Kung Fu vs. Karate : Introducing the Differences to the Untrained Eye

This article is meant to convey the fundamental and philosophical differences between Kung Fu and Karate. It will focus on the different principles at the root of each practice, rather than a tedious details of “The Kung Fu finger strike vs. The Karate finger strike”, etc.

Methods have their uses and their limits, but the principles of a practice are echoed in every movement. If you understand the difference in the principles of Kung Fu vs. Karate, you will have a greater understanding of the grand separation between the two.

As Martial Arts, both Kung Fu and Karate include innumerable self-defense techniques. They are also marketed as practices that improve general health, body conditioning, and breathing. The similarities between the two end there.

Kung Fu has been practiced in China for at least seven thousand years. In its traditional practice, it is the same today as it always has been. Kung Fu is a representation of ancient Chinese culture, philosophy, and wisdom. Some generations have been taller, shorter, fatter, or skinnier than others, but the human body has always been the human body, and so the development of this body in the practice of traditional Kung Fu has remain unchanged.

Karate has been practiced in Japan for approximately 200 years. The beginning of Karate can be traced back to trade relations with China, which brought Chinese families to the Japanese island of Okinawa. During this time, the Chinese introduced aspects of Kung Fu to their Japanese hosts.

Whether it be pride, prejudice, or greed, the Chinese were not willing to introduce the full spectrum of their Martial Arts to the Japanese. The Chinese disclosed certain ideas and explanations, but the cultural gap ensured that much was lost (or purposely omitted) in translation. The Japanese practice of Kung Fu quickly diverged from it’s Chinese origins, and Karate was the result of this divergence.

The purpose of the Martial Arts is to improve a human being. Which of these Martial Arts will allow you to be the best version of yourself? How will the principles of each practice lend themselves to your best life?

Strategy and Situational Effectiveness

At its heart, the purpose of Kung fu is to develop effective fighting skills for real warfare. On the battle-field, it is not uncommon to find yourself surrounded by enemies. Life is the same: there is no guarantee that you will only have one problem to deal with at a time.

The idea of a “fight” as a controlled contest of one-on-one combat comes from modern sports systems, where fighters are isolated in a ring, and fight under agreed-upon rules. In a real fight, there are no rules. You must be able to quickly deal with every threat surrounding you, while putting yourself in the best situation to emerge unhurt and alive.

The practice of Kung Fu focuses on our ability to quickly deal with one opponent and move on to the next, keeping you in the most favorable position at all times. In any fight, we can expect to be hit, but if we find ourselves wrestling and struggling for minutes-on-end with one particular opponent, we will quickly become exhausted and exposed to attack from another. The traditional practice of Kung Fu begins with the development of basic skills that are useful in real-life scenarios: developing a physical and mental awareness of your surroundings, and a spirit strong enough to maintain composure and act with confidence when everything hangs in the balance.

Modern Karate’s attention to belts and tournaments has made it almost completely useless as a system of self-defense, and limited as a method of self-development. Karate that is practiced as a sport is ineffective in real life combat: strikes that earn “points” in a tournament, will often cause no real damage to an enemy in a real fight. Training Karate as a sport is also a quick way to develop many delusions about yourself and your abilities. You may believe yourself to be an outstanding fighter because you were able to pass a belt test or win a tournament, but your punches and kicks will be nothing more than dance moves. How can we develop ourselves if we are delusional about our abilities?

To be fair, Chinese Kung Fu has suffered a similar bastardization in modern times with the popularity of “Shaolin Wu Shu”. The term “Wu Shu” can be literally translated as “Martial Art”, but ironically enough, today’s “Wu Shu” cannot be considered a real Martial Art. Wu Shu focuses on flowery movements and circus-like displays. It develops the ability to win tournaments and wow the onlooker.

Practiced Traditionally, Karate is a practice that dedicates itself to developing an ability to kill someone with one single punch or kick. While this strategy sounds quite impressive, it is nearly impossible to effectively execute in a real-life situation. If you sneak up on someone and sucker-punch them in the back of the head, you may successfully kill them, but in a fight for our lives, our opponents cannot be expected to willingly absorb our best shot. Even an unskilled opponent will dodge and put up some kind of fight, and so it will take more than one perfect punch to get the job done. In many ways, Karate strikes are “all or nothing”. If your skills are not perfect, you are more likely to come away with nothing.

Continuity

“The war” that we fight as Martial Artists is very rarely against an opponent or an enemy. The real fight is the challenge of everyday life, and the Martial Arts are one of the healthiest and most effective ways to prepare ourselves to meet this challenge.

Simply put, life as a human being is not easy, and our emotions and desires often get the best of us. Dwelling in the past and worrying about the future are especially crippling to the mind, body, and soul. Anxiety and regret can be two of the heaviest loads we carry in this lifetime.

For most people, the ability to let things go and embrace what comes next is not a simple choice. It is an emotional and mental strength that must be practiced and earned, just as physical strength is.

The practice of Kung Fu is wholly devoted to expanding our ability to live. The purpose is to make the most of the present moment. Every movement in a Kung Fu form should blend seamlessly into the next. The “moment of impact” exists, but there is no noticeable pause in movement. Just as a ball bounces on the ground—beginning its ascent at the precise moment it finishes its fall—the end is the beginning. This non-stop, flowing movement is a representation of how things are in the real world.

In our lives: time never stops, and Kung Fu never stops. Too often, we want to dwell within feelings and moments that are good and bad, but we must realize that any pause or break in our focus causes us to lose momentum. The power we can apply to our next movement entirely depends upon a smooth transition. We must, in essence, bounce off of one target as we attack the next.

Even when we practice punching and kicking into the air, the practice of Kung Fu allows us to discern how we can most perfectly blend our movements. Just as life can be viewed as one long moment, a form/combination of 100 different kicks and punches can ultimately be described as one movement.

In Karate, a great deal of attention is placed on the “moment of impact”. Forms involve strikes which are almost always followed by pauses, emphasizing the all-encompassing independence of each movement. While there is much to be gained in practicing the isolated perfection of a single punch, pauses in movement do not allow the human body to express itself at its best. The human body is like a Ferrari—It’s beauty cannot be understood in stop-and-go traffic; it can only be appreciated on the open road.

When asked which Martial Art was the most effective, Bruce Lee said:

“Its bad to say the best, but, in my opinion, I think Kung Fu is pretty good. Kung Fu originated in China, it is the ancestor of Karate and Ju Jitsu. It’s more of a complete system, and by that I mean that it is more flowing: there is continuity in movement, instead of one movement, two movements, then stop.”

The Principle of Striking

What is our human body?

Is it a stiff and inflexible fusion of aching joints?

Is it a fluid and dynamic vessel capable of incredible mobility?

Our ability to use our bodies relies heavily upon our conception of our bodies.

A person’s conception of their movement becomes very obvious when you watch them practice. A person who is obsessed with the idea of being “physically strong” will often tire quickly, making every punch into a difficult, grunting display. The general idea they wish to convey is: “What I am doing is extremely difficult, and I am tough for being able to do it.” In reality, what they are doing should not be so difficult, and the struggle they are “overcoming” is entirely self-imposed. In this way, our conception of any situation can make or break our ability to deal with it.

The conception of the strike in Kung Fu is very different to that of Karate. As Bruce Lee explained:

“A karate punch is like an iron bar—whack. A kung fu punch is like an iron chain with an iron ball attached to the end, and it goes—wham!—and it hurts the inside.”

The difference between “whack” and “wham” is not the difference between Kung Fu and Karate. It is the difference between a iron bar, and an iron whip. This quote comes from an interview, and it is not perfectly transliterated without Bruce’s accompanying mannerisms, but I hope it provided some form of insight. A bar is stiff and rigid, while a whip is fluid and flexible.

To expand upon Bruce’s explanation, we may choose a couple other allegories. A karate strike is like a sledgehammer: It is difficult to lift and difficult to get started, but if you hit the target, it is good for one good hit. A Kung Fu strike is like a wrecking ball. It is capable of bringing down the entire building as it swings back and forth. There is only the effort to provide the initial momentum, but the wrecking ball strikes countless times, acting a pendulum.

The human body is not meant to be stiff and rigid. It is meant to be strong, but also soft and supple. As it says in the ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching:

Men are born soft and supple;

dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.”

Simply put: Kung Fu, a soft and supple practice, leads to better health and a longer life. Stiff and inflexible practices such as Karate will lead to the breakdown of the human body.

The Fist

The practice of Kung Fu prioritizes efficiency and effectiveness. The method of striking must be fast enough, accurate enough, and powerful enough to protect you in a particular situation.

In western culture, we think of the fist as the most dangerous form our hand can take, but the fact of the matter is that the fingertips, the palms, the sides of the hands, the top of the wrist, etc. are all extremely effective as striking implements. The only way to develop the capabilities of your hands are to utilize them to their maximum potential. There is a reason it is known as “hand-to-hand” combat, and not “fist-to-fist”.

There is a great deal to be gained by developing the coordination necessary to use the hand as more than a fist. While punching with the fist is a big part of Kung Fu practice, there are many other hand strikes that must be practiced a comparable amount.

In Karate, strikes with the fist are the focus and emphasis. The fist can be a very effective tool for self-defense, but the purpose of the Martial Arts are to develop a person as a whole, and so every part of the body must be brought to its full potential. Diversifying the strikes we practice allows us to reach this potential.

The Belts

Kung Fu has no belts. How do you know if someone has skills? They are simply able to demonstrate their skills. Acknowledgement and respect from others is an inevitable side-effect of a good practice.

Those reaching a certain level in the Martial Arts often look healthier than others, and this health is reflected in nearly every physical movement they make in the course of a day. Beyond the physical, accomplished Martial Artists can often express some semblance of the wisdom their practice has imparted them. Bruce Lee is so often quoted because his words echo his high level of practice. He did not need a colorful belt to prove himself.

In Karate, belts are used to ensure the recognition of a person’s skill. Because of the need to pay the rent, many Karate schools use belts as a way to charge their students. They charge for the belt, they charge for the test, and the promise of progression from one color to the next is the “carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick” that they use to inspire continued payment from their clients.

Some modern “Kung Fu” schools have adopted this “buy a black belt” policy, usually with a sash instead of belt. Belt or sash, it is the same inauthentic and meaningless facade of skill.

In traditional Karate, as it was practiced in Japan, the belt did once mean something. Only those with real skills would be able to achieve a certain belt status, but modern schools are generally in the business of selling belts, rather than teaching the Martial Arts.

The Pursuit of Good Health

In Kung Fu, the main purpose of training is to improve our health, wellbeing, and the general clarity with which we are able to live our lives. If any part of our practice detracts from our health, the practice is not authentic.

Fighting ability, impressive displays of athleticism, beautiful physiques, and increased creativity are all side-effects of the pursuit of good health.

In Karate, the pursuit of improvement is a slippery slope that is more-often-than-not slipped upon. When Karate is made into a sport (a la Shotokan), practitioners start to focus their training towards their ability to score points and win a competition. This inevitably leads them to begin exploiting their body to accomplish this goal, rather than working to improve their health.

Breaking boards or bricks is another wayward pursuit in Karate, done by those who overemphasize the need to impress others or instill pride in themselves with hollow accomplishments.

Extremism

In Kung Fu, the extreme is a place to be avoided. Incredible displays are made into normal occurrences, and so they become normal. The extremism is only in the eye of those who are unfamiliar with the capabilities of their own body.

In Karate, training often finds itself being extreme for the sake of extremism: training in sub-zero temperatures, or submitting to a grueling practice of being hit and kicked during random, overly-enthusiastic training sessions.

The human body is best trained in a consistent and smooth manner. If you train your abdomen by getting kicked in the stomach every day, the human body can actually adjust to this and develop itself to deal with this new reality. However, if you are kicked in the stomach intermittently during overly intense bursts occurring on random sporadic days, the body will not be able to develop in a smooth way. This random extreme outburst in training will lead to an extreme development within the body, and an increased risk of health problems.

Kung Fu training is the balanced, patient, and steady development of the body’s health as a whole. Karate training often finds itself intent upon extremism, and so it leads to extreme problems.

Use Of Weapons

In traditional Kung Fu, there are 18 weapons used, known as the 18 Chinese weapons of war. These include:

Bo Staff ()

Crossbow ()

Spear ()

Single-edged sword ()

Double-edged sword ()

Ancient style spear ()

Shield (),

Axe ()

Greataxe ()

Dagger halberd ()

Round bar mace or iron whip ()

Bar mace ()

Pole pick ()

Spiked Mace ()

Trident ()

Rake ()

Rope (綿繩套索).

In traditional Karate, as it was practiced on the island of Okinawa, there exists a weapons practice known as “Kobudo”. Depending upon the school, Kobudo generally encompassed the use of 12-14 weapons. These include:

Bo staff

Sai (three-pronged short blade)

Tonfa (pronged staff that rests upon forearm)

Nunchaku, Kama (farming sickle)

Tekko (similar idea to “brass knuckles”)

Tinbe-rochin (turtle shell shaped shield and a short spear)

Surujin (a 2-3 meter long rope, with weights tied to each end)

Eku (an oar-shaped bludgeoning device)

Tambo (an 18” length staff)

Kuwa (a weapon based on a gardening hoe)

Hanbo (an approximately 3′ long staff)

Nunti Bo (a spear with a sai mounted on the end)

Sansetsukon (a three-section-staff, each part being attached as a Nunchaku is).

In modern Karate, weapons are notably and remarkably not utilized. This can be attributed to Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, who brought Karate to mainland Japan. The literal meaning of “Karate” was originally “Chinese Hand”. A homophone of “Karate” (a word that is pronounced the same, but has a different meaning) is “Empty Hand”. Funakoshi used this coincidence to change the meaning of the word “Karate”. He proliferated the lie that Karate meant “Empty Hand,” because his method of “Karate” was fighting without weapons. As Shotokan and mainland Japanese Karate became popularized, the practice of weapons disappeared, and Karate was further separated from its Chinese roots..

Even in its traditional practice, the lack of swordsmanship from Karate is a grand omission. The sword is one of the most important practices of Chinese Kung Fu. It not only teaches one how to use a sword, but how to control and direct the effort of their body in general. Simply put, the sword is an irreplaceable and seminal part of Chinese Kung Fu, and this is yet another glaring shortcoming in the practice of Karate.

In Conclusion:

To the trained eye, Kung Fu and Karate hardly resemble each other. It is the flow vs. the moment of impact. The hand vs. the fist. The skill vs. the belt. The classic vs. the trendy. The healthy vs. the extreme.

There is a reason we practice Kung Fu at the Golden Dragon Martial Arts Club.