For the uninitiated, Kung Fu and Karate may seem quite the same. Both are Asian martial arts and both are quite popular in movies. However, there are many distinct differences that set one apart from the other – and it’s not just a different of Kung Fu belts being fancier than Karate belts.
As a matter of fact, the aesthetic of their uniforms are just the bare icing on the cake. Even a person untrained in these martial arts can identify one from the other. Their differences go beyond that though as their history and cultural revolutions are both entwined and separated at the same time.
Meaning of Kung Fu and Karate
Kung Fu is a very general term for all Chinese martial arts. There are a myriad of Kung Fu techniques and all of them are different from one another. The word “wushu” is the Chinese term referring to combat arts. Kung Fu or Gong Fu means “to reach enlightment/achievement through hard work”.
Karate is Japanese for “open hand”. This is a direct reference to the style because it primarily focuses on skills of an unarmed fighter. The older term was “kari te” which meant “China hand” and this refers to the history of the art’s Chinese origin.
History of Kung Fu and Karate
Kung Fu is the older of the two martial arts. The earliest forms of Kung Fu are, according to legend, as old as the quasi-mythical Xia Dynasty in China. This would make these original forms around 2,000 years old. They were said to be developed by the Yellow Emperor Huangdi to empower his soldiers at war.
Concrete forms of Kung Fu, which have gone on to form the modern arts used in China today, were developed during the Ming and Qing dynasties (from 1200 AD onward).
Kung Fu wasn’t just used for war. Its origins collide with ancient Chinese philosophies and were often taught to instill peace of mind and tranquility in a person’s life. It was built as a philosophical art as much as it was a physical combat form.
This became apparent when Shaolin monks took up the art and integrated Kung Fu into their daily lives at the monastery.
Karate, on the other hand, originates from the Ryukyu Islands, particularly in the area now known as Okinawa. Legends have it that an Indian Buddhist monk who was trained in Chinese Kung Fu visited the islands and bestowed his skills and knowledge to the locals of Okinawa.
From there, it grew independently from the styles of China and became its very own martial art with very different techniques, philosophies, and forms. Karate has branched out and now includes many sub-styles such as Shotokan, Shorin-ryu Shidokan, and Budokan.
Difference in Style
Kung Fu is often identified through the use of circular, flowing movements. There is often no pause in between technique training – the practitioner continues his flow of movement as he moves from one basic move to the next.
Karate is often identified as a more rigid martial art that utilizes linear strikes and crisp movements. There is a noticeable pause during the practice of Karate kata (movements).
This is why many think of Kung Fu as a soft style while Karate is a hard style. This isn’t a very accurate distinction because there are dozens of Kung Fu styles and all of them are different, so generalizing them into soft or hard categories won’t do them justice.
Difference in Uniform
The Karate gi is very distinguishable and easy to identify. Its origins are connected to the Judo gi since Judo – another Japanese martial art – was the original progenitor of the system wearing a gi and colored belt.
When you see someone wearing a white gi and a black belt, you know they are a practitioner of Japanese martial arts.
Kung Fu uses a very different uniform. Traditional Kung Fu gi is based on the silk and satin clothing of old men in China but it is altered to better fit for combat. Unlike the Japanese gi which uses loose and open sleeves, the Kung Fu gi is tight around the ankles.
Another distinguishing feature is the Kung Fu jacket. Where most Japanese gi are a combat spin-off of the traditional kimono, the Kung Fu gi is a comfortable jacket with frog-clasps that close the jacket down the middle.
Belts are also very different. Karate belts are colored to distinguish rank and skill. They are made from thick wool or cotton. Kung Fu belts are wide, soft, and made from silk or satin. In China they are only meant to close the jacket but in Western Wushu schools they are also used to determine rank and skill.
Which One is Better?
There is no determining which of the two is better. In theory, both martial arts are so different yet somewhat similar that neither has the advantage over the other. It all boils down to the skill and experience of the practitioner as well as their dedication to the martial art of their choice.