Kung Fu vs Karate (Difference Between Kung Fu and Karate)

Kung Fu vs Karate

As a lifelong fan, practitioner, and advocate of martial arts, I am constantly faced with questions.  Still few questions are asked more often than those involving the similarities and the difference between Kung Fu and Karate, Kung Fu vs Karate which is better. The ability to answer these questions accurately, however, requires the acquisition of knowledge, which must be obtained through research.

Different History

The History of Kung Fu

In Chinese, the term “Kung Fu” (or gung fu, 功夫) refers to any individual accomplishment or cultivated skill obtained by long and hard work.  

When one refers to the practice of Kung Fu in relation to other martial arts, they often envision one specific style but kung fu actually refers to a wide variety of ancient Chinese self-defense practices including but not limited to Shaolin kung fu, tai chi, and wing chun.  Each of these forms has its own philosophies, principles, and techniques. 

Origins and exercises related to the practices and routines involved in the many different styles of Kung Fu evolved from the hunting and defense needs of the primitive Chinese society.  

At first, Kung Fu only included some basic skills like cleaving, chopping, and stabbing but over time, the system evolved as fighting skills from a handful of different dynasties developed into the formation of various useful practices.

According to Chinaculture.org (page 1 paragraph 3. ), the roots of Kung Fu can be traced as far back as 600 BCE but it was the Buddhist Shaolin monks who most profoundly influenced ancient Chinese fighting strategies over the past 1500 years.  This influence made way for the evolving styles of Kung Fu to become more practical and their usefulness became focused on how effective their strategies proved during battle.

The History of Karate

The origin of the Karate was first recognized on the island of Okinawa in Japan and it spawned from the indigenous Ryukyuan martial arts.  According to prominent records, Karate was first developed out of a martial arts practice called “te” involving hand movements although those who practiced it often had their own methods. 

The “te” practice was eventually influenced by different Chinese martial arts styles (including Kung Fu) as the comingling of the Japanese and Chinese people prevailed due to the close proximity of their nations (Meikai Blog, page 1, paragraph 1. ).  The merging of the two forms at once became known as “karate” which in fact translates to “Chinese hand”.  

Itosu Anko, the author of “Tode Jukun” (or the ten precepts of Karate) and Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan karate), is commonly accepted as the individuals who introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan.  

Effective Karate techniques (with and without weapons) evolved in the Japanese culture and their usefulness became evident as they were encouraged for display in self-defense and combat.

Over time different styles of karate began to develop all over the globe with the inclusion of the western world.  Karate has been practiced as an art, is taught for self-defense, and is exercised as a combat sport.  

The focus of traditional karate is self-development, but Karate also teaches perseverance, fearlessness, virtue, and leadership.  

Different Skill Characteristics

The Characteristics of Kung Fu

The basic goal of the Kung Fu practitioner is to protect against opponents and to disable them quickly.  Hence, the styles of Kung fu are known generally to stick to more of a defensive and reactive adherence.  

Many generic Kung Fu movements teach the practitioner to start with a block or an evasion before answering back with a strike.  This approach allows an opponent to make the first move as one uses their energy against them. 

Various forms of Kung Fu provide more of a focus on teaching and encouraging takedowns while most Karate systems abstain from this strategy aside from the use of sweeps.  Certain Kung Fu disciplines may teach the application of joint locks.

The different Kung fu techniques are encouraged to embody a variety of fluid, circular and lateral movements as opposed to the linear (forward) movements of the Karate practitioner.  

Stop and go of motion is frowned upon in most kung fu styles with value placed on the continuance of movements and forms that mimic the attacking nature of animals.  The majority of styles include punch, jab, and kick strikes similar to those in Karate.  

Although most forms of Kung Fu are based upon self-defense practices, some styles solely include physical exercises that mimic animal movements.  One example of this is tai chi, an individual practice with no intentions geared toward self-defense (travelchinaguide, “Tai Chi”, page 1, paragraph 1. ).

The Characteristics of Karate

The Japanese developed and improvised a number of techniques from Chinese fighting systems (including Kung Fu) in order to develop the Karate system.  The modification of such techniques led to the development of a more linear and offensive style of fighting compared to the movements of Kung Fu (defensive, circular, and lateral).  

The differences in the movements are especially evident in the forms or katas (traditional sequence of set moves) where karate techniques are performed with crisp movements that have distinct stop and go motions. Karate movements tend to inspire forward momentum and attacking techniques toward a target.

The general focus of karate is placed on inflicting damage to an opponent as value is placed on the landing and avoidance of pinpoint strikes.  Karate is mainly a striking art, with a heavy emphasis on, kicks, punches, and open-handed techniques.  Various blocking methods and sweeps are also emphasized along with the importance of proper breathing.  

Some throws and joint locks are taught and permitted in Karate depending on the style that is practiced.  When takedowns are employed within the art, they tend to be used to set up finishing strikes.

There is also a large focus on blocking strikes and breathing properly. As well as a competition element in some styles, Karate is probably most well-known for its katas which are a fixed sequence of techniques – encouraging control of movement and development of good form.

Different Weapons

The Weapons of Kung Fu

Many Kung fu styles adopted a variety of age-old Chinese weapons.  The cultivation of these weapons depended on the common resources that were available.  The initial foundation of Kung Fu weapons was divided into four categories:

  1. Long Weapons
  2. Short Weapons
  3. Soft Weapons
  4. Double Weapons

The handling of each Kung Fu weapon demands focused attention and disciplined use as each presents a high risk of injury.  

Traditional Chinese Weapons include the broadsword, the double edge sword, the long shaft, and the spear.  Goldenlion.com (page1, paragraph 3), mentions that “there are 18 main categories of weapons in Kung Fu, consisting of many improvised versions of:

  1. The Saber 
  2. The Spear 
  3. The Sword
  4. The Halberd
  5. The Axe
  6. The Battle Axe 
  7. The Hook 
  8. The Fork
  9. The Whip
  10. The Mace 
  11. The Hammer
  12. The Talon
  13. The Trident-halberd
  14. The Cudgel
  15. The Long-handled Spear
  16. The Short Cudgel
  17. The Stick  
  18. The Meteor Hammer

Weapons are found in both Kung Fu and karate, but different types of weapons are utilized in each martial arts system.  There is a lot more variety of Chinese kung fu weapons in comparison to Japanese karate style weapons and not all of them are used presently as learning tools.  

If you are lucky enough to see a display of Shaolin kung fu performed by the Shaolin monks, there’s a good chance they will use a variety of these weapons as part of this, highlighting their skills in both armed, and unarmed combat as can be seen below.

The Weapons of Karate

The Samurai forbade Japanese residents from carrying arms and as a result, they developed a fighting system with the use of improvised farming equipment as weapons.  The fighting techniques involving these weapons and the types of weapons that were used, were influenced by the Chinese.

The fourteen categories of Karate weapons that were developed over time and are still used in the karate system today were posted in Black Belt Magazine by author Marian K. Stricker (Black Belt Magazine February 1988)

  1. The Bo (Six-foot Staff)
  2. The Sai (Three-pronged Truncheon)
  3. The Tonfa (Handled Club)
  4. The Nunchaku (Two Rope- Or Chain-connected Sticks)
  5. The Kama (Sickle)
  6. The Tekko (Knuckle Dusters)
  7. The Tinbe-rochin (Shield and Spear)
  8. The Surujin (Weighted Chain) 
  9. The Ekuu, (Boat Oar of Okinawan Design)
  10. The Tambo (Short Stick)
  11. The Kuwa (Gardeners Hoe 
  12. The Hanbo (Middle Length Staff)
  13. The Nunti Bo (Fishing Spear)
  14. The Sansetsukan (Three Section Staff)

Find out more about some of the main Kobudo weapons:

Different Uniform

The Kung Fu Uniform

Karate and kung fu practitioners can usually be identified by the different uniforms that they wear.

Kung Fu uniforms generally consist of a two-piece suit with different styles of loose-fitting tops in a variety of different colors.  Common styles of tops include longer sleeves with rollback cuffs, frog buttons, and a mandarin collar.  

Kung fu pants are generally loose-fitting pants, held together with an elastic band that is light enough to allow free movement without restriction in the kicking motion.  

Most kung fu styles require their practitioners to wear shoes and many styles stress the use of gloves and belts.  

The sport of Sanda which is also known as Chinese boxing or Chinese kickboxing is a full-contact fighting system that has progressed from the practices of the traditional kung fu styles. Practitioners involved in this type of competition are expected to compete in shorts and a t-shirt with a low neckline and no sleeves.  Headgear and gloves are also mandated during regulated events.

The Karate Uniform

The Karate uniform is comprised of a loose-fitting cloth jacket or robe (gi), pants and a belt (colored according to skill level).  

Along with this particular uniform, the karate practitioner is prohibited from wearing shoes during practice or competition.

Kumite, the Karate style of sparring, usually requires the practitioner to wear gloves and foot guards.

Different Competition Rules

The Competition Rules of Kung Fu

1. Sanda (sparring)

Sanda is a type of sparring associated with Wushu Kung Fu. This type of sparring involves a combination of kickboxing with grappling.

Sanda also allows sweeps but unlike Kumite sparring in karate, Sanda allows competitors to grab each other’s legs. 

Action is not expected to stop after each point gained as the fighting is encouraged to continue after strikes are landed. 

The only allowances for action to be stopped are when fighters end up in a clinch, when they go out of bounds, if they go to the ground or if they are failing to engage.

Sanda has a similar point system to Karate but more points are awarded for clean takedowns.

The point system of Sanda awards 1 point for a landed kick to the thigh or a punch to the head or body.  

Two points are awarded when a competitor lands a kick to the body or when they accentuate a takedown and both competitors fall to the ground.  

3 points are only awarded for head kicks and clean takedowns where only one competitor falls to the ground.

The rules of Sanda apply to a best out of three matches as there are only three rounds in each fight.  If a fighter gets knocked out of bounds more than once within a single round, he or she will automatically lose the round.

2. Taolu (kung fu)

Taolu is the Kung Fu equivalent of Kata (Karate) and its flow is usually expected to take on a much faster pace than that of kata.  

Taolu requires an emphasis on angles, circular and side to side movement rather than the linear appearance of the kata system.  Taolu is also meant to display many different flashy techniques with the inclusion of spinning strikes and acrobatic type movements.

Taolu can be performed with the inclusion of multiple people, in which it appears as a rehearsed and fabricated fight.  Each event is judged on a total of 20 points with three panels of judges.  

Participants can be awarded up to 5 points, with virtually no specified regulations for judging, only vague statements of an “overall feel of the judges” in relation to “‘artistic expressiveness’ and “choreographic innovation”.

Points are deducted if a routine duration falls short of or exceeds time limits.  Errors in techniques, unintended breaks in the flow of action, or inconsistency of motion can also call for a point deduction.  

Credit is awarded based on creativity and the degree of difficulty accomplished in the techniques that are applied.  Practitioners aim to exhibit power, consistency, rhythm, and style in coherence with the music that is displayed in order to score well on the account of the judges.

The website of the International Chinese Martial Arts Championship posted a list of current rules on their website.

The Competition Rules of Karate

1. Kumite (sparring)

Kumite sparring matches revolve around a point system as a point is scored whenever a clean strike is landed.  There is a pause in action after each time a point is scored.

Points can be scored by landing punches and kicks.  Competitors can also score by landing sweeps as long as they are followed up by a punch.

One point is awarded to the Karate competitor each time he or she successfully lands a punch to the face or chest of his or her opponent. 

Two points are awarded when a competitor lands a successful body kick.  

Three points are awarded for either a head kick or a sweep (takedown) when it is followed up by a punch.

After each point, the round is stopped and one of the competitors is awarded one of these scores.

Participants involved in Kumite are usually encouraged to pull punches in order to avoid the risk of injury to their opponent. 

2. Kata (form)

Kata is a detailed pattern of movements designed to be practiced alone. This form is practiced as a way to memorize and perfect the movements that may be executed in combat. Katas cover a wide range of techniques with the inclusion of kicks, punches, and grappling motions.

When kata is performed in competition, it is often applied in a flowing, harmonious motion.  Movements are often performed in a chain of three different movements with an emphasis on the importance of coordination.  

Mistakes including slips, the omittance of a technique, or a complete stop in action require a deduction in points by the judges.  

An emphasis is placed on proper bowing, stance, demeanor, and concentration.  Posture, technique, and the manifestation of power and speed are also components that are considered by the judges.  

The practice of kata with and without weapons is applied with an emphasis on linear movements.

The World Karate Martial Arts Organization posted a list of Karate competition rules. 


Kung Fu does not represent one specific form of martial art. Nevertheless, if one were to analyze facts and truthfully compare the disciplines of Kung Fu and Karate, he or she would realize that neither system is superior to the other. 

Both Kung Fu and Karate can prove to be rewarding and fulfilling as the indulgence in either practice will supply the practitioner with valued benefits. 

Both are effective martial arts that also have good self-defense applications. Whilst kung fu encapsulates a broader range of styles and techniques due to its catch-all term, karate is a striking art that develops power and speed whilst also highlighting the importance of relaxation and breathing techniques.

The choice then is both individual and personal as to what discipline you should practice.

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Span Chen
Span Chen
I have been practicing karate for more than 6 years, and now at the sixth level (green belt) of the Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karatedo Kugekai. Though I haven’t earned my Black Belt yet, I am deeply passionate about my training.