Difference Between Kung Fu and Karate

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: September 15, 2023


Difference Between Kung Fu and Karate

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There is a multitude of movies featuring martial arts. Some famous movies include the karate kid, Kung fu panda and any movie starring Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. All these movies mainly focus on the fighting styles and techniques used. To an ordinary person, the fighting styles portrayed in these movies may appear similar, but in reality, they belong to two different categories of martial arts. To explain, all the Jackie Chan action movies and the karate kid use the martial art “karate”, while all the films by Bruce Lee and the movie Kung fu panda use the martial art technique known as "kung fu”. However, while these movies have let their viewers know about the existence of such techniques, they portray a crude version of the martial art technique.

This article will explore kung fu and karate as martial art techniques. How they came into existence, their different types and styles, etc. With a focus on how they differ from one another.

Kung Fu vs. Karate

Kung Fu (“gong fu”, Chinese pinyin) and Karate (“Kara-te”) are both martial arts techniques. They differ in many aspects, from the countries they originated from and practiced in, the styles they use in their philosophies, and even the clothes worn when performing.

Kung fu was discovered and established in China. It was the name given to incorporate all the Chinese martial arts techniques. It is also known as Wushu or as Quanfu. Its history is vast and complicated. The forms used in Kung fu are called Taolu, and the movements practised are circular and fluid. The art of Kung fu uses weapons in combat.

Karate emerged in Okinawa, Japan. It is also known as Karate-do. Compared to Kung fu, its history is far less, going back only up to 300 years. The forms used in Karate are called kata, and the movements practised are sharp and linear.

The art of Karate traditionally does not use weapons, although some modern schools have adopted them.

Difference Between Kung Fu and Karate in Tabular Form

Parameters of Comparison Kung Fu Karate
Characters 功夫 å”Â手
Meaning Gong fu: Skill, effort, accomplishment Kara-te: empty hands
Other names Wushu, Quanfu Karate-Do
Place of Origin China Okinawa, Japan
Forms called as Taolu (套路) Kata
Attire Loose fitting clothes, belt, kung fu shoes Traditional Gi
Philosophy Skills acquired through Chinese martial arts Skills acquired through RyuKyu martial arts
Movements Circular and fluid Sharp and linear movements
Title to address instructors Shi fu Sensei
Weapon usage Uses weapons Does not use weapons

What is Kung Fu?

Chinese martial arts technique is called kung fu. Its other names are wushu and quanfa. In the Chinese pinyin version of kung fu is gong fu (功夫). "Gong fu" is written using two characters, gong (功) means skills, achievement, etc. and fu (夫) means man. Kung fu has different forms, for example, Wing Chun, Tai Chi, Choy Li Fut, Shaolin kung fu, etc.


Chinese martial arts have an exceptionally long history, so long that it is impossible to pinpoint when and by whom it first started. Historical evidence suggests that Chinese martial arts existed even 3000 years ago. The present-day kung fu techniques are said to have been developed over the past 1500 years in the Shaolin monastery by Buddhist monks. Chinese martial arts peaked during the Ming dynasty but started to diminish after the establishment of the Qing dynasty. In 1949 Mao became the leader of the People’s Republic of China. Subsequently, the Chinese Communist Party banned the practice of martial arts in the country. In 1966, the “cultural revolution” was implemented to ban the practice of all the traditional Chinese cultures, including martial arts. In 1978, after Mao's death, the “cultural revolution” was cast off. But it wasn’t until the government officially declared the ancient traditions legal that people began to practice martial arts again. However, the fighting aspects of martial arts were removed. Further, they were revised and used only for exhibition and health purposes.

The Chinese, by nature, is a secretive and suspicious people, so much so that they did not even pass down their teaching to their younger generations. Unfortunately, owing to this secretive nature, many old forms of Chinese martial arts vanished with time. If the masters did not feel there was a worthy candidate to inherit the techniques, they did not pass down the marital arts. In this way, several martial styles died with the masters. Sometimes the masters would choose an heir but would not teach them the art entirely. Further, even when the techniques were passed down, some students could not accurately comprehend the techniques used. In addition, there would be fake martial arts teachers who were never taught martial arts but teach others using false credentials.

Due to the above reasons, the Chinese passed down incomplete and weak versions of their martial arts, and over the years, Chinese martial arts became disrespected and ineffective.


Since the Chinese wanted to keep their fighting techniques a secret, they also practised them in secret. Therefore, they did not wear any special clothing or uniforms while practising, instead, they would wear their everyday clothes for practice.

This outfit style is still used in the modern version of kung fu. Practitioners of kung fu wear loose clothes fitted with a belt and wear kung fu shoes. The outfits can vary in their materials used and colours across practitioners. Most of the fabrics used are brightly coloured satins. Also, unlike karate, kung fu uniforms do not display the rankings of the practitioner with their uniform.


Kung fu uses movements which are circular and fluid. The circular nature means that the practitioners of kung fu shift their weight laterally. It also means that the practitioners appear more graceful. Hence, Kung fu is a part of the soft styles category of martial arts. The movements in kung fu are optimized in situations where you are defending, not attacking.


There are two types of Kung fu, namely, Wai Jia and Nei Jia

Wai Jia Nei Jia
Also called external or hard kung fu Also called interior or soft style kung fu
Different styles: family style, Shaolin, Wu Ching, Tang Lang, etc. Different styles: Xing Yi Quan, Ba ji, Tai Chi Chuan, etc.
Named after a family, a place or an animal Named after philosophical ideas or combat values

Besides the above-mentioned classification, karate is further classified into two based on geographical differences- Northern and Southern

Practised in Northern China Practised in Southern China
Low stances High stances
Focuses on different varieties of foot techniques Focuses on different varieties of quick and cut-off hand techniques
For example, Tae Kwon Do For example, Wing Chun


Chinese martial arts were practised differently by different masters, and they were passed down through the generations as such. An individual master would try to mould it in his specific way. As a result, many different styles of martial arts developed. Mainly there exists seven different styles of kung fu. They are Shaolin kung fu, Bajiquan, Wing Chun, Xing Yi Quan, Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Northern praying Mantis.

Shaolin Kung Fu

When you see martial arts depicted on the big screen, like movies, television and animation series, they are depicting Shaolin kung fu. It is said to have been developed in the Shaolin Temple in China and is associated with the Zen Buddhism philosophy.

It consists of a variety of self-defence techniques. The punches and kicks used could be both-handed and close-handed. In addition, they practice wide stances.


Bajiquan centres on the techniques called the eight extremities fist. It is an aggressive and offensive style. The focused body part is the elbow which is used to punch the opponent’s chest area.

It does not have any movement style like quick, internal or the like. Bajiquan focuses on strength. In the modern world, the Bajiquan style is also called the "bodyguard style."

Wing Chun

One of the most recently developed styles, Wing Chun, has a history of only 300 years. This is the only martial arts technique found by women and named after women. The martial art style was developed by two women, one who was a nun and the other, her student, who was a tofu saleswoman.

It follows the southern classification. Wing Chun techniques centre around close-range combat techniques and focuses on upper body movements, for example, punches. Since it is a quick style, the practitioner should be very agile. In addition to these Wing Chun also uses several defensive techniques like ducking and sidestepping.

Xing Yi Quan

Xing Yi Quan training centres on training the practitioner's mind. It is classified as one of the internal styles of kung fu. The movements used are straightforward and simple.

Tai Chi

Tai chi is an internal style kung fu technique. The origin of Tai Chi can be traced back to the 12th century. Tai Chi uses different concepts such as "Ying and Yang" and pacifism. The style mainly focuses on awareness and hence, it is a very slow style. In the modern world, Tai Chi is examined and used for the many health benefits it provides.


Baguazhang has its origin in the 19th century and hence is one of the newer styles of kung fu. Its philosophy is influenced by Taoism. This style is classified as one of the internal styles of kung fu. The movements practised are slow and fluent. The concept of Ying and yang is also used here.

Northern Praying Mantis

Just as the name suggests, this technique was named after the green insect- the praying mantis. This style practices movements that are modelled on animal movements. It incorporated and revised the movements to use them to fight. The northern praying mantis is a quick style. It stresses mastering footwork and upper body movements.

What is Karate?

Karate is a Japanese martial arts technique. It is also known as “Karate-do". It emerged in Okinawa, Japan, in the past 300 years. There are two types of karate- “karate for self-defence” and “karate for sport.”


The relationship between China and Japan has always been complicated. However, China and the Ryukyu kingdom had a good relationship. This relationship resulted in many Chinese citizens migrating to the RyuKyu kingdom bringing with them Chinese cultures, including the Chinese martial arts. During that time, the Chinese martial arts were known as “Kara Te”, meaning “Chinese hand fighting”. The RyuKyu kingdom was annexed and conquered by the Japanese in 1879 and renamed "Okinawa." By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were many “Kara Te” practitioners in Okinawa. “The Japan Karate Association” was formed in 1935 by Gichin Funakoshi and other practitioners, who opened the first Kara Te school.

During this time, there was high patriotic passion in Japan. Therefore, Funakoshi revised the characters in Kara Te. He changed the character “Kara (å”Â)," which meant Chinese, to a different character with the same pronunciation, “Kara (空)," which meant empty. Hence, the meaning "Empty hand fighting" came to be. In addition, Funakoshi also changed the names of the forms from Taolu to Kata.


The art of karate is practised and performed by wearing the traditional uniform, "gi," and a belt. This was based on the Japanese military’s uniform. The “karategi” is made from light canvas-like fabric. The fabric should be able to hold out against all the strikes and kicks received during a fight while at the same time not restricting the candidate's mobility. The belt in the karate uniform indicates ranks. As the style of karate changes, the uniforms also change slightly, like the length of their jacket, hand sleeves, and legs.

Different colours of the belt indicate different ranks of the practitioners. The colours may be decided by the instructed and as a result, are not universal. For example, while the colour yellow may indicate one rank for one school, the same rank can be represented by the colour brown in a different school. Despite this, a black belt is said to represent the highest rank in karate.

Different Parts of Modern Karate

Modern karate focuses on three different parts, the Kihon, Kate and the Kumite.

  • Kihon- basic techniques like postures, strokes, blocks, etc.
  • Kate- focuses on specific movements of postures, strokes, and blocks. The practitioner fights against an imaginary opponent to display the techniques.
  • Kumite- the practitioner trains against an opponent.

Types of Karate

There are two types of karate, namely self-defence karate and sport karate.

Self-defence karate requires a less level of proficiency. Sport karate requires a high level of proficiency.
It has no rules It adheres to several rules and regulations and has judges to oversee the combat.
Used when the opponent intends to hurt you or cause you harm. The focus of the opponent is to make technical points and not hurt you.
Use hand and foot blows to fight. Use high kicks to fight.
Requires that you learn to defend against attacks which may occur from the back. Does not require you to learn defence against attacks from behind.
Requires that you learn to fight against more than one opponent. Only one opponent will be present.


Just like with kung fu, karate styles also developed over the years into different styles because of the way they were passed down. However, in karate, they are not separated into different arts but only vary according to the basic rule they chose to focus on.


  • Developed and practised on the main Japanese islands.
  • Fundamentals- Shorin-ryu, Shorei-ryu.
  • 70%- hard style, 30% - soft style
  • Stances- deeper and longer.
  • Kata - 26


  • Emerged at the same time in Japan and Okinawa.
  • Influences – Tomari-te (Okinawa), Shindo Yoshin (jujutsu), and Shotokan (Karate)
  • Uses both soft techniques and hard techniques.
  • Stances- natural
  • Kata- 15


  • Emerged at the same time in Japan and Okinawa.
  • Influences- Shuri-te group and the Naha-te group.
  • Uses a combination of soft techniques and hard techniques.
  • Stances- deep and natural
  • Kata- 94


  • Emerged in Okinawa
  • Influences- Naha-te, Fujian White Crane
  • Uses a combination of soft techniques and hard techniques.
  • Stances- deep and natural
  • Kata- 12

From these four styles emerged 10 other karate styles, namely, Yoshukai, Chito-ryu, Uechi-ryu, Gosoku-ryu, Shuri-ryu, Isshin-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Kyokushin, Shindo jinen-ryu and the Shukokai.

Main Difference Between Kung Fu and Karate in Points

  • Kung fu was developed and practised in China, while Karate was developed and practised in Japan.
  • Kung fu means skill or accomplishment, while Karate means “empty hand”
  • Kung fu forms are called Taolu, Karate forms are called Kata.
  • Kung fu practitioners wear loose clothes with belts and shoes, and Karate practitioners wear the traditional "gi" and are barefoot.
  • Kung fu students address their master as "shi fu", and karate students address their master/instructor as "sensei."


In conclusion, both karate and kung fu are martial arts. One emerged in China with a rich historical background, while the other was in Japan. Since many Chinese martial art techniques weren't down through the generation, they have lost their effectiveness. While the Japanese martial arts only improved over the years.

Choosing one of these two martial arts to learn would depend on your needs, whether you need it for defence or fighting. Additionally, since the movements practised in the arts differ in their use of body parts and speed, they should also be considered before taking up a martial art.


  • Little, J. R., & Xuan, D. (2019). The tao of Wing Chun the history and principles of China’s most explosive martial art. Skyhorse Publishing.
  • Tegner, B (1970). Bruce Tegner,s Complete Book of Karate. Bantam Books.
  • https://blog.xplorrecreation.com/what-is-the-difference-between-kung-fu-and-karate
  • https://wayofmartialarts.com/kung-fu-and-karate-what-are-the-differences/
  • https://wayofmartialarts.com/kung-fu-styles-explained-in-detail/
  • https://wayofmartialarts.com/all-karate-styles-and-their-differences/


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