IntroThere are numerous martial arts organizations, each with a different system of belt ranks, colors, and color symbolism. Some organizations have less or more ranks and different belt colors (some even use a camouflage color). Some use a stripe that runs the length of the belt or use various colored horizontal stripes at the ends of the belt (like black belt stripes) to differentiate between color belt ranks of the same color. Usually, short gold stripes at the tips of black belts signify the degree levels.
Note: The symbolism and meanings described below are not necessarily those espoused any organization.
Mighty oakThe symbolism and meaning for each belt in the following descriptions relate a martial arts student's growth in knowledge and skills to the growth of an oak seed into a mighty oak tree.
- Symbolism: Barren
- Meaning: The color white symbolizes the purity of barren earth that is willing to accept the oak seed. The white belt represents a student who is empty of martial arts knowledge, pure of mind and spirit, and willing to accept the planting of the seed of martial arts knowledge.
- Symbolism: Oak seed
- Meaning: As the oak seed is planted and begins to develop strong roots, it must struggle to reach the surface of the earth where others can see it. The yellow belt represents the student who has developed strong martial arts roots but has unknown potential and requires hard work to develop skills that others can appreciate.
- Symbolism: Pre-emergence
- Meaning: As the seedling nears the surface, it reaches the faint light that filters into the earth. It is only a short distance to the surface now. The orange belt represents the student who is almost ready to free-spar.
- Symbolism: Emergence
- Meaning: The seedling emerges from the earth and finds it is one of many saplings that are struggling for survival into a strong oak tree with many branches and leaves. The green belt represents the student whose martial arts skills are emerging and who feels proud of his or her skills but finds that the skills of fellow students are developing just as quickly are quicker.
Senior green belt
- Symbolism: Growth
- Meaning: The seeding starts to grow into an oak tree with many branches and leaves. As the tree begins to absorb sunlight, it starts to bloom and bear fruit. But, although it is a powerful tree, it is still anchored to the earth. The senior green belt represents the student whose martial arts skills are growing and branching out, but who still feels anchored and is finding it difficult to move higher.
- Symbolism: Sky
- Meaning: As the young oak tree grows, it reaches for the freedom of the sky; striving to achieve great heights. The blue belt represents the student who is reaching upward toward the sky, toward higher belts.
Senior blue belt
- Symbolism: Atmosphere
- Meaning: As the oak tree continues to grow, it stretches higher into the atmosphere; developing the confidence to reach even higher. The senior blue belt represents the student whose skills are increasing to the point that he or she begins to think that black belt is within reach.
- Symbolism: Darkened Sky
- Meaning: As the oak tree grows toward the atmosphere, it reaches further into the darkened sky, the unknown. The brown belt represents the student who dreams of leaving the basic techniques behind and learning more advanced techniques.
Senior brown belt
- Symbolism: Space
- Meaning: As the oak tree continues to grow, it strives to reach into space. The senior brown belt represents the student who dreams of exploring dark depths of the universe for more knowledge. Forms and techniques are becoming more difficult to learn, but the student still dreams of learning the elusive skills of the black belt.
- Symbolism: Sun
- Meaning: The oak tree strives to reach even higher, to the sun itself, the object it first looked up to when it emerged from the earth. The sun is the symbol of warmth, growth, and life. The red belt represents the student who sees the end in sight and is reaching for the object first seen when entering the study of the martial arts, the black belt. Red is also the color of blood, the life-giving liquid of the body. Red belts have powerful techniques and limited control of the techniques, so they are dangerous, which sometimes leads to the shedding of red blood.
Senior red belt
- Symbolism: Heat
- Meaning: As the oak tree grows higher and closer to the sun, it begins to feel the heat of the sun and it gives the tree inspiration to grow higher. The senior red belt represents the student who is so close to attaining black belt that he or she feels it. Red also signifies the danger of a student believing that reaching black belt will complete his or her growth in the martial arts.
Probationary black belt
- Symbolism: Darkness
- Meaning: Even though the oak tree struggles to leave the earth and reach the heavens, it finds it cannot. It realizes it is rooted in the earth and that its strength comes from its roots. As the oak tree reenters the earth seeking its roots, the light of the sun dims and turns to darkness. The black belt represents the student who, after reaching black belt, realizes that the answers to all the questions he or she has been seeking are not at the black belt level, they were always present at the beginning, at their roots, at the white belt level, in the basic techniques. He or she simply did not know enough at the time to recognize their worth. As the student leaves the safety of the light, or knowledge he or she has attained, to search for the truth in his or her roots, he or she discovers that even with all he or she knows, there is still the darkness of a greater unknown looming ahead, the first-degree black belt. The probationary black belt is the final preparation for a first-degree black belt.
1st degree black belt
- Symbolism: Darkness with a glimmer of light
- Meaning: As the oak tree further explores its roots, it finds the roots have grown even deeper into the dark depths of the earth and it needs help get deeper to find the truth. The tree begins to produce new seeds so new oak trees can begin their growth journey and their search for the truth. As the tree dies, it turns black and falls back to the earth to nourish the new seedlings of the future.
Black represents the passing on of life, a new completion of the life cycle, now acting as a growth medium for new students. It is a sign of accomplishments of the past and preparation for the future.
Black is the opposite of white, it is the absorption of all colors, and it is the color of the unknown. The first-degree black belt is the opposite of the white belt. It is a combination of all the colors of the previous belts and signifies there is much more that is unknown. Filled with the knowledge of all previous belts, the student now understands that black belt is not the end of their journey, it is just the beginning of another phase; there is so much more to learn. As Winston Churchill once said, "It is merely the end of the beginning." To learn more students must explore the depths of their martial arts roots. In the darkness, there is a glimmer of light that signifies that a new day is coming, and a new journey is beginning. That glimmer is indicated by one gold stripe on the ends of the belt. The new black belt now begins a new journey to learn "the Way" and he or she begins training new students, new seeds that need nourishment.
Ever notice that when you are looking for something you seem to find it at the last place you look. Actually, this is the logical outcome since you quit looking after you find it. In seeking the truths of a martial art, you will find them in the last place you look—the last belt you earned. If you keep looking, keep training, and keep earning belts, you will discover even more truths.
2nd through 4th-degree black belts
- Meaning: The next levels of learning and skill progression.
5th through 9th-degree black belts
- Meaning: Black belts from fifth through ninth degree denote increased knowledge and proficiency, teaching, involvement in the martial arts community, and involvement in the promotion and growth of the martial art within the parent organization.
10th-degree black belt
- Meaning: Some organizations have a 10th degree that is reserved for the founder of their martial art, the current leader of their martial art, or some revered past leader in their martial art.
Honorary black belts
- Symbolism: Symbolizes the total degradation and commercialization of the martial arts.
- Meaning: Totally meaningless. Used to boost egos, make people feel good about themselves, and for publicity and marketing. It's just one more thing that degrades the status of the black belt.