Belts and Sashes: Incidents and Legends


The black belt has been devalued. It was bound to happen in a land, time and culture so completely divorced from its place of origin. Now we hear things like, “That black belt isn’t worth anything, except maybe to hold up your pants.” I won’t argue about this except to say a diploma, also, has no intrinsic value. A diploma from which college, a black belt from which instructor? In colleges, the difference is supposed to be apparent in the rate of tuition. In martial arts, it is work and experience and understanding. Let’s face it, when they started awarding belts to ten-year-olds the idea of standards was pretty much exploded. And, as in the recent economic catastrophes, people who worked hard and expected consistent rules were left holding paper in their hands which had been reduced to just that: paper.

In this world, sashes and belts are all the same. It’s like practicing with or without shoes: both ways have advantages and attributes. The most basic way to understand the belt is that it unifies. It ties you to your teachers and to your students.

belt4The sash wraps about the waist in such a way as to tie the front of your body to the back, to complete the engagement of the back with the Dan Tian and the stomach muscles. At first, when students can barely sit in the horse and because of this have very little lower back engagement, the sash can point the way. It’s true that the Chinese style sash has only recently begun to designate rank, in open imitation of the Japanese and Okinawan approaches. But, this aside, the reality of all belts is that they pull things together and thereby signify any of a number of ideas.

For instance, the proper length belt wraps around the body twice. And when you tie that, you take one loose end and insert it, making sure to catch both body loops. It is said that this assures they encompass both yin and yang. Judo people were particularly insistent, and would make their point—should you forget—by grabbing the outer ring and pulling it so hard that the unattached inner ring tightened around your waist with lung-exploding contraction, a pretty uncomfortable experience. Thus philosophy becomes pragmatic.

The placement of the knot also has a story. Some teachers say that the knot goes on the right if you are a farmer, on the left if you are a scholar or a woman, and behind the back if you are fisherman. The front, until recently, was reserved for the teacher. It is said that he was the one who had successfully unified his right and left, yin and yang attributes and thereby could wear the belt in the middle. Most people don’t know it but, even in America, it was common, until fairly recently, to see lower belts worn by the men on the right side and the women on the left side.

belt3Even simple symbolism brings out funny things in people, some of which no doubt are the origin of the black belt’s general devaluation. For instance, I knew someone who completed his brown belt test and was told, as is the ceremony, to sit it in the proper kneeling position while his instructors conferred in the office. After making sure they were all in agreement, one of them took a brown belt, walked back into the Dojo, looped it over his head and choked him out. When he woke up the belt was around his middle and this test was over.

When I worked with Joe Lewis he used the belt like a tool. We would take a third belt and tie it between two partners. The advancing player had to move fast enough that the otherwise taut cloth between the partners wouldn’t belly and touch the floor. The job of the “runner” was to keep that belt taut and parallel to the mat. I never saw anyone Lewis could not blitz so fast that the belt made that dreaded swishing sound being dragged across the floor.

belt1One last comment. It’s just been a few weeks since I was asked by a colleague to attend a rare black belt ceremony for a student that we both instruct. While the student was working out, some of his family entered the studio. It was about that time that he started to suspect something. Anyway, the announcement of his rank was pleasant but, just before awarding the belt, his instructor turned me and said, “you have to touch it too.” I understood immediately, and as I shook his hand I made sure I made contact with his belt. Little things survive.

Even given this I have to admit that when I think of the black belt I don’t worry if it magically attests to my killing abilities. But sewn into that over-stitched piece of cloth I do find myself recalling stories and anecdotes about what a piece of cloth; whether arm band, flag or belt can and should signal.


4 Responses to “Belts and Sashes: Incidents and Legends”

  1. Jeff says:

    I agree with this for the most part, but there are exceptions. A young man, who was one of my instructors, had his third degree by the age of seventeen, and he was one of the best instructors I have ever trained under as well as one of the most talented martial artists I’ve ever met. He was like Billy Jack – he could put his left foot against the right side of your head and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it. He was born with a natural charisma and personal drive to achieve, but I really believe it was his martial arts training, and the accomplishment of obtaining his black belt, that gave his energy the focus it needed. When he left to go to college, I told him I expected to vote for him for president one day.

    Sure, there are plenty of black belt mills out there degrading the value and meaning of the black belt. But if that young man hadn’t gotten his first degree at eleven or twelve years of age, I wonder if he would have become the man than he did.

  2. Charles Thompson Jr. says:

    Hi, thanks for the article,I’ve been curious about the sash colors in Wushu for such a long time. My Shifu does not hand out color sashes or awards, which brings me to believe that although the Japanese Martial arts do employ Belt Ranking, Chinese Martial Arts rarely do,Quite the conundrum. Thanks for clearing the air a bit for me. I’m beginning to understand. Thanks,


  3. Paul says:

    So far the kung fu schools I’ve learned at didn’t use belts, which I like because it’s about how much you know not what belt you are.

  4. Hal Asbury says:

    To Jeff: thanks for sharing your experience. What you report is encouraging, as it has been my observation that many young people with good skills fail to make the transition through puberty and end up a great martial artist who can also teach well as an adult. I’ve seen a few, but they are not in the majority where I come from. Martial art teachers need a bit of wisdom to go with their technique, and making instructor grades as minors often results in instructors that need quite a bit of polishing to become as good a teacher as they are a performer. Also, I am in agreement that the martial arts can help a person perfect aspects of their character, if that aim is present in the mind of both their teachers and themselves.

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