Kung Fu vs Karate
It’s a topic that comes in conversation in playgrounds and pubs, offices and the great outdoors. It’s a debate that’s been going on for decades, across all ages: “Which is better, kung fu or karate?”
The truth is, when it comes to martial arts, there’s no such thing as better or worse. There’s only different. And those differences in styles, gear, and moves are what gives each form its distinct look and feel. So, when we talk about kung fu versus karate (or any other martial art), they’re both just different expressions of the same concepts and ideas, and they are each fully capable in their own right. Here, we’ve laid out some of the main differences and similarities between the two.
Kung Fu and Karate Fighting Styles
To describe the moves of these two disciplines, you may often hear the terms “soft” and “circular” for kung fu, and “circular” and “linear” for karate.
When we say kung fu is soft, we definitely don’t mean that it’s weak or can’t be used for defense. It’s simply a descriptive term that highlights how kung fu uses more fluid motions to redirect and concentrate kinetic energy – using pivots and small movements to turn an opponent’s force back towards them, for example. The forms used in kung fu often appear more elaborate and complex than karate for this reason, and there are many more sub-styles within this field of martial arts as well.
There are so many moves in kung fu because throughout the ages, in many places across China, everyone had to learn martial arts – men, women, and children alike. This massive difference in physical capabilities (like an elder woman vs. a young man) required the development and perfection of techniques that could work across all levels, ages, and body types. The “library” of moves kept growing, and now it might take a lifetime to learn them all (and another lifetime to master them).
Karate, on the other hand, is more straightforward and direct. They have a more streamlined set of specific forms (called katas), with more distinctive stopping and starting points. When practiced to a high degree, these can be employed very quickly and effectively to great effect.
Hybrid styles like kempo combine aspects of both these martial arts.
Defensive Moves in Martial Arts
Generally speaking, karate is more of an offensive style that tries to push momentum forward, while kung fu leans more toward a defensive style that takes advantage of an opponent’s attacks in order to strike back. This leads to more grappling and dodging in kung fu as fighters search for suitable opportunities.
When in a violent situation, this can lead to a fairly even match-up between the two styles, which you can easily see in videos between two expert fighters.
Kung Fu yi-fu and Karate gi
Beyond the moves, karate and kung fu also use different outfits. In karate, students and fighters wear a gi, a traditionally white uniform with an overlapping top, and a coloured belt that shows their skill level. During matches and especially in dojos, karate students will not wear any shoes.
This contrasts with kung fu attire, the yi-fu. These are button-up uniforms that do not overlap, which come in a variety of colours and materials, and do not usually have a belt or a sash to show the level of the learner (though some North American schools use satin sashes). In kung fu, shoes are almost always worn to protect the feet as well, and are a recommended part of the outfit.
While the rules around karate gi are standard, many kung fu schools are more relaxed in their approach, allowing students to wear any suitable clothing that allows freedom of motion.
Black Belt Levels in Martial Arts
Speaking of belts, that is something can differ greatly between different disciplines, or even different schools of the same one. You can find various grades of belts, sashes, and dashes for any style, but we’ll focus on the most common ones here.
Usually, in karate, there are six belt colours and levels: white (the basic level, which signifies no progress and does not count toward the total), yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and black. Within each of these can be further tiers, showing progress toward the next level. Once a black belt (dan) is attained, further skills can be acquired to reinforce that, leading to the common saying of “2nd (or 3rd, or 4th) degree black belt”. However, stories about “17th level black belts” are untrue, as no schools will go quite that high.
Kung fu schools may opt in to using a sash system, but not always. Every one is different, but here at Kung Fu for Life, we use sashes for instructors to denote seniority:
Using Weapons in Kung Fu and Karate
Just like the total moves used, the number of weapons used in kung fu is larger than those of karate.
Karate uses generally smaller, more easily manipulated weapons, like knives, throwing stars, nunchaku, sai, or staffs and swords. The motions are abrupt and powerful, meant to strike quickly and powerfully without leaving an opening for retaliation.
In kung fu, in addition to those listed above, they also use much bigger weapons like broadswords, straight-swords, spears, and halberds. This stems from ages past, when some weapons were restricted in China, and people developed ways to fight and defend with any common farming tools they could find, such as shovels and rakes.
To help keep movements fluid, kung fu fighters practice often with manoeuvring and handling these items, and have a bit more freedom in how they attack and defend while using one. This ties back in to the “circular” motions of the empty-hand forms, and turning your opponent’s force into a counter-attack. In our studio, we generally stick to a staff and a sword – building skills that can be used with any one- or two-handed weapons.
Martial Arts and Meditation/Mindfulness
The benefits of various forms of meditation are clear and have been well-established for years. Due to this, both karate and kung fu emphasize and use meditation and mindfulness to clear minds, prepare for fights, and boost overall emotional control and health. By using these techniques, students and teachers alike can build their skills.
Karate often uses a form of meditation called mokuso, focused on clearing the mind, while kung fu can be more general in its approach (or defaults to Shaolin meditation, which seeks a ‘detachment’ of the self). In either practice, people report heightened senses, higher self-esteem, and more satisfaction with themselves and their work.
Whether you choose to do kung fu, karate, or one of the many other martial arts out there, we know you’ll enjoy the many positive health benefits that come along with it. And if you have any other questions that were not answered here, feel free to reach out and find out more – we’re always happy to teach someone new about kung fu!
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