A belt system is a common way to assign rank in martial arts. Most, if not all, styles have a belt system starting with a white belt and ending with a black belt; however, not every style has a belt system. Kung fu is one such example as is not typically deemed a ‘style’ in itself. The term kung fu is an umbrella term used to describe unarmed Chinese martial arts systems.
Originally status was attained by age and experience, usually noted with a certificate. This changed when Jigoro Kano (the founder of judo) introduced a belt system to his martial art. The use of colored belts to denote skill evened the playing field when it came to sparring. Over the years that followed, the belt system slowly made its way into kung fu and certain changes were made to account for the different styles (i.e., sashes instead of belts).
The most common style that incorporates a belt style is Shaolin Kempo Karate.
What are the Belts?
Colors vary between schools, but the most common ones are:
- Blue with stripe
- Green with stripe
- Brown with stripe
There are also a few places that use red, purple, and gold before black belt as a part of their ranking systems.
White: The Start of the Journey
Every student gets a white belt when they enroll in a martial art, so white belts aren’t considered a part of the ranks. You learn basic stances, how to kick and punch, as well as how to block strikes. Additionally, your confidence improves as you build core strength, flexibility, and endurance.
Techniques learned at white belt level include the sidekick, back kick, and cat stances among others.
At yellow belt level, you still work on basics, but already have a good base on which to build your skills. You learn new ways of striking and how to use your upper body in unison with your lower body.
As you reach orange belt, you’ve learned all the basic techniques and have built a solid foundation for your training. From here you start going into the more advanced techniques and weapon work.
Purple belt is where you start to add momentum to your movements. This level is nicknamed ‘the spinning belt’ as this is where you learn to add momentum to your movements. You learn to transition between techniques, fall, and roll. You also learn to use timing to your advantage.
This is the start of the advanced curriculum. Here, the focus shifts to your mental state, and you’re expected to look back on your training progress and reflect on how far you’ve come. You also start learning to refine your movements.
Blue with Stripe
Application is the name of the game here. You learn the meanings behind each animal’s form and how each animal differs. The point behind all this is to incorporate these things into your fighting style.
Green belt further focuses on your mental wellbeing and ego management. The idea of pride going before the fall is the whole point of this level of training. This is where you start learning different, more advanced animal combinations as well as takedown and trapping techniques.
Green with Stripe
This is the next level of the green belt, and it works on making your movements unpredictable.
Brown belt is where you focus on refinement of technique and the philosophy behind Shaolin Kempo Karate. You are encouraged to think critically about the ideas taught in the curriculum.
Brown with Stripe
The penultimate rank before the black belt levels, brown with stripe, is where your endurance is put to the test. Your dedication, commitment, and skills are tested to see whether or not you are ready for the challenges associated with the black belt ranks.
Achieving the rank of black belt is the start of a new adventure. The skills you learn from here are highly advanced. The forms become longer and more complex, and you will learn something new on a regular basis. As you progress through the ranks, the curriculum will change to fit your skillset. You will become more advanced as you continue until you reach the rank of master.
The Influences and Curriculum
Something you may have noticed is that I mentioned animal forms a few times. Shaolin Kempo Karate draws influences from Shaolin Kung Fu, Karate, Kenpo (an umbrella term for a variety of martial arts), and various grappling-oriented styles of martial arts such as Japanese Jujutsu and Mongolian Wrestling.
The curriculum covers four elements:
- Throwing (this element is also called ‘felling,’ and it includes shoving, tripping, and throwing).
Shaolin Kung Fu is the backbone of SKK and draws on the movements of five different animals: tiger, crane, dragon, leopard, and snake. Each animal covers a different piece of the curriculum.
The idea is to have a well-rounded skill set at your disposal when you have to deal with potentially life-threatening situations. This is because Shaolin Kempo Karate was originally developed as a self-defense system.
The Controversies Surrounding SKK
Controversy seems to follow a few different disciplines in the martial arts realm. Shaolin Kempo Karate is no exception.
The founder, Frederick J. Villari, has made claims that SKK is an unbeatable fighting system. As a result, he has become a very successful businessman, but he has faced criticism from the wider martial arts community. Some say that he had no authority to mix and match all the different styles. He’s also faced significant criticism for his use of instructional DVDs.
Villari has also faced criticism for his apparent self-promotion to 10th and, later, 15th Dan; justifying these promotions by stating that he’d created a unique art with techniques that hadn’t existed beforehand.
Kung Fu: Not Usually Associated with Belt Ranks
Film stars like Jackie Chan, Cynthia Rothrock, and Bruce Lee have had a major part in spreading and popularizing kung fu around the world. That said, it isn’t typically associated with a belt rank system. When you think about kung fu, what comes to mind? The Shaolin Monks? Martial arts demos at Chinese New Year celebrations?
When we think of a belt system in martial arts, we usually think of judo, taekwondo, or karate. This is because ‘kung fu’ is an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts systems, meaning that any Chinese martial art can be classified as kung fu. All styles – with the exception of tai chi – have different requirements for progressing through the system.
I hope you found this article enjoyable and informative. As always, take care and I’ll see you all for the next one!