Tai Chi Vs. Kung Fu: What’s The Difference?

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

If you’re thinking about taking up a martial art, you may be wondering what are the differences between Tai Chi and Kung Fu are and which one might be best for you. It’s a good question because the differences are not always so obvious.

What is the difference between Tai Chi and Kung Fu? The difference between Tai Chi and Kung Fu is that, generally, Kung Fu is a lot more physically strenuous than Tai Chi. While Tai Chi’s main focus nowadays is mental discipline and physical health, Kung Fu is still used as a fighting system that aims at making self-defence instinctive.

At the same time, Tai Chi and Kung Fu have a lot of similarities, more than an untrained eye can see. Let’s briefly compare the two disciplines to see what they’re all about.

What Is Tai Chi Exactly?

Tai Chi is a martial art which is rarely practiced as a martial art. Many of its students are only peripherally aware that it is a martial art at all. Most students seek to use Tai Chi as a form of exercise, which has significant benefits to the ability to balance and to gain discipline over their own mind.

The name “Tai Chi” is an abbreviation of T’ai chi ch’uan or sometimes, Taiji quan. As a martial art it is considered to be an “internal” art (as opposed to Kung Fu which is an external martial art) and it is best used for self-defense.

In China, there are still people who practice Tai Chi as a competitive martial art in “pushing hands” wrestling tournaments but even in the country of Tai Chi’s birth, Tai Chi’s popularity for fighting has been slowly waning.

The health benefits of Tai Chi practice are not in doubt, however, and taking up Tai Chi for its mindfulness, meditativeness and exercise practices is an eminently sensible thing to do. Because it is rarely practiced as a fighting art now, it is very easy to take up if you have not exercised in a long while, have some form of disability or are very young or very old.

The History Of Tai Chi

It is very clear that Tai Chi must have, at some point in time, shared a similar evolution as Kung Fu techniques in China, what is less clear is when the two diverged from each other and what Tai Chi’s overall history looks like.

This is, in part, at least due to the fact that Tai Chi is a new term. It appears to have been coined in the 19th century with several forms of wrestling accredited as its forebear.

There are two schools of thought as to Tai Chi’s origin. The first maintains that Zhang Sanfeng a 12th century Taoist monk developed the practice.

Unfortunately, this appears to be based on a text first written in the 19th century. There is no link between Zhang Sanfeng and any kind of martial art until a 17th century scroll emerged, and the Tai Chi link came 200 years later still. Thus, many scholars dismiss this claim.

The second group, with the stronger claim, link Tai Chi to the martial art practiced by the Chen Family of the 17th century and they say that the style was popularized by their student, Yang Luchan during the 17th and 18th centuries.

This style appears to have been inspired by a local Shaolin monastery though it might have been taken from the writings of a Ming Dynasty general, instead – there’s quite a bit of scholastic disagreement on this topic.

The Styles Of Tai Chi

Tai Chi appears to have gone through several periods of stylistic development even before it was called Tai Chi. The five main styles of Tai Chi were the Chen, Yang, Wu Hao, Wu and Sun styles each of which was influenced by a major martial arts family.

There are dozens of other minor styles which are known about in China, today. However, it is generally agreed that the Chen style is the most influential over all other styles of Tai Chi.

In the modern era, Tai Chi has been simplified and unified into a single form by the Chinese government following the end of the Cultural Revolution. This was to enable competition Tai Chi where unified rules could help to ensure a fair fight.

Then over the last 20 years or so, the fighting element of Tai Chi has slowly been pushed out in favor of the healthy exercise elements that it offers. It’s lack of heavy impact makes it perfect for the overweight or the elderly take up safely without fear of hurting themselves.

It is this recreational style which is by far the best known form of Tai Chi today. It is also the style against which we can contrast Kung Fu.

Training In Tai Chi

Training for most people in Tai Chi breaks down into two sets of features: the solo forms and the breathing exercises. For those who practice Tai Chi as a full martial art, there are also the “pushing hands” forms practice which enable them to fight using Tai Chi.

The physical forms of Tai Chi allow a student to work through a series of routines which challenge them to maintain their center of gravity. This allows for the flowing, controlled movements for which Tai Chi is best known. This retraining of posture is proven to help prevent fall injuries in older people.

The breathing exercises are mindfulness or meditation exercises with no religious underpinnings or trappings. While Tai Chi was influenced by Daoism this influence came prior to Daoism’s emergence as a religion – so the philosophical side of things is all that remains in the development of Tai Chi as a martial art.

Pushing hands practice requires a partner and is a form of wrestling practice. It can be found outside of China, but it is relatively rare.

The Philosophy Of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is based around the idea of the Yin and the Yang. This is a Chinese concept that represent the idea of the cosmos being “in balance”. Without this balance, the theory goes, everything would eventually become chaos and thus order is required to combat that chaos to bring balance.

The application of this in Tai Chi can be found in the idea of “softness”. That is a Tai Chi practitioner does not seek to strike their opponent or to use violence against them even when violence is used by the opponent.

Instead, they roll with the blow of their opponent with intention of either allowing it to run out of power or to turn it somewhere else.

In Tai Chi this prevents the violence from harming the practitioner and it prevents it from harming their opponent. This makes Tai Chi a much better martial art for self-defense than it does for attacking someone with.

What Is Kung Fu Exactly? [Terms Explained]

In China, Kung Fu is an umbrella term for all martial arts. This means that technically, Tai Chi is Kung Fu but this would be a very short (and not very interesting) article if that was the way we were going to go with this.

If we define Kung Fu in a more modern and literalist extent, then Kung Fu, Gongfu, and Wu Shu (which are simply all Chinese variants of the same thing) is a defined set of martial arts which belong to specific schools such as Shaolin or Wing Chun.

We can set Tai Chi aside because it is notably different from the rest of the Kung Fu practices. These are “external martial arts” whereas Tai Chi is an “internal martial art”. This also means that we can compare and contrast the two.

However, it’s worth remembering that as a literal truth Tai Chi is simply Kung Fu and therefore, you can argue, correctly, that there is no difference between the two things. 

The reason that we can make this separation is that as English speakers there is a difference between Tai Chi and Kung Fu. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Kung Fu as “a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate”.

And whilst Tai Chi may look like a very slow-mo version of karate to those in the know, it doesn’t look like “karate” to most observers.

The History Of Kung Fu

As Kung Fu tends to refer generically to all martial arts in early Chinese history, there’s no easy “story of Kung Fu” to be found.

What we do know is that the Emperor Huangdi was said to have introduced formal fighting systems in roughly 3,000 B.C.E. His nemesis, the General Chi You was said to have created jiao di, which is a precursor to Chinese wrestling.

The division between “hard” and “soft” distinctions in Chinese martial arts appears to have turned up around 500 BCE and by 200 BCE there was a distinction between armed and unarmed martial arts too.

However, what we, in the West, tend to think of as Kung Fu began to formalize around the 5th Century AD when the Shaolin Temple was founded in the Song Mountains. It’s fair to say that this form of Kung Fu has evolved a lot since the days of the original Shaolin Monks, but the original forms would certainly have been recognizable to the modern observer as “Kung Fu”.

The sport of wushu, was a Southern Chinese formalization of the “Kung Fu” rules at the end of the Chinese civil war in the 1950s.

The Styles Of Kung Fu

It is fair to say that in a 5,000 year history as a generic classification of martial arts there have been a lot of styles of Kung Fu come and go over the years. In fact, many are now lost to history and even a modern day list might go on for several pages.

However, according to Live About there are several major styles of what we consider Kung Fu in use today:

  • Shaolin
  • Long Fist
  • Eagle Claw
  • Monkey Style
  • Wing Chun
  • Hung Gar
  • Choy Li Fut

They also define three Chinese martial arts which are not considered to be “Kung Fu” which include:

  • Tai Chi (which should give you some reassurance that we’re not making an artificial distinction here – Tai Chi in modern practice simply isn’t Kung Fu)
  • Shuai Jiao (an ancient form of “jacket wrestling” practiced in Northern China)
  • Baguazhang (a less well-known martial art which is nearly indistinguishable from Tai Chi to the casual observer though the forms are very different as is the underlying philosophy)

Training In Kung Fu

Training in Kung Fu is broken down into a series of different stages:

  • The basics of Kung Fu. Kung Fu disciplines tend to be highly acrobatic and it’s impossible to become fully competent in Kung Fu without at first training your body to be flexible enough and conditioned enough to take the physical demands of the discipline. Basic techniques involve simple strikes, throws, jumps, flexibility exercise, balance exercises, conditioning exercises, stances, etc. In China, many Kung Fu students start at a very early age and they may spend a decade learning the basics.
  • The stances of Kung Fu. As Kung Fu training evolves, the stances become much more important. Every style of Kung Fu will have different names for their stances, and they may offer several variants of the same stance. They are measured by foot positioning, the distribution of body mass and the overall alignment of the body.
  • The meditative elements of Kung Fu. There are mindful or meditative trainings in some variants of Kung Fu and it is designed to help develop a practitioner’s mental clarity and focus. However, it’s fair to say that this is not as in-depth as it is in Tai Chi.
  • The use of qi. Tai Chi and “qi” (life force) are very separate and while some forms of Kung Fu incorporate this concept – Tai Chi does not. Qi training is supposed to help a fighter better heal themselves.
  • The use of weapons. Most Kung Fu disciplines also incorporate weapons training. There are variants of Tai Chi which allow for weapons practice but they are unusual and uncommon.

The Philosophy Of Kung Fu (“Martial Morality”)

As you might expect, with dozens (or more) of different variants of Kung Fu over the passing of the years – there is no unified philosophy of Kung Fu. Individual branches such as Wing Chun or Shaolin may, of course, incorporate a specific philosophy.

As we know the Shaolin are monks and they’re Buddhist monks, so if you learn Shaolin Kung Fu you will spend a significant amount of time studying Buddhist philosophy and seeing how it can be incorporate into your practice.

However, this is not true of all forms of Kung Fu and in others such as Wing Chun, for example, no such Buddhist training will be present.

There are a couple of unifying concepts to be found in all forms of Kung Fu, though, and they relate to the ideas of “morality of mind” and the “morality of deed”. These stress 10 virtues.

The virtues of the mind are courage, endurance, patience, perseverance, and will. Those of the deed are humility, morality, respect, trust and virtue.

So, practitioners are expected to embody these concepts though as you can probably guess the interpretations of how this should work in practice are highly varied and inconsistent between different Kung Fu disciplines.

The Key Differences Between Shaolin Kung Fu And Tai Chi

It is not meaningful to compare all types of Kung Fu with Tai Chi and to expect to find any major differences, so for the purposes of this exercise, we can look at the most popular and famous form of Kung Fu (which is the Shaolin Style) to contrast against the modern practice of Tai Chi.

The majority of these differences will hold when comparing Tai Chi to other styles but not all of them.

 Shaolin Kung FuTai Chi
Internal or External?Shaolin Kung Fu is an “external” martial art. This is the most common form of martial art in China. This means that it is focused on physical discipline first and foremost.   This doesn’t mean that the mental aspects of the martial art are lacking, just that they are not the primary purpose of learning.Tai is an “internal” martial art. There are relatively few “internal” martial arts. This means that the priority is discipline of the mind.   The physical part of Tai Chi is still important, but it takes a back seat over mastering mental control and becoming aware of your surroundings.
Hard or Soft?Shaolin Kung Fu is primarily a “hard” martial art. That means that violence is met with violence.  Shaolin Kung Fu tries not to harm the opponent (as a Buddhist philosophy this is important) but does not place the same emphasis on this as Tai Chi.  Tai Chi is primarily a “soft” martial art. This means that violence is accepted, and the practitioner moves with it until it is exhausted or can be turned away.   Tai Chi aims to avoid harm to either fighter.
Buddhism or Taoism?Shaolin is oriented in Buddhist religious practices.   You can learn the forms of Shaolin Kung Fu without the Buddhist aspect, but you cannot properly understand it without the philosophy that underpins everything in the martial art.Tai Chi has some origin in Taoist philosophical practices, but it predates the idea of Taoism as a religion and is not a religious practice.   There is little, if any, religious emphasis in Tai Chi practice and while meditating/mindfulness techniques can be found in religious practice – they do not require any form of religion to use them.
High Impact or Low Impact?It won’t come as a surprise to learn that Shaolin Kung Fu is a high-impact physical activity.   Participants throw, kick, punch, fall, etc. and as such it may be that some people will find it unsuitable to learn due to physical restraints.Tai Chi is by contrast, mostly a low impact activity. While it is possible to fight with Tai Chi – most people don’t.   This lack of impact makes Tai Chi an excellent choice for those looking to take up a form of exercise if they are physically frail or overweight.
Agility or Stability?The focus of Shaolin training is agility. A Kung Fu fighter needs to be able to strike their opponent and to so quickly.   As a fighting art – agility is the most essential component of the training.Tai Chi, on the other hand, even when used as a martial art tries to harness an opponent’s strength against them and thus stability is the key part of the practice.
Direct or Flowing?Shaolin is about a direct physical conflict with an opponent. This is a facet of being a “hard” martial art.Tai Chi is about avoiding violence and thus it’s about flowing with an opponent. This is a face of being a “soft” martial art.
Martial Art or Health Technique?People learn Shaolin Kung Fu primarily as a martial art.   While Kung Fu may not be used in combat anymore, in China most Shaolin students will demonstrate their fighting prowess in public displays and in tournaments.Most modern learner of Tai Chi are barely aware that it is a martial art.   They practice Tai Chi for the proven health benefits and for the peace of mind that it brings.

The Key Similarities Between Shaolin Kung Fu And Tai Chi

There are also some real similarities between Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi as they are practiced today and understanding this can lead to a better understanding of why they can both be practiced together to gain even more benefits from your studies.

 Shaolin Kung FuTai Chi
The Physical FormsWhile physical forms are the priority when learning Shaolin Kung Fu they are very similar (though not identical) to those practiced in Tai Chi.   Though they serve different purposes when used in fighting.Physical forms are secondary in Tai Chi and are, perhaps, more precise but they are very similar in their movements to those in Shaolin Kung Fu.
Meditation and MindfulnessMeditation and mindfulness are part of Buddhist practice and in Shaolin Kung Fu they are important disciplines (this may not be true in other forms of Kung Fu) and help the fighter to gain mastery of their mind and body.The priority in Tai Chi is gaining control of your mind and developing awareness. Thus meditation and mindfulness are the key components of Tai Chi practice.
ExerciseShaolin Kung Fu is, of course, a type of exercise and it is a reasonably aerobic exercise at that – it’s equivalent to running and other high intensity workouts.Tai Chi is not as strenuous as Shaolin Kung Fu but it is still a form of exercise and it is completely equivalent to walking in terms of calorific burn and physical benefits.

Why Tai Chi And Kung Fu Are Best Practiced Together

In China, many people who practice Kung Fu also practice Tai Chi and this trend is catching on elsewhere in the world too.

If you think about it, this makes complete sense. Kung Fu, by our definition at least, is an external martial art. It is concerned mainly with physical discipline and the art of combat. Learning Kung Fu is, surprisingly a little easier than learning Tai Chi because there is more room for imprecision when executing the forms.

By contrast, Tai Chi is an internal martial art. It is most concerned with the mental discipline though the forms are not unimportant.

You can use Tai Chi for fighting and, in fact, it is very complementary to Kung Fu – as the “soft” approach of Tai Chi (the idea that you can roll with an act of violence until it runs out of steam or can be turned away) is in direct contrast to the “hard” approach of Kung Fu (the idea that you should strike your opponent repeatedly until the fight is over).

So, Tai Chi can help address some of the weaknesses of Kung Fu and the same is true vice-versa.

As they are both similar in terms of learning forms, etc. it can be much easier for someone who learns Kung Fu to also learn Tai Chi than to learn another fighting discipline with much less in common.

Most people who do go the route of learning both Tai Chi and Kung Fu begin with Kung Fu, master it to some extent, and then start Tai Chi – they don’t learn both simultaneously.


So, what is the difference between Tai Chi and Kung Fu? As we’ve seen, this is not clear cut and it’s perfectly possible to argue that there is no difference. Tai Chi can be considered a type of Kung Fu.

However, there is a clear difference between Tai Chi and specific Kung Fu styles (such as Wing Chun or Shaolin Kung Fu). The differences, as we’ve seen, are in their hardness, internality/externality, philosophy, impact, agility, flow and purpose.

Despite these differences, moreover, Tai Chi and Kung Fu are complementary and can be learned together for maximum benefit.

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