Kung Fu belt ranks might confuse some people since there are hundreds of styles and sub-styles. The belt ranks and student progression through the system differ between these styles and organizations.
In short, Kung Fu belt ranks include between eight and ten different ranks (or grades). Each rank has a different solid color belt and typically goes from white belts (beginners) to black belts.
In this article, you will learn all about the history of the Kung Fu belt ranking system, how it works in practice, and how students progress through the ranks.
What is Kung Fu?
Kung Fu is a broad term, and it stands for the “high level of skills and proficiency achieved through hard effort.” Or in other words, Kung Fu does not need to be a martial art practice. It can be any skill achieved through hard work. But over the years, it became a universal term for Chinese martial arts.
Kung Fu splits into northern and southern styles, which split further into different sub-styles based on the region, town, or village. Next, styles are also based on different philosophies, religious beliefs and influences such as Islam or Buddhism.
Since it would be impossible to name them all, here is a list of the most popular Kung Fu styles or martial art systems considered Kung Fu:
- Wing Chun — is a Southern style of Kung Fu. Wing Chun focuses on narrow stances, tight guards, blocks, and fast striking. The key is to use the attacker’s momentum against them by focusing on speed and technique rather than power.
- Shaolin Kung Fu — is one of the oldest styles that has been around for thousands of years. The style consists of various animal forms and self-defense techniques and has dozens of different sub-styles.
- Tai Chi — is also known as “shadowboxing.” This style puts a lot of emphasis on spiritual growth and overcoming oneself through martial art practices and philosophies.
- Sanda — is also known as Chinese kickboxing, and it might be the most practical form of Kung Fu. It is a full contact system that focuses on effective punching and kicking techniques and how to mix those with wrestling and judo techniques.
- Baguazhang — is a soft style focused on slow and flowing movements.
Kung Fu belt history
Kung Fu has been around for thousands of years, but the belt ranking system is a modern feature.
Belt ranking became a part of Kung Fu shortly after the founder of Judo, Kano Jigoro, introduced the color belt ranks to the world for the first time in the 19th century.
The initial version included only two ranks — white and black belts. But more belt colors would be added over the years, and many other martial arts would adopt this system from judo like karate, taekwondo, and many styles of Kung Fu.
Of course, each Kung Fu style has its variations of the system and the number of colors. But the core concept of how the ranking works the same way.
Traditional kung fu does not have any belt rank. When students reach a certain skill level, they receive a diploma or certificate.
Most modern schools, notably the ones in the western world, use belt ranks to separate students by level of skill, age, and experience.
However, one important thing to note is that belt ranks are not as important as in some martial arts. Or at least, the instructors do not attach much importance to it.
What is the Belt Order in Kung Fu?
The order of belts and number of colors in Kung Fu varies between styles, but most include 9 degrees and the same number of solid color belts.
Like in most other martial arts, there are junior/student ranks and additional senior or black belt ranks.
Student (junior) ranks:
- White — 1st degree
- Yellow — 2nd degree
- Gold — 3rd degree
- Orange — 4th degree
- Green — 5th degree
- Blue — 6th degree
- Purple — 7th degree
- Brown — 8th degree
- Red — 9th degree
- Black belt
Further, the Kung Fu belt ranks split up into three different categories, which indicate the stage of learning and proficiency:
- Novice — white, yellow, gold, and orange belts
- Intermediate — green, blue, and purple belts
- Advanced — brown and red belts
Once students complete the junior Kung Fu grading ranks and earn a 1st-degree black belt, they move to senior black belt ranks.
- 1st degree
- 2nd degree
- 3rd degree
- 4th degree
- 5th degree
- 6th degree
- 7th degree
- 8th degree
Kung Fu Belts Explained
Following is a detailed explanation of each stage of learning and what each kung fu belt means.
- Yellow belt — signifies the rays of sunshine at the dawn and the birth of a new life
- Gold belt — represents the energy and enthusiasm
- Orange belt — represents determination and persistence
You may have noticed that the white belt is not in the group of Novice belts. This is because a person gets the white belt BEFORE committing to training, while yellow belts have already made some progress.
At the novice level, the emphasis is on learning the fundamentals, such as blocks, stances, and basic katas/forms.
The stage between gold and orange belt is where students start switching from theoretical knowledge and pre-arranged forms to combat moves called “Sanda.”
To transition to the intermediate belts, they must master all the fundamentals to perfection and develop clean and fluid techniques.
They must execute different high/low kicks, escapes, blocks, basic principles of grappling, and punches with proper technique.
On average, it takes around 1.5 to 2 years to move to the next level.
- Green belt — signifies growth and progression. Students are starting to adopt more complex moves and combos.
- Blue belt — signifies self-control and patience. Students perform with better focus and self-belief and have better control of their movements.
- Purple belt — signifies confidence, self-belief, and strength.
An intermediate stage of kung fu learning is the hardest because students start to adopt more complex techniques and combos. This is also a stage where pure self-defense drills and the basic principles of defense come into play.
As they approach the advanced stage of learning, students begin learning the basics of weapons, such as nun chucks and bō staff. But this varies between the schools.
On average, it takes between 1.5 and 2 years of hard work at the intermediate level before moving to an advanced stage.
- Brown belt — signifies mastery. Students know their strengths and weaknesses and are starting to develop signature styles.
- Red belt — signifies leadership. Students are slowly starting to assist instructors in teaching the classes and passing down the knowledge to less experienced students.
This level requires a deeper understanding of Kung Fu philosophies and contribution to the art. To earn a black belt, students must demonstrate:
- Strong leadership skills
- High level of proficiency in executing techniques
- Perform in a flow and with control
- Master all the forms/katas and weapons
- Contribute to the art by teaching classes and hosting seminars
- Master philosophical theories
After around 4–5 years of consistent training, students can expect to be promoted to the black belt.
Reaching the black belt rank is the dream of every Kung Fu student. But it is not the end of the road, as the black belt signifies the start of a new journey.
Yes, you are considered an expert, but you must obtain an additional eight black belt degrees.
How Long Does It Take To Get Each Belt in Kung Fu?
Here is a detailed look into how long it takes to get each belt in Kung Fu, on average. Remember that the time and way students progress differs between the styles and regions.
Here is a general overview:
|Color belt||Rank||Time to achieve|
|White belt||1st degree||Beginner belt|
|Yellow belt||2nd degree||3 months|
|Gold belt (not in all styles)||3rd degree||3 months|
|Orange belt||4th degree||6 months|
|Green belt||5th degree||6 months|
|Blue belt||6th degree||6 months|
|Purple belt||7th degree||9 months|
|Brown belt||8th degree||9 months|
|Red belt||9th degree||12 months|
|Black belt||1st dan (Shodan)||Total time: 4.5 years|
How Long Does it Take to Get a Black Belt in Kung Fu?
It takes around 5 years of consistent training for a student with average talent and physical fitness to reach a black belt rank in Kung Fu. Students can only do this if they attend at least 3 classes a week and don’t make significant pauses along the way.
However, remember that Kung Fu has many styles, some being easier/harder to learn than others.
Further, the promotional criteria and the way students earn belts differ between the styles, countries, regions, towns, and schools.
No one can give you closer numbers simply due to the lack of standards and regulations.
But one thing is for sure, you can’t achieve a black belt rank in Kung Fu in less than 3.5–4 years, no matter how talented and dedicated you are.
If the school you want to enroll in says you can do it in less, be sure to search for another one.
The criteria and quality of coaching staff are probably weak, which enables you to go through the belts faster, but at the cost of skills.
Who Gives Belts in Kung Fu?
The Kung Fu belt ranking system is not standardized on the global level. The main governing body responsible for kung fu worldwide is the “International Kung Fu Federation (IKF).” But this organization does not have anything to do with belt promotions at all.
When it comes to promoting students to the higher ranks, no governing body is responsible for overseeing the belt testing and recording students moving throughout the ranks.
Unlike in martial arts like karate and taekwondo, there is no official testing where students must demonstrate the required proficiency level in front of the board of examiners.
No, it is more like in BJJ, where the primary instructor does the promotion. It is up to them to determine whether a student has made enough progress to go up in rankings.
This also means many variations between schools regarding the promotional criteria and how strict the requirements are. In some schools with weak standards, you may reach a black belt rank in just two years, while in the others that embrace traditional teaching methods, you might need 5+ years.
So before signing up for the classes, research the style and school you want to enroll in.
Try to get as much information about the teaching methods, belt promotions, and quality of coaching staff because these factors may indicate something is wrong.
Final Thoughts on the Order of Belts in Kung Fu
Kung Fu adopted the color belt ranking system from judo in the 20th century.
However, belt order, progression, and requirements are not standardized.
Unlike in other arts, there is no official belt testing or promotional ceremonies; overall, the belt ranks do not play as big of a role.
In most schools, the belts are just a formality and an indication of a student’s level of skill and age, nothing more than that.
The instructors do not attach much importance to having many black belts in their dojo or motivating students to strive to reach higher ranks.
No, the Kung Fu philosophy is straightforward – as long as you are consistent and dedicated, you will obtain all the belt ranks.