In the martial arts, the belt and the uniform is a symbol of the practitioner’s personal value. It may be difficult for us in the West to understand the deeper meaning of this millennia old Oriental tradition. Wearing uniforms and belts is a symbol of belonging, represents an individual’s capabilities, and refers to sense of hierarchy. As it stands, our society is no stranger to such notions, and these concepts may be found in many Western institutions.
Military uniforms may be taken as an example. The various features and color variations on uniforms serve to distinguish the various regiments within an army, and the stripes identify the rank, just like the « dans » on Kung Fu practitioner belt identify his level. In the field of Kung Fu, the uniform and the belt are a visible display that attests to the technical and philosophical accomplishments of the practitioner, both to show his affiliation (just like the military uniform distinguishes between infantryman, airman, military police, navy and so on) and his rank, which represents how committed the practitioner is and the level of responsibility he must bear. Schools that originate from the Shaolin system attach a well defined code of ethics to their uniform that reflects the Buddhist and Confucianist philosophies as well as Taoist science.
The Shaolin Kung Fu system utilises three belts (black, red or white) and three types of uniform (white, grey and black). Red represents sacrifice and perseverance while grey symbolises the qualities acquired through hardship. Grey is also the transition from white to black, which is the Yin Yang, and represents the complete cycle of the student through the long path of Kung Fu. When one begins the long road, one displays the belt proudly, while halfway through, the belt is worn under the uniform, to show the humility of the Master level. Pride must first be nurtured before it turns into humility. Once this level is reached, it is considered pointless to display one’s belt or one’s exploits. As Masters and Grand-Masters evolve along the path, they must pull back and make room for the younger practitioners. They hide underneath their uniform and their belt knows to hide behind their accomplishments and let their art speak for itself.
The path resembles the natural cycle of the seasons or the rising sun that illuminates the day before letting the night in, when all run away, hide and keep silent.
Recently, ridiculous new fads have been appearing. For instance, some geniuses let beginners wear their belt under their uniform. Some will grant themselves a grey uniform, without understanding the deeper meaning of tradition or the individual merit it represents. All we need is to remember that Time is a consummate player who wins faultlessly every single time !
Master Nam Ngu
Red belt, 4th dan
Shaolin Wing Chun Nam Anh School of Kung Fu