As most people already know, kung fu schools often award their students colored belts to demonstrate their degree of training, time in rank and dedication to the art. Fewer people know that this is a relatively new part of kung fu training, a facet that became part of the art during the 20th century.
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History of Kung Fu Belts
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, 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.
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.