I can recall when I first started kung fu training, forty five years ago, my Wing Chun teacher only gave out one sash, instructor level. After many years in, usually about ten years, you were awarded an instructor sash. Sifu Chen, my longfist teacher, didn't have sashes at all regardless of level. He was taught through his family so there were no sash ranks. Those few allowed to stay and train under him were responsible to train hard and study the system of Huaquan (Glorious Boxing) to the point where you can become responsible to teach others, a responsibility I keep to this day. It wasn't until I met Master Yamamoto and he started teaching me the Northern Dragon system, a style derived from Northern Shaolin Five Animals, that I was finally introduced to sash ranking.
Before Master Yamamoto, I didn't really know about a sash ranking system in kung fu or tai chi. Master Yamamoto explained to me the importance of sash ranking and how even the Shaolin Temple had a ranking system in place where they used different color clothing to signify different levels. I didn't really understand what difference a sash system would make until I received my first sash. I couldn't believe how great I felt when he handed me the sash! There was an extreme rush of pride. I knew it was just a white sash but for some reason it affected me mentally and emotionally. I felt as if Master Yamamoto was telling me “good job, you are on the right path.” The sash, this simple piece of fabric you tie around your waist, somehow motivated and inspired me to excel. This made me train harder to represent the sash I was wearing and to keep training hard towards earning my next sash. When I look back I remember the drive I felt from receiving sashes and how amazing it felt. Once I started teaching I implemented sash ranking so that my students can experience this excitement and drive.
Sashes are an acknowledgment of your hard work and time in. They make the student feel good about themselves and what they are doing. It gives the student a great sense of accomplishment. Many may say that they are not interested in sash ranking but that does not negate the fact that receiving sashes creates a sense of pride and progress for what you are working so hard in. Throughout my career, I have encouraged other teachers and schools across the country to implement a sash ranking system into their schools, because I have first hand experienced the difference it makes. Over the years I have also witnessed the difference it makes in the students that are training, keeping them focused and driven to succeed in their practice.
Many believe that sash ranking is a reflection of skill, but this is not entirely true. Although some skill will be attached to certain sash levels it is primarily a reflection of your time in, how long you have been training consistently. This is important to know. Most students will be awarded their sash for their hard consistent practice. Sometimes their skill level may not be as high as another student of the same or lower sash, but that is okay because kung fu/tai chi, is measured on an individual basis. All students are different. Sometimes talented students with great skill levels slowly move through their sash ranks because they can not be consistent in their training, even though their skill level may be high. Remember, sash ranking is about consistent time in, not just time in. If you missed a lot of classes over the past year you will most likely not be at the same level as someone who trained consistently and did not miss classes, even though you both have been training for a year. - Consistency is Key.
As a student it is most important to train consistently as you grow through the practice mentally and physically. What you learn and the sashes you earn are a reflection of your personal hard work and consistent practice that you put into your own kung fu/tai chi journey.