The titles used in martial arts are well known even outside our subsection of society. Hollywood has taught everyone that high-ranking experts in a martial art are given the title ‘master’, and those at the very top are given the title ‘grandmaster’. So it is with martial arts, Jediism, and Chess. You don’t have to spend long in the world of Taekwondo, though, to encounter someone with an even more grandiose title. There are people who claim titles such as ‘first grandmaster’ and even ‘supreme grandmaster’ (you may even know who it is I’m thinking of).
I don’t know about you, but to me it all seems quite ridiculous. It’s the same problem as the ‘eleventh degree black belt’ problem – an issue so well-known it is brilliantly parodied by Master Ken on Enter The Dojo. Being just a master or even a grandmaster apparently isn’t satisfying enough for some people, so they give themselves an extra word – something to signify that they are the best, the first, the most awesome, compared to all the other plain old grandmasters. Where does this end? Will we one day read of someone who calls themselves ‘Most-Awesome Supreme First Infinite Best Grandmaster’?
It’s all a bit much. Personally I even wonder whether ‘grandmaster’ is a bit much – ‘master’ in itself seems like such a significant title, suggesting, as it does, complete mastery of the martial art – ultimate skill – does it really need the ‘grand’ prefix a few years later? Regardless of that, what can be done about this problem? The people who choose these titles are often the leaders of Taekwondo associations that have split off from the main blocs (the World Taekwondo Federation and the various International Taekwondo Federations). They are not constrained by the rules of a larger organisation or even the opinions of the people in wider Taekwondo – they are free to make their own version of the art, and indeed its titles.
One hopes, of course, that the people who perpetuate this one-upmanship realise the futility of it, and decide to drop the extra titles of their own volition. That’s the ideal-world scenario, so obviously that’s not going to happen. Another option, which can be taken by us lowly, untitled black belts, is simply to refuse to use these extra titles when referring to these people, and drag them back down to ‘master’ or ‘grandmaster’. That’s risky too – Taekwondo is very hierarchical. Such rebellion risks undermining that, and risks undermining a part of the Korean-based culture of Taekwondo.
Perhaps the best solution is simply propagating a culture of humility within Taekwondo. Black belts should know, anyway, that their degree doesn’t really matter. I’ve met second degree black belts who are ten times better than fifth degrees; first degrees who are better than second. By the time you get up into the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth degrees, it’s no longer about how good at sparring you are or how fit you are (most people at those degrees are ancient anyway), and it’s not about how grand your title is. It’s about all the things you actively do in Taekwondo. It’s about the organisation and the competitions you run. It’s about your contribution to Taekwondo. It’s about how you improve Taekwondo for those of lower degrees and grades.
If someone legitimately has the title ‘master’, then I am impressed. I’m not more impressed if they have the title ‘supreme grandmaster’ – if anything I’m less impressed because I see what they’re trying to do.