The idea of belt levels or gradation of skills had nothing to do with his approach. It was all about how to get along in a fight.
But learning in a club setting is based upon a totally different social dynamic. In addition, what the average student or practitioner is after is not so much fighting skill as "self improvement" or "self development". Usually this is conceived of as improved balance, strength, and flexibility, as well as better mental focus, and reduced stress and anxiety. It is not based upon an ability to regurgitate formal martial techniques or sequences of movements.
In Tai Chi the acquisition and mastery of the form is of central importance. The form is the foundation for skills development. It is therefore the base criterion for the following list of skills levels. Other aspects such as combative expertise, pushing hands, and academic advancement are also very important, but are not as transformative as the practice of the form.
1. Beginner: This is where everybody starts. The Beginner is learning from scratch. Motivations may differ. States of physical health may differ. Martial backgrounds may differ. But the Beginner in Tai Chi is usually confronted with the challenge of working his or her way through a sequence of movements and committing them to memory. This is a process of initiation.
The Beginner is completely dependent upon the teacher and the class, and follows along while trying to understand, absorb, and apply whatever lessons are taught.
2. Novice: The Novice is versed in the learning environment and process, and is therefore not a Beginner.
But the Novice is not yet prepared for independent practice and is still looking to the teacher and the group to get through the form. The Novice is better equipped to absorb lessons and to understand, but is still following along.
3. Enthusiast: The defining characteristic of this crucial level of skill is that the practitioner has 'taken ownership' of a Tai Chi sequence or form. The stage of initiation has been completed. He or she may be lacking in many skills, but has developed a home practice and has sufficient commitment to be working at Tai Chi regularly and hopefully daily. There should be a good relationship maintained with the teacher and the club, but the practitioner is now initiated into the form and the process of longer-term learning. An Enthusiast can be considered an 'Entered Apprentice', someone who has entered into the mysteries of the art. Ideally, he or she is the student of a Master and seeks to deepen that relationship and to progress in knowledge by benefiting from the Master's teachings.
In the old guild days a 'Journeyman Apprentice' would, with the approval of the master, seek out other teachers to learn from. Often this would involve introductions being provided to ensure acceptance. Sometimes it would include a combative pilgrimage (Jap. musa-shugyo) or martial arts quest to test the validity of what had been learned and the solidity of the student's expertise.
4. Expert: In the old days of the trade guilds a person who had command of the technical aspects of the craft or art would be called a 'Fellow' or 'Fellowcraft'. In Tai Chi the practitioner at this level has a grip on all the technical elements of the form. He or she may also be exploring some of the deeper waters, such as the Book of Changes and Five Elements. Often an Expert is developing a personal specialty or area of particular expertise such as internal alchemy, advanced combatives, knowledge of the classics, Tai Chi medicine, or qigong.
5: Master: In addition to having a deep and thorough understanding of the technical aspects of the art, the Master has sufficient expertise and confidence to work with it creatively. In the old days this might involve the creation of a 'master piece' which would be presented to his or her own master for approval.
Generally in Tai Chi one does not assume or claim a title such as 'Master'. It can mean a number of different things and is given by others of the community who themselves are considered to have achieved a level of comparative mastery. Usually someone who claims to be a master...isn't. Jou Tsung Hwa resisted his students' efforts to address him as 'Master'. Finally he gave in, saying that he had an M.Sc. so he supposed it was OK!
Cold Mountain Internal Arts is a club where the members often study in more than one Tai Chi tradition. Therefore a practitioner may well be an Expert in one tradition, an Enthusiast in another, and a Beginner in a third!
Another point is that these levels do not necessarily describe a process of advancement. It is indeed desirable that a practitioner become sufficiently invested in the art to attain the Enthusiast level. But not every Enthusiast wishes deeper expertise. The Enthusiast skill level is generally adequate to provide improved health, pleasure, and happiness. Similarly, an Expert may by satisfied by ever deepening technical skill and have no interest in exploring the realms of creativity implied by mastery.
Sometimes mastery is held to indicate a level of skill in all the elements of a tradition: the forms, qigongs, martial skills and all the various weapons. I think this is misleading as the goalposts of curricula are constantly shifting. It is more informative to think of these terms in the way suggested in the list above.
All the terms above are non-Chinese. There are aspects of Chinese culture which do not translate easily into western terms.
A senior student or disciple can be called a tudi. This may simply indicate a level of seniority among the Master's students or it can mean that the student has been through a formal ceremony indicating acceptance of certain undertakings, such as an obligation to exclusively support the Master's tradition and to advance it. In essence it indicates a quasi-familial relationship which may have implications of exclusivity and access to restricted teachings.
Master or sifu is sometimes thought by westerners to denote extraordinary skill. But it can also be considered equivalent to calling somebody a choir master, games mistress, etc. In certain traditions it is reserved for use within a school or lineage, and is not to be used casually by outsiders. In other words it is indicative of a pedigree or relationship. This can be contentious.
It is also often considered to be junior to laoshr, which means something like Venerable Teacher. This is an honorific, not a formal title. Sifu has an implication of craft or trade. A master automobile mechanic could be addressed as sifu. But laoshr is somewhat more academic and upper class in its connotations.
Another honorific is sigung which means Grandmaster. There are six of them sitting in the front row of the above photograph taken in Nanjing in the 1920's! It can be applied to the teacher of one's own teacher, or someone of comparable rank.
Pathetic though it may seem, there are those who for marketing purposes attempt to set themselves above their peers by proclaiming themselves 'Grandmaster'. This indicates a level of cultural ignorance and possible insecurity.
There is an initiative coming out of China at this time to award rankings based upon a process of examinations and gradings. I believe that this emanates from a desire for political control over the world of Tai Chi and also an imperative to impose a standard of stylistic conformity. This is just politics. It is natural to wonder where one is at in terms of traditional skill level. I hope this article helps.