Guest Column

by Sifu Sarah Gawley

A lot of the structure of our school is defined by what colour a student is wearing around their waist. It determines which classes you attend, where you stand and sometimes which activities you’re allowed to participate in (seminars, for example). What’s the true significance of a sash?

Truth be told, your sash is for the benefit of your instructors. When I’m organizing my school notes, I colour code my binders by subject. When we organize Kung Fu students, we colour code by requirements. The sash system itself is a Western invention, informing your instructors about their expectations of what you can accomplish—if a student I’d never seen before couldn’t do the Tiger form, for example, my reaction as an instructor is rank dependent. It’s unnecessary when the instructors know every student’s knowledge in detail—Sigung trained under Grand Master Pan for 15 years and never used any formal ranking system.

Ranks are not meant to limit you only to the minimum expectations for that rank, whether it’s in class or in a grading. So what if you’re a red sash? Try to punch like a black sash! If you’re not striving to be the best you can be, you’re missing the point of Kung Fu.

From a student perspective, owning a coloured piece of cloth should mean nothing. The pride and accomplishment comes from the abilities you have developed that you didn’t have before. Imagine if you could gather all versions of yourself in a room together—a red sash you, a yellow sash you, all the way up to yourself at black sash. You wouldn’t need to tell them apart by the colour around their waist, you’d be able to tell them apart by the level of technique they’re performing and their understanding of what Kung Fu is.

Kung Fu is a gradual journey that we break down into ranks because it helps us organize how we’re teaching it to you. Your growth as a martial artist will not happen in chunks just because that’s how we open new curriculum up to you. If you are new to your rank and feeling behind—that’s okay! The expectations jumped and you will rise to meet them. If you’re contemplating a grading (shout out to 2019 advanced potential graders), look at where you are on your journey. There’s no rush to get your next coloured piece of cloth – plenty of work can always be done at your current level. Don’t just ask yourself if you’ve ticked all the boxes on your requirement sheets, because that’s cheating yourself of the meaning of Kung Fu. Ask if you’re a better martial artist than you were before.

It’s true that many things are defined by the colour of your sash. But the most important things have nothing to do with rank. Your accomplishment in Kung Fu comes from the hard work you’ve put in to gain new skill, never how quickly you’ve met the minimum for an arbitrary colour coding system.