Kung Fu Belts: Ranking System Explained


red belt

We all know too well that Oriental martial arts are known for having (usually coloured) belts that designate individual rankings and skills. Trainees always start with a white belt – the beginner’s belt – and finish with a black belt, which designates the rank of a master; black belts usually have several ranks, but that is less important now. In between, most martial arts have several ranks that are symbolised by coloured belts.

The number varies from art to art (there are even variations among different styles or schools of a martial art), but they usually have around eight to ten ranks between the white and the black belt. This is a rule in most Japanese and Korean martial arts, but Chinese martial arts, collectively known as kung fu, are a bit different.

For years, kung fu styles have had no belts whatsoever, but with the development of the arts and external influences, kung fu also developed a belt system similar to the one in its neighbouring domains. 

In today’s article, we are going to discuss the belts in kung fu. We’re going to see how they developed, what they are and what they represent, in order to distinguish them from the belts in other martial arts. So, if you want to know more – continue reading.

Table of contents:

What Is Kung Fu?

Kung fu, actually an umbrella term, encompasses a wide variety of martial arts and it is a thoroughly complicated process of classifying them all. There are several ways and criteria available for classifying all the styles of kung fu.

The first possible classification is based on geography. Within this system, the two dominant groups are the northern and southern styles, but there is also a possibility of classifying styles based on a more specific location like a village, town of province.

Another classification is the one that divides the styles into external and internal, but most commentators agree that this division is obsolete and doesn’t really stress out the difference between the styles. Styles can also be classified based on religious influences present within their philosophies; here, we talk about Buddhist, Taoist and Islamic styles. These are all contemporary systems of classification. 

There have also been several older systems, which can now be described as historical. Some of those systems are the legendary and historical styles, family styles, imitative-styles and styles based on the main style attacking style.

As we have seen, it is almost infinitely complex to describe and classify all the styles of kung fu in one short article. Thus, we have decided to analyse the seven most popular styles, bringing you a brief overview and the basic characteristics of the most popular styles:

  • Shaolin Kung Fu (Chinese: 少林功夫) is probably the best known and most popular style of kung fu. It has been widely represented in films, animation and television and the general public is generally knowledgeable about its existence. Shaolin is closely related to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and dates back more than a millennium, when it was founded in the notoriously famous Shaolin Temple. In popular culture, Shaolin is most famously represented by the travelling Shaolin monks and the stories of their exploits. It utilises a wide range of self-defence techniques, wide stances and a combination of kicks and punches, with the latter being both open- and close-handed. Shaolin trainees study the art through complex forms and because of that, it is said that Shaolin is both the most sophisticated and the most complex kung fu style.
  • Wing Chun (Chinese: 詠春) is also a very popular and well-known style of kung fu. It originated in southern China around 300 years ago and was, interestingly, founded by two women, a nun well-versed in kung fu and her student, a tofu saleswoman, called Yim Wing Chun. It is the only kung fu style named after a woman. Like the majority of southern styles, Wing Chun focuses on close-range combat and upper body movements, i.e. punches. It is a very quick style that relied a lot on agility, but also defensive techniques such as sidestepping and ducking.
  • Tai Chi (Chinese: 太極) is, along with Shaolin, the best known and most popular style of kung fu around the world. It is an inherently internal style with Taoist influences dating as far back as the 12th century, although the style was virtually unknown in China until the last 100 years or so. The concept of the Yin and the Yang is essential to Tai Chi, as is pacifism. It is a very slow style that focuses on awareness, which is why, today, it is mostly studied for its health benefits. It also increases one’s softness and flexibility.
  • Northern Praying Mantis (Chinese: 螳螂拳) has the most peculiar name of all the styles in this article and derives its name from a well-known green insect. The praying mantis generally has a very strong symbolic meaning in Chinese martial arts. It is one of the styles that tend to imitate animal movements and use them in a fighting environment. It is a very quick style that emphasizes footwork along with upper body movements and is well-known for the swiftness and sequential nature of its movements. A similar style, also based on imitating animal movements, is the Monkey Style.
  • Baguazhang (Chinese: 八卦掌) is, along with Tai Chi and Xing Yi Quan, one of the three main internal kung fu styles. It is a relatively new style, founded somewhere in the 19th century and is, like Tai Chi, much influenced by Taoism. Although the techniques of Tai Chi and Baguazhang are very different, both are characterised by slow, fluent movements. The Yin and the Yang play a very important role not just in the philosophy of Baguazhang, but also in the footwork.
  • Xing Yi Quan (Chinese: 形意拳) is the last member of the “internal triumvirate”, along with Tai Chi and Baguazhang. It is the oldest of the three and although it is classified as an internal style, it defies almost all of their postulates. The style is relatively simplistic and rudimentary, and features a variety of straightforward movements that lack the fluent complexity of its brethren. The main element of Xing Yi Quan training is the training of the mind, which makes it an important factor in the system of kung fu.
  • Bajiquan (Chinese: 八極拳) is the last of the styles analysed in this article. It is based on a very aggressive, offensive technique known as the “eight extremities fist”. The elbow is a strong weapon in this style, which is also recognisable because of it quick, thrusting punches to the chest area. It does not focus on the aesthetics of the movements, rather on their strengths. In China, it is also known as the “bodyguard style”, because a lot of local bodyguards have been trained to practice it.

This covers the basics of kung fu. Now – let us see the origin of belts in martial arts. 

Belts in Martial Arts

Oriental martial arts have been practiced in the Far East for centuries, but the belt system is a relatively new phenomenon, just a little over a century old. Before belts were introduced, martial artists handed out certificates (or diplomas) to students who had reached a certain level of knowledge and ability.

But, at the turn of the 20th century, a man called Jigorō Kanō, best known as the founder of judo, decided to introduce coloured belts in his art. This was not a completely original idea, as he was inspired by a similar system present in the Japanese board game of go (similar to chess), but it was a revolution in the world of martial arts.

The essential idea behind the belt system was to enable students to advance more rapidly, but also to enable fighters to quickly identify the level of knowledge their opponent has, thus leading to a more levelled field in potential combat. Kanō’s original colours were blue, white, brown and black, but as the years passed the system had become more sophisticated and included a larger palette of colours. 

Belts in Kung Fu

Now, let us see how the general history relates to out topic. As we’ve said, traditionally – there was no ranking system in Chinese martial art, i.e. kung fu. Of course, people were “graded” and commended based on their skills, but the system was more similar to a familiar hierarchy where the oldest member was the head of the group.

So, status was achieved through age and the older practitioners were held in higher regard than the younger ones. This was, of course, not codified, so there was no guarantee that you would receive a status at a certain age, but it was usually connected. An early testimony of one’s skills and qualities was a signed scroll, which the masters used to attest the skills of their students.

But as the styles developed and began drawing more influences from external sources, coloured belts as a designation of one’s skills slowly entered kung fu and became a part of its modern practice.

We’ve seen that it all began around 1900, which means that coloured belts entered kung fu practice somewhere during the 20th century. Still, China would prove to be different. Namely, they only adapted the general idea of the system, meaning that they made several changes along the way. 

One of the more important changes is the design and the utilisation of the belt. Kung fu belts, albeit coloured, are vastly different than Oriental belts. They are wider, being made out of wide sashes, and are usually made from silk, unlike traditional Japanese and Korean belts, which are narrower and made out of hard, thick materials like wool.

Belts in kung fu are also an important part of the ceremonial attire, unlike other belts, which are in most cases a symbol of one’s status and knowledge. 

What Is the Order of Belts in Kung Fu?

Although most kung fu schools use coloured belts today, it’s not a universal practice, as there are still schools that prefer a traditional approach without belts, where the master decides the rank of the student. But we’ll be discussing the former here. 

As expected, students start of with a white belt. Since they’re made from silk, the belts were initially dyed as the student advanced, which is why it made sense that each following colour was darker than its predecessor. Today, there are pre-coloured belts, meaning that you don’t have to dye your belt over and over. The classic colour structure is as follows:

Color Degree
1st
2nd
3rd
4th
5th
6th
7th
8th
9th
Black belt

The nine trainee belts – all those before the black belt – are divided into three main categories: novice belts, intermediate belts and advanced belts. Advancing to a higher belt is dune via demonstrations where a student demonstrates the skills he has learned; if the examiners deem his skills good enough, they will allow him to advance to a higher belt.

Usually, you have to demonstrate a variety of skills and as you advance, they become wider, more sophisticated and more complex. Also, there has to be a certain time period between being able advance to a higher level. 

This is just the basic structure and most kung fu schools will follow it, but don’t take it as a general rule as there are exceptions. Although only a fraction of the schools has its own ranking system, be sure to inform yourself before you decide to enrol. 

Now, we’ll analyse the belts in more detail.

Novice Belts in the Kung Fu Ranking System

The white belt, which symbolises a new beginning, is not considered to be a part of the three main categories, because it is a beginner’s belt awarded for mere enrolment. Thus, we can deduce that the novice belts are yellow, gold and orange; a student will advance through those ranks in that order.

Novice learning includes basic strikes, blocks, stances and similar skills, as well as several simple practice forms; it is a very simplistic training schedule that will get you through the basics, but not much above that. You remember when, in kung fu movies, the martial artist present almost dance-like moves? Well, novice forms are most similar to those moves, so they might prepare you for a supporting role in a martial arts movie. 

By attending two or three times each week and practicing at home, you can hope to master these three belts within one calendar year. 

The meaning of the three colours is:

Color Degree Meaning
2nd This colour symbolises curiosity and represents the first ray of sunshine.
3rd This colour represents a stage between the initial curiosity and the determination that comes with the orange belt.
4th This colour symbolises a student’s determination; now that he has some skills, he is full of energy and zeal to learn more.

Intermediate Belts in the Kung Fu Ranking System

Intermediate level training will teach you more advanced strikes and stances, different self-defence combinations, more esoteric and complex forms. It can also include some basic teaching experience, as you might be assigned a junior student to practice with you, and you might also start training with weapons.  The intermediate colours are green, blue and purple.

It generally takes one to two years to progress through the intermediate levels of kung fu training.

The meaning of the three colours is:

Color Degree Meaning
5th This colour symbolises the growth a student is experiencing while evolving his skills.
6th Blue symbolises calmness and control, as the student begins to train his mind along with his body.
7th Growing more confident, the student also becomes stronger. Purple symbolises one’s power and ambition.

Advanced Belts in the Kung Fu Ranking System

The last two colours – brown and red – represent advanced training belts and the last belts before attaining the black belt. They symbolised an advance knowledge of kung fu. They include advanced katas (forms), weapons work, philosophical development and contribution to the art of kung fu. When a student reaches these levels, he has to be able to understand kung fu, not just utilise its fighting moves. 

It will usually take around three to four years to reach these levels. 

The meaning of the two colours is:

Color Degree Meaning
8th Like the ground, a brown belt symbolises the stability a student has at this level, but also his seriousness and responsibility.

9th Red symbolises energy and confidence, but also the leadership a student has. He is still a student, but eager to advance and pass his knowledge onto other students and peers.

The Black Belt in the Kung Fu Ranking System

The black belt is the highest degree you can get in kung fu. It symbolises that you’ve mastered all the necessary elements to become a teacher yourself; a black belt is usually the main prerequisite for becoming a teacher in kung fu. It will probably take you around four years to reach this level. 

But attaining a black belt does not mean you’re done – there are higher degrees and many kung fu martial artists are encouraged to begin their training in other styles once they have achieved a high enough black belt ranking. You’ll need about a year to reach each higher degree, so it’ll take you about eight years to obtain an 8th degree black belt, which will also give you the title of master. You can achieve this rank after 11 od 12 years of training. 

You thought this was it? No, there is another rank you can achieve after having become a master – the rank of grandmaster. It is a very rare title given by a soon-to-be retired grandmaster to an individual that has produced a couple of master-level instructors.

These master-level instructors are the foundation of a large kung fu organisation that promotes a particular style of kung fu on a full-time basis. The true master or grandmaster is never self-appointed. Holding the title of master or grandmaster carries with it a significant level of responsibility and represents a lifetime of effort spent building a great kung fu organisation.

The true grandmaster achieves his title by producing many successful masters that are hard at work teaching their art to the next generation. The basic prerequisites are being a kung fu master, having instructed kung fu for at least 30 years, having guided a child and grandchild to a black belt and being true to the philosophies and teachings of your masters and teaches. 

Who Gives Kung Fu Belts?

Unlike other martial arts, there is no centralised body that governs the rules of kung fu. You have the International Kung Fu Federation (IKF), but its role is only advisory and while it can offer some guidance and support, it cannot fully influence the rules and regulations.

The belts are, thus, governed by each individual school or an organisation the school is part of. This is why there are exceptions to the general framework and there are schools that do not follow the scheme that we’ve presented in the paragraphs above. This is why it is very important to inform yourselves about the school you are planning to enrol in.

You have to see what style the school teaches and how that style fits into your plans and ideas. Because kung fu is so complex and involves a lot of styles, you have to find the style that fits your needs best. But even when you do that, you have to see how the school works and what belt system it uses to know how you can advance and achieve the desired rank. 

To summarise, kung fu offers a lot of different approaches and it is exactly because of that that you have to be careful which school you chose. So, inform yourself about the different approaches and have several options ready if you’re planning on starting with kung fu practice.

And this is the story of belts and belt colours in the martial art of kung fu. I hope you enjoyed our newest piece and that you’ll be following us for more of the same.

If you are interested, here are the breakdowns of rankings systems (belts) in other martial arts:

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