When it comes to Kung Fu, people will think of China. Chinese Kungfu or Chinese Martial Arts is a series of fighting styles developed in China over the centuries. With a number of movement sets, boxing styles, weapon skills and some fighting stunts, Kung Fu keeps its original function of self-defense. Now its value in body-building and fitness is also highly appreciated.
A Kung Fu uniform is called yī-fu (clothes) or fú (suffix for clothes). A military uniform is called zhì-fú. In Tai Chi Chaun the uniform is called Tai Chi–fu. In Shaolin Kung Fu the traditional dress called hàn fú is used.
The wide variety of type of clothing for Kung Fu practitioners of all types is a combination of a lack of an overarching governing system to the styles and the changes that naturally come with time.
Now, let’s look at several of the main branches in the Kung Fu tradition of Chinese martial arts and see what they call their uniforms and what they look like.
When we dive into what a Kung Fu uniform is called in Shaloin style, we now are looking at a completely different class of people in history and their attire. The material and how it was worn differed from that of the common man.
This held true in the elevated class of monks, even though they would tone down colors and even material types. Silk was designated for the upper classes of Chinese society and it wasn’t until the 18th century that this practice was relaxed.
Due to tradition and orthodoxy that follows many religions, the robes of the Taoist monks didn’t change significantly over the years. This in an of itself designates their robes as a form of zhì fú, or uniform.
Today, many studying the traditional Taoist forms of Shaolin Kung Fu will wear these same traditional robes of centuries past. Though the term cháng páo that means a traditional men’s robe is not commonly used, neither is the term for traditional styles either, hàn fú. Though this is precisely what the term hàn fú refers to.
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The Chinese term hàn fú when applied to martial arts attire points to the traditional and many times upper-class robes worn by the Chinese years ago. These more than likely weren’t worn by the commoners of that time, but today they can be seen in traditional settings worn by people of all walks of life.
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The monastic practice of the Taoist monks have a distinct take on this hàn fú tradition. The colors are usually grey, orange, or brown, and silk is rarely used. The style is baggy for comfort and easy of use in most every activity and is well suited for Kung Fu practice.
The uniform of Wing Chun Kung Fu is heavily influenced by the style of workout clothing chosen by its founder. His choices are representative of the styles of clothing in his youth that even persisted to his day. The large cuffs and frog buttons of the jacket are commonly seen in the uniform of this Kung Fu style.
Though we in the western world may label this as a uniform, it was in actuality a style of common clothing worn by people in their everyday lives in certain times in Chinese history. Uniforms cost money and sepecific materials like silk were relegated to upper class members of society.
For the common man, it was simply not necessary unless the instructor was very popular and had rivals. In this case insignia or other designations could be worn to signify loyalties.
What we see today though in Wing Chun Kung Fu is rightfully called a uniform or zhì fú for one main reason. It is decidedly different from the normal clothes that an average student of Wing Chun would wear to work or school. Even a t-shirt and sweat pants could be considered a uniform if it is specifically and unilaterally worn by a group for that purpose.
You will see many Tai Chi practitioners wear many different types of clothing. The traditional or uniform clothing is called a Tai Chi-fu. It is usually made of silk, cotton, or some silk-like material and is worn in a flowing cut.
If you see a group of elderly people in a park or public space practicing the art, normally you will not see many of them wearing this type of clothing. They will opt for comfortable outfits that do not restrict their movements, and in the style they normally wear day to day.
Where you will see this more traditional style is usually organized schools or most assuredly in demonstration shows. Some groups wear these uniforms so infrequently that they will refer to them as ‘demo suits’.
None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with wearing these options or that those that choose only to practice wearing them are somehow misled. The contrary may be more true.
Uniforms add to the sense of belonging to an art. Those that don’t use them run the risk of slowly falling away from its practice. The ultimate goal of learning any martial art is time in authentic practice. The longer this is maintained, the higher the chance the student will become proficient.
Tai Chi-fu like other Kung Fu uniforms not only serve practical purposes in movement and training, but they also aid in the mental state one must remain in to continue the practice for many years. That is the primary goal of a student.
As a side note, Lee’s jumpsuit Kung Fu uniform is called sǎnbīng tiàosǎn fú in Chinese. But that really was a 70s American thing.
If you would like to get your version of Bruce Lee’s famous jumpsuit for a costume party, celebration, or your own personal workout attire.
There are other styles that use the same concepts when choosing what to wear as the ones we have just looked at in the Chinese Kung Fu systems. What a Kung Fu uniform is called in each one of these systems varies very little from the ones here.
The main designation for the uniforms worn in most all Chinese systems is ‘clothing’. It is simple yet efficient. Though westerners would prefer a proper name given to the attire, like many concepts the east and the west differ on perspective and philosophy.
In the west, uniforms take on a kind of life of their own and confer status. In the east, a more humble approach to clothing worn is adopted and inconspicuousness is valued above most else.
The general terms of yī-fu (clothes) or fú (suffix for clothes) and the words zhì-fú (military style uniform) and hàn fú (traditional robes or clothing) are common words describing the clothing rather than naming it. This simple solution mirrors much in the martial arts of China.