The Origin of the Martial Arts Colored Belt System
The martial arts colored belt ranking system was originated by Dr. Jigoro Kano, who was Japanese and is known as the "Founder of Modern Judo" and first devised many of the concepts that are the foundation of Modern martial arts. Dr. Kano devised the colored belt system as a visible sign of a student’s progress, awarding the first “black belts” in the 1880's.
Gichin Funakoshi, who was Okinawan and the founder of Shotokan Karate and often referred to as the "Founder of Modern Karate" adopted the belt ranking system and other organizational and philosophical concepts from Dr. Kano, who was both his contemporary and friend.
Byung Jick Ro, who was Korean and the founder of Song Moo Kwan and known as "Founder of Modern Taekwondo" was a student of Gichin Funakoshi, receiving his black belt from him in 1939, and thus, the color belt ranking system has been part of Taekwondo since it was developed in the early 1940's.
Dispelling an Urban Legend
One common “legend” concerning the tradition of belts claims that early martial artists began their training with a white belt, which eventually became stained black from years of sweat, dirt, and blood. However, there is no real evidence for this story, so it should be relegated to the status of myth. In fact, given the standard of cleanliness common in the traditional Judo or Karate dojo, a student arriving with a bloodied or dirty uniform would probably not have been allowed to train. In some arts and schools there is the opinion that the belt should not be washed; by doing that one would "wash away the knowledge" or "wash one's ki away." This is all related to the “dirty belt” myth.
Levels of Advancement
Another common misbelief that needs to be clarified is the "black belt as master" stereotype,. In reality, a black belt indicates the wearer is competent in a style's basic technique. Since in Song Moo Kwan a black belt takes approximately 2 to 4 years of training to achieve, a good intuitive analogy would be a 1st Dan Black Belt is equivalent to a college Bachelor's degree. The 1st Dan black belt is thus seen not so much as an end, but rather as a beginning, a doorway to advanced learning. The 4th Dan is “Master” in Song Moo Kwan, and can be viewed similar to a college Master’s degree, and 8th degree black belt “Grandmaster” can be seen being equivalent to a university Doctoral degree.
Meaning of the Colors
Originally, the white belt was simply dyed to a new color. This repeated dying process dictated the type of belt color and the order of the colors. The standard belt color system is white, yellow, gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red and black. Due to the dying process, it was only practical to increasingly use darker colors. All of this came about shortly after the Second World War, when Korea and Japan were very poor countries. Dying the belts to a new color was a cheap way to have a visible, simple and effective ranking system.
White Belt: White signifies a birth, or beginning, of a seed. A white belt student is a beginner searching for knowledge of the Art. The white belt is the beginning of life's cycle, and represents the seed as it lies beneath the snow in the winter.
Yellow Belt or Sash: Yellow signifies the first beams of sunlight which shines upon the seed giving it new strength with the beginning of new life. A yellow belt student is given his first ray of knowledge, opening his mind, from his instructors.
Orange Belt or Sash: Orange represents the growing power of the sun as it warms the earth to prepare for new growth in the spring. The orange belt is starting to feel his body and mind open and develop.
Green Belt or Sash: Green signifies the growth of the seed as it sprouts from the earth reaching toward the sun and begins to grow into a plant. A green belt student learns to strengthen and refine his techniques.
Blue Belt or Sash: Blue signifies the blue sky as the plant continues to grow toward it. A blue belt student moves up higher in rank just as the plant grows taller. The light feeds the plant so it can continue to grow. The student is fed additional knowledge of the Art in order for his body and mind continue to grow and develop.
Purple Belt or Sash: Purple represents the changing sky of dawn, as once again the student undergoes a new change and prepares for the transition to advanced student. A purple belt begins to understand the meaning of the black belt.
Brown Belt or Sash: Brown represents the ripening of the seed, a maturing and harvesting process. A brown belt is an advanced student whose techniques are beginning to mature, and he is beginning to understand the fruits of his hard work as a beginner.
Red Belt or Sash: Red signifies the red-hot heat of the Sun as the plant continues growing toward it. As a red belt student acquires more detailed knowledge, just as the plant grows slowly toward the Sun, so the red belt student learns to be more cautious with his knowledge and physical abilities. Red is a sign of danger, and the red belt is beginning to become dangerous with their knowledge and abilities.
Black Belt or Sash: Black signifies the darkness beyond the Sun. A black belt seeks new, more profound knowledge of the Art. As he begins to teach others, he plants new seeds and helps them grow and mature. His students, many whom will form roots deep into the Art, blossom and grow through the ranks in a never-ending process of self-growth, knowledge, and enlightenment.