Updated: Apr 8
I'm sure you’ve heard of ‘black belts’ and terms such as ‘dan’ gradings. It's important to clarify from the start that these terms are mainly used throughout Japanese and Korean martial arts such as Karate, Judo, Tai Kwon Do even Jiu Jitsu.
To that end, I respect it greatly, it is part of their tradition and culture of Japanese and Korean martial arts teaching. But Chinese martial arts/Kung Fu is a completely different art form, created by a completely different culture.
In simple terms, Chinese forms and styles in traditional Kung Fu are massive and vast. Far larger than Japanese arts. It isn’t a competition, and this doesn’t make them better or worse, it’s just broader in scope with fewer restrictions.
The Japanese martial arts grading and belt structure works perfectly for that particular art form in several ways: one important reason is that Japanese marital arts have a stricter structure for teaching application. Kung Fu is very different, it's an individual art form, practiced in groups or one-on-one, it’s just not designed to be pigeonholed into a 1-hour grading. Nor is it’s aim to make every student the same as the next with a linear grading process.
Kung Fu promotes adaption and expression. This is one of the main reasons it was outlawed by Chinese emperors, numerous times through history (including the burning down of the Shaolin temple) due to communist rule and fear of uprising through free thought and speech.
As I’m sure you’ve already worked out, adaption and expression cannot be ‘marked’ on a test sheet.
Plus, Kung Fu is vast. There are 300+ applications (or 'techniques') in the traditional Tiger and Crane form of Hung Gar alone, as an example. 300+ applications quickly turn into 1,000 once you adapt applications/techniques to hundreds of different scenarios – such as counter strikes, set ups and attack response situations - and that’s before we discuss the character, principles, fitness and conditioning/pad work, or fight strategy. To teach and grade a limited, watered down, linear grading process feels pointless.
And that is why 'gradings' do not exist in traditional Chinese Kung Fu.
Shaolin monks never wore coloured belts. Also think about Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Ip Man or Wong Fei Hung. None of them had black belts (or any other colour belt), 'dans' or certificates.
Think about boxing, or even MMA. Neither conducts strict gradings, the test is in performance, application, and fighting. If fighting is not your goal, performing the forms with speed, timing, power and confidence are your key performance indicators!
When it comes to Chinese Classical Kung Fu, belts are used for one thing: HOLDING YOUR TROUSERS UP! Try using wrap over trousers without one.
Spectrum will never ‘grade’ students or charge for certificates printed at home on WH Smith’s finest. With nearly 30 years’ experience in this field, and having seen it all, I can tell you that Kung Fu teachers charging for gradings are doing it for two reasons: making more money (£50 a pop for a grading system that doesn’t even exist?) and defrauding you into thinking that it somehow charts your progress. At best, it’s a one-off memory or fitness test you pay someone to watch. There is no 'governing body' that is qualifying it.
To add to that, it also prevents students who have a talent for martial arts from moving forward, especially those nervous about test environments. Instead, they leave. That defeats the entire purpose of watching someone grow and excel in Classical Kung Fu.
I’ve known many students (who are now Spectrum clients) who hated gradings. They failed at a silly made-up test, and had their confidence shot to pieces by a fake teacher. Well, some of these people have become some of the best martial arts fighters and practitioners I've taught once they were given freedom to breathe, learn at their own pace, and develop correctly.
The single most important thing I have always considered when teaching my students is that human beings are not created equal. Every student I teach is coached differently at some point over time because each person is different; different characters, a range of backgrounds, varying confidence levels, limited versus almost unlimited physicality, current fitness levels, difficult health situations – even self-belief can change on a daily basis.
Gradings are not learnings
Learning strategies are often completely different for different students.
Some students wish to move slower, some faster, some more in-depth, some just want structure, others want to sweat, others prefer to hit hard, everybody has their different goals.
Kung Fu is a completely adaptable fighting system taught in a traditional textbook structure: ‘forms’ routines, drill application, adaption, expression, free sparing, techniques adapted to the free-flowing situation in real life, real time, no rules. It’s like great music, featuring all the characteristics of discipline, structure, technical difficulty, long study, application, freestyle expression without confining rules - like great jazz.
Chinese martial arts is an individual journey. A one-size-fits-all, linear grading process does nothing more than hold you back, or worse, it can delude you as to where you may be in your training. It will give you a false sense that you have 'finished' or 'completed' something, when there is no 'end point' in classical Kung Fu training. It is an ongoing, self-improvement martial arts platform which constantly promotes change and adaption.
To grade students, with all the vastness of Chinese martial arts, which comes with 2,000 years of study, would be to seriously restrict them. Why would anyone want to do that?
While most Kung Fu schools out there will happily take your money to put you through a fake test, I won't. If you feel the need to be validated by a test or gradings, that is your personal preference, and most clubs will take your money. But it is not Kung Fu.