No belts in Kung Fu

This article originally appeared in the June 1991 issue Inside Kung Fu magazine, “Training for Life” by Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong.

You might say that in Japanese and Korean martial arts, the most important part of a wardrobe is the belt. The color of the belt indicates the rank of martial artist, which makes him a critical part of the style uniform.

Don’t look for karate-style belts among Chinese martial arts practitioners. Everyone who uses them in their school simply borrows from the Japanese. Karate-style belts and white to black ratings do not and never have existed in Chinese martial arts. It is a strictly Japanese trademark, dating back to the beginnings of judo, when the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, assigned different levels of judo expertise. Korean martial arts continued the tradition of band evaluation resulting from the 35th years of Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945.

Chinese martial arts use sherpas as part of a training uniform. However, the origin was completely different from the origin of Japanese martial arts.

In China, before the Western Belt became popular, men used a sash, securely tied around their waists, to hold their trousers. This was especially common with the working classes, who performed mostly manual labor. They needed the sash not only to hold their pants, but also as a lumbar support for the daily exertion during which they break their backs.

At that time, men preferred colors that did not show too much dirt and remained manly. Black, brown, or dark blue were the common colors of the average Chinese sherpa.

Maids and maids also needed sherpas to keep their work trousers loose. They tended to brighter, more feminine colors, such as yellow, green, orange, and red.

The color, which is not visible on Chinese sherpas, is white. White is a color worn at funerals and is associated with death. In the old days, Chinese men tied sherpas with a knot on the left side so as not to interfere with their right hand – working hands. Women have traditionally tied a sherpa on the right.

Now that the Sherpas have found their way into Chinese martial arts, everyone ties them to the right, in accordance with the cultural tradition of learned activities on the left and the martial arts on the right or on the arms.

Remember I said the sherpas are now tied to the right. One hundred years ago, when Chinese martial artists tied a sherpa, they had a modified rating system, illustrated by the location of the sherpa. Regular students tied the sash to the right. Instructors tied the knot on the left. The chief instructor or schoolmaster placed his sherpa’s knot in the middle, which meant a balance of yin and yang.

Today’s Chinese martial artists use sherpas as traditional ornaments and compliments to the kung fu uniform. The color of the wing therefore represents the individual color of the school, not the color range as used in karate schools.

A few years ago in the United States, some schools used a number of different wing colors. These are usually Kenpo or Kajukenbo schools, which call their art Chinese karate. These arts reflect the influence of both Japanese and Chinese traditions.

Although you won’t see multicolored sherpas marking different rankings in China today, some Chinese martial arts schools outside of China are starting to follow the trend set by Kenpo schools with different colors for different positions. However, they are never karate colors from white to black, because white is a funeral color for the Chinese.

In my organization, we use a red sherpa for Choy Li Fut students and dark blue sherpas to mark tai chi students. My own reason for choosing a color is that red is a yang or active color, while blue is a yin or passive color. Red characterizes the fast, external Choy Li Fut system. Blue is a slower, silent form of tai chi.

We use different fringe colors sewn at the ends of each sherpa to indicate rank. Beginner students do not wear any fringe, the equivalent of a white belt in karate. As They progress in skill level, wearing white, yellow, green, blue, purple and brown fringe in that order. Brown fringe is the equivalent of a first-grade black belt student. Higher levels wear black fringe at the ends of the wings.

These are the colors of my school’s evaluation. Any color you use is just as meaningful. The goal is to provide students with something that sets goals, along with a standardized program that shows them their learning progress in whatever martial arts they are studying.

Some form of assessment system helps students avoid comparing themselves with others and feeling that the instructor has favorites. At my school, everyone knows what it takes to get different colors of fringe. Everyone also understands that rank is on the basis of merit and practice.

David Berry

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