For those who do not practice martial arts, kung fu and karate may seem like interchangeable terms. But these two martial styles could not be more different from one another, from their origins to their philosophies. The next time someone uses the wrong term to describe one of these two martial arts styles, enlighten him or her with the differences between the two as illustrated below.
Kung fu is actually used to generally describe any skill, study, or discipline achieved through Chinese martial arts, but not necessarily any specific style of martial art. Think of kung fu as an overarching umbrella term for forms such as Shaolin kung fu, tai chi, or wing chun. Each of these forms has their own philosophies, principles, and even techniques.
The term kung fu is a compound word, comprised of “work” or “achievement,” and “man” or a word with a variety of meanings, resulting in “kung fu” having a number of interpretations. Generally though, it refers to an accomplishment that was achieved through a lot of time and energy and it was once used to describe the process of one’s training of the body and mind and the perfecting of one’s skills.
Commonly, movements in kung fu are said to be more circular in nature. This means that practitioners shift weight laterally as opposed to forward (like in karate), and is more about reacting to attacks. In some ways, kung fu can be more useful in situations where you are in defensive mode, grappling with your opponent. These circular motions also give kung fu a more fluid and graceful look, which is why kung fu is sometimes referred to as part of “soft” styles of martial arts.
Unlike kung fu, karate refers to one specific form of martial art. Karate originates from Japan and it was developed from the indigenous Ryukyuan martial arts. Ryukyuan martial arts was influenced by kung fu—the Fujian white crane, in particular—and was officially brought to Japan in the early 20th century, when the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan. In fact, the word “karate” originally translated to “Chinese hand,” used to express the idea that it was a martial art from China.
Karate began as a system known as “te,” though those who practiced it often had their own methods. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate, is commonly accepted as the person who introduced and popularized karate in the country. The style can be practiced as an art, self-defense, or as a combat sport. Its main focus, especially in traditional karate, is self-development. Karate also promotes the notions of perseverance, fearlessness, virtue, and leadership.
Within karate, there are three types of training: kihon (basics or fundamentals), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring). The art is generally said to be more linear in its movements, which means that the techniques take its practitioners forward, building momentum towards one’s target. Karate is considered as an offensive martial art and is more focused on attacking one’s opponent.
Unlike kung fu, karate exists as its own form of martial art; kung fu, as previously mentioned, refers to a number of different forms of martial arts and can even be used to describe a number of other achievements or activities. Both systems include the use of weapons, though different sets of weapons are used in each respective system.
One important similarity between kung fu and karate is that both offer a number of mental and physical benefits for their students. In addition to teaching concepts such as respect and discipline, practicing kung fu or karate can help build confidence within their practitioners, while also providing them with practical self-defense skills.
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