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.

24 thoughts on “What Are The Differences Between Kung Fu & Karate?

  1. Hi RJ
    Sorry for slow response. Yes Shotokan can trace back eventually to Shoalin (Via Shuri Te and Shorin Ryu on Okinawa).
    I agree that Shotokan prefers punching more than kicking (as per TKD), but having held a kickshield whilst TKD people kick it, I can say that they are quite powerful too.

  2. Shotokan karate was formed off of Shaolin kung fu. And unlike taekwondo, Shotokan focuses more on powerful techniques while fighting prefer to punch than kicking.

  3. Pingback: Martial Arts: Learning to Kick Butt at Xen-Do | Just A Platform
  4. Hi Bonny.
    It’s good to study different styles, but I’d suggest that you focus on one first and become adept. When you’re adept, you’ll pick up the others faster.


  6. Hi Robert
    Sorry for being late approving your comment and replying. Karate is largely based on Kung Fu and has absorbed much of it’s philosophy too. However, the Okinawans and Japanese had their own philosophies which they would have applied, so there would be differences but I don’t they will be that big.

  7. This was a really informative article. And Stuart's comment was also enlightening. To I guy who knows little about either art form, it appears that the BIG difference is in philosophy. I'm taking it for granite that each was developed independently from the other… or am I wrong?

  8. Hi Jahir
    Sorry but that is not a straight forward question to answer. Many Karate and Kung Fu clubs just train unarmed and don’t do weapons. Then again, some Karate and Kung Fu clubs do. So you really have to check on a club by club basis whatever the style is as to whether or not they do weapons. Very generally speaking, (and there will always be exceptions) I think its fair to say that more Kung Fu clubs tend to do weapons than Karate. Having said that, Okinawan Karate is more likely to do weapons than Japanese Karate; but you really need to check on a club by club basis.
    Good luck finding what you’re looking for.

  9. Thanks for the above article.

    I am new to martial arts.
    Also please let us know the difference in training with arms/weapons in Karate Vs Kung fu.

    I want to train both in empty hand & weapons. So which one would you suggest for me?

  10. Thank you Stuart for your feedback and points raised. You are of course quite right about it just being a beginning. To do it full justist would take a book (or 2), which I don’t have the time orspace for on this blog for. But I hope it gets people thinking a bit and looking below the surface!

  11. This is a very good (though necessarily general) explanation of the differences between what we call "karate" today and what we call "kung fu". In fact both terms have broader and narrower meanings. The former can be used either to refer to the set of traditional martial arts systems deriving from the Okinawan tradition (including the original and more modern Okinawan systems plus the Japanese systems they spawned plus the original Korean variants that coalesced in time to become taekwondo, a high-kicking, sports oriented Korean system) or to refer to all forms of East Asian punching and kicking arts including modern taekwondo and the Chinese systems we think of as kung fu. Similarly "kung fu" is used in China to refer to their own native systems plus the karate systems of Okinawa, Japan and Korea. So it's all rather complicated and this writer has done a fine job of teasing some of this out.

    Importantly, he notes that neither the terms "karate" nor "kung fu" refer to a limited and homogeneous set of self-defense systems. What they have in common is primary reliance on kicking and striking (in varying proportions and emphasizing different principles of movement for speed and power) and the tightly intertwined history they all share. But the Okinawan/Japanese traditions (and that includes the Korean which was an offshoot of the Japanese because of Japan's occupation of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century) developed a set of distinctive external trappings which the Chinese kung fu systems don't, as a rule, share. These trappings include the use of the white uniform (gi), the belt ranking system with the black belt as the apogee of accomplishment, barefooted practice, and the formalization of the practice format (first warm-ups/basics then kata or forms and then sparriing or kumite). Kung fu systems vary much more in format but typically include lots of individual practice and emphasis on learning and practicing forms which contain the record of the system's methods and techniques.

    Moreover, the variations among kung fu systems can be as great or greater than the differences between any of them and the somewhat more homogeneous Okinawan/Japanese originated systems. And that's just for starters! Good job on the write-up. It's a great beginning.

  12. Hi Liakos
    I’m sorry but that is not a simple question to answer. Firstly you need to decide what you want; self defence, sport, exercise, etc. Both Karate and Kung Fu have many different styles (systems within systems). Different clubs within each style can also be geared to self defence or sport etc depending on the instructors interests.

    Also, you need to consider your own physique, capabilities and limitations. If you are short and stocky with no flexability, then you probably wouldn’t want to do a style which does a lot of high kicks. You might want to look at Wing Chun Kung Fu or Okinawan Karate which both keep the kicks low. If you are very tall and thin, then grappling would probably not suit you, so you might want to avoid styles which do a lot a throwing and the likes. It’s not about “which style is best”, its about “which style is best FOR YOU”.

    And if you do find a style that suits your needs, you don’t necessarily know if the instructor is very good or not.

    My advise is always to visit all the local clubs, talk to the instructors and watch what they are doing. Bear in mind that practically every martial artist thinks that their style is best, so don’t take anybodies word for it unless they can explain convincingly WHY they think their’s is better than another. Having said that, a good instructor shouldn’t be rude about his fellow martial artist anyway.

    Also, look closely at the senior students, because they are the product of the teaching method. If the instructor talks a good talk, but his students don’t look like they could punch their way out of a wet paper bag, then move on.

    Sorry that this is not a straight forward answer, but I hope it helps.

  13. ειμαι παιδι 11 χρονώων και θα ηθελα τη βοηθεια σας σε ποια τεχνη να γραφτο?

  14. I agree that Wing Chun is a great style. I’ve done some myself in the past and have a lot of respect for it.
    As for your Karate experience, sorry to hear that you found it disapointing. All I’ll say is that a lot of it is down to the instructor.

  15. Hi!
    I am Sathish from India(Tamilnadu).I am learning Karate till one year.But, i am not interest to them.Because it’s not teach flexability and breathing exercise.My sensei was teach only punches(Upper,Lower and Middle),kicks(same above),Blocks(Same above).Not teach in deep.nothing else to learn to deep.My Choice is Wing chun Kung fu is one of the best martial art.

  16. Hi. As for the main difference, please read the post above, that’s what its all about. As for what looks best, no idea. I’m more interested in what works best than what looks best.

  17. Hi,
    I am 13 years old and im just wondering what the main differences are between Karate and Kung fu and what looks the best once you have a black belt???

  18. Hi MJ
    I’m not trying to be evasive, but it is not as straight forward as that. I would suggest that you and the kid (is it your son/daughter?) visit all the available clubs in the area and check them out. Both Kung Fu and Karate have a number of different styles (variations), and within each style standards can vary and the emphasis of the instructor can also vary quite a lot.
    Firstly, you need to find a style which suits the kid. For example, if he/she is stocky and lacking flexibility, then it may not be a good idea putting him/her into a style which does a lot of high kicks. If they are tall and thin, then it may not be a good idea putting them into a club which does a lot of grappling. Try to find something that suits their physique.
    Also, a lot of clubs focus on competition which is quite different from street self defence. If they only practice sport, or just defending from Kung Fu/Karate techniques (which most thugs don’t use), then there may be a weakness. Look for a club which shows how to defend against grabs and haymakers (common street attacks) as well.
    Each system will have a very wide syllabus, so remember that when you visit you will just see a small snapshot rather than the whole picture, so have a chat with the instructor to establish their priorities. Just be aware that many will teach sport, yet honestly believe they are teaching self defence (which is similar but different).
    Check out the senior students. Even if the club teaches all the right things, it does not necessarily mean that they teach it well. If the senior students look like they can handle themselves then that could be a good bet. Just remember that if it is a new club then the senior students may not have had chance to gain experience.
    Again, I’m not trying to be evasive, but I hope this helps 🙂

  19. If you were to choose between the two - Kung Fu vs Karate for a kid with self-defense as the goal, what would you suggest that the kid learn?

  20. Hi Elisa. Not really. There are many books on Kung Fu and many on Karate, but none (to my knowledge) which do straight comparisons.

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