Kung Fu Vs. Taekwondo: How To Choose A Martial Art

Kung Fu vs Taekwondo - how to choose a martial art CraftofCombat.com

At first glance, Kung Fu and Taekwondo can look very similar but under the surface, they are actually very different. This then leaves you with the question as to which is best and how do you choose which one to learn?

What is the difference between Kung Fu and Taekwondo? Kung Fu and Taekwondo are both excellent martial arts for physical fitness and well-being. The difference is that Taekwondo is a Korean martial art mainly focused on elaborate, powerful kicks. Kung Fu is a Chinese martial art focused on being quicker and reacting instinctively in a fight.

Once you understand these differences, then it should be much easier for you to make the right choice for your martial arts training.

What Is Kung Fu Exactly?

Kung Fu is a Chinese martial art and in China it’s pronounced more like “Gong Fu” than “Kung Fu”. It is also known as quanfa or wushu depending on where in the country you are based. Kung Fu is a generic term to the Chinese, and it refers to any kind of skill that takes time, effort, patience and discipline to learn and isn’t, in itself, a martial art.

It becomes a martial art when the art is associated with a school of teaching. Thus, the most famous form of Kung Fu, as a martial art, is Shaolin Kung Fu. This is a form of Kung Fu taught by the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Temple.

It is important to note that this makes “Kung Fu” a very versatile term, indeed. The various forms of Kung Fu can be very different from each other and thus, there’s no generic fighting style of Kung Fu. The most common forms of Kung Fu available to study in the West, however, tend to be related to a few styles and most notably Shaolin given its prominence in movies and literature.

You do not have to become a Buddhist to study Kung Fu and, in fact, at the monastery tuition is separated into two parts – Buddhist learning which is considered to be “Chan” and fighting which is “quan” and they are viewed as entirely separate disciplines. Some schools of Kung Fu have no religious affiliation at all.

Chinese Kung Fu has had a major influence on the development of martial arts in Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka and the knowledge of the different schools would initially have been shared by traveling monks acting as emissaries for their monasteries.

What Is Taekwondo Exactly?

Taekwondo, on the other hand, is not Chinese but instead hails from Korea. It is particularly famous for its emphasis on a fighting style based around kicking techniques that include fast kicking, spinning kicks, jumping kicks and high kicks. Taekwondo fighters are taught to kick their opponents at the waist or above and do not aim for their legs.

It is a relatively modern invention and Taekwondo was codified and formalized during the 1940s and 1950s. It takes its inspiration from karate, Kung Fu, Taekkyon, Subak and Gwonbeop (the latter 3 are all older less well-known Korean martial arts). It wasn’t until 1959 that an official governing body for Taekwondo was founded and thus, there is often a little confusion as to the exact origins of each part of the art.

What is definitely true is that Tae Kwon Do was developed for the Korean Military at the urging of the then President of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who had been very impressed with a demonstration of martial arts he had witnessed and felt that the infantry could benefit from a refined system of its own.

It is easier to define Taekwondo than Kung Fu because it is, essentially, a single discipline and while there are more than one school, the differences between them are much smaller than with Kung Fu. Most of all, Taekwondo places a very great emphasis on speed and power.

Newtonian physics and biomechanics were combined to develop a martial art based around speed when it become clear that increasing the mass of a blow had a linear relationship to the power of that blow but increasing the speed offered an exponential improvement in the power. Thus, they reasoned it was easier to get faster to be more powerful than it was to gain weight or muscle bulk to achieve the same end.

What Are The Main Styles Of Kung Fu and Taekwondo?

There are, quite literally an endless number of styles of Kung Fu but given that the vast majority simply exist in Chinese provincial towns and nowhere else, there’s no need for you to consider them all. You may not have a huge choice of styles near to your home but if there is a choice, it is likely to come from these 5 styles of Kung Fu:

  1. Shaolin Kung Fu. One of the oldest forms of Kung Fu and certainly the best-known around the world. It is by far the most popular version of the art outside of China and it involves training in all kinds of combat and demands the mastery of both mind and body to succeed.
  2. Wing Chun. This appears in plenty of movies and is also a very popular style of Kung Fu. It’s one of the simplest styles there is and the objective is not to learn all forms of martial prowess (as with Shaolin) but rather to learn to harness your opponent’s strength and use it against them.
  3. Tai Chi. Yes, Tai Chi is a form of Kung Fu and though it is rarely practiced as a martial art outside of China – most participants opt for the health benefits instead, it is a martial art. Tai Chi practitioners harness their internal energy to deliver explosive results.
  4. Praying Mantis. There’s no doubt at all that praying mantis is beautiful to watch and the name comes from the fact that practitioners use their hands to imitate the hooks of the insect. It’s a very fast form of Kung Fu.
  5. Bajiquan. It might not have the name recognition of the other 4 styles of Kung Fu here but it is the one they use to teach the Chinese military and also the bodyguards employed by Chinese politicians. It’s highly effective and uses short but very powerful movements.

Taekwondo, on the other hand, as you would expect is much easier to define in terms of styles and there is not a huge amount of difference between them – they relate to the 5 main organizations in Taekwondo.

  1. The International Taekwondo Federation. The oldest body that defined the 24 core forms of Taekwondo back in the 1960s. It is considered to be the most traditional and authentic form of the art.
  2. The Global Taekwondo Federation. They use the same patterns as the ITF do but they added 6 more of their own design.
  3. The American Taekwondo Association. There’s not much difference between the core forms here with the ITF but this school places an even higher level of emphasis on kicking. It also sells franchises that are allowed to bear its name and teach its methods.
  4. World Taekwondo. They actually call their version of Taekwondo “Taegeuk” and it’s very much meant as a sporting version of Taekwondo. You can get a lot of great sparring techniques in this style.
  5. Jhoon Rhee Forms. This was originally called Korean Karate but after some fallout with the ITF, it became Jhoon Rhee Forms. It is one of the biggest schools in America.

What Are The Main Philosophical Differences Between Kung Fu And Taekwondo?

Philosophy is a core component of martial arts and while it’s fair to say that, once again, it is easier to define Taekowndo’s philosophy – there are certainly lessons in Kung Fu too.

Kung Fu is based in Buddhism and/or Taoism for most Chinese styles. Given that Taoism is often referred to as “Chinese Buddhism” it’s quite straightforward to treat the two systems as the same thing for a brief introduction to Kung Fu’s philosophy.

They believe in the art of harmony and balance within the fighter and with the universe as a whole. The practice of Kung Fu is intended to lead to the happiness and well being of its fighters. You can find the concepts of “Yin” and “Yang” in many styles of Kung Fu which relate to the “hard” and “soft” elements of the fighting styles which are meant to balance to deliver an effective system.

Taekwondo, on the other hand, whilst drawing inspiration from older philosophical systems has its own clearly defined philosophy based around “8 phrases”: think rightly, feel rightly, conduct rightly, view rightly, have ability rightly, order rightly, speak rightly and view rightly.

These are similar to concepts found in Buddhism and Taoism too.

In the main, both systems have philosophies that are meant to help the fighter better themselves and to help them establish an ordered and valuable presence in the world around them.

Does Kung Fu Or Taekwondo Use Weapons?

Yes. However, it’s fair to say that Kung Fu is more concerned with weapons than Taekwondo is. All schools of Kung Fu, will have specific weapons that they train with. They use everything from swords to whip chains in Kung Fu and it would take more than one lifetime to master all the different weapon fighting techniques from all the schools.

Most Taekwondo schools, on the other hand, don’t use weapons and those that do offer weapons classes tend to do so for exhibition purposes only. The American schools, however, do teach weapons and provide training in swords, nunchucks and staffs, among other weapons.

Would Kung Fu Or Taekwondo Be More Effective In A Street Fight?

This is the moment where we might be stepping into controversy. Both martial arts can be very effective in street fights, particularly if the person you are fighting is not a skilled martial artist and you have the space to execute your moves effectively.

However, because Taekwondo mainly focuses on kicking techniques and doesn’t teach any kind of grappling, it is often at a disadvantage in street fighting. If someone grabs you and knocks you to the ground, kicks are rarely going to be of much value in turning the tide of the fight.

Some Kung Fu schools, on the other hand, do teach grappling techniques (Tai Chi is one such school) and thus, a skilled practitioner from one of these schools ought to have an advantage in a street fight when compared to a Taekwondo practitioner.

However, this is not likely to matter to most martial arts students, the best advice when it comes to street fighting is to avoid it in the first place, even the most skilled fighters can get badly injured in a street fight. Luck plays as much of a part as skill.

What Are The Main Advantages And Disadvantages Of Kung Fu?

Using Shaolin Kung Fu as an example, and assuming you will study in your own country rather than going to China for it, here are the pros and cons of Kung Fu.

The Pros:

  • You will become an exceptionally effective fighter – Shaolin Kung Fu is one of the most versatile martial arts there is
  • You will learn to master your inner feelings and voice as well as the physical aspects of the martial art
  • You will find your physical condition develops very well, indeed

The Cons:

  • Mastering Shaolin takes a very long time, there are a lot of forms and movements that you need to master
  • You may be asked to consider a vegan diet if you want to train at advanced levels due to the Buddhist nature of this school

What Are The Main Advantages And Disadvantages Of Taekwondo?

Taekwondo is, again, a bit easier to define.

The Pros:

  • It’s a super-fast martial art – if you want to surprise someone, you will
  • It’s a very powerful martial art – if you knock someone over, they won’t get up quickly
  • You will become much more agile

The Cons:

  • You have to have space and if you let people get too close to you – it’s much harder to kick them
  • Other martial artists may have an advantage as they will also have better striking and grappling training than you
  • It can be exhausting all that leaping about and high kicking takes it out of you – you might be too tired to fight after a couple of minutes

Should You Learn Kung Fu or Taekwondo?

Should you learn Kung Fu or Taekwondo? Well, if there is a specific style or aspect of either art that appeals to you, go with your gut and follow that art.

If, however, you’ve reached this point and are still thinking, “they both sound like fun”, try to visit schools for each art form close to you. Go and see what they teach, get a feel for the vibe in the dojo and where you like most. Then study that one.

Both of these arts are great for physical fitness and for developing mental toughness and discipline and for the vast majority of martial artists, that’s more than enough.


If you want to learn a martial art for physical fitness and to improve your overall wellbeing – both kung fu and taekwondo are excellent choices. However, both kung fu and taekwondo have distinct advantages in different forms of use and application and it’s worth looking at yourself closely to see what your needs from a martial art are and then choosing to study the one that is closest to meeting those needs.

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