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About rank


Belts show, but they do not prove you know
Within your martial art, you may hold a certain rank and have all that rank's responsibilities, privileges, and prestige and it may mean a lot to you. However, in the minds of the rest of the people in the world, your rank only means what they think it means. It may mean a lot to them, or it may mean nothing; therefore, don’t expect them to treat you any differently than they would treat an ordinary person.

Within the martial arts world, since rank varies so much between arts/organizations/schools your rank means little. What matters is your martial arts knowledge and skills, your behavior, your personality, and what you are doing for the martial arts.

Belt ranks

Within the martial art belt rank system, each student who stays in training will usually:
  • Begin training as a 9th or 10th kyu/gup (class) white belt,
  • progress through the color gup belts,
  • earn a 1st dan (degree) black belt, and
  • may eventually progress to the highest rank, 9th dan black belt (10th dan in some organizations).
Martial arts belts may be divided into three distinct groups:
  • White Belt (beginner)
  • Color Belts (amateur)
  • Black Belts (expert)
Black belt degrees may be divided into three distinct groups:
The ranks included in each group varies by the organization.
  • Novice. These are the novice degrees where students are still considered students but may be assistant instructors.
  • Expert. These degrees are considered experts in the technical aspects of their martial art and may be instructors.
  • Master. These degrees are considered masters. They fully understand the mental and physical elements of their martial art and have devoted their lives to its practice. 
Basically, first through fifth-degree black belts are awarded based on what the person can do, and sixth through ninth degree black belts are awarded on what the person has done for their art and the certifying organization.

The importance of 9

Ranks below black belt usually range from 9th kyu/gup (lowest) to 1st kyu/gup (highest). In contrast, black belts range from 1st dan (lowest) to 9th dan (highest). This means that kyus/gups descend from 9 to 1, whereas dans ascend from 1 to 9. This inverted progression stems from the eastern belief that all life develops in, and descends from, heaven; lives on the earth; and then returns to heaven. Nine is the highest single integer in the decimal system and, in some eastern cultures, it represents the highest attainable goal, heaven.

In the Orient, three is the most esteemed of all the numbers. The Chinese character for 3 contains three lines: the upper line symbolizes heaven; the middle line symbolizes mortals, and the bottom line symbolizes earth. Eastern belief was that a king was one who could link these three things (God, mankind, and country) so the Chinese character for three and the character for king are nearly synonymous. As mentioned above, there are three groups of taekwondo lower belts and three groups of black belts. When the number three is multiplied by itself, the product is nine, the highest integer. Therefore, the numbers three and nine are important in the martial arts belt system.

The number nine is interesting in another way. When it is multiplied by any of the integers, and the individual integers of the product are added together, the answer is always nine, for example, 9 times 1 equals 9; 9 times 2 equals 18 and 1 plus 8 equals 9; etc. Nine is the only integer having this property.

Poom Rank

Some Korean martial arts schools, most notably in Kukkiwon/World Taekwondo schools, use a poom system. Students under the age of 15 cannot test for a dan rank, so a system of four poom ranks/belts is used. In some of these schools, the poom wear a solid black belt just like the adults; in other schools, poom wear a black belt with a red stripe. After the student reaches the age of 15, their poom-grade can be converted to the corresponding dan-grade without additional testing.

Status of black belt ranks

In International Taekwondo Federation schools:
  • 1st-3rd dan are considered national instructors.
  • 4th-6th dan are considered international instructors.
  • 7th dan are considered junior master instructors.
  • 8th dan are considered senior master instructors.
  • 9th dan are considered grandmasters.
In Kukkiwon/World Taekwondo schools:
  • 1st-3rd dan are considered "trained students" who may serve as assistant instructors.
  • 4th-6th dan are considered instructors and masters.
  • 7th-9th dan are considered grandmasters.

  • Cunningham, D. (2004). Belt Colors and Ranking Tradition

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