Tang Soo Do vs Karate [key differences!]

Having spent years studying Shotokan Karate, I was surprised to discover that there is a Korean martial art that, in many ways, is nearly identical.  This martial art is called Tang Soo Do.

I was keen to compare Tang Soo Do vs Karate and to see what the similarities and differences were between these two arts.

Tang Soo Do vs Karate: similarities and differences

Tang Soo DoKarate
OriginsDeveloped in Korea but heavily influenced by Japanese KarateOriginated in Okinawa in Japan, but influenced by Chinesse White Crane Kung Fu.
StyleA striking art with a heavy emphasis on kicking techniques

Incorporate some softer blocks. Hips face forward at the conclusion of a technique.
Strikes are fairly equally distributed between kicking and punching techniques.

Very much a hard blocking style. Hips are at a 45 degree angle when the block is concluded.
Hyung / KataInvolves the practice of set patterns many of which are based on those in Shotokan Karate. Involves the practice of set patterns.

Where did Tang Soo Do originate?

The Silla dynasty (from 57BC) in what is now modern day Korea saw an explosion in the development of martial arts.  Scenes of combat are depicted on ruins, tombs and mural paintings from this time.

The group that was behind this growth were the Hwarang Dan – young aristocrats which formed part of the country’s military elite.

Over the centuries, various fighting styles emerged.  This came to an abrupt end in 1910 when the Japanese invaded and occupied the Korean Peninsula.   All Korean martial arts were banned and, instead, only their own martial art, Karate, could be practiced.

The Japanese left Korea in 1945 following the end of the Second World War.  Shortly afterwards, nine martial arts schools or kwans were established in Korea.  Each kwan was practicing its own particular fighting style.

One of these kwans, the Moo Duk Kwan, was run by the skilled martial artist, Grandmaster Hwang Kee.

Prior to opening his school, Grandmaster Hwang Kee had spent considerable time in China working on the railway.  Whilst there, he was introduced to kung fu.

Later when he returned to Korea in 1937, he developed his martial arts knowledge by studying books on Okinawan Karate at his local library.

Tang Soo Do is heavily influenced by Karate.  Even the name is the same:

As I’ll explain later, Karate was originally called “China Hand”. If you show the words or kanji for ‘Way of China Hand’ to the Japanese, they will pronounce it Kara-Te-Do.  Show the same kanji to someone from Korea and they will pronounce it Tang-Soo-Do.

After the Japanese Occupation, the Korean government was keen to restore the country’s national identity and ordered that the nine kwans merge to create a single united organization. However, Hwang Kee’s Moo Duk Kwan school refused to unify and stayed independent. In 1960, Hwang Kee registered the Korean Soo Bahk Do (Tang Soo Do)  Association.  Tang Soo Do went on to be spread around the world.

Where did Karate originate?

Japanese Karate developed in Okinawa, one of the Ryukyu Islands dotted on the South-West tail of Japan.

This group of islands had enjoyed close relations with China since the 1300s.  As well as trade, they also shared their knowledge of science and technology, as well as their knowledge of martial arts, in particular the southern Chinese martial art of White Crane Kung Fu.

Over time, this style of kung fu merged with the islanders own fighting style, Te (meaning hand), to form what was called “China Hand” which reflects the arts origins.

This shared lineage is evident from some of the katas or forms in the two martial arts.  Karate’s ‘Sanchin’ kata is very similar to White Crane’s ‘Happoren’ form.

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.

It was Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957) who was responsible for popularizing Karate for which he is known as the “Father of modern Karate”.

Funakoshi was born in Okinawa and grew up learning the local martial arts. In an effort to teach others he ventured to mainland Japan in 1917 and 1922.

Later In 1935, Funakoshi established the Shotokai, meaning literally Shoto’s Association, to enable funds to be collected to build his own Dojo, or training hall.

Shoto was the pseudonym Master Funakoshi gave himself: “Sho” translates as pine tree, whilst “to” means strong waves.  It symbolised his desire to be dignified like a pine tree and as strong as waves crashing onto rocks.

The dojo was built on 29th January 1939 in what is now Tokyo.  A simple sign was placed above the door – Shotokan, meaning ‘the place of Shoto’.  Those that trained there were known as the Shotokan and, in time, this was abbreviated to Shotokan.

From these humble beginnings Shotokan Karate was spread across the globe.

Styles of Fighting

Kicking Techniques

Leg strikes are somewhat limited in karate and there’s roughly the same number of kicking techniques as there are punches and elbow strikes.

In Tang Soo Do, there is a huge variety of kicks.  In the following video, over 200 are demonstrated:

Given that Karate had such an influence on Tang Soo Do, why is there such a difference?

Where did the emphasis on high kicks and jumping kicks come from?

The answer lies in the traditional Korean martial art of Taekkyeon which also influenced Tang Soo Do.

The origins of Taekkyeon are largely forgotten in the mist of Korea’s past.  We do know that the art has a large repertoire of dynamic kicking techniques and is very athletic in nature.  Competitions in this martial art focus solely on grappling and kicking techniques.

Master Hwang Kee, the founder of Tang Soo Do, would have been exposed to this martial art and would have incorporated many of its techniques into his teachings.

Blocking Techniques

Karate is very much considered a “hard” martial art: hard attacks are countered with equally hard blocks and counters.  It’s very much a case of force meets force.

In contrast, Tang Soo Do incorporates many softer, more fluid movements that are reminiscent of certain traditional Chinese martial arts.

Strong attacks may be met by a more yielding block designed to absorb much of the impact of the strike.

Master Hwang Kee was exposed to Chinese Kung Fu when he lived in China and incorporated elements of this martial art into Tang Soo Do.

The other major difference between Tang Soo Do and Karate is the way the hips are used in the two martial arts.

The best way to explain this is to imagine two people facing each other so that their hips are parallel to each other.

This is the starting position for a block in karate.  As the arm moves to its concluding position, the hips are turned into a 45 degree position, presenting a side on position to the opponent.

In Tang Soo Do, the opposite happens to the hips.  They start at a 45 degree angle as the block is initiated; they then rotate to a flat face on position at the end of the block.  This is demonstrated in the following video:

In my mind, the karate hip rotation has two major advantages:

  • As the block progresses, the body is turned to a side on position.  This is a typical fighting position.  Look at two boxers facing each other, they will adopt this same position with the hips at a 45 degree angle. From a self defense perspective, this exposes less of the body to your opponent;  there is less surface area that can be attacked.
  • With the hips rotating 45 degrees with the block, it sets up the hips up for a powerful counterpunch.

Strong punches are thrown from the hip.  With your hips side on following the block, you’re immediate ready to throw your hip into a strike.  An example would be the classic Age Uke Gyaku Zuki combination shown below:

I don’t know why hip rotation in Tang Soo Do moves in the opposite way: facing 45 degrees at the start of the block and finishing face on at the conclusion of the block.

Hwang Kee, the founder of Tang Soo Do, supposedly learned karate from studying books at his local library.  Is it possible that he misinterpreted the diagrams and got the hip rotation the wrong way round?

Use of Katas/Forms

Tang Soo Do contains a number of forms (called hyung).  Many of these are very similar to the katas in Karate.

Katas or hyung are set patterns of techniques that include punching and kicking movements.

When performing the form, the idea is that the practitioner fights against an imaginary opponent.

Many of Tang Soo Do’s hyungs are based on Shotokan Karate katas. To see the influence Karate has had on Tang Soo Do’s forms, you only need to look at Karate’s Kanku Dai and compare it to Kong Sang Kun.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Tang Soo Do the same as Shotokan Karate?

No.  Tang Soo Do is heavily influenced by Shotokan but they are not identical.  For instance, Tang Soo Do incorporates a greater number of high kicks and jumping kicks.  It also features the softer blocking techniques of kung fu.  This reflects  the range of martial arts that Master Hwang Kee’s (the founder) was exposed to:  Kung Fu in China, and Taekkyeon in his home country.

What is a Tang Soo Do uniform called?

It is called a Dobok.

How many degrees of black belt are there in Tang Soo Do?

There are nine ranks of black belt in Tang Soo Do.

Is Tang Soo Do similar to Taekwondo?

I’ve written an entire article about this topic here.

What does Tang Soo Do mean in Korean?

Tang Soo Do translates to mean “Way of the China Hand”

What is a Tang Soo Do instructor called?

A Tang Soo Do instructor’s title is Sa Bom.

How long does it take to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do?

For the average person, it takes from 3 ½ to 5 years before they’re able to test for Cho Dan (First Degree Black Belt).   The exact time will depend on how hard you commit to your training.