When you first walk into a dojang, you notice that the students are wearing white uniforms and belts of various colors. You may wonder what is the significance of the different color belts. The belt colors signify the approximate Taekwondo skill levels of the wearers.
The founder of one of the "realistic" martial arts says that "the claim that a belt is a certification of ability is the original sin of the martial arts community." In his opinion, if a karate belt was really a certification of ability, the holder would have to re-test at regular intervals. I guess this means your college degree is useless unless you re-test for it regularly. This founder, like other of his ilk, likes to quote Bruce Lee who said, "I don't hold a belt. A belt holds up my pants." Of the thousands of martial arts masters throughout the centuries who have left us innumerable words of wisdom, he quotes an entertainment celebrity who never competed where he had to prove his claims and who would probably have remained relatively unknown had it not been for the entertainment industry and other entertainers who were his students.
In the dojang, there is no age, gender, cultural, or racial barriers; all students begin their training at the lowest skill level, the white belt. Each student then trains and progresses at his or her own rate in accordance to his or her own desire and ability. During this training process, students develop proficiency at performing Taekwondo techniques, while also developing the physical characteristics of strength, stamina, quickness, flexibility, coordination, and balance. They develop the important mental characteristics of patience, humility, self-control, perseverance, concentration, and respect. They also gain knowledge about Taekwondo and its origin. As students develop these skills, physical and mental characteristics, and knowledge, they are awarded colored belts to signify their level of knowledge and proficiency.
A specific colored belt is awarded to a student based upon his or her meeting the minimum requirements for the belt and for his or her demonstration of skills during a test that are substantially improved from his or her last belt test. Belts are awarded to students based on improvement of their own personal skills. For this reason, belts give only a rough estimate of a student's actual Taekwondo skills. One red belt student may display extraordinary skills in comparison to another red belt student. It may appear that the lesser skilled red belt does not deserve the red belt, when in actuality, he or she trained an extraordinary number of hours and showed great progress to earn the belt in comparison to the more skilled red belt who was able to easily learn the skills in short time.
The final goal of Taekwondo is supposed to be the "perfection of human character." However, many times this goal is forgotten. If you listen to Taekwondo students talk to each other, you would think the goal to Taekwondo is to make everyone a superb sparring competitor. If a student goes to every tournament and loses every match, some feel the student do not deserve his or her present rank and should not be promoted. However, a student who persists and continues to improve his or her skills, is always congratulatory to the winners, and cheers for teammates, is more deserving of promotion than a superb fighter who is self-congratulatory and neglects others. Rank is determined by many factors, having a true "Taekwondo spirit" is foremost among them.
Anyone who is willing to make the commitment of time and effort may learn Taekwondo and advance through the belt system. For some, advancement may take longer than for others due time conflicts with other phases of life, money problems, physical differences, physical or mental disabilities, or injuries. However, since belt advancement is awarded on personal improvement, anyone who preservers may reach the black belt level. The secret to earning a Taekwondo black belt is simple—commitment and perseverance.
Colored belts signify the position/rank of each student in the dojang hierarchy. The higher the belt/rank, the higher the position, and the more respect deserved. After years of studying and training, a student may reach the top of the belt/rank hierarchy, the black belt level. Since rank is awarded based on tenure, performing certain minimum skills, and on making substantial personal improvement, it is a more a social and psychological status than it is an indicator of fighting ability. A higher rank many times indicates the person has higher tenure in the dojang/organization, not necessarily that the person has a higher skill level than persons of lower rank. Skill level does not always equate to rank. Just because a young red belt may be able to consistently beat an older 6th degree while sparring, it does not demean the 6th degree nor raise the red belt's esteem.
The practice of Taekwondo requires strict order and discipline, which comes from respect of the seniority of the belt system. The more respect a student has for the significance of the belt system, the more serious he or she may become in his or her Taekwondo training.
Purpose of Belts
In Korea, the ordinary belt is addressed as "horitti" or "yodae" (meaning waist belt). The belt used in Taekwondo is called "tti." In Taekwondo, the belt serves the utilitarian purpose of holding the uniform together, but its main purpose is to document a student’s progression through Taekwondo training. Just as the "The sapling is hidden amongst the taller oak trees and must fight its way upward," students must struggle to achieve Taekwondo proficiency. The belt system rewards them for their struggle and perseverance, and encourages them to develop their skills, discipline, and self-control so they may progress to even higher belt levels. Belt color denotes the proficiency level of the wearer and it is the outward expression of the wearer’s inner level of confidence and wisdom.
Belts also help an instructor properly manage a training class. From the front of a class, an instructor may quickly evaluate the training levels of the entire class by viewing the belts the students are wearing. An instructor may determine the following from the belts the students are wearing:
- Overall skill level of the class, using the number of yellow belts, green belts, blue belts, etc.
- Approximate skill level of each student.
- Approximate physical fitness level of each student.
- Approximate number of months/years each student has been training.
- Approximate level of commitment of each student.
- What patterns, step-sparring sequences, and techniques each student knows.
- What patterns, step-sparring sequences, and techniques each student needs to learn.
- Whether a student is allowed to free spar.
- Approximate sparring ability of each student.
An instructor may glean all this information from the belts students are wearing, whether it is in the instructor's own class or in a class with which the instructor is unfamiliar. Therefore, a visiting instructor knows how to manage a class of students he or she has never seen before.
Criticism of Belt System
Some criticize the belt rank system for a variety of reasons, most of which relate to the critic's lack of rank achievement or of any other status in society. Those who cannot reach the level others have reached by their own personal achievement tend to criticize and berate achievers in an effort to belittle their achievements in an effort to increase their own status. Rank is used and has been used for millenniums throughout all societies of the world. When you need law enforcement advice, you know that a police sergeant has more knowledge and experience than a police corporal. When a soldier enters a room, he or she may immediately know the status of others in the room by their rank. When you enter a large corporation, you know the ones with the highest rank are those in offices on the highest floors. High rank is difficult to achieve in any endeavor. It takes a lot of hard work, time, and perseverance. You may have to do things you do not like to do or want to do, and act as if you enjoy it. Some would like to have rank, but they do not have what it takes to achieve it, so they criticize the ones who do.
Endless Cycle of Learning
"If you seek the answers long enough, you will find that they were always present at the beginning." Such is the Taekwondo belt system. As students near the end of their journey to black belt, they find the answers they were seeking were always present at the white belt level, they just were not aware of the answers at that point.
Philosophy of Belts
In eastern philosophy, the concept of trinity (heaven, earth, and people) signifies the harmony of the universe. The parts of the Taekwondo uniform (jacket, pants, and belt) form a trinity. The jacket symbolizes heaven; the pants symbolize earth, and the belt symbolizes the "person" that ties it all together. As stated above, the colors of the Taekwondo belt also form a trinity. If you think of a human being as a trinity (consisting of a head, the body, and the extremities) then the body is at the center of a human being, and the waist is at the center of the body. Tying the Taekwondo belt around the waist signifies the desire to organize one's self and to unite the human trinity.
The belt helps students develop their ki/chi (inner energy) through the process of collecting and dispersing energy within their bodies. As the student puts on the belt, it encircles the waist two times and then the two ends meet at the center of the waist (tanjon) where they are tied in a triangular shaped (trinity) knot that denotes the oneness of a person. The tanjon, considered the source of ki/life force/vital energy, is a point about three inches below the navel and deep inside the body and is thought to be the center of the self. As a practical matter, it the approximate center of balance of the body. Part of the knot usually touches the body in front of the tanjon, reminding the wearer of his or her personal source of ki or power. Thus, while putting on the belt, the student encircles and collects all energy from without and within into the tanjon and locks it there with a knot so he or she may disperse the energy freely throughout the body to achieve power, harmony, order, and enlightenment while practicing Taekwondo.