A common belief amongst martial artists and laymen alike is that the black belt is thousands of years old, and while this
is inspiring to imagine, it belies the truth. Many would find it surprising to learn that the black belt is little over a hundred
years old, an idea that had its inception into the martial arts at the hand of founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano. He was the
first master to implement the black belt in his school, and if it was not for the widespread fame of his dojo, the Kodokan,
the black belt may never had spread throughout the martial arts as it did.
In the early days, members of the Kodokan wore only two belts. Either you were a new student, and you wore a white
belt, or you were considered an advanced student, and donned a black belt. When Mikonosuke Kawaishi brought judo
to Europe, he added to the system a series of color belts. This system, combined with Kano's, became a popular
ranking methodology in Japan and spread throughout the martial arts there, and abroad.
When karate adopted it under masters like Gichen Funakoshi, the belt system was rearranged, but, of course, still held
true to the black belt reigning supreme. The black belt became an icon of excellence. Karate further refined the
symbolism by adding an esoteric meaning behind the development of the black belt. They proliferated that there was
only a white belt and that over the course of time that white belt got so soiled by blood, sweat, and grime that it
eventually became a black belt. They arranged the color belts (yellow, green, and brown) to symbolize a slow
progression from innocence to mental hardness by the soiling. Yellow was meant to represent the initial salt stains.
Green was to capture the onset of mold, and brown was the product of years of hard training and the culmination of
Karate was one of the key disciplines integrated into taekwondo, so it is no surprise that at its conception taekwondo
adopted these same legacies of the belt; however, with as many inductions came new contributions, and what emerged
was a belt system with multiple depths. The taekwondo belt system skirts the story of saturation, but also provides a
fresher meaning behind the ranks, and that is that each color represent a new stage in the students development, a
chromatic symbology indicative of the metaphor of a young plant blossoming and rising towards the heavens.
The Yin and Yang of the Belt
The Soiling: Karate provides taekwondo with the idea of the Soiling, which finds relevance in the separation of one
color belt from the next, namely within the same rank. Not to be taken to the extreme, but a dirtier belt is seen as a
badge of pride and a measure of commitment amongst taekwondoeens (taekwondo practitioners). As the story goes
there was only a white belt and over the course of time it became a black belt from blood, sweat and grime. This
processes of outward soiling symbolizes an inner darkening of the mind, a warrior's heart is not the same as those
hearts that walk different paths. The warrior must take on a darkness to withstand the caustic environments he or she
The Fading: This is no way to live, so taekwondo also borrows the idea of the Fading, a process by which a black belt
weathers, slowly revealing the white-cotton interior. This unraveling of darkness to reveal the purity of heaven is meant
to encapsulate the notion that every blackbelt must temper his or her inner fire with gentleness and refinement of
character; to do otherwise will result in arrogance and violent behavior, neither of which are conducive to living a
The Symbolism behind the Colors
White: The white belt symbolizes heaven, not necessarily a spiritual heaven, but a time before the beginning. It is the
white of nothingness, the purity of an untainted spirit. Whitebelts must cast off any preconceptions of the martial arts;
whatever training they have received prior to entering the dojang should be put aside. In time, they may come to
incorporate this knowledge into what they've learned in taekwondo, but the initial step must always be an emptying of
the cup. Whitebelts strives to achieve a newborn state of mind. They are fascinated with everything and judgemental
Yellow: The yellow belt symbolizes the rising sun. The sun is the master, and his presence on the horizon signifies his
willingness to teach the student. The student had become a pupil. She has shown abidance to the virtues of
taekwondo and positive direction in her training.
Green: The green belt symbolizes the foliage of a healthy plant, a tree with settled roots and wayward spreading bows.
Greenbelts have proven their loyalty. They have an understanding of the foundations of taekwondo and are active
members of the dojang.
Blue: The blue belt symbolizes the sky towards which the plant grows. The tree has broken through the canopy and
now receives more direct sunlight, but she has also created a shadow, and in that shadow a new generation of young
plants climbs wayward. Bluebelts are considered upper ranks, and as such, they must take on the responsibilities of
mentoring up the next generation, just as their sunbaenim, now likely blackbelts, mentored them. Since they must be
an example to follow, bluebelts are held to a higher standard of skill and moral discipline.
Red: The red belt symbolizes the fading sun, the last rays of light before darkness descends. Red is the color of fire,
and all redbelts must harbor an inner strength. The difference between a redbelt and blackbelt is a subtle refinement
of character. A redbelt must know this, and work towards allaying her hot tempest with compassion and understanding.
Black: The black belt symbolizes night. The sun has reluctantly slipped behind the horizon to set on a new day. The
black belt is left to ponder the stars, finding that she is upon only one planet amongst the cosmos. The real journey of
the martial artist begins here, where, as the stars appear more clearly in the sky, she realizes that the heavens have
not grown brighter, but she has gone to the stars. And glowing aside her master, she looks down upon a world of her
own and, in its development, comprises an ever growing constellation.
The Separation of Rank
Geups: Taekwondo has ten color belts. The five colors (white, yellow, green, blue, and red) are separated into both a
beginning and advanced stage. The advanced stage is expressed with a black stripe through the belt and the title,
High. Each belt is ascribed a Geup rank, starting at ten and proceeding towards black belt in a descending numerical
order. For example, a new student would don a white belt, 10th Geup; after testing for his next rank, he would receive a
high white belt. The belt would be a white belt with a black stripe running through it, and he would be considered 9th
Dans: The journey is endless; it doesn't stop at black belt. Their are ten Dan ranks, each with a different connotation.
When student first receive their black belt, they are considered 1st Dan. After a number of years equal to their next
Dan, they may go up for promotion. For example a 1st Dan must wait a minimum of two years before testing for his 2nd
Dan, and an 8th Dan must wait 9 years before testing for his 9th Dan. This is cumulative, so that it can take decades to
go from a 1st degree black belt to a 6th or 7th degree black belt.
Each rank has a specific connotation. 1st to 3rd degree black belts (Dans) are considered student black belts. 1st
degree is a junior student black belt, 2nd degree is student black belt, and 3rd degree is a senior student black belt.
Student black belts cannot test students for rank or run dojangs, but they often serve as instructors under more senior
blackbelts. 4th to 5th degree blackbelts are considered Masters, and the same breakdown applies, with 4th Dans
considered junior masters and 6th Dans considered senior masters. 7th to 9th degree blackbelts are considered
Grand Masters; they have the same breakdown of rank and, at the winters of their carriers, serve more managerial
A 10th Dan does exist, but only six have ever been given out, all as postmortem awards for contributing significantly to