There are numerous myths and legends about how the different ranking colors of martial arts belts began. The most common being that legend says all martial artists started with a white belt. As they trained and fought, their belt became dirty with sweat and blood thus the color change. Of course, all dojo’s have a high standard of discipline and cleanliness and this idea would be unaccepted.
The first time belts were colored to show rank was in the mid 19th century. Dr. Jigoro Kano, known as the Japanese “Founder” of modern Judo, first started this practice. It was done in order to know and appreciate how far a student has come. Another common misconception is that the black belt is the highest “degree”. It is, in fact, a way to show that the student has completed his basic training. After that, the black belts are given a Dan. Starting with a 1st Dan black belt, or the beginner level, all the way to the 8th Dan or the Grandmaster. The highest level in both judo and karate is the 10th Dan. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate adopted the belt ranking system in karate. Next, it was adopted by the Korean Byung Jick Ro in modern taekwondo.
The origin of the color order was a simple one. As Korea and Japan were living in poverty after the Second World War the belts were dyed repeatedly. All students start with a white belt. It is then dyed yellow. Adding some red dye makes it orange. Then green and blue by adding blue dye. Purple is next with the addition of red. Then brown, red, and finally black. By constantly adding a darker dye to the original belt, they saved money while ranking the students.
The meaning behind each color remained the same to this day. Each one representing a stage in the student’s learning process. The whole range of colors signifies the life cycle of a plant.
The White Belt
The white belt signifies birth or rather a rebirth into martial arts. The student is a beginner and is yet to learn about the Art. It signifies a seedling that lies beneath the earth and snow in winter, waiting to meet the sun.
The Yellow Belt.
In order to receive a yellow belt, the student must pass a test. This test is to ensure his knowledge so far. Depending on the discipline in question, it involves fully knowing a number of blocks, attacks, and stances. Once a student passes the test, they are awarded the yellow belt. This means they are no longer a beginner and have mastered the first steps. The yellow belt signifies the seedling breaking the earth and meeting the sun. The student is now a sprout and is yet to become a plant.
The Orange Belt.
The next test involves more work. Again the student must show his knowledge of block, attacks, and stances. This time, however, the number is greatly increased. The student responds to the masters, or sensei’s, direction. All the positions have a specific name in Japanese or Korean, again depending on the discipline. The student must show a quick response to the orders, great discipline, and a perfect knowledge of the positions in question. It signifies the Sun’s growing power. The earth is becoming warmer and the sprout is starting to grow. The student is now ready for the next stage in his or her education.
The Green Belt.
The student must first prove their previous knowledge. They must also have sparring experience by this point. Here their knowledge of the history of the particular martial art is also tested. Finally, they must show their knowledge of the newest components they have learned so far. Green represents the sprout reaching for the sun and growing. The student is now a small plant and has mastered all the techniques so far.
The Blue Belt.
Approximately 10 to 14 months have passed and the student can take the test for the blue belt. This, naturally, depends on the student and his readiness for the test. The student now has to show his new knowledge, power, and ability. He must also show a significant number of hours spent in the dojo. The blue belt signifies the plant growing taller and reaching the sky. The student is now ready for more advanced training.
The Purple Belt.
Again the student is tested. This includes his knowledge of the art so far as well as sparring actively. The alertness of the student is also tested. Once a student receives the purple belt, they are considered advanced. It signifies the sky as it changes color at dawn.
The Brown Belt.
The student, now being advanced, is tested further. They must show all their previous knowledge of stances and positions. They must also be able to show proper self-defense skills. Their experience in sparring must be advanced. They must show a competent knowledge of the history. Finally, their discipline, spirit, and overall attitude are tested. It signifies that the plant is ripening and is ready for harvest.
The Red Belt.
Again the student is tested. Again the student must show all their knowledge so far. This includes more positions and more sparring. Once a student receives a red belt, he or she is one step away from the black belt. The student is considered an advanced student of martial arts. Red signifies the heat of the sun as the plant continues to grow. It also signifies the danger of the knowledge the student has learned. He or she must learn to control and wisely use their new power and skill.
The Black belt.
Approximately two to four years have passed. The student is now tested both physically and in a written test. For the written test they must show their knowledge of the history and the meaning of the black belt. They must also count to 10 in Japanese or Korean. They must know the patterns of the movements and their numbers. For the physical test, they must prove all their knowledge so far. The stances, attacks, and blocks. They must have sufficient sparring experience as well as active sparring for the test. This is the hardest test so far. Once they complete it, they have “graduated” and are ready to continue their learning. A black belt also means they are ready to have their own students. It signifies the black of the night and what is beyond. A deeper need for learning and perfecting the Art. The plant is now grown and ready to have its own seedlings.
This, however, is not the end of the education. The first Dan ranks are gained through examination and competition. The higher Dan levels are received through experience and dedication to the Art. For the most part, a higher level sensei can only give a student of the arts a next level Dan. In some martial arts, however, a committee or group of judges have been put into place. In karate, for example, the highest level is the 10th Dan. In judo, the 10th Dan is reserved for the founders of judo. Earning a black belt is, in fact, just the beginning of the journey.