Despite being generalized and confused within popular culture throughout most of the 20th century, there are many key differences between the martial arts of Kung Fu and Karate.
From origins, form, disciplines, and fighting styles, there are several key things that set these two arts apart, at least to people in the know.
But what actually sets them apart?
It is understood that Karate means “empty hands”, a combination of the Japanese words kara and te, whilst Kung Fu (or gongfu) refers to individual accomplishment achieved through long, hard work and intensity.
Often used as a blanket term for the Chinese martial arts, along with Wushu and Quanfa, Kung Fu encompasses many different styles, including Tai Chi, Wing Chun, and Shaolin Kung Fu.
Kung Fu has many origins, some based in legend and others in fact.
In Chinese legends, Kung Fu originated in the semi-mythical dynasty of Xia, which was said to exist around 4000 years ago.
Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor and a deity in Chinese religion, allegedly introduced the earliest forms of martial arts to China around 2698 BCE.
Described as a talented and strong general, it is said that he wrote several instructive manuals on martial arts, as well as medicine and astrology.
Within the wider mythology, his opponent was the fearsome tribal deity Chi You, who with his many arms, metallic bodily features and numerous eyes was purported to be a descendant of fire itself.
Chi You is credited with introducing jiao di, the acknowledged precursor to Chinese wrestling.
The earliest historical references to martial arts in Chinese history were found in the Spring and Autumn Annals, an ancient Chinese chronicle dating back to around the 5th century BCE.
This chronicle described intricate hand to hand combat techniques and theories, speaking of both hard and soft fighting styles.
Along with a wrestling system described as Jueli (or jiaoli), in the Liji (an ancient book of rites), and the immortal poems of sword dancing by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, these helped to pave the way for what can be described as modern Chinese martial arts.
Developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom of Japan, now modern day Okinawa, Karate began life around 1372, when trade routes with China were established during the Ming Dynasty.
Inspired by the hand to hand combat employed by visitors from the Fujian Province, as well as vast periods of cultural exchange between the two nations, Karate was developed using Chinese martial arts, becoming the common fighting system employed by the Pechin (or Pekumi) class of Ryukyu fighters.
Separated into many different styles, Karate has several training styles, disciplines, focuses and cultures, all unique to the specific brand of the art.
Traditionally, the main recognized forms of Karate were the parent styles of Naha-te, Tomari-te, and Shuri-te, whilst modern styles are based around four types: Goju-ryu (hard-soft style), Shotokan (shoto = “pine waves”) (kan = “house/hall”), Shito-ryu (named after masters Itosu and Higaonna), and Wado-ryu (Wa = “harmony”) (Do = “way”).
These styles are recognised by the World Karate Federation, but by no means represent the full list, and several other popular styles exist around the world today.
Despite both being used as generic terms over the years, both martial arts are drastically different in both technique and motivation.
Whilst Kung Fu generally consists of circular attacks, fluid movements, animal mimicry, Karate is a strike based martial art, consisting of unarmed combat (hence “empty hands”) involving mainly kicks, strikes, punches, parries, takedowns, and open-handed techniques.
Despite a Chinese Sifu and a Japanese Sensei teaching different techniques, many of their forms and attacks are grounded in the same elements, including punches, kicks, palm strikes, grapples, takedowns, and parries, most likely due to the influence of the Chinese martial artists in ancient Japan.
Because of this, Karate is technically an off-shoot of Shaolin Kung fu, at least in principle, which makes it slightly more limited than Kung Fu, which is composed of elements from many different styles.
Due to its deeper history and higher level of sophistication, Kung Fu is more dangerous than Karate when practiced at higher levels, despite the more straightforward form used in Karate.
As mentioned above, Kung Fu draws a lot on the movement of animals, both in terms of motion and fighting.
Many Kung Fu forms mimic the styles of animals, some of the most dangerous being the monkey and tiger styles.
Karate is much more precise than Kung Fu, and places higher importance in crisp, fast movement during fighting, which can be both a benefit and a detriment when fighting less conventional martial artists from other styles.
Because of this, Karate has become somewhat of an accessible martial art, historically finding popularity across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Western world.
Despite both being employed in popular culture, drawing increasing popularity in the Western world during the mid-late 20th century, Kung Fu remains a more popular form of martial art amongst new learners, and is featured in a lot more films, television shows, and written fiction.
Whilst there is no definitive answer as to why it remains so popular, this could be due to the more creative application of animal movements, the foundation in traditional Chinese mythology, or the romanticism developed through the introduction of Chinese martial artists during 20th century cinema.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about Kung Fu, Karate, and the differences therein.
Both martial arts are steeped in tradition and rich with history, and remain popular choices all across the world even today.
Promoting self-defense, discipline, hard work, and mindfulness, martial arts remain a popular pastime in our ever hectic world, and thanks to their firm place in popular and ceremonial culture, they’re certainly here to stay.
Why not try them for yourself?