Most people have a general understanding that different colored belts in karate indicate that the student is in a specific level of their training. However, people who don’t study karate might not know what these belt colors mean, exactly—nor do they know what it takes to go up to a new belt or sash in other forms of martial arts. Today, we are here to answer those questions!

How did the belt system begin?

Dr. Jigoro Kano, known as the “Founder of Modern Judo,” created many of the ideas that now serve as the foundation of modern martial arts studies. The colored belt system was designed to show a student’s progress. The very first black belts ever awarded were given in the 1880s! Next, Gichin Funakoshi, the Okinawan founder of Shotokan Karate adopted this belt ranking system and other methods of organization from Dr. Kano. Funakoshi has since come to be known as the “Founder of Modern Karate.” Finally, Byung Jick Ro, the founder of Song Moo Kwan—and a student of Funakoshi’s—received his black belt in 1939. He quickly became known as the “Founder of Modern Taekwondo” and has used the color ranking system since the early 1940s.

Myth versus truth

There was a myth circulating for a while that early martial artists started their training with a white belt. The “black belt” was said to be the same white belt that had been stained over the years from dirt, blood, and sweat. However, we have no sure evidence of this, so it should remain a myth! In fact, extreme cleanliness is demanded of traditional Judo or Karate dojos, meaning that any student arriving in dirty uniform would not have been allowed to train.


Some people believe that achieving your black belt is the same as becoming a master, but this is not the case. The black belt actually means that the wearer understands and is competent in a style’s basic technique. In Song Moo Kwan, a black belt takes about two to four years to earn. However, that 1st Dan Black Belt means that you’ve earned the equivalent of your Bachelor’s degree. You can earn all the way up to an 8th-degree black belt, with the title of “Grandmaster,” which is about the equivalent of earning your Doctoral degree. That means that not all black belts are equal. The first black belt a student earns is just the beginning of a long path to advanced learning.

What do the colors mean?

In the past, the white belts used to be dyed to a new color instead of just getting a new one. This is why the colors are in the order they are. The standard belt color order goes from white to yellow, then to gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red, and black. Because of the dying process, it made sense for the colors to grow darker as the student progressed. This procedure was adopted right after World War II, as Korea and Japan were not wealthy countries at the time. Dying the belts a new color was an inexpensive but clear way to show the rankings of their students.

  • White: White is the color of new beginnings. The white belt student is new to martial arts and is seeking knowledge. We use the white belt to symbolize the seed as it lies underneath the snow in winter.
  • Yellow Belt or Sash: Yellow is symbolic for the sun’s rays shining on the seed. This gives it new life as it starts to grow. Yellow belt students have the beginning of instruction from their teachers.
  • Orange Belt or Sash: Orange is for the sun as it warms the earth. The heat melts away the snow and prepares the ground for new growth in the springtime. Orange belt students have begun to feel their minds and bodies grow.
  • Green Belt or Sash: Green stands for the seed’s growth as it emerges from the ground and reaches towards the sun. Green belt students are refining their technique and growing stronger.
  • Blue Belt or Sash: Blue is for the sky as the plant grows and begins to reach towards it. Blue belt students learn additional knowledge in their specific art.
  • Purple Belt or Sash: Purple signifies the changing sky as dawn arrives. It symbolizes the student changing and preparing to become an advanced student. This is when most students realize what it truly means to earn their black belt.
  • Brown Belt or Sash: Brown is for the ripening of the seed. This is a sign of maturity and progress, as these students have techniques that are beginning to mature.
  • Red Belt or Sash: Red stands for the heat of the sun. These students have acquired more knowledge, and they must be more careful with their knowledge and physical strength.
  • Black Belt or Sash: Black signifies the darkness that lies beyond the sun. Black belt students seek more profound knowledge in martial arts and begin to teach others who are learning. They understand that this is a never-ending process of growth.

Come to Thrive Martial Arts

At Thrive Martial Arts, we believe in pushing our students to their fullest abilities and teaching them proper martial arts technique in a safe environment. If you are interested in learning more about our classes, how our athletes rise in level, or about our teaching philosophies, reach out to our team today. We look forward to working with you and your whole family!