What is Kung Fu?
The term Kung Fu refers to the martial arts of China. Kung Fu originated in a place called the Shaolin Temple, where monks practiced Kung Fu for health and self-defense during their quest for enlightenment.
Kung Fu is not a single martial art. There are numerous martial arts that fall under the Kung Fu umbrella. It can also be referred to as Wushu to Gung Fu.
Over the years, Kung Fu has evolved and there are now Kung Fu belts that are reminiscent of the same system used in other martial arts like Judo.
All over the world, Kung Fu is practiced in many forms, such as Hung Ga and Wing Chun. Tai Chi, and Xingyiquan are amongst the most popular forms, with the lesser known disciplines becoming more and more popular.
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Kung Fu Belts and Ranking System
History of Kung Fu Belts and Sashes
Traditionally there is no grading system in the Chinese martial arts. Rather, students in a Chinese martial arts school would be ranked in a manner similar to that of a family placing the eldest at the head.
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.
Of course in the case of a martial arts school age would not itself used to measure seniority but rather the length of time spent in the school.
As such students entering such a school would be expected to pay respect to their seniors, even if in time they became more proficient than them.
The purpose of colored belts is to create a seniority gradient throughout the students to help facilitate the passing of knowledge of the art from a senior to a junior.
This also encourages a student who wishes to progress their knowledge in the art by providing incremental goals that he or she can achieve within a relatively short period of time.
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. The teacher would sign the scroll himself.
Judo was made formal in the 1900s which meant that changes were a foot in the world of kung fu. Jigoro Kano, the founder of modern Judo, implemented the use white and black belts so that people could identify beginners (white belts) from the more experienced students (black belts).
Black and white were the only colors for many schools until judo became very popular in Europe and more colors were introduced.
The same color system was implemented Kung Fu began during the 70s with kung fu schools throughout the world using colors to identify fighters skill levels.
The Difference of Belts and Belt System
In karate, the belt system is designed as a way to display the practitioner’s specific skill level. In most instances in karate, the darker the belt, which is also referred to as an obi, the most skilled the wearer. So, a black belt would be ranked higher than a blue belt who is in turn ranked higher than a white belt.
Kung fu has its roots in China whereas karate has its roots in Japan. The two are as different as their place of origin.The majority of martial arts belts consist of a very thick material, for example heavy wool.
It is not uncommon to see belts made of thick wool or hybrids of thick fabrics. Kung Fu differs from most martial arts belts as they are made up of wide sashes and are made from silk.
Some modern belts can be made from cotton and is stitched with several lines of stitching, to give more thickness and strength, but the tradition is to stick with silk.
In Kung Fu, the belt is seen as a weapon and not just as a status of how long you have been fighting and it is also an important part of the ceremonial uniform.
Originally the color of sashes worn by Chinese people had nothing to do with kung fu fighting or ranking, they were just an addition to theater performances.
The bold colors of the ashes were worn by actors to stand out to the crowd and to add verve to their performances. You will still see people use sashes in Chinese theater, even though they are now widely recognized as martial arts belts.
Color Structure in Kung Fu Belts
Most schools use the belt system to rank kung fu but not all. Some schools will stick to the signing of the scroll as an indication of a students progression.
Some smaller schools rely completely on the master to decide what level the student is at, with some student’s progressing more quickly than they would on a standard belt system.
Originally, the white belt was simply dyed to a new color. This repeated dying process dictated the type of belt color and the order of the colors. The standard belt color system is white, yellow, gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red and black.
Due to the dying process, it was only practical to increasingly use darker colors. All of this came about shortly after the Second World War, when Korea and Japan were very poor countries. Dying the belts to a new color was a cheap way to have a visible, simple and effective ranking system.
Belt colors are divided into three main categories; novice, intermediate and advanced. The majority of kung fu academies and schools across the world follow this belting system.
Yellow, orange and blue belts indicate novice levels of training in kung fu, with students moving through those ranks in that order. Students at this level can expect to drill on basic strikes, blocks, stances and similar skills, as well as several simple practice forms – the formal dance-like practice you see in kung fu movies.
By attending two or three times each week and practicing at home, a student can expect to spend about a year moving through these ranks.
Intermediate level training includes advanced strikes and stances, self-defense combinations, more esoteric and complex forms and often teaching experience while mentoring a junior student.
Green, then brown belts indicate this level of training; many programs use two or three levels of brown belt. In some schools, weapons training begins at this level. It generally takes one to two years to progress through the intermediate levels of kung fu training.
A black belt indicates advanced skill in kung fu, and is often the default qualification for teaching kung fu. Most students can earn their black belt after three to four years of dedicated training, but advanced “degrees” of black belt continue for the rest of a practitioner’s life. Black belt requirements include advanced katas, weapons work, philosophical development and contribution to the art of 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.
Degrees of Black Belt
Degrees of black belt are achieved within 12 months of receiving your black belt, providing the student continues training and progressing. Every additional year of training after your black belt earns you a degree. There are seven degrees of black belt leading up to your 8th degree or the rank of Master.
To be ranked as Master of Kung Fu, you generally have to achieve 8 years of training from receiving your black belt, with a minimum of 11 years of training all in all.
A grandmaster is promoted by the soon-to-be-retired senior grandmaster, after this individual has produced a couple of master-level instructors. These master-level instructors and sifu are the foundation of a martial arts organization of significant size that promotes a particular system on a full-time basis.
The true master or grandmaster is not self-appointed. Holding the title of master or grandmaster carries a significant level of responsibility and represents a lifetime of effort spent building a great martial arts organization. The true grandmaster achieves his title by producing many successful masters and sifus that are hard at work teaching their art to the next generation.
Historically, the following achievements need to be made before being given the title of Grandmaster
- Hold the rank of Master in Kung Fu .
- Have instructed the art of Kung Fu for over 30 years.
- Have taught a son or daughter of 18 years of age to the level of black belt.
- Have taught a grandchild of 18 years of age to the level of black belt.
- Have remained true to the teaching and philosophies of your teachers and renowned kung fu grandmasters around the world.
Governing of Belts
Each time you take the belt test, you demonstrate that you understand and can execute the required minimum basics to meet your new belt level.
Each time you test, you reaffirm your past knowledge and display your recently acquired knowledge and skills. At the end of the test… celebrate! It builds your confidence and self-esteem and you deserve it.
Display your new knowledge, build upon your confidence level, one step or one rank at a time.
There is no centralized authority that governs the structure and requirements for kung fu rank. Instead, individual kung fu schools, organizations or teachers decide for the students in their programs.
This means that, though there is a general framework, individual schools may vary widely from this baseline. For example, some programs add a purple belt between the orange and blue ranks, and others include red or gold sashes at the intermediate level.
The International Kung fu Federation (IKF) is an international governing body of the national and international kung fu organizations in the world and can offer guidance to kung fu schools around the world.