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Monday, May 31, 2010

Just Swimming in Utter, uh, Stuff

There are times when I open up the intertoobs and just cannot believe what I am seeing. And yes, sometimes it's trivial, as it was today when I saw someone I keep up with via Facebook spout the old story that the "black belt" has its origins in an old custom of giving a student a white belt, which got dirtier and darker over the years until it was finally black, or close to it.

What utter nonsense. What horse squeeze. Yes, I know it's a triviality, but dadgummit, the person propagating this myth is a senior-level black belt with a fair number of students. She ought to know better than to just repeat stuff that she was told years ago without taking the trouble to check it out. And it's easy to check out. All you have to do is google "origins of the black belt system" and you will come up with it. Some sites will be missing some of the details, some won't. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the belt ranking system had its origin in Jigoro Kano's judo, and the progression from white to black (with whatever colors in between, if any) had nothing to do with dirt. Some people think that he got the idea from Japanese swimming competitions, where apparently more advanced competitors were denoted with a black ribbon tied 'round their waists. I don't know about that. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not.

Why the heck would he come up with such a thing, anyway? You have to remember that a big part of Kano's judo process was standardization. He was trying to create something of a standard jujutsu that everyone could rally 'round. He needed order, he needed hierarchy, he needed a standard uniform--all of which he developed over the years. Personally, my thinking is that the belt was just the easiest visible object on the uniform to change as rank changed. I mean, what the heck else would you do? Change the whole uniform? Give 'em a badge (ouch!)?

But that "dirtier and dirtier white belt" stuff? That's horse hockey. It amazes me that people still tell that story.

1 comment:

  1. For whatever reason, some choose to continue with these myths. As far as I know, all systems that use a color belt system can trace the practice back to Judo, and you are quite right, they were and still are just a method of standardization of the system. However, the standardization does not transfer from one art to another or even one system to another. A red belt in TKD is equilivent to a brown belt in other systems. A black belt in one art may be considered a full instructor while others reserve that for 3rd degree. And to paraphrase your buddy I have no idea what a camouflage belt means.

    The color belt system is a fairly new portion of the Filipino Martial Arts, and any instructor worth their salt will tell you that we borrowed the system from the Japanese. In the old system you were a beginner (level 1), an intermediate (level 2), an advanced (level 3) or a teacher (Guro). Now our system has 10 levels to black belt, the curriculum has been standardized, and for the most part, a blue belt in one part of the country is comparable in “techniques known” to a blue belt in any other part of the country.

    Personally I still base the time for promotion on movement rather than techniques covered. Regardless of the drills or curriculum you can perform, if you don’t move like a brown belt, you won’t pass.

    The black belt origin stories are as varied as the argument of the use of the word “Kali” in FMA circles. Some will tell you that “Kali” is the mother art that evolved into the current systems. Some will tell you that “Kali” is an Americanized version of the word “Kalis” which is a type of sword in the Philippines. Regardless of the real truth (and with such a varied island nation we may never know) the term was almost never used until Dan Inosanto printed his first book in the 1980’s. Now the word is common place, and people repeat the story of the “mother art” without any knowledge of academia or history. I equate it to reading an article in Black Belt magazine, often unfact-checked, and unreferenced, to an article in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts with citations quotes and history all documented.

    As long as there is someone who will believe it unquestioned, the myths will remain.