Is Kung Fu Karate?

Kung Fu is not the same as Karate. Karate actually developed from and was heavily influenced by Kung Fu. Whilst Karate remains very much a different martial art to kung fu, there are similarities which reveal its roots.

SimilaritiesKarate (Goju Ryu)Kung Fu
Close Quarter Training KakateSticky Hands
Use of Kata as a training and teaching aid✔️✔️
Higher Stance ✔️ ✔️
Body Hardening ✔️ ✔️
Striking & Blocking StyleStraight, direct movementsMore circular in nature
Katas/FormsSustained tension and effortFluid, flowing forms

The Cambridge University dictionary defines kung fu as:

a Chinese method of fighting that involves using your hands and feet and not using weapons.

This method of fighting sounds very similar to Karate (which means “Empty Hand”). Having practiced Shotokan Karate for some years, I wanted to look into consider “Is Kung Fu Karate?” – are they actually the same?

The first thing I wanted to understand was how these martial arts evolved.

Kung Fu Origin

There are dozens of different styles of kung fu.  Perhaps the most famous and oldest is Shaolin Kung Fu.

Shaolin King Fu developed in the Shaolin temple in the Henan province, Greater China.

The temple was built in 495 AD and was where an Indian monk named Buddhabhadra began to preach Buddhism.

His first Chinese disciples,  Huiguang and Sengchou, had incredible martial arts skills.

Later in  527 AD, another Indian monk, Bodhidharma, came to the temple and his Chinese disciple, Huike, was also a skilled martial artist.

The three Shaolin monks – Huiguang, Sengchou, and Huike – may well have had a military background before taking up monastic life.  Since this time, martial arts has become intimately connected to the Buddhist teachings at the temple.

The Chinese martial art of Shaolin Kung Fu is responsible for the creation of a number of different martial arts styles. One of which was White Crane Kung Fu.

White Crane Kung Fu comes from Yongchun in the Fujian province of China.   It was created almost 400 years ago at the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasty.

The fighting style was created by a woman, Fang Qiniang, who was, so the story goes, inspired by the agile stance and posture of a White Crane bird.  According to legend, Fang Qiniang’s father, Fang Zhong, was a Shaolin disciple and had practised kung fu at the Shaolin Temple.

It is primarily a boxing style and its movements are a balance of softness and hardness.  Certain hand strikes imitate the delicate pecking motion of a bird and targets the vulnerable parts of the body including the eye, throat, underarm and below the ribs.

White Crane later developed into four branches:  Flying Crane, Crying Crane, Sleeping Crane and Feeding Crane.

Crying Crane’s founding master was Pan Yuba, originally a student of Monk Fist Boxing (Luohan Quan).  He later became a student of the White Crane school and later created Crying Crane – a combination of White Crane with Monk Fist boxing techniques. This particular martial art may have had a significant influence on one particular style of Karate – Goju Ryu.

Where did Karate originate?

Karate was originally called Tōde which meant Tang Hand.  When war broke out and Japan invaded China, the name was changed to  “Empty Hand” so that the art was not seen as unpatriotic by being named after the enemy. The Tang part of the word referred to the Tang Dynasty, the imperial dynasty that ruled much of what is modern day China between 618 to 907.   This gives a clue as to the origins of Karate.

Japanese Karate developed in Okinawa, one of the small Ryukyu Islands that forms the South-West tail of Japan.

The Fujian province, the birth place of White Crane Kung Fu, sits on the southeastern coast of China, the closest area of the mainland to the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Because of this proximity, this group of islands had always enjoyed close relations with China, not only as trading partners but also sharing their knowledge of science and technology.  This also included sharing their knowledge of martial arts.

There is also evidence of a direct link between Crying Crane Kung Fu and modern Karate.

Chojun Miyagi was the founder of Goju Ryu karate and was the pupil of Kanryo Higaonna.

Kanryo Higaonna, went to Fuzhou to study martial arts in 1877 and to learn traditional kung fu.  He was taught by an individual called  Ryu Ryu Ko, who some believe was actually Crying Crane Grand Master Xie Chongxiang.

Goju Ryu means “hard and soft school” and this is supposedly based on a line in the White Crane boxing manual – Wu Bei Zhi (Bubishi):

“The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness”

It is a particular style of Okinawan Karate that has a strong emphasis on its martial roots and as such has rejected the introduction of competitive kumite (sparring) that has been adopted by other styles, such as Shotokan karate (even though Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of this style, was opposed to competitions in Karate).

Many of the moves in Crying Crane and Goju Ryu are similar and both utilise the deep seated “horse stance”.

Both kung fu practitioners and karateka use katas or forms as a teaching and training aid.  These are prescribed sequences of moves that incorporate blocks, punches and kicks.

The similarity of Crying Crane and Goju Ryu is evident from some of the katas or forms in the two martial arts.  Goju Ryu has 13 katas; one of these ‘Sanchin’ is very similar to White Crane’s ‘San Zhan’ form.  It employs similar breathing techniques using the diaphragm.

These two forms can be compared in the videos below:


Goju Ryu has a much higher stance than other forms of Karate and is best in a close-range confrontation.  This is very much like the upright stance of White Crane Kung Fu.

Kung Fu Training

Not only are their fighting styles similar but like, Shaolin Kung Fu, there is also a great emphasis on body conditioning or body hardening in Goju Ryu.

The tan is a well used training aid used in Shaolin kung fu. It is a long barbell that is rolled down the forearms and stopped by the wrists.  At this point, it is flung back to the elbows, where it is caught and rolled down again.  Constant use of the tan over time develops the strength of the forearm for blocking and makes them insensitive to pain.  This training method is a feature of Feeding Crane and is practiced in kung fu schools.


In other techniques, the striking areas of the body are hit against hard objects such as blocks of wood and stone in order to toughen and strengthen them.

Below Morio Higaonna Sensei, 10 Dan, doing some hand conditioning:

Is karate kung fu


The same is true of Shaolin kung fu.  The monks will typically punch walls and strike stones in order to harden and condition their body.


One practice in Goju Ryu, Kakete, involves two karateka facing each other and bring their forearms into contact.  Each will alternatively push and give way to each others movements, until one is unbalanced and at that moment a decisive finishing move will be launched.


This is very similar to the Wing Chun Kung Fu practice method of ‘Sticky Hands’ where two practitioners will stand opposite each other with their forearms touching.  They will move their arms, retaining contact with each other and feeling the shift in effort and balance from their opponent. At the opportune moment, one of the martial artists will throw an attacking strike or will shift their body to overbalance the other participant.


Difference between Karate and Kung Fu

Okinawans have a history of learning from other cultures and adapting it to make it their own.  This has happened with pottery, art and martial art techniques.  So whilst there be similarities between karate and kung fu, there are also differences.

The first major difference is the way in which punches are thrown.  Kung fu tends to incorporate circular techniques where the fist moves in an arc.  In contrast, karate employs a more straight and direct pathway.

The same is true in its blocking techniques: karate blocks are a lot more direct, travelling in a straight line. Whilst there are some yielding techniques where the power of an incoming punch is redirected rather than met head on, karate does tend to be a harder style than kung fu.

The forms and katas used in Kung Fu and Karate do vary incorporating different punching, kicking and blocking techniques.  There is also a difference in the way in which kata are performed in karate.  In karate, tension and effort is maintained throughout the entire kata.  The movements in the forms of kung fu tend to flow and be far more fluid.