Lessons on Terminology and History

with Dan Bernardo, Sabom

Cho (初) as in Chodan, the first degree of Black Belt.

I hear it all the time, I want to be a black belt. Schools all over the world claim to be "Black Belt" Schools. Offering programs designed to create "Black Belt" character, attitude, etc... But what actually is a "Black Belt"? Well... let's first look at the history of the word "Dan". The dan (段) ranking system used by many Martial Arts organizations to indicate the level of one's ability (expertise) was originally used during the Edo period for the game of Go. Where Kyu/Gup ranks are designated for students, and Dan ranks are designated for professional players. Kano Jigoro adopted this system into his belt ranking for Judo, which was then implemented by Funakoshi Gichin in Japanese Karate, and the rest is history.

So, with that said, let's look at the term "Chodan", and more specifically "Cho". Sure, it means first degree black belt. But let's look deeper at this Chinese character. It's made up of two symbols, "a Knife" (刀) and "Clothing" (衣). The idea behind this symbol is at the beginning of making a garment of clothing, you must first cut the fabric. Thinking of this, the Chodan rank of black belt is not mastery at all. It's the beginning of creating the martial artist.

You see, as colored belts, you are being taught the basics of the martial art. How to walk, how to breathe, how to move efficiently within the techniques of the art. As a First degree Black Belt, you should now be proficient enough with the basics that you can begin to explore the art more deeply, without the need to be instructed on how to perform basic stances, steps, blocks, strikes, kicks, etc... If told to perform a technique, there should be no thought, no question, just the correct demonstration of that technique.

This by no means is the end. It's only the beginning. So where did the idea of Black Belt meaning a master martial artist come from? Well, you see in the old days, the knowledge of the basics of the martial art really was required for Chodan. And so a black belt was quite formidable compared to someone with less experience. Nowadays.... not so much. This knowledge is replaced with expectations of effort, time, fitness level, etc... that the concept of "Little Jimmy's really putting in effort, he's earned it" has replaced the concept of "Little Jimmy demonstrates knowledge of all requirements, with no help from seniors or instructors".

So, you want to be a black belt? I want you to as well. But not the watered down facade of what a black belt is.

All Calligraphy done by Master Dan Bernardo

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