What Are The Differences Between Kung Fu & Karate?

One of the most popular and most frequently visited postings that I’ve ever done on this website has been an unbiased look at the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do.  So I thought I’d do the same between Karate and Kung Fu.

As with Karate and Tae Kwon Do, I believe that there is often a lot of misunderstanding between Karate and Kung Fu practitioners as they don’t really understand what  the other one is doing or why!  That said, there are many people who cross train between the 2 styles, in particular Karateka who train in Kung Fu to better understand the roots of the their own system.

This post is not aimed at arguing that either martial art is better than the other, as I have always maintained, there is no “best style” only a “best style for a given individual”.

But to  tackle a question like this is a massive subject as there are hundreds of styles of Karate and thousands of styles of Kung Fu; so I am going to have to lay down some parameters before I start.

Firstly from the Karate perspective; most modern styles trace back to the two Okinawan styles of Naha Te and Shuri Te.  There is arguably also Tomari Te, but that is really a branch of Shuri Te.  To confuse the issue further, many modern styles are also a hybrid of the two (like Shitoryu).

Naha Te (which later became Goju Ryu) was almost completely based on White Crane and Praying Mantis Kung Fu, whilst Shuri Te was quite extensively modified by the Okinawans.  So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the Karate styles from the Shuri Te/Shotokan lineage.  Ironically, much of this will apply to Tae Kwon Do as well, despite significant development by the Koreans.

Kung Fu is even more difficult due to it’s huge variety.  So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the traditional Shaolin styles of Kung Fu (rather than modern Wu Shu, Wing Chun or the Daoist based internal arts).

Usually one of the first things that people say when comparing Karate and Kung Fu is that Karate is more linear and that Kung Fu is more circular.  But what does that actually mean in application?

If you look at a Karate reverse punch, the hips are rotated, yet the arm goes out straight; so there is a combination of circular and linear movements within the same technique.  Many (if not most) Karate techniques are powered by a hip rotation, so does that make them partly circular.  Furthermore, although Kung Fu tends to have more techniques where the arms attack in a circular fashion, they also have a lot of techniques that come out straight forward, so are they linear?

Basically, what defines a linear or circular technique is not just whether the body rotates or not, or even if the attacking hand/foot moves in a straight or circular motion.  It is how the technique is powered.  A linear technique is powered by the forward inertia and momentum of the body, whilst circular technique is powered by the centrifugal force created by a rapid rotation which does not necessarily move the body forward.

You can see this more clearly in the 2 videos below.  In the first one you see a Karate reverse punch.  The hips rotate from being pulled back approximately 45 degrees to being rotated square to the front.  But overall the body weight moves forward in the direction of the punch.

In this Kung Fu example, you’ll see that the hips are rotated much further, so much so that the stance is facing at 90 degree’s to the direction of the punch and opponent.  When he performs the second punch, his hips rotate almost 180 degrees around to face the other direction (compared with Karate’s 45 degree hip rotation).  This obviously creates more centrifugal force.  The technique will vary from style to style, but it does demonstrate the general principle.  However, it does not create any forward momentum towards the opponent.

Again, I do not suggest that either method is superior to the other, they are just 2 modified ways of achieving the same result, which is putting down some b*****d who seriously deserves it.  It should also be made clear that Karate and Kung Fu both contain linear techniques and they both contain circular techniques.  It is just that Karate puts more emphasis on linear whilst Kung Fu puts more emphasis on circular.

Some people say that Karate is more aggressive.  Shuri Te was developed by the bodyguards to the Okinawan king.  They were the masters who evolved linear technique.  When you examine their requirements and the challenges that they faced, they needed a system of taking the fight quickly and ruthlessly to their enemies.  To do this you need to be able to move forward (linear).

With a circular system, to a certain extent you are letting the other guy bring the fight to you.  That may not have been an option for the Shuri bodyguards, but for us today who should only be interested in self defence, it is fine.  You can still take the initiative and give a pre-emptive strike if somebody comes too close (which an aggressor will do) but you don’t need to take the fight to him.

Circular technique is better for grappling, spinning very fast when you have hold of somebody is a good way to of-balance or throw them.  It also helps to apply locks to any trapped limbs very quickly.

Linear technique is less versatile in application, but was designed for very much with multiple assailants in mind where running away was not an option (as in bodyguards).  For this they needed to take the fight to the opponent, put him down very quickly, then move onto the next.  I believe that this is where the Japanese maxim of Ikken Hissatsu (one strike, one kill)  comes from.  Grappling techniques are too slow when you’re outnumbered, so that versatility was not required.

Furious 5 from Kung Fu Panda

Many of the Shaolin styles are based on animal movements such as Tiger, Snake, Monkey, Praying Mantis, Crane and many others (even mythical creatures such as the Dragon).  Although these styles imitate animal movements, they are still very effective in application.  Drawing from the movements of mammals, birds, reptiles and even insects has led to a great deal of innovation and inspiration, not only in fighting techniques, but in the principles adopted (for example, power from the Tiger, but flexibility from the Snake).

Karate however has been more influenced by the Zen philosophy which is (or was) very popular in Japan.  Part of Zen is to minimize everything, which has also been applied to the movements in martial arts.  Only the movements strictly required for a technique are included, all else is striped out giving it a much plainer appearance in many ways.  This also fits in with the linear concept of less emphasis on grappling and versatility, but focusing more on multiple opponents instead.

Of course this is a very broad subject as already mentioned and there is a lot of overlap between Karate and Kung Fu, so this posting can only be a guide rather than a definitive in every case and every application.  As such there will be plenty of exceptions, so any writing on this subject (by me or anybody else) should only be regarded as a generalised guide.

If you have found this useful, or if you have anything to add to the subject, then please leave your comments below.

Karate Kata Bunkai: Bassai Dai

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do any videos on kata bunkai, which was a very prominent element of this website when I first started it.  Unfortunately I still haven’t been able to, yet recently I’ve been asked if I will be doing any more.

So what I’ve done below is take an excerpt from my DVD, Inside Bassai Dai.  It features some kata bunkai from the opening sequence of Bassai Dai.  I hope you enjoy it.

Many visitors to this website don’t get taught this kind of bunkai at their own Dojo, so please leave your feedback below and tell me what you think.

The True Purpose Of Makawara Training & A Review

Karate Depot have asked me to review a makiwara (striking board) for them.  But first, I would like to talk about what makawara training is actually trying to achieve as it not quite what most people imagine.

Personally, I like makawara’s.  Some people argue that as they have so little give in them, your punch/strike has to stop after impact, rather than going all the way through the target – as you might do in a real combat situation.  Therefore (it is argued) you are training yourself to “stop short”.

I personally believe that if you can slam your fist very hard into a target that barely gives and not damage or hurt yourself, then you have no fear of whatever you hit at all.  You also develop so much impact that you don’t have to punch too deep to do damage.  Besides you can practice punching/stiking deep on other pieces of equipment, that is not what the makawara is all about.

Some also argue that it is a stationary target and therefore less functional than focus mitts which obviously can move about.  I’ll come back to this point shortly.

Although many see the makawawa as a method to harden hands, especially knuckles, Gichin Funakoshi says that the main point of using a makawawa is to learn correct alignment of the body when striking.  Harding knuckles etc is secondary.  Delivery of a good technique (be-it Karate or any other style) depends heavily on correct alignment of the body’s skeletal system.  This in turn should allows you to become more and more relaxed in your technique as you advance through the grades.

How does correct skeletal alignment enable you to become more relaxed and why is this useful?

Firstly, correct bone/joint alignment absorbs the reaction created by the impact of your strike, transfers it to the ground, and then effectively bounces it back into the target again.  With incorrect alignment, that part of the body will collapse and absorb much of this “impact reaction”.

This is the single most important function of the makawara, to weed out the bodies incorrect alignments and correct them.

This is best done with a training device that has little give in it (like a makawara).  Focus mitts are better for accuracy training and for training reactions to a moving target, but they do not offer enough resistance to allow you to weed your incorrect alignments within your body.  Neither training device (makawara or focus mitts) are superior to the other, they simply serve different functions.

As low grades, we can use a lot muscular strength to support our skeletal structure and stop it collapsing if there is any weakness (in the form of miss-alignments).  However, as we progress, the alignment of the skeletal structure improves and can absorb the “impact reaction” with less support from the muscles.  As we need less & less muscular support we can become much more relaxed.  This in turn enables us to move faster, conserve energy and actually do more damage with less effort!

This really is one of the biggest keys to combat side of martial arts.

This is why Tai Chi is considered an advanced martial art.  It is something that martial artists progress to, after a “harder” style has already taught them good skeletal structure.  It is not a martial art to start with (unless you are only interested in health and well being, which is of course perfectly acceptable).

The slow relaxed movements of Tai Chi are partly to teach you to use your ki/chi (internal energy) which is of course a controversial subject that not everybody will agree on.  However, on a more scientific level, the slow deliberate moves of Tai Chi do teach good skeletal alignment and good posture.  Doing movements slowly without correct alignment and posture, you will be more likely to loose your balance than if you do it fast.

Tai Chi is therefore (on some levels at least), a continuation of the learning alignment and posture that starts with the makawara, but taken to a much higher level.  I personally think that Tai Chi is much more than this, but this one aspect of it.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating on a makawara

Anyway, this brings us back to the makawara and hopefully you’ll have a better idea of its deeper purpose and benefits now.  The makawawa was traditionally a bail of straw, tied to a post set solidly into the ground.  This is not aways practical today.  However, you can get wall mounted versions like the Deluxe Makawara Board which I’ve been asked to review.

I found it very good.  It can take a lot of punishment and is hard wearing.  It’s also quite convenient as you put it up almost anywhere that you have a solid wall.  As it can’t flex (like the traditional wooden post), it has a little bit of give in from the hard foam under the canvas cover.  This foam does eventually get a little bit compressed from continuous blows, so I would suggest trying to strike different parts rather than just hitting the centre each time.  This particular makawara is a bit larger than most others, so it does allow you to move your point of impact around about a bit.  A good addition to any traditional martial artists training regime.