A Taekwondo student looks forward to nothing more than the next belt rank. It starts once you have your white belt. I can remember thinking, “If I can just get a little more experience, just one more class, I can get ready for the next testing and get my next belt!”
There is a saying:
“A beginning student will block an attack;an advanced student will counterattack after blocking;a black belt does not need to block.”
This illustrates how Taekwondo develops a person’s abilities and confidence.
History of the belt system:
Legend has it that there were no colored belts in the first 2,000 years of Taekwondo (check out the history of Taekwondo); the sash or belt that the Hwa rang do and other practitioners of Taekwondo wore just became darker and darker, until the white belt was black from stain and dirt. This is legend, not fact.
Actually, the system of colored belts was adopted in the twentieth century by several martial art systems. It was a practical way for instructors to see each student’s level and determine who should participate in certain classes.
Your belt system may not be exactly what is described here, but it will be along the same lines.
The World Taekwondo Federation has the following belt descriptions:
White Belt (beginners): symbolizing purity, innocence, a blank canvas for the Taekwondo Master to fill with knowledge and skill.
Yellow Belt: symbolizing the rising sun which brings life, the start of each day, and the beginning of the journey.
Green Belt: symbolizing growth, stretching out to the sky. It is at the green belt level that many master instructors believe the student should work hardest on fundamentals, setting the foundation for future development.
Blue Belt: symbolizing the sky, reaching toward the heavens but rooted to the ground. The blue belt student is focused on developing power and concentration.
Red Belt: symbolizing blood and fire, a warning to students that their skills, while improving, are still not honed, and therefore are dangerous to themselves and to others.
Black Belt: The combining of all the colors, the black belt symbolizes “rebirth” or “restart.” The black belt is not, as some believe, a pinnacle of achievement; it is a continuation of the journey, starting fresh at 1st degree.
Many WTF schools have half-steps involving stripes or colored tape on them, indicating a promotion half way to the next level. Thus, the color system from white to high red (black stripe) may have nine total belts.
Black belts also have nine ranks. A tenth degree black belt is only for very influential Taekwondo masters, and is usually a ceremonial belt only.
The WTF system has ten black belt levels (including the ceremonial number ten).
A person who holds a first through third degree black belt is considered to be a kyo sah nim (assistant instructor).
A person with a fourth through sixth degree black belt is considered to be a sah bum nim (instructor/master).
A person with a seventh through 10th degree black belt is considered a kwan jang nim (grand master).
The World Taekwondo Federation is directly involved in the testing of all master instructors.
In the International Taekwondo Federation, the black belt titles and responsibilities are somewhat different.
First through third degree black belt holders are considered national instructors.
Fourth through sixth degree black belt holders are considered international instructors.
Seventh to eighth degree black belt holders are considered master instructors (junior and senior, respectively).
Ninth degree black belt holders are considered grand masters.
In the ITF system, black belts who have attained the fourth degree and above can be recognized by black stripes along the arms and legs of the dobok.
Tenth Degree Black Belts:
In the WTF, only been a few tenth degree black belts have been bestowed by the Kukkiwon (World Taekwondo Headquarters). One was WTF founder Un Yong Kim. The others were bestowed posthumously upon masters Byeong Roh Lee for the foundation of Jido kwan; Chong Soo Hong for the foundation of Moo du kwan; Il Sup Chun from Jido kwan; and Nam Suk Lee from Chang moo kwan. These masters were instrumental in developing the systems of their particular kwans, which later joined together to become Taekwondo 1955.
The ITF only recognizes ninth degree black belts. There are no tenth degree black belts.
Some martial arts students (and instructors) focus too much on belts, even sacrificing or ignoring the development of skill and discipline to attain this level. Some students (and parents) want only want to see themselves (or their child) wearing a black belt... but that sort of belt comes with very poor knowledge and often fewer skills than even a green belt. This situation is true in every martial art. (If you want to know more about what I call “Black Belt Factories,” click here.)
Of course, a black belt is considered to be the coveted completion of a process of learning by most of the general public. Some people will even say, “I’m a black belt in (fill in the martial art),” to impress someone else or to boast about their skills.
One instructor said, “I wish I could create a magic belt that changes color throughout the class. All students would start out with a white belt. If they train hard and with good technique, the color would change on their belts. A student working very hard could have a blue or red belt by the end of class, even though he/she is technically a yellow or green belt. And those who are technically blue or red belts but who aren’t working hard could find themselves with a white or yellow belt at the end of the class.”
As your skills in Taekwondo develop, your changing belt color is the way to show you are improving. It’s a good motivation. However, go from belt to belt in a controlled, sensible manner, not attempting to advance without having the proper foundation. More about how you to know you are developing your Taekwondo skills, even if you aren't advancing in Taekwondo belts, here.
So what is a Black Belt?
When I was growing up, one of my master instructors told me, “You don’t earn a black belt – you become a black belt.”