The term Dan (단) is commonly used in Korean martial arts to denote a black belt. Literally, however, the word more closely translates as "level" or "stage". For example, some jumping kicks are called "ee dan" kicks, which translates as "level two", where ee is the number two in the sino-Korean numbering system. In English, the different levels of black belt are called 1st dan, 2nd dan, 3rd dan, etc. (Or in Korean: il dan, ee dan, sam dan, etc.)
Unlike some martial arts, in some styles of Taekwondo achieving one's first black belt (1st dan) is not intended to connote that one is now an "expert" in taekwondo. In these styles of taekwondo (for example, the Kukkiwon/WT-style), the 1st dan black-belt is intended instead to denote that one is now a trained student, but still a student nonetheless. For this reason, Taekwondo sometimes received criticism from practitioners of other martial arts, along the lines of, "taekwondo schools are black-belt mills...taekwondo black belts aren't martial arts experts at all." In fact, in Taekwondo, the first-dan black belt is not always intended to denote expertise at all, merely a state of training.
Korean martial arts lacked a grading system up until the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–1945) during which a variety of Japanese martial arts were introduced into the Korean culture. After the Japanese occupation ended, newly emerging martial arts like Taekwondo, tang soo do, soo bahk do and hapkido adopted the dan (단, 段) and geup (급, 級) ranks common to Japanese martial arts.
Bo-Dan and Dan Rank
Terminology varies from style to style, but generally someone who is a candidate to receive a Black Belt is said to have the rank dan bo nim (단보님); in English, this rank is commonly called bo-dan or bo-black. In some schools, a red-black belt is used to denote a bo-dan rank; in other schools, a red-black belt is used to denote a poom rank.
Someone who has received a dan rank of any kind is sometimes called a yudanja (유단자, 有段者). Someone who has received a "high" dan rank (6th Dan upwards) is sometimes called a godanja (고단자, 高段者).
In some Korean schools, most notably in Kukkiwon/WT-style Taekwondo, there is also a poom system in place (품, 品). Practitioners who have not yet reached the age of 15 cannot test for a dan rank; for them, there is a system of four poom grades instead. After the student reaches the age of 15, their poom-grade can be changed to the corresponding dan-grade without additional testing.
In some of these schools, young black belts (i.e., "poom" levels) wear a solid black belt just like the "dan level" adults; in other schools, a black belt with a red stripe is used instead for the poom levels. The premise for using a different color belt is that it emphasizes to these young students that they are not yet truly dan level. The counter-argument is that doing so introduces a layer of unnecessary complication that requires explanation, and ultimately adds little value -- different schools adopt different philosophies on this question.
In many schools, it is commonplace to adorn the black belt with embroidered lettering and symbols. The adornment varies by school, but some typical examples include:
- The practitioner's name
- The school's name and/or logo
- The rank awarded, denoted as bars (I, II, III, etc.)
- The date awarded
- The name of the master who awarded the rank
The lettering of the text is usually embroidered in some combination of the school's native language and Korean (either in hanja or hangul). Embroidery is often done with gold thread, though silver and red are also seen.
Symbolism of the Black Belt
Different symbolic elements are often attributed to the different color belts used in Taekwondo. Some of the symbols commonly attributed to the Black Belt include:
- Black is the opposite of White, thereby signifying maturity and proficiency
- Black is a combination of all previous colors mixed, signifying proficiency in all the previously-learned forms and techniques
- Black symbolizes one's imperviousness to darkness, and hence to fear
- Black symbolizes something that is well-worn over time, having grown darker as it ages
The color black does have some negative connotations (death, the end, etc.) which is why martial arts forms such as Tang Soo Do prefer to use a Midnight Blue belt rather than a black belt. Midnight Blue belts are rarely used in Taekwondo, even Traditional Taekwondo which shares many characteristics with Tang Soo Do.
When numbering the dan ranks, Sino-Korean numbers are used (rather than traditional Korean numbers). In other words, the ranks are il dan, ee dan, sam dan, etc., not hana dan, dool dan, set dan...
Different styles and schools assign different namings and meanings to different ranks. The list below is typical but certainly not universal!
- Il dan (일단): first-degree black belt (also sometimes called cho dan (hangul: 초단 hanja: 初段), or 조교님 jo kyo nim: Assistant Instructor, or Junior Instructor)
- Ee dan (이단, or yi dan): second-degree black belt (also sometimes called 교사님 kyo sa nim: Instructor)
- Sam dan (삼단): third-degree black belt (also sometimes called 부사범님 boo sa bum nim or kyo bum nim: Assistant Master)
- Sa dan (사단): fourth-degree black belt (often the first "master" rank, 사범님 sa bum nim)
- Oh dan (오단): fifth-degree black belt
- Yuk dan (pronounced yook 육단): sixth-degree black belt
- Chil dan (칠단): seventh-degree black belt (often this is the first rank that receives the title 관장님 kwan jang nim; in English this is often called "grandmaster", but more correctly denoting the "head of a school", where the word kwan means school)
- Pal dan (팔단): eighth-degree black belt
- Gu dan (구단): ninth-degree black belt (sometimes known as 총관장님 chong kwan jang nim: Chief Master)
Note that in the above list, the suffix -nim is an honorific, analogous to the Japanese suffixes -san, -sama or -chan. You could translate the term roughly as "respected". So "sa bum nim" could be translated as "respected teacher" -- though in English the term is often translated as simply master.
For most Korean martial arts, the dan ranks do not go past ninth dan, although on some occasions in some organizations, a tenth dan (십단) has been issued. When a 10th dan is issued, the term Supreme Grand Master is sometimes used. Typically this honor is awarded posthumously (after they died) to somebody who has been instrumental in the founding an entire system or spreading Taekwondo around the world.
In ITF Taekwon-do,
- 1st - 3rd dan are considered to be national instructors
- 4th - 6th dan are considered to be international instructors
- 7th dan are considered to be junior master instructors
- 8th dan are considered to be senior master instructors
- 9th dan are considered to be grand masters
- 1st - 3rd dan are considered "trained students" who may serve as assistant instructors (kyo bum nim)
- 4th - 6th dan are considered to be instructors / masters (sah bum nim)
- 7th - 9th dan are considered to be grand masters (kwan jang nim)
Kukkiwon/WTF 10th Dan - Supreme Grand Masters
In the Kukkiwon/WT-style, only a few honorary tenth degree black belts have been bestowed by the Kukkiwon.
- One was for WTF founder Un Yong Kim
The others were bestowed posthumously upon masters:
- Byeong Roh Lee for the founding of Jido Kwan
- Chong Soo Hong for the founding of Moo Duk Kwan
- Moo Yong Lee from Moo Duk Kwan
- Il Sup Chun from Jido Kwan
- Nam Suk Lee from Chang Moo Kwan
- Chong Woo Lee from Jido Kwan
These masters were instrumental in developing the systems of their particular kwans, which later joined together to become Taekwondo. (See: Taekwondo History).
- Gup (Color Belts)
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