Dan Ranks

The Cuong Nhu colored belts and stripes denote the level and accomplishments of the wearer. According to tradition, the progression of belt colors represents the life cycle of a TREE.

O’Sensei Ngo Dong, Founder of Cuong Nhu—whose name in Vietnamese means Tallest Tree—used to share this analogy with his students:


SHODAN (1st degree)
One red stripe on a black belt is symbolic of the tree in spring that flowers and begins to produce fruit. Through teaching the art, the Cuong Nhu sensei reaches out to others, learns new lessons from the exchange, and begins to give back to the community.

NIDAN (2nd degree)
Each year, the cycle of blossom and fruit is renewed, signified by two red stripes on the black belt. As black belt instructors continue to teach and train, their efforts bear fruit not only through their students, but also in the development of their own character.

SANDAN (3rd degree)
As the cycle is renewed yet again, the tree, now with deeper roots and broader branches, produces finer, more abundant fruit, represented by three red stripes on a black belt. The sensei, through years of training and close work with others, learns more deeply what it means to serve the people through martial arts, and becomes a better teacher and role model by applying the Three O’s Principle: Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Arms.

YONDAN (4th degree)
A tree at this stage has produced fruit that will in turn produce fruit of its own, signified by four red stripes on a black belt. The Cuong Nhu sensei, whose students may now have students of their own, is humbled by this responsibility, and redoubles efforts to maintain excellence in technique and character. He or she becomes a genuine leader and role model for all martial artists, showing the qualities of self-confidence, self-control, modesty, and a non-defeatist attitude.

GODAN (5th degree)
The sensei at this stage wears a solid longitudinal red and black belt, in the colors of the Cuong Nhu emblem, representing the balance of yin and yang. A tree that has survived to this age has done so through a balance of strength and flexibility, withstanding the elements while bending when necessary to survive. Similarly, the Cuong Nhu sensei has achieved a balance of hard and soft, head and heart, confidence and humility, and can adapt to work with friend and foe alike—a true representative of the art.

ROKUDAN (6th degree)
The Cuong Nhu rokudan has earned the honor of being called “Master,” and wears a solid black belt bordered in red, with six gold stripes. The stripes can be seen to represent the rings of a tree, with the gold color hinting of autumn—both signifying age and experience. The gold also recalls the roots of Cuong Nhu, in the color of the Vietnamese flag. Like a venerable old tree that provides food, shelter and shade to the forest community, the Master provides a role model, inspiration, and guidance to the entire Cuong Nhu community.

SHICHIDAN (7th degree)
Among Masters, a very few are elevated to shichidan, in recognition of their lifelong dedication, contributions and leadership in Cuong Nhu. They are awarded a red belt with black and gold borders, personalized with gold calligraphy spelling out the wearer’s rank and name. To be named is a special honor, but also a reminder of humility and the cycle of life; it is, after all, the same name that was used by the white belt “seed” who first set out to become a TREE.