Fabric Traditions

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The progression of colored belts: symbolic or simply practical?

When it comes to the tradition of colored belts to indicate ranks in a martial art, I know of two different reasoning behind the color choices:

1. It shows the age of the fabric (yellowing), and the accumulated dirt and grime (and I suspect mold and fungi is where blue and green comes from) from years of training; thus darker colors indicate experience and proficiency (or that you're training in an non-air-conditioned dojo in South East Asia, where your whole keiko-gi can turn several shades darker as well as become incredibly sticky after a single training session.)

2. In pre-modern Japan, replacing a perfectly good belt after only several months of use is costly. So, martial artists would dye their belts when they go up a rank. Of course, dyeing a piece of fabric is easier if you go from a light to a darker color; thus the white to black progression.

So, which one is true? Or is it both (i.e., a commonsensical tradition given a deeper meaning)?

I see no reason it can't be both. However, I don't subscribe to either philosophy. It's plain that each school has it's own line of colors, if they use belts and colors at all. In my Aikido school, colored belts are used only for children; white/black are used only for adults. I haven't asked, but I'm guessing their reasoning would be the same as any other school: as a means of providing short-term (easily) achievable goals. It suppose the can also be revenue generators for schools, making it practical for the school.

I own my school, and I use colored belts. My reasons are to keep students interested, and to help me more quickly divide classes and group students. Since I don't charge students, the financial practicality doesn't apply to me. (in fact, it's more expensive for me, because each grading I must purchase them all.) Students ask me what the differences are; my answer is always the same: experience. They ask me what the colors mean; the answers are all the same: nothing at all. They are arbitrarily chosen by me.

As to the theorists who subscribe to the blood, sweat, dirt, and mold I simply ask, where in the world does one find yellow, orange, blue, green, red, or black blood, sweat, dirt, or mold? Why would gi (or dobok) be absolutely required to be clean and white, while the belts would be allowed to ferment? To do this would be contrary to culture - any culture. Even shoes - the very things that are expected to get dirty - are expected to be kept away from a training mat. Why would a belt be allowed to deteriorate where gi and dobok could not, and to go where shoes must not?

Perhaps by this odd logic, then, "brown" would be the ultimate. But I have yet to see anyone with so much blood on their belts as to have their belts classified as "brown". Or so much sweat as to classify it as "yellow". Or so much "mold" as to qualify it as "blue". Asian cuisine is generally devoid of cheese - and more so of blue cheese, so I suspect the "blue cheese" color applied to blue belts was observed by a westerner. Besides, active molds can be of any color; dead ones are generally brown.

No, I'm sure the original inventors, or copiers of the inventors, saw no connection to colors and blood, sweat, dirt, or mold. Light-to-dark as to more progression... I'll buy that. But to attribute a color to a source? Nonsense.

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