The use of a colored belt to signify a level of rank and accomplishment in the martial arts can be traced back to the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano. He developed a system of rank based on the concept of light to dark, and beginner to more advanced. A common progression of light to dark is: white, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and black. Variations are used throughout the martial arts.
This concept used by Kano grew out of the original Chinese wrestling (Shuai Jiao) where a light-colored belt was worn to hold their jacket closed. The jacket and the belt was usually made of either hemp or camel hair and was a light brown or white color.
Shuai Jiao matches were usually held in a sand pit, where sweat and dirt mixed to soil the material. The jacket was washed but the belt was not and, therefore, one’s years of experience showed by how dark their belt was.
So that explains the origination of the ranking system. But why do Chinese martial arts tend to use a “sash” instead of a belt (if they use either)?
Traditionally, in Chinese martial arts, there was no belt to denote rank, but in some schools a 6 inches wide and about 10 feet long “sash” was used to protect the practitioner’s organs from the rigors of intense training. This sash was wrapped firmly (but not tight) around the practitioner’s midsection so that it ends up about 8 inches wide with the naval at the center. It was then tied at the side.
Most schools of Chinese martial arts generate power from their waist. In the early stages of training it was possible to injure the intestines, other organs, or even the spine from the vigorous and repetitive jerking of the waist. As the student develops, however, this protective measure is generally no longer needed as the practitioner becomes stronger and more relaxed.
So there you have it-the history of the ranking system and the use of a sash as opposed to a belt.
Originally Published October, 2003