Is Tai Chi a form of kung fu?

Is Tai Chi a Form of Kung Fu

China is famous for its vast number of fighting styles.  Perhaps two of the best known are Tai Chi and Kung Fu.

For me, Tai Chi is typified by scenes of groups of elderly Chinese practising slow graceful movements early in the morning.   Kung fu, on the other hand, consists of acrobatic high kicks and quick athletic movements.  However, both these styles have a number of similarities and so I’ve often asked myself whether Tai Chi is simply a form of Kung Fu.

Similarities of Tai Chi and Kung Fu

Both are fighting styles

Bruce Lee is perhaps the most famous exponent of kung fu, which formed the basis of his own style that he went on to develop: Jeet Kune Do.  It is primarily a close quarter fighting style, consisting of a wide array of punching techniques.  There are a multitude of kicking moves but it’s not as kicking focussed as say Taekwondo.

It may not seem like it but Tai Chi also incorporates kicking and punching techniques, although these are performed in a very slow motioned movement and are incorporated into patterns of movements called ‘forms’.  If you watch these forms carefully you can see the attacking stikes along with defensive blocking motions.

Both styles also incorporate circular as opposed to linear motions, that is to say strikes and blocks travel in an arc as opposed to a straight line.  This is a much more natural way for the body to move.  Indeed, all the limbs of the body pivot on a joint which means that they move in a curved motion.  

Taking advantage of the natural mechanics of the body results in extremely powerful techniques.  Some of the punching techniques are extremely forceful and the circular blocking motions also allow the power of strikes from the opponent to be absorbed and dissipated.

Use of Chi in Kung Fu and Tai Chi

Chi or Qi, as it’s sometimes called, refers to a Chinese belief system that a life force flows through all living things and the Universe

According to this system, in the human body, this life force flows through meridians in the body and if these are blocked in any way then it can result in health conditions developing.

Tai Chi and Kung Fu both incorporate this belief system into their styles.

It is believed that that the slow, fluid movements in Tai Chi help to ensure Chi flows unobstructed through the body’s meridians.  It is for the supposed health benefits that it is so popular, particularly in China.

The concept of Chi is found in Kung Fu.  Perhaps the most famous proponents of kung fu are the monks at the Shaolin temple.  They are well known for their amazing physical feats; there are examples of these monks breaking iron bars over their heads, lying and being  supported by spear points, and even withstanding being drilled by a power drill!

These feats are made possible, so they say, by focussing and redirecting the Chi in their body to act as a kind of protective force.

Physical Development

Both Kung Fu and Tai Chi develop the physical abilities of the practitioner.

Kung Fu is a highly physical martial art and provides a high intensity cardio workout.  The low stances will also develop lower leg strength. 

The shaolin monks in particular spend years hardening and conditioning their bodies so they can both deliver and withstand powerful strikes. For instance, to toughen their hands they will thrust their hands into bowls of rice. As their hands get tougher, they’ll progress to bowls of larger and larger pebbles.

As you become more proficient in the art of kung fu, you will also become more co-ordinated and more aware of your body.  Kung fu experts are capable of performing phenomenal  feats of gymnastics.

Tai Chi also involves performing very deep stances which  develop strength in the leg muscles and, surprisingly, the slow movements can make it more intense.

The low movements also act as a stretching exercise and help to maintain mobility.  This is perhaps why it is so popular with the elderly.  However, Tai Chi certainly isn’t as physical as Kung fu. This perhaps leads us on to the difference between these two styles.

Differences between Tai Chi and Kung Fu

Despite these surface similarities there are a number of fundamental  differences between these two martial arts.

Hard and soft styles

One of the key differences is in their underlying styles.

Kung fu is considered a hard style.  Brute force is often met with equal force. A punch will be parried with a block with perhaps as much force as the punch thrown.  This is why kung fu practitioners spend considerable time conditioning their bodies.  When force meets force it’s important that the body is able to withstand the rigours of the physical pounding it is subjected to.  This makes it a very energetic  form of combat and exciting to watch.  Many of Bruce Lee’s  films actually demonstrate the fundamentals of kung fu.  He used his movies as a way to educate the masses on this martial art.

In contrast, the idea of Tai Chi is that strong attacks should be met by yielding defensive movements: hardness is met with softness. It’s rather like a tree bending in the wind; the tree yields to the force of the wind. If it didn’t, the tree would be in danger of snapping.  Tai Chi’s blocks are designed to absorb and deflect the power of any strikes rather than meet it head on.

Speed of performance

As has already been pointed out, Tai Chi is a slow flowing art form whereas Kung Fu consists of quick snappy movements.

There is also a different level of physicality between Kung Fu and Tai Chi. The vast majority of Tai Chi practitioners do so for its health benefits as opposed to its fighting effectiveness.  Consequently there is typically very little emphasis put on the combat element of this art in most Tai Chi schools.  

Indeed, the meaning behind many of the movements in Tai Chi has been lost in time.  Each sequence of moves would have originally been a fighting technique. Gradually, as the health aspect of this art took priority, these techniques have been forgotten and only the movement remains.


Differing histories

Tai Chi developed in China and an early form of this martial art was practised and developed as early as 500 BC by followers of Taoist philosophy.  This doctrine has a particular approach to health and exercise that emphasizes improving one’s physical health in order to extend the life span.

It was the Chinese physician Hua Tuo who in around 200 AD devised the “Five Animals Play”, a sequence of formal movements based on the deer, tiger, monkey, bird and bear.

Tai Chi, or Tai Chi Chuan to  give it its proper name, means ‘supreme ultimate fist’. 

It consists of highly structured patterns of movement that transition from prescribed stances and positions.  These movements are performed in a slow, graceful fashion.

The Chinese term “kung fu” is used incorrectly in the West.  In China, it actually refers to any  any skill that is acquired through learning or practice.  A skilled painter could be said to be demonstrating good kung fu.

In reality, when people refer to Kung Fu, they usually mean the martial art developed in the Shaolin Temple.

The Shaolin Temple was built in 495 AD in the Song mountain, located in the Henan province in Central China.  It was established by an  Indian monk named Buddhabhadra.  

The earliest historical record of the monastery being involved in martial arts is an account of the monastery being defended from bandits in c. 610 AD.  Since that time, the Temple has become famous for it’s highly skilled fighting monks.

Tai Chi therefore has a much older history than Kung fu.  However, much about the origins of these martial arts has become lost with the passage of time.  It’s often difficult to separate myth and legend from reality.  I suspect the two arts have been heavily influenced by each other.

Taoist v Buddhism

Tai Chi is strongly based on Taoism which was developed from the teachings of Lao Tzu. In Chinese the  word Tao means ‘the Way’.  The principle tenet of this belief system is to live in accordance with the natural order of the universe.  Taoists worship deities and the main goal is to achieve balance and to reach immortality by following ‘the Way’.

The Shaolin Temple, from where kung fu originated, was founded in 495 A.D. by the Buddist monk Buddhabhadra, who was originally from India.  

Buddhism is a religion from ancient India, and is an offshoot of Hinduism. dating back to the sixth century BC.   In contrast to Taoism, according to Buddhism, there is no god and the goal is to overcome suffering and attain enlightenment, known as Nirvana


Tai Chi and Kung Fu are complementary

Rather than seeing Tai Chi and Kung Fu as mutually exclusive martial arts, there is actually much to be gained by considering them to be complementary to each other.

For the Kung Fu fighter, the practice of Tai Chi will improve balance and coordination and could be seen as a form of active recovery following an intensive kung fu session.  

Tai Chi will also broaden a martial artist’s repertoire enabling them to incorporate softer yielding movements into their fighting style.

For the Tai Chi practitioner, Kung Fu offers a practical self defense system and a more active work out.


Is Tai Chi a form of kung fu?  Whilst there are overlaps between these two martial arts, Tai Chi is not a form of kung fu.  It is a separate and distinct martial art with different origins.  Over time, the two styles have been influenced by each other but there remain key differences.



What do you wear for Tai Chi?

No special uniform is required for Tai Chi and most schools will allow you to train in any loose fitting clothes that allow you to move freely without restriction.  In time, you may want to purchase one of the traditional uniforms such as the one here (link to Amazon).

It’s important to use non-slip shoes for Tai Chi.  Some of the stances can be quite wide and you certainly don’t want to slip and lose your balance.  The types of shoes below are particularly comfortable – more details are available here on Amazon.



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