Kung Fu is not a single martial art. There are numerous martial arts that fall under the category of Kung Fu (also spelled as Gung Fu or Wushu). Still, over the ages, Kung Fu has evolved and adapted and there are now Kung Fu belts that are reminiscent of the same system used in other martial arts like Judo.
Many Kung Fu styles, like Wing Chun and Hung Ga, are being taught all over the world. Wing Chun, Tai Chi, and Xingyiquan are some of the most famous around the world. Then there are modern alternatives that are derived from these styles, such as Bruce Lee’s very own Jeet Kune Do.
Kung Fu Belts and Ranking System
The History of Kung Fu Belts
One thing that people often forget is that the art of Kung Fu, no matter which style is being discussed, uses no belt system. For many centuries a student would learn under one master and the only means to identify that the student is advancing is through the use of a signed scroll.
The teacher himself would sign the scroll. One page may indicate that the student had accomplished his training in a particular technique or that he had defeated a certain number of enemies in the martial arts school. The student would rely on the scroll to be proof of his or her achievements in the art.
Things changed in the early 1900s when Judo became formalized. Jigoro Kano, the founder of modern Judo, decided to use white and black belts in order to distinguish the beginners (white belts) from the more experienced students (black belts).
For many schools the only colors were white and black. However, when Judo became a hit in Europe, Western schools started to introduce different colors so that students could visually gauge their progress.
Not so long after, Kung Fu began to adopt the same system, especially during the 1970s-1990s when Eastern martial arts were particularly famous due to celebrities like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan. Every Kung Fu school from Hong Kong to the United States began adapting the colored belt system.
The Difference of Kung Fu Belts
In most martial arts, the belt is made of a very thick fabric. It is not uncommon to see belts made of thick wool or hybrids of thick fabrics. For Kung Fu, however, there is a major difference because the belts in Kung Fu are wide sashes often made from silk.
This is because the belt or sash in Kung Fu is also quite symbolic and aesthetic in purpose. Everything in Kung Fu is taken into strong consideration and the use of silk sashes has been upheld because of their ceremonial purpose in centuries passed.
In most martial arts the belt is only an indication of ranking but the Kung Fu belt is used as a weapon, as a part of the ceremonial uniform, and it also represents the type of Kung Fu that is being taught.
Aesthetic Role of the Kung Fu Belt
For many years the sash was not used for ranking but was an integral part of Chinese theater. By using wide, brightly colored sashes made of silk, the characters on the stage would instantly pop out. Even though the sash is now being used for martial arts instead of theater performances, the style has remained.
Color Structure in Kung Fu Belts
Not all Kung Fu schools use the belt system. As mentioned above, many schools prefer the traditional system of a signed scroll. Others take it to a more intimate level where only the master or instructor fully understands the level of skill and experience of their students.
The schools that do use the colored belt system split the colors in three major categories: novice belts, intermediate belts, and advanced belts.
Novice belts: yellow, orange and blue. During these stages a student is expected to learn the basic strikes, defenses, counters, and stances of Kung Fu. Everything is done in drills and basic sparring. It normally takes around 1 to 2 years to go through all three belts in this category.
Intermediate belts: green, brown, blue (optional). During this stage the student begins weapons training as well as the adaption of more complex techniques.
It is during these stages that the instructor begins bestowing some of the more intricate lessons of Kung Fu. 2 to 3 years is the average time to go through this category.
Advanced belt: black. There are several degrees of black. Some schools go up to nine degrees. When a person has reached this category they are given permission to begin teaching their own students.
It is also during this stage that they learn unique katas, philosophical concepts, and begin their contribution to Kung Fu.
Attaining a black belt in Kung Fu is not the end of training – there are higher degrees and many Kung Fu artists are encouraged to begin their training in other styles once they have achieved a high enough black belt ranking.