Karate vs. Kung Fu: What’s The BIG Difference?

Karate vs. Kung Fu: What's the difference? - CraftofCombat.com

It can be hard working out which martial art that you want to study, especially if so many of them are intriguing to you. Even in this day of MMA where many people are studying more than one, you still want to be sure you’re making the right choices. This can lead to a lot of head scratching when two art forms are as similar as Kung Fu and Karate appear at first glance.

So, what is the difference between karate and kung fu? The differences between kung fu and karate are not many. Karate is focused on striking, making it more aggressive and effective in professional fights. Kung Fu is more varied and practitioners learn defence against weapons and multiple opponents. This gives kung fu an edge in a street fight.

Let’s get to grips with why there’s not too much different between them. We’ll walk through how the two sports developed, what they’re intended for, and which martial art is more suitable for certain scenarios.

A Brief Introduction To Karate

Karate is a modern Japanese martial art. It was originally from a place called the Ryukyu Kingdom which is a series of islands that are now considered to be wholly a part of Japan. The martial art they practiced in Ryukyu was called “te”.

Karate is all about striking the opponent with hands or feet and it’s considered to be an offensive art. In karate you will find punching, kicking, elbow striking, palm striking, hand striking, etc. though there are some forms of karate in which you can also find some emphasis placed upon grappling techniques as well as throws and locks.

The Influence Of Kung Fu

Anyone who spends much time watching karate is going to see that it has Kung Fu influences and for a period of time the martial art was known as “Tang hand” or Chinese hand. This was a combination of “te” and the Chinese influence from Kung Fu.

It was in the 1920s when the name was changed to become “karate” (kara means “empty” in Japanese) and which showed that karate was not a weapons sport but rather an open handed striking sport.

It was during the 1920s and 1930s that many Japanese began to learn karate though it wouldn’t be until the 1960s and 1970s when it began to be taught in the West. This was mainly due to the rising popularity of martial arts movies at that time.

The Underlying Philosophy Of Karate

Karate is based in Shingon Buddhism and can said to be rooted in the Heart Sutra of that form of the religion. It is not, of itself, about combat but rather a way to live life.

In fact, instructors don’t expect karateka (students of karate) to need it in real life more than once or twice in a lifetime. This is because they know that real fights are genuinely dangerous and no matter your skills, you can lose to someone who is lucky or just better than you.

So, karate teaches its students to avoid fighting if at all possible.

Ranking And Demonstrating Experience In Karate

Since the 1920s, karate has adopted a belt system which enables you to tell a participant’s rank at a glance (though different schools of karate may use slightly different grading systems).

A black belt is considered to be the point at which a karate student is ready to take on serious learning and is not a symbol of mastery. It takes about 3-6 years for most karateka to obtain their black belts.

A Brief Introduction To Kung Fu

Kung Fu is a little more complex than Karate because there are many different forms of this martial art. In the North of China, it is called Kung Fu, in the South, Wushu. It may occasionally be referred to as Quanfa too, though this is more usually a generic term that covers all Chinese martial arts.

Kung Fu’s biggest variants included Shaolin Kung Fu, Wing Chun, and Tai Chi. Though there are too many variants for anyone to reliably keep track of them all. Each will have its own set of principles and techniques and while there is a common based between types of Kung Fu, they can differ dramatically in practice.

The word “Kung Fu” symbolizes cleverness, speed and trickery in Chinese.

The Underlying Philosophy Of Kung Fu

As you might expect, with so many different schools of Kung Fu, there is not one underlying philosophy for the martial art. Though most forms of Kung Fu find their roots in Chan Buddhism which is to say Chinese Buddhism. This is different in practice from the Shingon Buddhism used to underpin karate.

Unlike karate, most Kung Fu schools were once actively martial (that is the art was used not just in sporting tournaments but also in war) and thus, the emphasis in training until fairly recently was to teach students to be able to attack and defend against nearly any kind of opponent.

However, in modern China, the communist party does not take kindly to the idea of private armies on Chinese land and the emphasis of Kung Fu in China and thus in its associated teachings around the world is now more on style and demonstrations than actual fighting.

Ranking And Demonstrations Of Experience In Kung Fu

As with Karate, modern Kung Fu uses a belt ranking system and in fact, most Eastern martial arts use a similar system. Again, there are distinct variances between different schools as to which rank means which color and there are no hard and fast guidelines on this.

However, in most instances you would expect to find that fighters of the same belt color would have similar skills though not identical skills.

The Main Differences Between Karate And Kung Fu

The Oxford Dictionary confidently asserts that Kung Fu is, “a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate”, which just goes to show that while the folks in Oxford may be great at English, they’re not martial artists.

In fact, many schools of Kung Fu do train weapons. For example, Shaolin Monks are famous for their prowess with a staff. This is in stark contrast to karate where any practice involving weapons would involve practicing disarming an armed foe.

However, what is true is that, in most situations, a Kung Fu fighter would not be allowed to bring a weapon to a fight with a karate fighter.

Related article: Should You Train 2 Or More Martial Arts At Once?

Now, let’s take a look at the other differences:

Karate: More Aggressive

Karate has a smaller subset of forms and moves than Kung Fu. This can lead to two advantages when comparing karate with Kung Fu:

  1. The fewer techniques you learn, the more time you spend practicing them. This should mean that a karateka is going to be better able to use the techniques they practice at a certain level than a Kung Fu practitioner is. Though a Kung Fu practitioner would be able to call on a greater range of skills.
  2. It means you ought to be able to master karate at a faster rate than Kung Fu. In fact, it can take decades of training for someone to master a school of Kung Fu whereas you would expect to master karate in around 8-10 years.

Karate is also, ignoring the weapons thing for the moment, a more aggressive way to fight. Because it is fully focused on striking and has fewer moves than Kung Fu, there might be a slight advantage to getting in close and launching an offensive.

Kung Fu: More Varied

In contrast, however, a Kung Fu fighter simply has more options at hand when it comes to how to fight. Now, this may mean that in the first instance, it takes longer to master Kung Fu but once someone has mastered Kung Fu, it means they can be much more tactical in the way that they fight.

There is likely to be a distinct advantage if you fight Kung Fu at a master’s level rather than karate. However, in much of the world, people don’t have 20 years spare for the kind of continuous training that it takes to master Kung Fu. This means that this advantage is going to be rarer than it might be with another easier to learn martial art.

Are Karate And Kung Fu Suits The Same?

No, they may look somewhat similar, but the garments worn for each martial art are different:

  • Karate Suits include a white jacket, a pair of pants and a colored belt
  • Kung Fu Suits include a pair of pants and a colored belt, but they have a different style of top which has “frog buttons” on it.

It’s also worth noting that a kung fu practitioner wears shoes whereas a karateka does not.

Kung Fu Vs Karate: Which Is Best For Self-Defense?

This is a tough question because it’s not so clear cut. When two martial arts styles have so much ground in common then it’s hard to determine which offers the bigger advantage in certain situations.

Nor is it automatic that karate is less good at defense because it is primarily a striking art. However, it is fair to say that the motion of a fighter in karate tends to be linear – that is they come straight for an opponent. It is probably, easier to defend against this than against circular motion. Though it is better to attack in a linear pattern.

Kung Fu uses a circular motion, mainly because Kung Fu’s movements are often based on movements found in the animal kingdom and animals tend to circle each other before they attack. This does lend itself to a martial art in which more thought is given to reacting to an opponent as opposed to trying to land the first blow.

Though much of the difference will come down to the individual’s skill – Kung Fu has the overall advantage as a martial art for self-defense.

One important thing to think about when choosing a martial art for self-defense is to examine your dojo carefully. Self-defense is best learned with at least some contact in training. If your dojo tends to avoid contact, you might want to think about training elsewhere and this is true of both karate and kung fu.

Karate Vs Kung Fu: Which Is Best For MMA?

This is an easier conclusion to make. In Mixed Martial Arts, there is a clear perception in that karate is a practical solution for MMA whereas Kung Fu might be a little too showy and less practical in a fight against an opponent with more than one martial art under their belt.

Karate’s swift kicks and punches are a good match for Muay Thai, another MMA favorite, and there are many forms of karate in the wider-world that are very much akin to kickboxing (also a favorite of MMA fighters).

There are, however, much fewer Kung Fu fighters in the senior MMA leagues, it’s not that there are none, but they are few and far between. Kung Fu is particularly weak against grappling arts and there are no pure Kung Fu practitioners at the highest levels at all.

Kung Fu is very much designed for fighting in a war against multiple opponents, MMA just doesn’t work like that and Kung Fu is at a definite disadvantage here.

Kung Fu Vs Karate: Who Wins In A Street Fight?

There is probably a slight advantage to using karate in a street fight. It is a more offensive martial art and, in a fight, where the objective is to reduce your opponent to rubble as fast as possible – it ought to have the edge.

However, there are at least two scenarios in which a Kung Fu fighter is going to have a big advantage in a street fight:

  1. When they are fighting with weapons. Many Kung Fu styles train with weapons and train bare hands against weapons too. It is much rare to train against weapons in karate and karateka never train with weapons. You are best at what you train and karateka cannot compete in a fight with weapons, effectively.
  2. When they are fighting more than one opponent. Kung Fu is a true martial art. It was designed for use in combat. That means fights with more than one opponent and this should offer a big advantage to Kung Fu over karate.

Karate Vs Kung Fu: Who Wins In A Professional Fight?

It depends and this is a bit of a cop out but it’s also probably the most accurate conclusion. A Kung Fu master against a Karate Master would probably have the advantage in a professional fight but most Kung Fu masters are in temples in China and are not out in the real world fighting in professional fights.

This means you are most likely to be pairing two fighters of very similar skills. The Kung Fu guy would have a slight advantage in defense, the karate guy in offense. These advantages ought to cancel each other out to some extent and then you’re talking an evenly matched bout.

The conclusion is that it might depend on the day, who is feeling better or more confident or just a bit of luck when the two fighters are equally balanced in skill. Sure, you could argue that the Kung Fu practitioner’s shoes might enable them to land heavier blows but in reality, it probably wouldn’t make that much difference.

So, this is a draw most of the time. Pure Kung Fu and pure karate are not going to offer huge advantages against each other in a professional fight.


So, how do kung fu and karate compare? As you might expect from two very similar martial arts, there’s not a lot in this.

Karate might have a slight edge on the street though circumstances could just as easily hand the advantage to Kung Fu. In MMA, karate appears to have an edge. But in a one-on-one professional bout, things could go either way with no clear winner between the two forms of martial art.

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