Kung fu schools award their students colored belts to demonstrate their degree of training, time in rank and dedication to the art — but until the early half of the 20th century, martial arts study did not include the practice of rank belts. Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, instituted the idea when he organized that martial art. Soon after, Gichin Funakoshi adopted a similar system for his shotokan karate. When other martial arts schools saw that this practice seemed to improve their level of popular success, they adopted it. By the 1970s, most kung fu programs outside China had taken it on.
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 and brown belts, in that order, indicate this level of training. Additionally, 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. It 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 — some schools have up to nine levels of this belt color — 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.
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 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 White Belt Myth
There's an urban legend that says that early martial art practitioners began with a white belt, which eventually became so dirty from sweat, dirt and blood that it turned black over the years. However, there's not any evidence to back up this legend. In fact, kung fu practice requires a standard of cleanliness that suggests this type of staining wouldn't be allowed.