The idea of belt colors is relatively new, only created around the 20th century. The founder of judo, Jigorō Kanō, introduced belt colors.
He was inspired by the ranking system in the Japanese board game ‘Go’, which is similar to chess.
Other martial arts were soon to follow as the idea of belt colors were a great way to judge a person’s skill level and knowledge at a quick glance.
Unlike other martial arts, taekwondo doesn’t have a standard belt ranking. The colors of the belt, and sometimes even the ordering, can vary across organizations.
They do however all share the idea of having colored belts for the ‘juniors’ and different degrees (or dans) of black belts for ‘seniors’.
For the colored belts white is always the first color. This is standard across all institutions. There are typically around 8 to 12 different colors before black belt with red or brown being the final color.
There are usually 9 dans in black, these can be shown as gold stripes added onto the belt. There is a 10th dan but it is reserved for those who have given a lifetime to taekwondo.
There is a minimum age to require your first dan and that is 15 or 16 depending on the institution.
This doesn’t stop you from doing the test however as you can get a ‘junior black belt’ which is usually represented by a black stripe on the last colored belt.
In taekwondo the act of gaining your black belt doesn’t mean you’re a master like in some martial arts. It simply means you are now a trained student.
International Taekwondo Federation
The ITF is one of the main governing bodies in taekwondo. Created in 1966, the organization’s main focus is to schedule tournaments and set standards for teaching.
They are also one of the few to apply symbolism to each color of belt.
Below are the belt colors and their meanings. Stripes (also known as tags) symbolize the transition period between belt colors.
- White – Lack of knowledge or the beginning of a journey
- White with yellow stripe
- Yellow – The seed and the earth it is to be planted in
- Yellow with green stripe
- Green – The seed becoming a sapling
- Green with blue stripe
- Blue – The sky the plant will reach
- Blue with red stripe
- Red – The color of blood representing the danger towards the next rank
- Red with black stripe
- Black – The color of the dan. It is the opposite to white signifying maturity and knowledge
All the colored belts are called Geup (can be seen as gup or kup) which means grade in English. The IFT ranking only goes up to 9th dan.
The WT are the approved governing body of taekwondo at the Olympics games and were founded in 1973. Their mission statement is to spread taekwondo across the world and have 208 member nations.
While some styles may vary, these are the colors typically found in the WT ranking.
- Black stripe for seniority
- Brown stripe for seniority
- Red and black for juniors (people who have passed their test but are not yet 15)
ATA Martial Arts
Formed in 1969, the ATA Martial Arts (previously known as the American Taekwondo Association) can be found in over 21 countries but they’re more prominent in America. They also have symbolism based on the color which is as follows.
- White – Purity
- Orange – The sunrise, only the beauty seen not the power
- Yellow – The seed seeing the sunlight
- Camouflage – The sapling hidden amongst the pine trees and must fight to find it’s way up
- Green – The beginning of the pine tree
- Purple – Coming to the mountain
- Blue – The tree reaching the sky
- Brown – Firming rooted into the earth
- Red – The sunset, the first stage of growth is complete
- Black – Unlike other black belt ranks, in the ATA Martial Arts style each dan means something new. For example, 3rd dan means “Peace of mind and tranquility” whereas 6th dan means “Long life”.
How To Rise In Ranks
In order to rank up a belt you first need to pass a promotion test. These can vary in time but the first rank is usually a couple of months, with the time between each test getting longer.
The first couple of tests will comprise of the patterns and forms that you will learn.There will also be some simple sparing and maybe theory.
The theory will mainly be about the history of taekwondo, counting to 10 in Korean, and the Korean words for some of the moves (You might also want to check out How To Count In Japanese).
Eventually the tests will get more difficult in the forms and spars. It may also include breaking boards with your feet and hands. In the last few colored belts you may also be required to defend against weapons.
Tests aren’t standardized so may vary across schools. You might even need to perform a show of physical strength or flexibility such as push ups and stretching.
The average to achieve a black belt is 4 years. This isn’t the minimum and you can get a black belt sooner or later depending on your progress.
After you get your first black belt it takes about the equivalent number of years per dan to rank up, for example 2 years to get to 2nd dan, 3 years to get to 3rd dan etc.
Which means it will take about 50 years to get to 10th dan. Like we said, dedicating your life to taekwondo. Generally, you will gain the title of ‘Grand Master’ once you reach 8th dan.
While it may seem like 4 years is a long time to get to black belt, many practitioners of taekwondo say that when you get your black belt is when you truly start to learn taekwondo.