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Pete Starr on The Blackbelt

March 10, 2008

This post was originally written for Martial Edge, and is being reposted here with permission from Martial Edge and Pete Starr.

Pete Starr Author PhotoInstructors and Teaching: The Blackbelt

I remember many moons ago when I asked my Father about the martial arts (which he knew nothing about but I figured he would because he was a career Army officer…) and the fabled “black belt.” He told me that in order for one to acquire the black belt one had to actually kill another man with one’s bare hands. He really believed this tale although I never learned where he’d originally heard it.

Years later I was told by a friend of mine who worked for the C.I.D. (criminal investigation department of the U.S. Army) that once someone achieved a black belt, he/she had to register his/her hands with the local police. I never figured that one out and it confused me. Did they, like, burn a serial number into your hand, or what?

In the West black is the color of mourning and death. So, people reasoned that a black belt clearly indicated that the wearer either had or could kill another person without resorting to using weapons. Judo was the best-known martial art of the day (heck, it was the only known martial art back then except for maybe jujitsu which, as everyone knew, was just another name for judo), so it was assumed that judoists who wore black belts were death on two feet.

Black BeltI learned the truth later on, but it seems that the old mystique of the legendary black belt lived on in the minds of the public and most martial arts practitioners, even to this very day. Once it was made clear that you didn’t really have to kill anyone to get a black belt it was understood that the wearer of a black belt was an “expert” in his chosen martial art. And America is famous as the land of the martial arts “experts.”But like Walt Whitman once said, “An expert is anyone who can spit over a boxcar.” The fact is that achieving the first grade of black belt simply means that you have thoroughly learned the basics and you are now ready to learn the real art.

It was Dr. Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern judo, who came up with a formalized ranking structure. At first his students wore a white belt until they became yudansha (black belt holder). Later, he added a brown belt after white. Still later, he added a green belt. So the grades under black belt; white, green, and brown, were called kyu which means roughly “step.” The grades of black belt were called dan which means roughly “grade.” Okinawan Karate (and hence, Japanese karate) liked this formalized ranking structure and adopted it.

Before long, a yellow belt was added as a rank just after white. It was said that the colors were derived thusly:

When one began training, one’s mind is not confused with thoughts of correct or incorrect movements. One has a “beginner’s mind” and responds naturally and freely. The teacher would end this blissful state of ignorance by teaching the student how he should and should not perform.

As the student sweat clear into his socks, his belt became stained and since belts were never washed (because it was thought that to do so would wash away one’s strength), it became a nice funky yellow. El grosso.

Since most training was conducted outdoors in Okinawa and students advanced to learn forms of takedowns and such, the grass-stains would eventually turn the belt green. For all I know, it was really mold. As training got tougher and the student suffered bloodied lips and nose, the belt became soaked with some blood, mud, and beer. It turned brown. It probably should have been washed and then burned. Ultimately, the poor thing turned black. The white belt I tied around my striking post as padding has had all of the white shorn off of it and guess what? The inside really IS black.

But I doubt the veracity of these stories although they’re certainly a lot of fun to talk about! With enough training and devotion, the student would achieve the level of shodan (first dan); the first black belt grade. As I said earlier, this means something entirely different in America than it does in Asia. I’ve had MANY students who, having achieved the first grade of black belt, dropped out of training because they thought they’d become “experts!”

They were wrong. Only 4 or 5 of every 100 students will make it to the first grade of black belt. Only 2 or 3 of every 10 first-grade black belts make it to the second black belt grade. For every 10 second-degree black belts, only about 2 will make it to 3rd, and so on. I guess you could say that the grades below black belt can be compared to the elementary and high-school grades. You get a first-degree black belt when you “graduate from high school” in the martial arts world. Higher black belt grades are like attending a university.

In the old days, the sempai (older brothers; seniors in a given class who acted like drill sergeants and inspired the lower-grade students) were often 2nd and 3rd grade black belts. When they saw younger (in terms of martial arts experience and grade) students begin to waiver they’d shout out and try to keep up everyone’s training spirit. They drove the younger students to push themselves beyond what they thought they could do. To open a school if one was ranked lower than 4th grade black belt was to invite trouble. Teachers usually didn’t allow students below this rank to teach without supervision. The 5th grade was actually the last grade for which one had to take a physical examination. All grades beyond that were based upon varying factors, depending upon the art and the head of the system. One might be ranked higher based upon what one had done to promote the art, one’s elevated understanding of the physical, mental, and/or spiritual aspects of the art, and so on.

The Chinese only recently developed a ranking system for Chinese martial arts—probably because the Olympics will be held there in 2008 and they intended to enter Wushu as a demonstration sport. Upper-level grades which would be called dan in Japanese and Okinawan arts are called duan in Chinese. However, this is far short of a formal, standardized ranking structure – particularly since it is based on performance of certain standardized wushu routines and most Chinese martial arts want nothing to do with it. Even so, many of the Chinese martial arts schools in the U.S. have adopted a ranking structure. Yilichuan was one of the first to do so back in the 60’s. Many current kung-fu leaders are calling for the development of a standardized ranking system in all of the Chinese martial arts but I doubt that I’ll see it happen in my lifetime.

So, how long does it take to acquire a black belt? I was asked that many times over the years and I always told students that for about $10, I could get them one in about a week or so. Acquiring the skill and knowledge that are associated with it…well, that’s another story. You get it when you’re ready. Period. But it takes years. Anyone who got one in six months got badly cheated and was likely also financially molested. All things being NORMAL (which is never the case); that is, if one possesses average intelligence, coordination, strength, and attends class an average of 3 times a week (at a minimum), the first grade of black belt requires about 3-4 years. If you mess with any of those factors, you foul up the whole equation.

A 4th grade black belt requires a minimum of 15-20 years… of training under a qualified teacher. Someone who claims to be an 8th or 9th grade black belt (Yili uses red in the levels above 5th) should have put in a minimum of 40 years of continuous training… so when you see a 30 year old fellow who claims to be an 8th dan, you can bet that his greatest skill lies in his ability to distribute bovine fecal matter.

There’s certainly nothing wrong in a student wanting to achieve the grade of black belt but it must be understood that the level of diduan (first grade) is only the beginning; not the end. It is at this level that you’re finally ready to learn the REAL thing. Everything up to this point has been physical, mental, and even spiritual preparation for learning the true art. In fact, until you reach the 5th grade, you are still learning physical routines and techniques – much of it has to do with weaponry but weaponry is used as a means of supremely polishing your bare-handed skills and anyone who thinks different is dead wrong.

So there it is – the meaning of the legendary “black belt.” Oddly, the more one trains as a black belt, the more frayed the belt becomes until it completes the circle and becomes (mostly) white again…back to the original “beginner’s mind.”

A martial arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, Pete Starr is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, trained in traditional shao-lin, xingyiquan, and baguazhang, and the author of The Making of a Butterfly. He lives and teaches in Omaha, NE. His upcoming book Martial Mechanics comes out on March 25th.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jetman4u permalink
    May 23, 2008 10:34 am

    i went to a martial arts school.. named “martial arts america” which taught a dicipline called “maududo” is there such a discipline or is it just made up?
    and the school was handing out blackbelts like they were candy…. say after about 6 months of training.. can you see something wrong with this picture? please let me know

  2. pstarr permalink
    May 24, 2008 3:57 pm

    I’m sorry to say that I’ve never heard of maududo. Do you know what it’s supposed to mean?

    In any case, whenever you see a school handing out black belts after six months of training it sends up a massive red flag. First-grade black belt usually requires 3-4 years of training.

  3. dathan12599 permalink
    June 26, 2008 1:17 am

    I am 41 years old and a member of Martila arts America and it take almost 2 years to get 1st degree black belt there and even though i argee that maybe to quick I can’t allow Bs to be spread around.

  4. November 6, 2008 10:35 pm

    This comment comes from our intern, Cassidy:

    Hi all,

    I think Chris Thompson makes a good point in his book Black Belt Karate when he states, “Children may have physical prowess, but if they burst into tears
    when intimidated, how can they justify calling themselves a black belt in
    karate?” (29). While Thompson doesn’t specify an age requirement, comments
    like this one reinforce his belief that a black belt is the mark of both
    physical and mental competence. In addition to being capable of defending
    him/herself without the use of weapons and to having a full understanding of
    technique, a black belt must demonstrate correct demeanor and character.
    For adults and children alike, building strength of body and mind takes
    time. How much, of course, is subjective. But, can one really be considered
    wise after six months of training?

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