Kung Fu Vs Karate

Gastbeitrag von Span Chen, thekarateblog.com


When looking at the two well-known martial arts of kung fu and karate, it is easy to compare them and pick apart their differences. Of course, we are all the more inclined to do this if we have chosen our preferred art to argue which is the most useful, realistic or effective.

This does not truly do them justice, as rather than thinking of them as separate, competing arts; they should be considered as branches of the same tree.

Cousins from the same family, which have taken on their own individual differences as they’ve grown through the ages according to unique influences, geographical factors and practitioner styles.

Kung fu Vs karate? How can you compare the two?

With a vibrant history behind them both, let’s first look at their development and how they’ve both become prominent fighting styles since their inception around 1500 years ago.

The history of kung fu and karate

Legend has it that both kung fu and karate can be traced back to a Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma in sixth century AD China.

Bhoddidarma, who is also attributed the origins of Zen Buddhism, founded the Shaolin-Szu monastery and a form of physical training which would later become the basis of Kung Fu and Karate.

Finding that his students struggled with the physical and mental demands of Zen, he devised a system to develop these qualities based on a combination of Indian yoga breathing techniques and native Chinese unarmed combat known as kempo.

Soon, the monks of Shaolin-Szu became as renowned for their fighting skill as for their Buddhist knowledge. These techniques soon spread across the vast country of China, adapting into different forms according to local conditions.

This is the basis of different styles we’ve come to know as kung fu and karate.

History of Karate

Stretching from Japan to Taiwan, the Ryukyu chain of islands – of which Okinawa is the largest – naturally became a meeting ground of Chinese and Japanese cultures.

Subject to long periods of harsh Japanese domination, weapons were made illegal in Okinawa. This led to the adaptation of agricultural implements as weapons and a developing style of combat known as ‘tang hand’.

Characteristics of this, as influenced by the traditional wooden armour worn by Japanese soldiery, was significant hand and foot conditioning to allow empty hands to strike effectively through the armour.

An example of this tough hand conditioning can be seen below:

History of Kung Fu

Kung fu, sometimes referred to as Gung Fu or Cong Fou, is a ‘catch all’ term used to describe all Chinese martial arts.

As mentioned above, its origins are largely credited to Bhodidharma at around AD 540, but some scholars note the appearance of Chinese martial arts as far as 5,000 years ago.

Chinese kung fu later spread to Japan, Korea and other Far Eastern countries, influencing styles we now know as karate and taekwondo.

However, our associations today are mostly linked to the Shaolin monasteries who led in the adoption of kung fu styles.

A modern day demonstration from the Shaolin Monks:

The characteristics of kung fu and karate

Having developed from the same point back in the 5th century, the arts of karate and kung fu now look quite different in the 21st century!


Like other Japanese martial arts, Karate practitioners – known as Karateka – train in what is known as the dojo.

Due to there being few throws in karate, there is no need for matting, so this is generally a bare hall with a wooden floor.

The instructor is referred to as sensei and the formal side of its Japanese roots, alongside Japanese terminology have continued to be popular in the west.

Karate uses several stances which have different strengths, with the well-rounded karateka being able to adopt the one best suited to the situation. It is primarily a striking art (unlike judo for example which is characterised by its throws, locks and groundwork) with karate using any hard and bony part of the body to strike the opponent. These movements are sharp and linear in nature.

This is most spectacularly demonstrated by the breaking of wood, tiles, stone, or ice which highlights the importance of hand and foot conditioning!

See some incredible examples of this here:

Kung fu

Like karate, kung fu is primarily a striking art that uses kicks and blocks, but also uses both open and closed hand strikes. Various styles also include throws and joint locks.

Kung fu uses a more circular style of attack and defence to the straight strikes characterised by karate. This uses both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ techniques within them.

The instructor is referred to as sifu, and like karate, there are several stances such as dragon, frog, horse and snake. Five of the basic stances are ex planned in the video below:

The different weapons of kung fu and karate

Karate weapons

Strictly speaking, karate is known as ‘empty hand’ so it doesn’t use weapons. However, it is closely related to kobudo – the weapons based sister of karate.

Kobudo uses weapons including the bo, sai, tonfa, nunchaku, tekko, Tinbe-rochin and surujin (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okinawan_kobud%C5%8D)

Due to their close relation, some schools of karate may teach this to supplement the empty hand style.

Kung fu weapons

Weapons are more tightly integrated into many kung fu styles than karate, with 18 main categories of weapons including the saber, spear, sword, halberd and axe among many others. Different variations in each of these categories mean there are a wide range of weapons used overall. (Source: https://www.goldenlion.com.au/kung-fu/classes/weapons/)

The different uniform of kung fu and karate

The uniforms of kung fu and karate are both quite different.

Karateka practise barefoot and wear loose fitting white karate uniform called Gi. These are made from light canvas like material, which is fastened with a coloured belt denoting the grade of the wearer. This is similar to other Japanese arts such as judo and aikido.

Starting with the white belt for novices, the student, or kyu, advances through different belt colours according to their grade. These colours may vary with different associations whilst advanced practitioners, or dan grades, wear the coveted black belt in all styles.

In contrast to karateka, kung fu uniforms vary significantly in colour and style. These are generally loose Chinese style uniforms made of cotton or silk with frog buttons and short collars, worn with loose pants and light shoes.

Unlike Karate, kung fu practitioners do not show their rank on the uniform.

The different competition rules of kung fu and karate


The competitive fighting side of karate is known as kumite, with the object being to win the most points (or render your opponent unable to carry on.)

Competitors are placed into different categories based on weight (and age for young people.) One competitor wears a red belt and the other a blue so they are easy to tell apart and they may also wear protective equipment such as a gum shield, shin pads, groin guards and foot protectors.

To score points, techniques must be applied with good form with fighters scoring between 1-3 points depending on where the opponent is hit. For a full description of the rules of karate visit here: https://thekarateblog.com/karate-rules/

See the video below for an introduction to sport karate and its rules and scoring:

Kung fu

Due to the broad spectrum of styles under kung fu, there is no one definitive rule set associated with the martial art. To add to this there are also a variety of competitive forms including light, semi contact and full contact.

An example of competition rules for praying mantis kung fu (https://www.mantiskungfu.com/contact_sparring_rules.php) is similar to that of karate, in that points are won for clean, effective strikes to the opponent’s body.

In addition, there are also several techniques that are not allowed in order to protect the fighters. These include striking the throat, back, joints, groin and back of the head

As with karate competition, there is also an emphasis on competing in a fair and sportsmanlike manner.


Overall, karate and kung fu are both dynamic arts with a long and interesting history. Their popularity has spread across the world and continues to grow today.

My advice would be to find a good club and give them both a try. You will learn skills and fitness that offer many benefits outside of the arts, as well as meeting some great like minded people.


Span Chen

Founder of The thekarateblog.com
and Chinese Karate enthusiast

No votes yet.
Please wait...