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Kung Fu Uniforms Really Ancient “Street Clothes”

Like the karate gi in a dojo, kung fu uniforms today are worn because they are loose fitting and practical.



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Kung Fu Uniforms

by Bob Ellal

Kung fu uniforms had a humble beginning, despite how Hollywood and Chinese moviemakers tend to glamorize them. The loose-fitting pants and jackets are actually what average people in China wore in the past as kung fu developed; working-class people in villages couldn’t afford to buy special uniforms.

This is a similar story to that of the development of the karate gi; some say Sensei Funakoshi, the creator of modern karate, took the idea of the gi from Kano’s judo; others say its origins were more mundane—it was the style of dress of Okinawan peasants. The loose-fitting garments were comfortable for farm work; they wore white outfits because they couldn’t afford to pay for dying their clothes.

Today in most kung fu schools students practice in loose pants and a T-shirt and save the jacket for more formal occasions like tournaments. Like the karate gi in a dojo, kung fu uniforms today are worn because they are loose fitting and practical. They imbue the students with a sense of unity and teamwork, as wearing kung-fu uniforms implies dedication to something larger than themselves.

Nowadays kung fu uniforms come in all colors and in many different types of material: satin, raw silk, cotton and cotton/polyester to name a few. Sashes, worn around the waist of kung fu uniforms in some schools and used to indicate the rank of the wearer, also come in an array of colors: white, gold, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black.

It’s not known when sashes worn on kung fu uniforms to indicate rank were first introduced. Traditionally, sashes weren’t worn on uniforms. Some theorize that Chinese masters were influenced by the Japanese belt system.

One example is the Chinese art of Shaolin-Do. According to the Shaolin-Do website Grandmaster Ie Chang Ming switched from traditional Chinese kung fu uniforms to Japanese gis and the belt system to confuse the Indonesian authorities, who had outlawed the Chinese martial arts. Today they do not wear kung fu uniforms; they continue wearing gis and using the belt system to honor Grandmaster Ie Chang Ming.

Perhaps Chinese masters created a highly developed sash system after coming to this country to meet the needs of American students, who desire constant reinforcement to feel they are making progress. This was the case in some Japanese and Korean martial arts schools, who today have belts of many different colors to indicate rank as well as a system of striping the belts to indicate progress between levels.


Bob Ellal is a freelance writer living in Norwich, Connecticut. He currently practices aspects of various internal kung fu systems, which helped him defeat four bouts of cancer in the early 90’s. He’s written a book about his experiences using chi kung, ancient Chinese mind/body exercises, to help beat the disease. He’s been clear of cancer for eight years. He was an avid hard-style martial artist in his youth, when he had cartilage between his joints.


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