B is for Belts and Bunkai
Belts are one of the most instantly recognizable symbols associated with martial arts and when I tell people I teach karate one of the first questions they ask me is my rank (denoted by the belt, of course). Here's the problem with that: belts aren't a standardized system of ranking. Depending on the martial art, the master, heck, sometimes even the individual school, you can get quite a lot of variability. Some martial arts systems have 4 belt ranks/colors whereas others have upwards of 20. (Some schools will even add colors simply so that they can charge their students more to test more frequently. Seriously.)
Which is why I'm not going to talk about the belt system of my school but rather about the original belt system conceptualized at the beginning of Tang Soo Do.
White: The first belt of the system, given to beginners as soon as they begin study. White represents Winter and symbolizes emptiness, innocence, hidden potential and purity. This is the "Empty Cup" part of study- you have no preconceived notions, no previous experience and subsequently it's assumed that you've got nowhere to go but up. Your abilities haven't been uncovered yet, your artistry is undeveloped. Though they are beginners, white belts still demand a ton of respect because they are the students- the unmolded pieces of clay, the blank canvas.
Green: Green represents Spring and symbolizes growth and blossoming. This is the stage of development where students learn quickly and passionately about the art they study. Athletic abilities become apparent through the techniques performed and the passions of each student make themselves apparent in their pursuit of new knowledge.
Red: The advanced stage of development, red represents Summer and symbolizes ripening and the Yang principal of activeness. Red belts are fast practitioners with a decent amount of knowledge and advanced ability. They are the aggressive contrast to the calm of black belts (Yin) and their energy drives them forward with each time they practice.
Midnight Blue: I know what you're thinking- not black? Then why do we call them called black belts?!? Well, because in other styles black is the highest rank and therefore the closest compatible reference. Why'd they change it? Because black is a color to which nothing can be added as it is composed of all the colors in the visible spectrum. Since black belts are still learning, the color was changed to Midnight Blue (as in there's still room for growth).
Ah-hem, as I was saying: Midnight Blue represents Autumn and symbolizes maturity, calm, harvest and the Um principal of soft, fluid movement. Black belts are evolved students with a wealth of wisdom and ability. Their movements are graceful and their understanding of the movement is extremely advanced. There is significantly more emphasis on teaching and all black belts (at least in my school) are required to instruct.
It is frequently said in my gym that black belt, rather than being the end, is actually the very beginning of real understanding of the art. Having achieved my black belt almost five years ago I can attest that this is 100% true. I still feel like a beginner in many, many ways and that's a good thing- because I've got so much more room to grow.
Bunkai means application and refers to the individual movements of our forms (katas) and how they can be applied to real-life fighting. You might think that katas represent movements through a choreographed fight if you didn't know any better. Unfortunately it's not that simple. Why?
Because these techniques, let's not forget, can be used to injure, maim and ultimately kill people. Historically they were taught en-mass to large groups of people for these purposes and then practiced in open fields (where other people could watch). If I'm training an army I want to keep my techniques hidden from the enemy, right? Thus katas. They combined the individual techniques into a single series of movements so that they could be practiced without the enemy knowing exactly what they were looking at. Because of this, the actual application of each individual technique is often not understood until it is isolated and performed on its own. (Thus why I and many of my fellow classmates are often baffled when asked what a particular movement in the form is meant to do.)
I would say that of all the different elements of my art, this is one I understand the least (partially because they don't begin teaching it until you reach black belt). Like I said, I've got a lot of room to grow.