Meaning of the Belt Colors

Printed in Taekwon-Do Times, January 1998

The colors of the belts in taekwon-do represent a variety of things, on many levels. They are not randomly selected. White, yellow, green, blue, red and black — the six colors of the taekwon-do belts.

“The colors have not been arbitrarily selected. They are in fact, steeped in tradition. The colors of black, red and blue denote the various levels of hierarchy during the Koguryo and Silla Dynasties,” writes General Choi in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-do. They tell a symbolic story. According to Choi, white is the innocence, as that of a beginning student of taekwon-do; yellow is the Earth from which a plant sprouts and takes root as the Taekwon-do foundation is laid; green is the plant’s growth as skills in taekwon-do develop; blue is the Heaven, towards which the plant grows into a towering tree as training progresses; red signifies danger, cautioning the student to exercise control and warning opponents away; and finally black is the opposite of white, signifying maturity and proficiency in taekwon-do and imperviousness to night.

But this order of colors far predates the founding of taekwon-do, or even taek’yon. There are many references to the order as it stands in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci on color theory, in Druidic lore and the ancient Chinese art called Feng Shui.

Da Vinci, while writing on the theory of color said, “The first of all simple colors is white, although some would not admit that black or white are colors, the first being a receiver of colors and the later being the sum of all colors (in pigment). Painting is but an effect of light and shade, that is, chiaroscuro, so white is first, then yellow, green, blue and red and finally black. White may be said to represent light, without which no color can be seen.”

The druids, whose colored robes were in the same order with one exception, felt the same way. The final robe was the sum of all colors before hand. In their world, however, the black robes were first, representing the absence of knowledge, and the white robes were the sum of all knowledge acquired in the course of study. The wearers of the white robes were to retain all the knowledge represented in the previous colors.

Feng shui is the ancient Chinese art of “geomancy” or placement and color. It is interior design for the whole house — right down to cardinal orientation. According to Master Lin Yun, a scholar of Feng Shui, there are six true (natural) colors. White, yellow, green, blue, red and black are also the six holy colors that align with the six Buddhist “true syllables, Om mani padme hum.” According to Yun, “In sequence, these six colors represent a holy figure — a god or the Buddha, and are conceived of as conjuring great increased spiritual power. Each color is linked to a sound from the six Buddhist true syllables. The philosophical roots of the Six True Colors return to the duality of emptiness and substance being opposite ends of the same thing. The sequence’s initial color, white, represents a beginning (yang). Black symbolizes the end (yin). When you add all of the sequence’s intervening colors, symbolizing all things in the universe, the sum is black, which stands for everything in the universe.”

White signifies innocence, as that of a beginning student who has no previous knowledge of Taekwon-Do. — Choi

White is the traditional color of the Korean dobok or the Japanese gi. New students wear this as their first belt. In pigments, it is the absence of color; in light, the sum of all colors.

White is a color of deep symbolism. It represents honor, purity, virtue and innocence. This is why brides wear white, as do doctors, nurses and chefs.

Snow White exemplified the essence of white. Her simple, honest, friendly demeanor wins out over the evil step-mother. Diamonds epitomize the “white” or colorless stone. They are the promise of love, fidelity and honor between husband and wife.

White is both the beginning and the end of the belt colors. To look at the well-worn “black” belt of one who had worked long and hard with that belt, it starts to turn white again where the black threads are worn away. White is the color that all knowledge is built upon, until, as when pigments are mixed, black is created. In true yin and yang fashion, for black to exist, there must be white.

Yellow signifies the Earth from which a plant sprouts and takes root as the Taekwon-do foundation is being laid. — Choi

Yellow is the warmth of a summer day or the sun beaming from a bright blue sky. It is the golden hue of sunflowers and the sniffles created by goldenrod. It is the bright yellow of a “Have-a-nice-day” sticker, the rich saffron of the Buddhist monk’s robes. It is also the second color of belt in taekwon-do.

In the East, yellow is a color of great honor. It is the color of honor, wealth, royalty and well-being. In China, yellow was the imperial color. In fact, “yellow has been so closely associated with the imperial household that the entrance to the palace is known as the ‘yellow door.’”

To many Americans, yellow is a color that has dual associations — that of great joy and that of caution. Yellow is spring, daffodils and Easter eggs. But, yellow is also the color of cowardice. It is yellow journalism or having a yellow streak. To wave a yellow flag at a race or see a yellow stop light suggests caution and care. Yellow lines divide the two directions of traffic on a road.

Green signifies the plant’s growth as Taekwon-do skill begins to develop.

“It’s not that easy being green,” sang Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street. Green belt, the third color in the belt system, is where many students drop out. Psychologically it’s a heavier color, denoting the start of true study in taekwon-do. The first of the intermediate colors, it is here that many realize how much there is to learn, how far there is to go and they quit.

But green is the color of spring, of growth and of life itself. Green and blue are the most prevalent colors in nature. Green is the color of shade in a forest, of cool soft grass coated with morning dew, or of spongy moss. It is the green light saying, “GO!”

Green Tara is a goddess in Tibetan Buddhism. Best known for helping Sakyamuni reach Buddhahood, Green Tara helped him to avoid the temptations, evils and obstacles that might have diverted him from his Path. Green Tara is also known for curing sickness. The Chinese call her Lu Du Fwo Mu, or the “Green-Colored Mother of the Buddha.”

Blue signifies the Heaven, towards which the plant matures into a towering tree
as training in Taekwon-do progresses. — Choi

In the Western world, blue is the color most people claim as their favorite. It is the bright blue of a summer sky and the mysterious deep blue of night. It is the fourth belt color as well.

Blue denotes authority, truth, loyalty and mystery. It also symbolizes quality. Police officers have blue uniforms. The Marines, the Navy, Air Force officers and the Army all wear dress “blues.” The business world is dominated by the ubiquitous “blue suit.” A blue ribbon means first place. Blue chips stocks are the most consistent and high in value, as is a blue chip in poker.

Brides traditionally wear something blue at the wedding. It is the color used for the Virgin Mary’s robes in Christianity, of Merlin’s robes in Druidic lore. It is also the color of academic robes worn by philosophers at American universities.

Blue is the calm, peaceful night falling or the true blue of friendship.

Blue evokes the mystery of the Hope Diamond; the turquoise of ancient Egyptian and Zuni cultures. It is the secrecy of the Blue Lodge of Masonry.

To wear a blue belt is to start to learn the vast history, philosophy and mystery of taekwon-do.

Red signifies danger, cautioning the student to exercise control and warning the opponent to stay away. — Choi

Red. It’s the first color an infant sees after black and white. It is the color used most frequently in flags. Red evokes excitement, anger and intensity. It is the last color belt before black belt. Red will “increase appetites, adrenaline production, strength and blood pressure.” It’s the color of true love: a Valentine, red lips and nails, and a long-stemmed rose. In China and Bolivia it is the color the bride wears, representing sensuality, joy and love.

A common understanding of the red belt is “danger” — to both self and others. Here the thrust for black belt comes into full force. Red is danger and authority. In China, all royal decrees were issued in red. Mars, the “red Planet,” is named after the Roman god of war. It’s the red of a stop sign or of a fire truck. Red commands attention. That’s why most flashing lights for emergency vehicles use it. In Brazil, red cars were outlawed due to the number of accidents involving them — the same reason that in the United States, insurance rates are higher if you drive a red car.

There is great joy and passion in red — painting the town red, getting the red carpet treatment, in red letter days. It’s the color of Captain Kangaroo’s coat and Santa’s suit. It’s the color of the devil and of Rudolph’s brilliant nose leading the way home.

Black is the opposite of white, therefore, signifying the maturity and proficiency in taekwon-do. It also indicates the wearer’s imperviousness to darkness and fear. — Choi

Black belt fever. It’s the belt most recognized and most desired. For some, it’s a rush to get one. For others it’s a long, winding road. Black is the color most people associate with the martial arts. To a non-martial artist, to have a black belt is to have mastered the art. To a student, it symbolizes true learning just beginning. As my instructor puts it, “A black belt is just another piece of cloth. You can buy one at any supply store — but to earn it, to earn the right to wear it, that’s another issue.”

In the Western world, black is the color of death or nothingness. It is not so in the Eastern countries. In Asia, black is the color of wisdom, silence and eternity. Black is the mystery of the ninjas, the inky color of a moonless night. The color of most graduation gowns, it is also wisdom and depth of knowledge. Black leather covers are the most common for that of a Bible. A man’s black book is a treasured item, not to be shared. It is also the color of a priest’s shirt.

Black is the final belt color. To have a black belt is to have the sum of all knowledge from prior belt levels, and to move on to new levels. According to Lin Yun, “White represents a blank slate, and black stands for everything in the universe. White is like an empty piece of paper. When it is inscribed with a black character, the white becomes more apparent in contrast to the black. Without black, the white is nothing. On the deepest level of meaning, there is a continuous cycle: white helps create black, from which white is born.”

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