A friend and colleague of mine Marvin Pelaez stated elsewhere that:
“The key is that you need a Master to become a Master. It is no different than earning a doctorate because you demonstrated competence in research, but are not yet a scholar. The gathering of facts and information does not make you a scholar. You need to spend time with a scholar(s) to understand what it means to be a scholar. And the goal of Master in TKD is to be a scholar in the philosophy and spirituality of TKD- the essence of TKD as martial art, which is, I believe, what General Choi wanted. The physical aspect is only the beginning.”
I think this is a very nice and most thoughtful way of looking at it.
However I think I would like to add a little more something from my perspective, which includes analyzing this from General Choi Hong-Hi’s teachings. I hope readers may find this useful for some doing ITF TKD, or simply looking to examine his ideas on this vitally important issue:
Looking at General Choi’s ITF TKD, he broke down the rank structure into color belts and black belts. The color belts includes 10 gups or grade levels, represented by 5 colors of belts, beginning at white, followed by yellow, green, blue and red. Each of these colors they carefully selected have specific meanings or symbolism for the students who wear these belts.
The Belt Colours and their meanings:
Signifies innocence, as that of the beginning student who has no previous knowledge of Taekwon-Do.
Signifies earth, from which a plant sprouts root as the Taekwon-Do foundation is being laid.
Signifies the plant’s growth, as Taekwon-Do skills begin to develop.
Signifies heaven, toward which the plant matures into a towering tree as training in Taekwon-Do progresses.
Signifies danger, cautioning the student to exercise control and warning the opponent to stay away.
Opposite to white, therefore signifying maturity and proficiency in Taekwon-Do. Also indicates the wearer’s imperviousness to darkness and fear
(Image from chk-taekwondo.com)
General Choi used 10 as the starting point for his 10 grade or gup color belt levels. He stated that 10 was the “lowest existing” double digit number. Therefore he decided to use that as the start, as compared to 11 or 12. General Choi added that the 10 to 1 or 1 to 10 numerical system was ageless, even being carried over into children’s games. So in ITF TKD we start at the lowest two digit number of 10 and count down to 1, before we head to the next level.
After training in the basics for a period ranging from a year to more than three years, depending on actual hours trained during the days of the week, a student could be evaluated for the first level of black belt called Dans or degrees. These black belt Dan levels contain 9 degrees. General Choi again ascribed a particular philosophy for why he chose 9 as our highest or terminal Dan level. His philosophy began with the number 3 and how it has a special significance in the Orient.
General Choi stated that “is the most esteemed of all the numbers.” He described that the Chinese character for 3 was written with three horizontal lines on top of each other. These 3 lines represented as he taught us:
Upper line symbolizes the heaven
Middle line symbolizes mortals
Bottom line symbolizes earth
General Choi then taught us that the person who was “successful in promoting his country, fellowmen and God, and able to reach an accord with all three would aspire to become king.” The Chinese character for King has the same three horizontal lines above one another, with an additional single vertical line through them. As he would go go on to say, they are “nearly synonymous.” Therefore when the special number 3 is multiplied by itself, the result in 9, the highest of single digit numbers.
This was how General Choi derived at establishing IX Dan or 9th Degree as the highest level or terminal degree for his original style or system of Tkd. He did not stop there. General Choi then broke down his black belt levels into three. The first grouping was the novice black belt for those earning a 1st to 3rd Dan. This was followed by the experts or instructor class of black belt, who earned the 4th to 6th Dan. The top or elite masters level, those who understand both the physical and non-physical sides of his Tkd. Of course the title of grandmaster was reserved for those who reached the terminal 9th degree. The color of the black belt is a display of the student’s maturity and proficiency in this style. It also represents indifference to darkness and fear.
Given an understanding of General Choi’s overview of his ranking system, we then can make some comparisons to the academic world of education. When I started Taekwon-Do in the early 1970s, it was common and still is in some circles, to divide the color belt competition categories at a tournament into three. Beginners grouped together white and yellow belts, generally seen as 10th to 7th gups. The intermediate group was comprised of green and blue belts, which was often 6th gup to 3rd gup grade level. The final grouping was the 2nd and 1st gups, who were red belts, with some still using brown belts as well.
Using the above as a starting concept, we can compare the basic training of Taekwon-Do to the basic education system. Generally speaking, academic school system can be seen as 3 levels as well. Their beginner or starting level are sometimes called elementary or primary schools. The next level sees labels such as middle or junior high schools. The top level of a basic education can be referred to as secondary or high school. Therefore I would say that white and yellow belts are like their elementary school counterparts. In the middle for both are the green and blue belts, which can be seen to correspond to middle school. The highest gup levels as represented by red belts, can be considered high school or secondary education. This would make a 1st gup red belt as a high school graduate.
The black belt Dan ranks correspond nicely to the post secondary options afforded by colleges and universities. A 2-year college diploma called an Associates Degree can be compared to the novice 1st to 3rd degree black belts, who sometimes are assistant instructors. Those completing an undergraduate education who earn a Bachelors Degree can be seen as the 4th to 6th Dan experts or instructors. We then can look at those who attend graduate school and earn a Masters Degree to the 7th and 8th Degree Masters in ITF TKD. Finally when one continues in graduate school and earns a Doctorate Degree, they then can be seen as a 9th Degree Grandmaster, as both the PhD and 9th Dan are the terminal degrees in those respective areas. Scholars are often viewed as those who have earned a Masters or Doctorate Degrees, who go onto specialize or excel in their areas of expertise.
(References – The 15 Volume Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do by General CHOI Hong-Hi, his teachings and generic internet search of Chinese Characters) (It is rare in my home Country of the USA to have College Degrees from accredited Universities in the Martial Arts. An exception is Bridgeport University in the State of Connecticut. It is very common in both halves of Korea, the divided peninsula to have programs like this all the way up to the Doctorate level)