Kung Fu and Karate: What are the Differences?

Many people, especially those not involved in martial arts, often wonder what the differences between Kung Fu and Karate are. In this article we will tell you all you need to know about Kung Fu and Karate, and what the differences between these two martial arts are.

Kung Fu Karate
Has many schools under it Only one way, Karate way
Uses all kinds of weapons Your hands are your weapons
(sometimes uses some weapons,
it developed in modern times)
Doesn’t shy of close combat fight Medium to long-range distances
Uniforms in different colors,
styles, and materials
White uniform called a gi
Shoes No shoes
Movements are mostly circular, and
often resemble fighting styles of animals
Movements are sharp and linear

Kung Fu

Kung fu is an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts. The original name is Quan Fa (fist techniques).

In general, kung fu styles are divided into 2 groups:

  • Wai Jia or “external,” “hard” kung fu. For example, the styles of Shaolin, Tang Lang, Cha Quan, Five Ancestors (Wu Ching), Li (Li Gar) Family Style, and the like. Usually named after an animal, place, or family that has become known for that style.
  • Nei Jia or “interior”, “soft” styles. The most famous is Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua Zang, and Xing Yi Quan. Less known systems are Ba Ji and Yi Quan (boxing intentions, also called Da Cheng Quan). They are often named after complicated philosophical ideas, questionable combat values ​​and carried to the west by a wave of commercialization and New Ageism. But in history, they have proven to be more effective than external styles, though the secret of their application is probably lost or unavailable to the public.

But, as almost anyone who has taken martial arts more seriously can testify, the division into hard and soft is misleading. It is not about the hardness of the impact or the techniques but the philosophical approach. Hard-school techniques may be softer than soft-school techniques.

The second classification of kung fu relies on geographical differences.

  • Northern generally uses long, low stances, many foot techniques, and generally resembles something a layman would recognize as Tae Kwon Do.
  • Southern uses shorter, higher stances, the focus is on quick and cut-off techniques by hand. A classic example is Wing Chun.

Be sure to check out the full classificaiton of kung fu styles.


Taekwondo is a Korean martial art created in the 1940s by combining different skills that were practiced at the time. Its name comes from the word Tae (태, hanja 跆), which means to kick with the leg, Kwon (권, hanja 拳), which means to hit with the hand, and Do (도, hanja 道), which means way. Taekwondo is a striking skill characterized by attractive leg techniques and speed. Today, taekwondo is considered to be one of the most popular martial arts and sports, with the number of practitioners worldwide estimated at more than 100 million.

Wing Chun

Wing Chun Kuen (traditional Chinese: 詠春拳), usually called Wing Chun (詠春), was developed by a Buddhist priestess at the Shaolin Temple in the early 17th century. According to legend, she was inspired to create this unique kung-fu system by watching the fight of snakes and girdles. Wing Chun was first taught publicly in the 1950s and has since become a world-renowned martial system. By practicing kung-fu techniques, we get to know our bodies, as well as ways we can protect it.


Karate (Japanese 空手), a Japanese martial art that uses all body parts for self-defense. Karate comes from Okinawa Island located south of Japan in the Ryukyu Archipelago.

History of karate

It is believed that martial arts began with the Indian Prince Bodhidharma, who spread Buddhism from India to China, more specifically to a temple called Shaolin, and meditated there. Seeing that Buddhist priests are in poor health, he devised certain exercises to preserve health and called the system 18 modes of lo-ham. Among those exercises were meditation exercises and self-defense exercises.

After the Shaolin Temple was destroyed, the surviving priests spread across China and taught martial arts there. That’s how different schools came into being.

At that time, Okinawa was ruled by the Shogun Hanoshi of the Sho Dynasty and everyone except the court officials was prohibited from possessing weapons. Because Shanghai was a lot closer than Nara and Kyoto, the then capitals of Japan, people from Okinawa went to China to train in martial arts there. On their return to Okinawa, they passed on their knowledge to others, and in this way a fighting skill called Te was born, which in Japanese means hand. Over time, Te from Naha, Te from Shuri, and less popular Te from Tomari are formed.

Naha-te is defensive in nature, with circular movements and throw techniques and reminiscent of Chinese martial arts schools. Shuri-te is of an offensive character, with straight movements and direct techniques, it included nunchaku (mallet for corn), tonfa (handle for millstone), and kama (sickle). Tomari-te takes on elements of both previous fighting styles.

Karate was discovered when an unknown military doctor noticed that soldiers from Okinawa were extremely physically fit. When he inquired about this, he learned that they were training a martial art called Te.

This information soon reached the Emperor of Japan and he invited the Okinawan masters to display it publicly. Gichin Funakoshi from Okinawa was chosen for the demonstration. He dedicated his entire life to popularizing karate and was called the father of modern karate. In 1930 he changed the name of the skill from Te to Karate which in Japanese means empty-handed or fighting without weapons. After that, karate spread all over the world.

Modern karate

Modern karate is usually divided into three parts:

  • Kihon
  • Kate
  • Kumite (fighting)

Kihon teaches the basic techniques, individual strokes, blocks, postures, etc.. Kate is a special set of specific movements (strokes, postures, and blocks) that are performed, showing combat with an imaginary opponent (one or more). The fight can be free or agreed (agree on which shot to take, and which block blocks that shot). In training, some equipment can be used, such as makiwara, punching bags, focusers, weights, etc. Although karate literally means empty-handed, some styles of learning and fighting with weapons such as kama, nunchaku, bo, etc.

Karate schools

  • Shotokan
  • Uechi ryu
  • Shito ryu
  • Wado ryu
  • Goju ryu
  • Kyokushin
  • Fudokan

For a in depth analysis of all karate styles, check out article we wrote.

Differences Between Kung Fu and Karate


Kung Fu movements are mostly circular, and often resemble fighting styles of animals, also, they start from basic foot positions that include normal posture and the four stances that got names by the resemblance to animal fighting styles – frog, dragon, horse, and snake.

Karate is usually striking martial art, that involves punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes, and other open hand techniques. Movements in Karate are sharp and linear.

While the inherent differences between Kung Fu and Karate are thoroughly explored at thi point, it’s crucial to remember that practical training, specifically safety measures like wearing the right gear, plays a major role in martial arts’ journey. To greatly enhance your Karate training and ensure your safety when sparring, read our comprehensive review on the Best Karate Sparring Gloves. You’ll find how crucial this protective accessory is to avoid serious injuries while boosting your sparring skills.

Range and training

Kung Fu is comfortable with close range and may use grappling, trapping, and similar techniques. It uses many training methods and incorporates bodybuilding and weight lifting.

Karate is more suited for medium to long-range distances. It uses singular training and avoids other training methods.

Kung Fu fighters in their training use mook jong or wing dummy, and sometimes even more advanced brutal things. Karate mostly uses makiwara and improvised Hojo undō they can muster. Kung Fu uses the latest improvements while karate sticks to tradition.


Karate uses traditional wear, a white uniform called gi, loose and light. Because of Karate training that uses striking, kicking, and short-range throws, karategi is designed to maximize speed and mobility.

Quality karategi is made from a light cloth that endures a considerable amount of stress without disturbing speed and mobility. There are different styles of Karate, and they have slightly different uniforms, even thou all share the same original design.

Many karate fighters wear belts longer than any other martial arts practitioners. The color of karate belts (obi) varies, and its color depends on the practitioner’s rank. A black belt is the highest-ranking belt in karate.

Karate fighters usually practice barefoot.

Kung Fu, on the other hand, has uniforms in different colors, styles, and materials. Uniforms usually have buttons with Chinese style, different than overlapping fronts of karategi. Completely different than karategi, Kung Fu uniforms come in different fabrics and in a variety of bright colors.

Kung Fu martial arts schools usually don’t have and ranking, as opposed to Karate belts. Kung Fu practitioners usually have shoes when training.

Meaning of the names

Kung fu or better to say Gonfu, in Chinese means any individual accomplishment or learned skill gotten by hard and long work. It also refers to the form of martial arts.

Kara te in Chinese means ’empty hands.’ It tells about the history of Karate, which we mentioned above, that this discipline originated as a martial art for self-defense with using your own empty hands. That slightly changed through history, and now, sometimes, karate practitioners are using some sort of equipment.

Kung Fu and Karate Organizations

Some of the main Karate organizations are the USA national karate DO Federation, European Kyokushin Karate Organization, World Seido Karate Organization, the International karate association, the All India Budokan Karate Federation, and the Japan karate federation.

Main Kung Fu organizations are USAWKF (United States of America Wushu-Kungfu Federation), IKF (International Kung Fu Federation), and IWUF (International Wushu Federation).

Which Is Better, Kung Fu or Karate?

Karate developed from Lo Han styles of Kung Fu and it is more like a part of a bigger system. Kung Fu, on the other hand, is much more complete as an art and has tons of smaller branches within it. Consider Karate to be a State and Kung Fu to be the full United States of America with tons of States within it.

Some techniques, like Karate and some other martial arts, tend to be more linear in their uses of techniques which makes them easier to learn at the start and easier to get some proficiency earlier on, but this also becomes their downfall as the techniques become easier to interpret in combat and competitions so an experienced fighter will easily be able to detect your techniques and counter them.

Kung Fu has many styles including animal styles like Crane, Tiger, Leopard, Mantis, Snake, Eagle, Chicken, Dragon, Monkey, Bear, and others. Also, there are Human styles, Drunken styles, and internal arts like Pakua (Bagua) Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Chi Kung training, and much, much more. You get a huge array of techniques that are much more deceptive, fluid, and effective from various sides and systems that can be used to attack and defend against multiple opponents.

Kung Fu is a much more complete system as a whole but is also more complex, and not every Kung Fu school has the ability to teach it all, even though there are a few. Most Kung Fu schools have just one or two styles that they teach, for example, some are White Crane Schools that teach White Crane Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Others are Mantis Schools that teach Mantis and Tai Chi. You will find that many schools teach Tai Chi as a supplement because Tai Chi helps every style as it teaches the art of yielding and striking with internal power which will help you no matter what other styles you learn.

Kung Fu is a more complete and complex art, but the person that practices Karate could probably easier and better learn to master its techniques, and because of that learn to use them better and more efficiently. That would mean that a Karate practitioner can beat a Kung Fu fighter just as easily as the other way around. In the end, it all falls on the fighters, not so much on the martial art.

In Kung Fu, practitioners are usually left to use their judgment and chose their favorite techniques, and to master those techniques on their own.

So it’s all falls to the individual fighters whether one will come out on top of the other in a sparring match or fight. Many Kung Fu fighters don’t spar as often as they should and without actual sparring practice, one cannot become that good of a fighter in combat.

Both of these martial arts are great, but if you need to choose one, then remember this – Karate is a narrower martial art, while Kung Fu is much broader, and you can learn different Kung Fu techniques your whole life, and never master them all. In this article, we told you all the differences between Kung Fu and Karate, and now the choice is yours.

Gianluca Martucci, Gianluca Martucci is a personal trainer and an athletic trainer.
Article by

Gianluca Martucci

Gianluca Martucci is a personal trainer and an athletic trainer. Since he was a kid, he has been a big fan of Martial Arts and Combat Sports: from Wrestling and now MMA to Karate and Kung Fu, for this reason he specialized in workouts for martial artistis. Our testing and reviewing method.
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