I wrote this article after attending a
black belt pre-grading session, in which the potential black belt
candidates were preparing theirselves in readiness for the forthcoming
test. At the end of the training session the students were having a Q
& A session with the TKD Master, who was leading the class. A number
of questions that never really get asked (out loud) but which many
students wonder why we do certain things in certain ways, I have tried
to address in this article, and they are all to do with 'tradition'.
martial arts are steeped in long established rituals & have specific
ways of conducting oneself (Dojang or Dojo etiquette)
that can seem very alien to outsiders or to a beginning student. Some
of these are relatively modern influences that date from the turn of
the 20th Century, where others have their roots further
back in Chinese, Japanese or Korean society.
The white uniforms
(the dobok or gi) that are prevalent in the traditional
arts were first introduced by Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern Judo,
around the end of the 19th Century. These have been
speculated that they were based on the heavy hemp jackets worn by
Japanese firemen. Through the years the jacket & trousers have
developed & are now made of cotton (modern versions may have man-made
fibres mixed with cotton to allow the uniform to ‘breathe’). The
original style used by Kano, that was later adopted by the Karate
stylists (& then, in turn by the Korean stylists) was a wrap-around
jacket with short sleeves & a trouser with a cut just below the knees.
This has developed into the modern styles with long sleeves & long
legs. The long style seems to be more dominant in the Korean arts. One
reason for this longer cut has been suggested that it was a purposeful
act on the part of the Koreans’ in order to move away from the
‘Japanisation’ of the Korean arts.
Before a specific
training outfit was developed, training was conducted with students
wearing a wrapped loin-cloth, similar to the Sumo style still seen
The original uniforms
were of the natural off-white colour of hemp. Later, when the lighter
cotton uniforms were introduced, these were the natural white colour
of cotton. Dyes were an expensive commodity & these were reserved for
the most expensive type of clothes, certainly not for the type of
clothing that would receive the rough treatment of training. It is
only in the last part of the 20th Century that coloured
uniforms have been worn.
The white colour was
used for the above reasons, but it also is reflective of the spirit of
the martial arts, namely the naturalness, simplicity & the dedication
to perfect one’s character.
In the Korean art of
Taekwon-Do a blue uniform can be worn, but only by an instructor,
although there is no clear origin of this. Blue & black colours were
seen as being worn by high ranking members of the aristocracy or by
government officials, so this colour code of hierarchy may have had a
role to play in the choice of this colour. The black trim of the
Taekwon-Do dobok worn by Dan grades, once again, is a
modernisation of the traditional plain white uniform. It represents
instantly, that the wearer has reached the rank of Dan grade.
The black trim was probably only chosen for aesthetic reasons, as an
attempt to modernise the dobok or to differentiate between a
Taekwon-Do black belt & students from other styles. It has since taken
on a symbolism of its own, one which may not have originally been the
primary concern when making this decision. It is in direct contrast to
the plain white of the uniform & this is sometimes stated as
symbolising the balance of yin-yang & representing the maturity
& the proficiency of the student. The colour black may have been used
for the same reason as previously mentioned above.
The ranking system of
modern martial arts & the coloured belt has great connotations
attributed to it, especially the black belt. The system of belt
ranking can once again be traced back to Jigaro Kano. In 1883, Kano
separated the student body of the Kodokan into two groups; the
ones considered to be senior or yudansha (‘graded group’) & the
others, classed as mudansha (‘without-grade group’). Two of
Kano’s most senior students were awarded Shodan. These two
students were the first ever ‘Black Belts’.
previously, ranks were awarded by the head of the Kwan or
Ryu (School) issuing a ‘licence’ in a form of a scroll or paper
certificate to those who were proficient enough in the teachings of
that school. This was mainly for establishing the succession of the
school, the licence giving the holder the right to teach the core
curriculum of that school of martial art.
It wasn’t until 1886,
however, that Kano was to award a belt as a symbol of rank.
Originally, there were only two colours of belt that were worn in the
Kodokan; white & black belts. The myriad of different coloured
belts that are worn around the world in the different styles of
martial arts came much later. A Judo instructor by the name of
Kawaishi implemented a system of different coloured belts to
differentiate between the levels of his student’s progress & by the
early 1950’s this innovation had spread to other Judo dojo’s
throughout the West. This system of rank was soon adopted by various
other styles. In some, such as Taekwon-Do, a symbolic reference has
been attached to the different colours for the belts of the developing
A common misconception
that is credited to the colouring of the belt, is that the black belt
derives from the gradual discolouration of the white belt over many
years, through a darker hue until it becomes black, from the rigours
of the martial art training. This is a complete fallacy , perpetuated
by ill-informed students & instructors & is one of the many myths that
surround the mystique of the martial arts.
is worth noting that in many traditional dojo’s in Japan, the
kyu (kup or ‘junior’ grade) students still wear a white
belt, even today, although some dojo do use a brown belt for
the highest three kyu grades. In the Korean martial art of
Taekwon-Do the original belt ranking structure, which is documented in
the 1965 Taekwon-Do manual, was only four belt colours; white, blue,
brown & finally, the black belt. This was later changed to the modern
grading structure that is used today.
Perhaps the one aspect of the martial arts that distinguishes it from
any other type of Western sports is the bow. The act of bowing is an
incredibly important aspect of training in the martial arts. When
bowing, it not only is it a gesture of respect, it is an act of
demonstrating humility. Not only that, but when we bow when entering
or leaving the place of training, it shows an understanding & a deep
level of respect for the students & instructors who have shaped the
art before us. It honours those who have trod the same path & who,
without them, we wouldn’t be practicing the art that we do today.
Every time it is carried out, the bow must be performed with great
care to maintain correct form. It should never be done sloppily, as
this shows a complete lack of respect & awareness of the importance of
the bow. When bowing to a person of higher rank or status than
yourself, you should bow lower than their bow or, in most instances,
it is more appropriate to hold the bowed position for a slightly
Practitioners of the martial arts need to be aware that the ‘receiving
bow’ & the ‘bestowed bow’ are one that cannot exist without the other.
The student performs the bow in acknowledgement for the teacher giving
instruction & the teacher is must be equally grateful to the students
who are dedicated to the continuation of the art.
role of the Sabum-nim or Sensei (teacher) has been
essential in the transmission of the martial arts throughout the
centuries. The relationship between a serious student & a skilled &
knowledgeable teacher is extremely rewarding experience for both. The
martial arts provide a challenging environment for the two to create
something exceptional & to preserve the teachings & techniques that
have been around for hundreds of years.
There is a thinking in the martial arts which is ‘to train through
teaching’. When a student has reached a level of competence that the
teacher deems them responsible for passing on the skills & knowledge
that they have learned to others, the student learns very quickly what
they thought they knew & understood, becomes very complex & foreign.
It can be a quite humbling experience. This part of any martial arts
education not only offers the student the chance to show others what
they know, but it also presents a opportunity to have an insight to
what they have left to learn.
Another form of training is ‘training by
watching’. During the natural course of training a student may become
ill or injured. Sometimes the student may need a brief rest during a
training session. Regardless of the cause, one can always learn by
watching others. Many things can be observed from a different
perspective when watching from the ‘side-lines’, lessons can be
learned from other’s mistakes which can enrich the students own
training. For a dedicated student, the period of recovery time from an
injury or illness can be frustrating. One way to use this time
advantageously can be to visit the training hall to observe the
continuing training sessions.
formal testing, or grading (Shimsha or Shinsa), that is
undertaken by the student can be a stressful event. Performing in
front of others for most people is naturally a time of anxiety, but it
should be put into perspective. Grading is simply a matter of student
evaluation. A huge amount of emphasis is placed on passing the grading
by the student & the fear of not reaching the required standard &
‘failing’ a grading sometimes has a crippling negative effect. The
testing of the student is just a small stepping-stone on the journey
of The Way. Some may fail a grading, some may take longer to
reach a specific standard to succeed in passing a grading, but
ultimately on this journey of self-discovery success or failure at a
single grading is negligible.
many people, especially Westerners, the idea of not having a specific
goal to reach is an alien concept. The notion of training week in,
week out, year after year, performing the same drills in the search of
perfection will elude the majority of people. The martial arts do
present tangible rewards in the form of the coloured belts, but the
real rewards are not something you can physically grasp.
of the more esoteric forms of training that are found in the martial
arts such as ‘cold-weather training’, mountain climbing & practices
that are derived from religious self-purification rituals, like
meditating under icy waterfalls or practicing in waist deep water or
the oceans, are centuries old. ‘Cold-weather training’ can consist of
training barefoot in the snow or practicing in the training hall in
Winter with the cold air blasting through open windows. This can
appear overly masochistic, but if approached with the correct
mind-set, if the student can conquer their doubts & discomfort
regarding training in that environment, then they can question what
other borders to limitations that they place on themselves. Training
in water, whether lake, river or ocean, is another age old practice,
which again serves to challenge the student’s spirit & confronts their
modern martial arts that are practiced in today’s high-tec gyms maybe
far removed from the original arts, but as a serious practitioner, we
owe it to the next generation of students to hold onto those standards
& practices that shaped the arts that we practice today.