What Is a Black Belt?

Unabridged and expanded article by the same title originally published in Black Belt magazine, July 2001.
13th Degree Black Belt     The word that used to be associated with black belt was 'coveted' because not too many people could earn one.  ...  The phony black belt has been marketed so well that the general public doesn't know what's right anymore.
—Gary Alexander, 1999  

    The last time we had a black belt in karate come and party with us, he came out on the losing end. My students had a feast with the fresh meat. I teach my people to take no prisoners, but eat them. By the way, I'm a vegetarian.

—Bill Anderson, 1998  

    My son received his black belt at Mini Hanshi Karate and although he is only nine years old, he is already a national champion.  If he trains in your school, how long before he receives his second degree black belt?

—Name withheld to protect the ignorant  

    I'm only a blue belt, but you see, in our system a blue belt is equal to a black belt in any other school.

—Gracie Juijitsu student, 2000  

24 pt letter 'A' mong the many things for which the West can thank China are paper money and martial arts. These are not entirely dissimilar because there exists, even today, a remarkable parallel between these two human inventions.

In 1260 A.D., the Yuan government made paper money the only legal tender throughout the Chinese empire. No longer would a nation's wealth and prestige be seen by enormous stacks of gold and silver, but by the faces and images on its paper currency.

Paper money offers numerous benefits over minted coinage (it's lighter to carry around for one thing), and as long as an economy remains productive paper currency works very well — so well, in fact, that today it is used around the world. No rational nation on the earth would ever consider going back to a gold standard. However, for all of its benefits, paper money has two major weaknesses: It is highly susceptible to forgery and inflation. So it is with the martial arts.

Although all Asian martial arts did not originate in China, it is still fair to say that the all Asian martial arts have, to varying degrees, been influenced by China's martial traditions. Like China's paper money, Asian martial arts have spread throughout the world. However, just as currency evolved from gold and silver to paper representations of the same, so too have the martial arts. No longer are the martial arts represented by the skill and power of its practitioners, but by the faces, images, and signatures displayed on "black belt" certificates. Moreover, with all of its popularity, martial arts, like paper currency, have proven highly susceptible to, you guessed it, forgery and inflation. This is most obvious when we consider the denomination of choice, the black belt.

What Is a Black Belt
Black Belt image

The question sounds simple enough, yet despite the plethora of martial art publications today, there are surprisingly few books or articles that attempt to define or even describe exactly what a black belt is. In fact, my own search of more than a dozen martial art texts and numerous periodicals turned up not a single definition of the highly "coveted" rank. To find one I had to turn to stable references such as encyclopedias and dictionaries.

The 1998 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica refers to a black belt in the context of judo. "White belts are worn by novices and black by masters, with intermediate grades denoted by other colors." (So, masters wear black belts. Hmmm.) According to Webster's New World Dictionary (1984) a black belt is "awarded to an expert of the highest skill in judo or karate" [emphasis added].

If these definitions are indicative of the uninitiated public's perception of a black belt, then a black belt in their eyes is at least "an expert of the highest skill" (except, of course, to those who have successfully beaten up one or more claimants). Some may disagree that this is the public's perception, but how many times have martial artists — black belts — heard comments like, "I'll be sure not to mess with you" or "We're all safe with you around," after being introduced and identified as a black belt? Arguments to the contrary aside, the general association of the term "black belt" with attainment of the highest level of expertise in the martial arts is a common one.

Defacto Standard
Those connected with — though not necessarily knowledgeable about — the martial arts may ask: "Why all the fuss? Everyone knows what a black belt is." Is that so? We know what those outside the martial arts think they know what a black belt represents, but does their definition match what we, those intimately familiar with the arts, believe? Hardly. Even within the martial arts community itself, where no accepted objective standard for the rank exists, the answer is still a resounding "no."

Ask a dozen instructors, "What is a black belt?" and you will receive a 12 very different answers. Granted, most of the differences can be attributed to stylistic issues (e.g. Chinese practitioners say there is so much more to learn in their arts that it simply takes longer to earn a black belt in their schools than it does in those that teach other Asian arts), but other differences are essentially market-driven. For instance, one school owner confided, "My students' parents expect their child will be a second-degree black belt by age 12. If not, they will take him elsewhere."

Ironically, the general public has a fairly uniform understanding what is a black belt — an expert of the highest skill — yet many parents expect their children will attain that level before they reach puberty. Inflated parental estimations and expectations aside, does anyone really believe that the local Mini Hanshi Karate-Mart can produce genuine "experts of the highest skill" before the candidates reach puberty, much less maturity? It is just such situations that make the question, "What is a black belt?" highly relevant because we (martial art practitioners and instructors) are evaluated and compared based on the public's perceptions and expectations — as whimsical and unrealistic as they may be.


We cannot fault non-martial artists for holding such an idealistic, albeit erroneous, perception of a what a black belt is. We, as martial artists, are partly to blame for their misunderstanding because we ourselves do not hold a uniform, singular or consistent view of the rank. A part of me (the idealistic side) wishes we had an accepted and objective standard for the coveted belt. But logically, I know full well that any definition would be so broad and watered down that the only way the term "black belt" would mean anything would be to tack on numerous degrees.
Sadly, this has already happened.   In the second edition of Who's Who in American Martial Arts, published in 1985, the late kenpo master William K.S. Chow is listed as a 15th degree black belt!1 If anyone in the last 100 years deserved recognition for his dedication to and skill in the martial arts, Chow certainly did, but his claim to 15th degree came about precisely because black belts had become so cheap that even this master's credentials had to be pumped up to be recognized for their true value.

Monk Key Dungs

Given the great disparity between public perception and reality, martial artists to whom the belt is still "coveted" are increasingly pressured to lower their standards. Those who refuse face extinction. Refusing to compromise their standards, many, even now, teach only in small I-wish-it-could-be-for-profit schools, holding day jobs to make their living.

Everything and Nothing
Despite the uninitiated public's fairly uniform expectation of what is a black belt and what it represents, the reality is that the coveted rank is not so easily defined. Like paper currency, black belt rank is subject to the risks of inflation, but with an important difference — the worth of paper money is objectively established by comparing it with other stable currencies. Such comparisons are all but impossible in the martial arts because requirements for black belt vary widely between arts, between schools, and between teachers. However, there is a parallel from outside the martial arts that may help.
Looking at higher education we can compare the time requirements for receiving a black belt with the time required to earn a bachelor's degree in, say, physical education or kinesiology? Excluding the 12 years of education that must precede college, four years of concentrated instruction are required to earn a bachelor's degree. The typical "Black Belt" program only involves a couple of hours a night, a few days a week. But let's take it a step further. Does that bachelor's degree qualify the recipient as an expert in his or her field? Hardly. Such a degree really only prepares one to seriously learn. Moreover, it takes many more years of "concentrated" study and experience to earn "expert" status in that or any other field.2 All three disciplines — physical education, kinesiology, and martial arts — focus on primarily physical training, so the basis for this comparison is actually quite reasonable. Looked at that way and you can draw your own conclusions regarding the relative value of a black belt from this school or that.

The real problem remains — and this is the core issue — that the black belt represents an ideal, not some tangible product; and just as paper currency is only as strong as the government that stands behind it, a black belt certificate is only as good as the training that went into it, the standards that were met to earn it, and the instructor who awarded it. Black belt, then, means, simultaneously, everything and nothing. Everything for the life-long practitioner. Everything for the individual whose life depends on "expert" skill. Nothing to those who routinely turn out inflated paper certificates.

Three Bullets

Having made my points about "What is a Black Belt?", the following words by John Graden, provide a great closing statement.

    The only two ranks that matter are white belt and black belt. White belt represents courage [the courage to risk failure] and black belt represents persistence and follow through. ... The world is full of great starters, but it is the ability to follow through to the end, that separates the best of us from the rest of us.3

  1. Who's Who In American Martial Arts: Second Edition, Greenville, N.C.: Dale Brooks, Publisher, 1985.
    [Return to reference point]
  2. Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001), winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in economics, coined a psychological law — the 10-year rule — which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. [Philip E. Ross (2006, July). The Expert Mind. Scientific American magazine].
    [Return to reference point]
  3. Martial Arts Professional, John Graden, Publisher, August 2001, p.8.

Je du-too School of Martial Arts Black Belt Recipients:

Since the start of our school in 1983, the following individuals (listed alphabetically)
have earned and received their black belts from us:

Jeff Baker
Ed Daniels
Michael Ford
John McKenna
David Olson
Ron Richardson — Senior Instructor in our school
Danny Young

Our  emphasis  is  on  the  practical.
©Copyright Bob Orlando, 2000-2016
All rights reserved.
E-mail: Ron@OrlandoKuntao.com
Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.