Scott Be Positive

Understanding the Rank Structure of Hapkido

By Scott Shaw

Prior to the 1970s, Hapkido possessed only four stages of rank advancement between the White and the 1st Degree Black Belt. The belts were: White, Yellow, Blue, Red, and Black. As the modern era dawned, due to the fact that many Hapkido Instructors were either involved with or influenced by Taekwondo, they have chosen to employ the more common ten step method of promotion used in Taekwondo. No matter what rank promotion method is employed, it takes approximately three and one half years to achieve the 1st Degree Black Belt in Hapkido.

The traditional Hapkido testing curriculum involves a student demonstrating self-defense techniques, commonly referred to as hand techniques, throws, strikes, punches, and kicks. In traditional Hapkido there are no forms or poomse. The Hapkido systems that teach forms were instigated by later practitioners of the art that were influenced by Taekwondo and other hard style Korean martial arts. 

Following is a common example of Hapkido promotion standards:
10 Gup White Belt
9 Gup Yellow Belt
8 Gup Yellow Belt
7 Gup Yellow Belt
6 Gup Blue Belt
5 Gup Blue Belt
4 Gup Blue Belt
3 Gup Red Belt
2 Gup Red Belt
1 Gup Red Belt
1st Dan Black Belt

The Minimum age one must be to obtain the 1st Dan Black Belt in Hapkido is either sixteen or eighteen years old, depending on the organization. For younger students, who have studied Hapkido for the necessary amount of time and have demonstrated proficiency in the art, they are awarded the Junior Black Belt. Junior Black Belts may be awarded up to the 3rd Degree.

Whereas, full Black Belt holders are known as 1st Dan, 2nd Dan, etc. Junior Black Belts are referred to as 1st Pum, 2nd Pum, or 3rd Pum.

If a young student has advanced to the level of 3rd Pum Black Belt, they may then either be recertified as a full 3rd Dan Black Belt, or, if the appropriate amount of time has elapsed, they may test for the 4th Dan Black Belt when they reach the age of eighteen.

Note: This rank distinction, based on age, was not something that was originally utilized in Hapkido grading. This is a criteria that came to be employed by Hapkido organizations during the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Again, having been influenced by the testing principles utilized by South Korean-based Taekwondo organizations.

1st Dan Black Belt
Approximately three and a half years after the beginning of Hapkido training.

Minimum age, eighteen years old.

2nd Dan Black Belt
Approximately two years of continued training after receiving the 1st Dan.

3rd Dan Black Belt
Approximately three years of continued study after receiving the 2nd Dan.

4th Dan Black Belt
Approximately four years of continued training after receiving the 3rd Dan.

The Hapkido 4th Dan is the minimum rank a practitioner must possess to be considered for instructor status. Prior to this, the Black Belt holder is understood to be simply an advanced student.

Upon obtaining the rank of 4th Dan, the Hapkido practitioner may then apply for Instructor Certification — this involves demonstrating an advanced knowledge of the art and passing the Instructor Certification Examinations.

5th Dan Black Belt
Approximately five years of continued training and teaching after receiving the 4th Dan.

Upon successful completion of the 5th Dan Promotional Testing, the Hapkido practitioner may then apply for Master Instructor Certification. The testing process for this involves demonstrating an advanced knowledge of the physical, mental, and internal energy aspects of Hapkido — through both physical and written testing.

The Korean language title, "Sa Bum Nim," which can loosely be translated as, "Master Instructor," may only be rightly used by those technicians who have successfully passed the examination and have achieved this level in the art. It is important to note, the term, "Master," used in this connotation is more akin to that of British English than American English in that it does not mean that an individual is a, "Master," of all techniques, it simply means that they are a teacher and an overseer of students.

6th Dan Black Belt
Approximately six years of continued involvement after receiving the 5th Dan.

Minimum age, approximately thirty years old.
7th Dan Black Belt
Approximately seven years of continued involvement after receiving the 6th Dan.

Minimum age, approximately thirty-seven years old.

To obtain the rank of 7th Dan Black Belt in Hapkido involves extensive physical and written testing. Not only must the practitioner prove superior knowledge of the physical and mental aspects of the art but must write an extensive thesis on Hapkido, as well.

The 7th Dan Black Belt is the first rank where the Hapkido Master Instructor may recommend a student for promotion to the rank of 5th Dan Black Belt. If their student passes the 5th Dan testing, the Hapkido 7th Dan may, if desired, attach the Korean language title of, "Kwa Jang Nim," to their name. This term is loosely translated as, "School or Student Overseer," or more colloquially it is understood to mean, "Grand Master;" a teacher of teachers. In recent years, with the anglicizing of the Korean martial arts, the title, "Chong Kwan Jang,” has also come to be used as a connotation of Grand Master. But, it is essential to understand that the title, "Grand Master," was never associated with the traditional Korean martial arts in Korea. This title did not come into usage until the large movement of the Korean martial arts to the western world came into play in the 1970s.

8th Dan Black Belt
Approximately eight years after receiving the 7th Dan.

Minimum age, approximately forty-five years old.

9th Dan Black Belt
Approximately nine years of continued excellence and devotion to the art after receiving the 8th Dan.

Minimum age, approximately fifty-five years old.

10th Dan Black Belt
Reserved for the founder of the system.

In the case of Hapkido, Yong Shul Choi.

The 10th Dan is also used by the successor to a system. In the case of Hapkido, this is in dispute. Thus, several Hapkido organizations have arisen and a few individuals claim the rank of 10th Dan due to the fact that they have altered the original art to a significant degree and have founded their own Kwan or branch of Hapkido.

For more information about the evolution of Hapkido you can read: The History of Hapkido.

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