The issue of ranking has and continues to be a one of great controversy and debate. Before I settle on a standard system of ranking and belt colors it may be helpful for me to briefly discuss its history.
The current system of ranking in Korean martial arts was adopted from what was developed by Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo and his school, the Kodokan circa 1882. The black belt was first used to designate technical and philosophical competency at the Kodokan a little more than one hundred years ago. Dr. Kano. Educator and sports enthusiast, was the first to use the use the black belt or sash as a symbol. Black belts are worn by practitioners were Shodan (Frist Step Black Belt) through Godan (Fifth Step Black Belt). A red and white and White belt is worn by ranks (Rukudan [Sixth Dan] through Hachidan [8th Dan]) given for service to Judo. Solid red belt were reserved for Kudan (9th Dan) and Judan (10th Dan). Dr. Kano adopted the concept Japanese high school sports (swimming) in which advanced swimmers were distinguished from beginners by a black ribbon worn around their waist. He ten steps (ten Kyu and 10 dan) sytem with relatively short time intervals in order to keep the judoka (practitioners) interested in progressing through various technical levels. This system provided a method of evaluating students at each technical level. Students wore a white belt through the ten kyu levels and then the black belt when attaining the first dan. The brown belt was sometimes used to signify the highest kyu level. Dr. Kano’s kyu and dan ranking system may have represented a radical departure from the accepted tradition of the Menkyo (licenses) system common in many Japanese Koryu (old martial ways). This system represented a deliberate way of distinguishing his new and improved system from traditional Ju Jutsu schools. Sadly, Dr. Kano did not leave behind a rationale for his belt color scheme. However, he did leave some clues. According to his philosophical doctrine, he thought that there is no limit to how much progress one can make in their training. Therefore he thought that if someone achieved a stage higher than tenth dan, “one transcends such things as colors.
Several martial art schools and their leaders adopted Dr. Kano’s system of ranking to include Gichin Funakoshi, Okinawa Te (Shotokan Karate), Kendo, Aikido, and other forms of traditional martial arts. The belt colors of yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple colored belts used by under black belt rank originated primarily in Europe and were then imported to the Korea and the United States in the late nineteen forties to early fifties.
The color scheme and gup system currently used by schools of Korean martial arts Taekwondo and Hapkido) are as follows:
Color Belt: Gup (Grade):
- White 10th & 9th Gup
- Yellow 8th & 7th Gup
- Green 6th & 5th Gup
- Blue 4th & 3rd Gup
- Red (Brown) 2nd & 1st Gup
Color Belt: Dan (Step):
- Black 1st thru 3rd Dan (Novice)
- 4th & 5th Dan (Instructor)
- 6th & 7th Dan (Master Instructor)
- 8th & 9th Dan (Grand Master)
* Tang Soo Do Mu Duk Kwan substitutes “midnight blue” instead of black on the basis that it represents death and finality whereas blue represents life and higher consciousness. Taek Kyun also uses the color blue to represent its dan ranks. Hakko Ryu (Eight Light School) Ju Jitsu uses the color purple to represent its higher dan ranks. Even the United States Marine Corp Martial Arts Program has its own ranking system and color scheme (tan, gray, green, brown, black). The color scheme and related rank structure is often very specific to that school.
The rationale and philosophy of the above mentioned ranking system is varied and not consistent.
It is clear that the arrangement and philosophy of the belt colors and its relationship to advancement has not been clearly studied and applied. Color plays an important role in our daily lives depending on social, cultural and philosophical context. Consider the way we respond to traffic signals. Red means stop. Yellow means to anticipate what is next to come. Green means go. Philosophically, red relates to our basic instincts of survival and deeply rooted in the physical. It represents our foundation. Yellow/orange appeals to sense of reasoning and intellectual processes. Green represents our intuition and our ability to see past the obvious. People who are involved in marketing and advertising, understands the role color play on our mental processes. Have you ever wondered why certain colors (Red, yellow, and orange) seem to prevalent in advertising? For example, the signage of fast food restaurants such as Burger King and McDonald’s.
In most cultures the colors of blue, purple (violet), and gold represents the colors of higher spiritual development. Chief among them is purple, the color of royalty. The Indian system of seven “Chakras (Wheels)” and color scheme and significance is related to spiritual, mental and physical evolution and dominance. This system seems more appropriate to adopt because it is a rationale system of evolution. The color scheme from lowest to highest follows:
- Purple (Violet)
- Gold (White)
A proposed arrangement with respect to Gup and dan ranking follows:
Belt Color: Gup (Grade):
- White 10th & 9th Gup
- Red 8thh & 7th Gup
- Orange 6th & 5th Gup
- Yellow 4th & 3rd Gup
- Green 2nd & 1st Gup
Belt Color: Dan (Step):
- Blue 1st thru 4th Dan
- Purple 5th thru 9th Dan
- White 10th Dan
The philosophy and significance of Belt colors presented here were adopted and adapted from the ancient East Indian system of Chakras (Wheels) which are centers of energy metabolism that reflects qualities such as colors, directionality, spiritual, emotional, mental and physical states and their evolution. They are as follows:
This color represents our will to live and survival instinct. It is linked to the adrenals, the Ming Men (Life Gate Fire) which represents birth maturation and death. It is our root (ground) through which we gain power, stability, and growth. It is our foundation and therefore related to our legs, waist and base of the spine. Red is associated with blood and the circulatory system. It is also associated with pain, swelling, inflammation and heat sensations. On a mental-emotional level red represents assertiveness, self-confidence, enthusiasm and drive.
This color is associated with the qualities of movement and the flow of energy. It is connected to touch and innocent desire for pleasure. This color is associated with the sacral, spleen, or lower abdominal chakra (Dan Jun); the point from which energy moves.
This color is associated with our motivation to bring about change. It deals with our use of energy and the ability to transform it from a raw state into usable forms. It is related to the “solar plexus” which creates change in ourselves and our environment. It is related to our intellectual capabilities and our ability to mold our lives in a more powerful and effective way. It is also related to optimism, flexibility, understanding, and a sense of humor (joy). Its negative emotion is anger.
This color is connected is related to the Heart (Center of the Chest). It is also the midway point between the three lower charkas and three chakras. Therefore, this color is related to balance and equilibrium, community, and love. It is concerned with our personal growth and the ability to discern and travel our own personal road. It gives structure to our existence and is related to routine and discipline.
This color is related to communication (outward expression), inner identity and intuition. It is also related to creativity and mastery of life’s circumstances.
This color is related to the understanding and analysis of reality with knowingness and wisdom. It is concerned with introspection and inward looking. It is related to memory and planning, leaving of the constraints of time and space because it gives us greater insight. It is related to the “Crown Chakra (All in One Center”). The total energy signature of each individual Chakra (color) is said to exist at this level. It is connected the whole of creation. As the base chakra (red) roots us firmly to the earth, the crown chakra (Purple/Violet) opens us up to universal energy.