Kung Fu vs Karate: 9 Key Differences


A lot of martial arts look alike. But while the motions and the uniforms may seem similar, there are actually a lot of differences between most martial arts. Karate and Kung Fu are 2 of the oldest and best known martial arts, so let’s look at 9 key differences between Kung Fu vs Karate.

Here’s what I know from having worked with black belts in both arts:

Kung Fu (also known as Gung Fu), from China, is an umbrella term for a few different martial arts including Tai Chi and Wing Chun. Practitioners wear loose-fitting pants, elastic band tops, belts, and shoes. Karate, which originates from Japan, has narrower guidelines, and practitioners wear a traditional Gi.

But that’s just a quick snapshot.

So in this article, I’ll share with you the most vital distinctions between Kung Fu and Karate. I will also let you know a riveting fact or two about Bruce Lee.

Let the fun begin!

What is the difference between Karate and Kung Fu?

Karate is a specific martial art with a distinct philosophy and set of techniques and originates from Japan. Kung Fu, on the other hand, originates from China and is an umbrella term for a variety of different arts.

At the same time, the term Kung Fu, once translated, could refer to any vocation or pursuit that requires devotion and specialized skills.

So, when you think of Kung Fu, it’s better to actually think of one of the specific martial arts under that umbrella, such as:

  • Tai Chi (Taijiquan)
  • Wing Chun
  • Shaolin Kung Fu
  • Northern Praying Mantis

And probably hundreds of others.

Of course, Karate benefitted from being influenced by Kung Fu, but they are not the same at all.

Another difference is the uniforms. In Kung Fu, the uniform depends on the style and school. But, in general, most practitioners wear loose-fitting pants, elastic band tops, belts, and shoes.

In Karate, karatekas wear what’s called a Gi.

A Gi, which has been adopted by many different martial arts, includes white pants which tie with a string, and a jacket which is tied with the colored belt awarded to the student.

The Gi has patches that represent the style or school. And unlike Kung Fu, they practice barefooted.

Of course, Karate came into popularity thanks to the movie The Karate Kid and that brutal Crane Kick at the end of the movie. And it’s remained popular ever since.

You might be wondering which one would be better for MMA.

It’s something a lot of folks think about. I took the time to answer the question in a recent article of mine. I focused on Kung Fu. Is Kung Fu effective in MMA? Yes and no.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Which is better: Kung Fu or Karate?

Wing Chun, the best-known fighting style of Kung Fu, can be faster and deadlier than Karate. Bruce Lee eventually created his Jeet Kune Do style of martial arts after mastering Wing Chun.

As I said, Kung Fu is a catch-all term for several different Chinese martial arts.

In the spirit of what I shared earlier about the meaning of Kung Fu, it will be better that I pick a specific form of it and then compare that to Karate. 

I picked Wing Chun above. It was created by a Shaolin Kung Fu master Ng Mui. It’s the style of Kung Fu popularized by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

It takes the form of attacking and defending simultaneously and applying strikes and kicks at vulnerable parts of an opponent (think: groin and throat).

It’s a highly offensive forward motion. And, while this is being done, you’re also using your assailant’s energy and attacks against them. An example is the use of a technique called hand trapping. It’s where you use an opponent’s hands to trap them by holding it firmly against their body.

Karate can be effective, too.

It has a lot of benefits. But, it’s mostly limited compared to Wing Chun, and it’s not as fluid. It has fewer techniques, which, in a fight means you’re a tad handicapped. I am not writing it off. But, if I am faced with Wing Chun or Karate, I’ll go for the former.

But for self-defense, there might be even better martial arts than either one of them. What about BJJ vs. Aikido?

I actually explored that in a recent article of mine. In the article, I outlined the differences between both; I looked at which is better: Jiu-Jitsu or Aikido, whether BJJ is effective for self-defense and whether Aikido is effective for self-defense. I wrapped it up with whether BJJ’s effectiveness is when you’re on the ground.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Did Bruce Lee do Karate or Kung Fu?

Bruce Lee did Kung Fu. His original focus was Wing Chun Gung Fu. Later, he evolved his own style known as Jeet Kune Do (Way of the intercepting fist). He created his own style because he said he realized that the traditional styles were too restrictive and limiting.

He used to get into street fights a lot when he was a kid, growing up in Hong Kong.

So much so that his father, a Cantonese Opera star, encouraged him to start learning Wing Chun under a master, Yip Man when he was 13. He was also learning how to fence and how to box.

In fact, Lee (whose real name is Lee Jun Fan) won a boxing tournament when he was in high school.

That didn’t stop him from the street fights. In fact, he was sent to the states to further his education because he had beaten up the son of a high-ranking member of the Triad (organized crime).

It was believed that a contract was out on Bruce’s life! His father said: The police detective came and he says “Excuse me, Mr. Lee, your son is really fighting bad in school. If he gets into just one more fight, I might have to put him in jail”.

When Bruce Lee was going to college in Seattle, he started his own school, where he trained others in Wing Chun. He was so fast with his hands that the director of one of the movies he was in said the motions couldn’t be captured on film!

Lee started acting at 13 (he was even in a movie while he was a baby) and had acted in about twenty movies by the time he was 18. Lee is, without doubt, one of the ablest promoters of martial arts in modern times. Alas, he passed at the young age of 32!

Wing Chun is a Chinese martial art form that’s focused on close, short-range combat.

Grappling and striking are its main techniques. It’s a form of self-defense used to prevent oneself from harm when one has been attacked violently.

9 Differences between Karate and Kung Fu

As I have shown in earlier paragraphs, Kung Fu is different from Karate. In this section, I’ll share nine key differences.

Let’s dive in.

1. Conception

Karate is a Japanese term for “empty hands,” and it’s a specific form of martial art.

The “empty hands” speaks to the fact that weapons are not used in Karate. Practitioners are highly adept at using their hands and feet and can perform incredible feats with both. Kung Fu, on the other hand, does not really refer to a specific martial art form.

It is a collective Chinese term that means “achievement,” or any specialized attainment that requires skills. It’s also known as Gung Fu. When used in the context of martial arts, it’s an umbrella term that embraces Wing Chun, Tai Chi, and Shaolin Kung Fu.

2. Origin

Both originated in Asia, but from different parts. Karate evolved in Japan, while Kung Fu was developed in China. Karate emerged from a practice that’s known as “te.”

In it, only hand motions exist. But despite the different places of origin, Karate was later influenced by Kun Fu. It’s believed that Karate must have had its roots in Ryukyuan martial arts in Okinawa, Japan, in the early 20th century.

And that it was probably developed by a class of people who had been prevented from carrying weapons.

3. Movements

The movements in Karate are more linear than those exhibited in Kung Fu.

Karate is more frontal as you move toward your opponent. After all, it’s a striking art. But in Kung Fu, the movements are more circular and fluid and look more graceful. It’s not a thrusting toward the opponent but can be lateral. Some of the movements are as if the practitioner is mimicking some animals.

Karate is often more effective where the intention is to attack or harm an opponent, while Kung Fu is excellent if the focus is on how to defend yourself.

4. Uniforms

In Kung Fu, the uniform depends on the style and school.

But, in general, most practitioners wear loose-fitting pants, elastic band tops, belts, and shoes. In Karate, karatekas wear what’s called a Gi. It has patches that represent the style or school. They also wear a belt, which represents the rank, but they practice barefooted.

5. Olympic Status 

Starting from the 2020 Olympics, Karate will be a featured competition. Kung Fu hasn’t been given that status yet. It’s difficult to say why, for now. Could it be that it’s deemed to be too dangerous? Time will tell.

6. Instructor

Both martial arts have instructors, and they have titles. But, as you can recall, Karate has a Japanese origin, while Kung Fu has a Chinese origin.

Naturally, the titles used in addressing the instructors differ. In Karate, it’s “sensei,” while, in Kung Fu, it’s “Si Fu.”

7. Organizations in Charge 

For Kung Fu, organizations in charge include KF (International Kung Fu Federation), USAWKF (United States of America Wushu-Kungfu Federation), and IWUF (International Wushu Federation).

For Karate, they are WKF World Karate Federation, European Kyokushin Karate Org., World Seido Karate Org., USA National Karate DO, Japan Karate Federation, International Karate Association, and Kenkojuku Karate Association.

8. History

Kung Fu’s origin, it’s believed, can be traced to the Zhou Dynasty (1111-255 BC) and even further back to the Daoists in the 5th century B.C.

Karate, on the other hand, being an offshoot, is believed to have started when Bodhidharma (an Indian Buddhist monk) came to a Shaolin temple in the 5th century of the common era.

9. Essence

Kung Fu is a catch-all phrase embracing many martial arts that involve self-defense, self-discipline, and spiritual mastery. Karate is essentially a form of unarmed combat that evolved in the Ryukyu Islands in Okinawa, Japan.

Conclusion

We explored a lot in the preceding paragraphs.

I shared nine key differences between Kung Fu and Karate. For example, did you know that Kung Fu does not really refer to a single martial art? I told you the meaning of both terms: Karate and Kung Fu.

We also took a glimpse at how Bruce Lee arose from Hong Kong, his childhood, his relocation to the states, and even his impact on martial arts.

I also shared the style of Kung Fu that the legend Bruce Lee practiced and an interesting fact or two about him. Last but not least, I told you the pros and cons of each, and which one is a better choice.


Photos which require attribution:

Hong Kong – Bruce Lee by IQRemix and in force by Kai Schreiber are licensed under CC2.0

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell was Academy Director for a large martial arts school for over 7 years, and has trained extensively in a variety of martial arts including Brazilian Jiujitsu, different styles of Karate, the Russian Martial Art of Systema, Aikido, and much more.

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