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.  This is covered in a bit more depth in my free video course on How To Become Good At Bunkai.

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.

Why Did Karate Develop It’s Linear Technique?

Although this blog is primarily about the application of martial technique, sometimes understanding the history of how certain techniques developed give a better idea of how those techniques can be applied in today’s world (where competition rules have clouded the issues).

Believed to be born in 1796, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura was a martial arts fanatic and some would say genius.  He was known to be very clever, good at psychology and ruthless.  At the age of 14, he announced that he would become the greatest fighter on Okinawa; by the age of 25 he was widely accepted as having achieved this goal.

Matsumura is a key figure in Karate history for 2 main reasons.  Firstly, two of his students were Azato and Ituso, who were teachers to Funikoshi, now widely regarded as the father of modern Karate.

Secondly, he appears be central in the development of linear technique.  Before Matsumura there is little evidence of linear technique, with most Okinawan Karate following the lead of Chinese Kung Fu and emphasising circular technique.  The Okinawan style of Naha Te and its main derivative, Goju Ryu were not influenced by Matsurmura, and still today their kata’s employ predominantly circular technique (just look them up on Youtube). Matsurmura was central to the Okinawan style of Shuri Te and most derivatives of this style clearly emphasis linear technique.

Due to his martial prowess, Matsumura quickly rose up in the ranks to become Chief Of Security to the King of Okinawa, a post which he held for 50 years.  The Okinawan king was basically a “puppet government” under Japanese rule.  The Japanese banned the use of weapons on Okinawa, a ban which extended even to the bodyguards to the king.  These were the only bodyguards to a head of state in history who were not allowed to carry weapons, and Matsumura was their boss.  It is known that anybody working for the king in any capacity would have had to be a martial artist as well.  It was a job requirement, even for clerks.  In the vulnerable position that the king was in, everybody would be expected to jump in if a situation arose.

But who was the main threat to the king?  The answer stunned me when I first found out after decades of training without knowing this.  The main threat was Westerners.  Whaling boats would want to trade with Okinawa when supplies got low, but due to rulings by the Japanese overlords they would not be allowed to.  This would sometimes lead to a ship-load of angry Western seamen, armed with whatever they had with them, going up to the Shuri Castle (centre of government) to “sort out” this little king.  Seemed a safe bet on an Island where nobody carried weapons.

However, the most serious incident happened in 1853.  It is widely known that Japanese isolationism was forcibly ended by an American fleet led by Commodore Perry.  What is not so well known is that Perry stopped at Okinawa before going to Japan.  Perry’s behaviour would seem very arrogant by our standards, but Perry understood the Japanese mindset at that time.  He realised that they respected force much more than diplomacy.  As such, he deliberately set about “bullying” the unarmed Okinawan’s, so that when he arrived at Japan he would arrive with a reputation as a hard-man.

The Okinawans had no way to know this, they would have just seen it as an invasion.  Especially when Perry led a parade up to the Shuri Castle consisting of 2 companies of armed US marines, 50 naval officers and 2 brass bands. Oh, and some big cannons from the ships!  This was Matsumura’s nightmare scenario.  Had Perry decided to take over and ordered the king’s detention, how could Matsumura and his unarmed men possibly protect their king against such overwhelming odds?

We can never know with exact certainty how Matsumura planned for such an invasion should it happen.  However, in the book Shotokan’s Secret, by Bruce Clayton, Ph.D., it lays down what skills Clayton believed would be needed in such a situation, why you would need them and what you wouldn’t need.

For a start, you wouldn’t be interested in holds and restraints.  No good pinning somebody down when you are outnumbered, his comrades will simply kick and beat you.

Matsumura would have known that the rifles took about 30 seconds to load and fire the first round, so should a fight break out you have 30 seconds to incapacitate as many opponents as possible and get your king out the back door before bullets start flying.  With circular technique relying on centrifugal force, you are almost waiting for people to come to you.  After you’ve dropped a few people, the rest would likely hang back until the riflemen start firing.  However, with linear technique, taking larger forward steps in any given direction, you can take the fight to them causing confusion, panic and disorientation.  You might even reach the riflemen before they have chance to load and fire.

Also, when surrounded by opponents, being stationary is not a good thing.  By attacking forward (in any direction) you will probably take your opponent by surprise (a mob does not expect to be attacked by it’s intended victim) and you put distance between yourself and anybody behind you.

With rifles being loaded, you also need to incapacitate opponents very quickly; no time to choke them out, just one punch . . . next please . . . punch . . . . next.

I want to make clear that I am not saying that linear techniques are better than circular.  I’m just saying that these are the requirements and circumstances that probably led to the creation of linear techniques.

Fast forward to today.  If fighting one on one, circular systems do generally give you more options.  They include strikes, grapples and pressure point strikes coming in from all odd angles.  These applications do appear in linear styles too, but with much less emphasis on them.  However, if you get attacked by a gang, being able to surprise them, knock some some out very quickly to balance the odds and spread them out so you can pick them off one by one obviously has some advantages too.  It should be remembered that linear techniques were designed to fight untrained multiple opponents, not other Asian martial artist who might be able to cope with such techniques.

If we are set upon by a gang of thugs, these people are basically cowards; not the hardy seaman or trained soldiers that Matsumura faced.  Whilst a basic stepping punch may not work well in a competition against somebody else who is trained; suddenly stepping forward to attack the leader of a gang who is expecting you to cower away is more likely to work.  Especially if you use your lead hand to distract as you move forward.  After a few steps forward (and hopefully a few assailants down), you need to be sure that nobody is about to jump on your back, so spinning round fast (as we do in our katas/hyungs/patterns) is a good idea, even if there is nobody close enough to actually strike at least you keep the initiative.

Incidentally, the elite British Special Forces regiment, the SAS (and probably others), are taught that if ambushed whilst driving along, they put the foot down.  Most people when ambushed run for cover, which allows the enemy to consolidate and concentrate their fire on your position.  This is similar to a group of thugs closing in and all hitting you at the same time.  However, when ambushed the SAS are trained to accellerate, becoming a moving target, not allow their enemy to concentrate their fire and get out as quick as possible.  That is not so different to linear Karate, stepping forward into a surrounding crowd, not allowing thugs to consolidate and not complying with their expectations.  Similar tactics from the top warriors of today and the past.

In Bruce Clayton’s book, Shotokan’s Secret, he makes it clear that the battle plan that he believes Matsumura drew up is just his own theory.  However, by comparing the requirements with the techniques best suited to that particular scenario, you come up with a style almost perfectly matching Shotokan.  Even today you can see in modern Karate and TKD that there is an emphasis in being mobile, forward movement and the emphasis on “one strike one kill”.

All the derivatives of Shuri Te, (including Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do) have these features in common and more closely resemble each other than they do any of the Chinese Kung Fu styles or the Naha Te derived styles.  Again, I’m not saying that any are better than the other, just different in emphasis.

Shotokan’s Sectret is a must read for anybody interested in history of martial arts and although it has “Shotokan” in the title, the history and technique applies to any Shuri Te derived style.