An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu

When we think about different cultures around the world, we think of the food, the fashion, and perhaps the traditions. For example, Korean culture is spreading rapidly day by day. Culture can mean many things. You’ll typically hear people discuss their favorite Korean Dramas, their favorite KPop star, and their favorite Korean dishes. One other important aspect of many cultures is martial arts.

One underrated great way to appreciate and celebrate different cultures is through Martial Arts. Self-discipline and self-defense are universal languages from all corners of the world. It’s fascinating to see how different combat styles evolved over thousands of years while preserving the essence of local cultural values.

This guide serves to do two things: provide an overview of different martial arts, so that you can get familiar with fighting styles from all over Asia. We’ll take a look at Karate, Aikido, Judo, Taekwondo, Tai Chi, and Kung Fu. Secondly, we will do a deep dive into the Chinese Kung Fu. We’ll appreciate how it evolved, how it’s different from karate, and how it’s even practiced today.

By the end of this piece, you will be an expert in all the different martial arts: their background and history, their famous techniques, and their cultural impact. Let’s dive right in.

The Various Forms of Martial Arts

When you’ve decided that you want to start training in martial arts, you’ll need to decide which one matches you. Your choice might be dictated by the schools and teachers in your area, but hopefully you’ll be able to choose between at least a few different disciplines.

There are many different types of martial arts, and variations within the main types. It’s important to make sure that you do your research on the techniques and style to find the best fit for your needs. This guide provides an overview of the six most popular styles, and it can help you get started before you do some additional research.

It’s also important to note that students can have very different experiences when they practice martial arts. Students can interpret the class differently than other students in the same class. Consequently, listening to other people’s opinions is not the most reliable way of determining the style you should choose. 

While you are trying to find the martial art that’s right for you, it is helpful to try a few classes to get a feel for the style, instructor and school.

Karate, “The Empty Hand”

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History

Karate can be translated as “empty hand,” which means that it is a martial art performed without weapons. While the history of Karate is a bit hazy, its ancient roots have been traced back to China as far back as the 5th century B.C. 

The more modern form of Karate was born in Okinawa, Japan during the late 1700s. There was a ban on weapons in Okinawa at the time, so people had to create a system of self defense with only their hands. 

They ended up combining aspects of Chinese martial arts with the Okinawa Te. By the early 1900s it began spreading throughout Japan. In 1964, the Federation of Karate Organizations was established as a means to create a standard for Karate worldwide. Nevertheless, with its popularity, there now exists many different styles and variations of Karate today.

Techniques

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Karate uses a wide variety of movements: kicks, punches, blocks, strikes, throws and evasions. Training focuses on having a strong offense and puts equal importance on three main areas of the art: basics, sparring and forms.

Summary

  • People who practice Karate use their hips to generate power.
  • Ranks, values and styles differ from organization to organization.
  • The mindset and attitude behind Karate can be harsh and straight. It is known for its emphasis on discipline, and some traditional schools might seem almost ruthless.

Aikido, “The Peaceful Art”

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Background

Using the influences of the traditional art of Daito Ryo Aikijo-Jitsu, Japanese fencing, spear fighting and Omotokyo, Moriehie Usehiba developed the martial art of Aikido (“the peaceful art”). He first used this name back in 1942. The basis of this art is to live in a spirit of protection instead of physical domination. The art of Aikido is governed by the International Aikido Federation in Tokyo, Japan.

Techniques

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Aikido is a circular martial art. Instead of winning a fight with physical domination, Aikido teaches its students to control and redirect the negative energy. Practitioners emphasize the importance of peaceful conflict resolutions and self-improvement through training.

People who practice Aikido learn to use throws and pins, as well as how to immobilize their attackers. They don’t use punches and kicks except as a distraction. Those who practice Aikido are experts at staying out of the line of attack and leverage the attacker’s balance in order to stop the attacker.

Summary

  • Aikido does use weapons: jo (a 4-5 foot long staff), Bokken (a wooden sword) and a Tanto (a wooden knife).
  • Aikido is a non-violent method of self-defense.
  • The quality of the belt ranks is strictly regulated.
  • Aikido lacks many of the kicks and strikes common to other martial arts.

Judo, “The Gentle Way”

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Background

Judo is a gentle martial art that helps its participants strive to perfect themselves and to be a value to society. Judo, which means “the gentle way”, improves physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Dr. Jigoro Kano developed Judo after he was frustrated with all the injuries associated with Ju-Jitsu.

Techniques

Judo uses throwing, grappling, pins, holds, locks and choking. However, the training focuses on safety – Judo is always practiced on mats. Proper conditioning is also extremely important to practice Judo safely. Judo participants learn the art through a series of forms that consist of throwing and sparring – there are no strikes in competitive Judo.

Summary

  • Judo has a strict set of rules and a clear instructional sequence.
  • Its rules, training and ranks are fairly standardized throughout the world.
  • Judo helps develop complete body control, fine balance and fast reflexes.
  • Judo uses a lot of grappling, throws, grabbing and ground work. Because of this, people often associate it with wrestling.

Taekwondo, “The Way of the Hand and Foot”

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Background

While the origins of Taekwondo can be traced as far back as 30 B.C., modern Taekwondo began after Korea was liberated in 1945. Koreans wanted to remove all Japanese influence on martial arts, so they connected different Korean martial arts schools and styles to create a national sport. 

The name Taekwondo (“the way of the hand and foot”) was chosen in 1965. 1973 marked the beginning of the World Taekwondo Federation, and it became an official Olympic sport in 2000.

Techniques

Taekwondo is primarily a kicking art, and is recognizable by its high kicks. Taekwondo consists of four disciplines including patterns, sparring, self-defense and a break test (where one needs to break a piece of wood or brick). 

People who train Taekwondo combine philosophy, mental and physical discipline and ability to their training.

Summary

  • Taekwondo black belts exams require a break test.
  • Training can include the use of vital points to attack an enemy.
  • Taekwondo schools are often kid- and sport- oriented.
  • Taekwondo students often are expected to compete in many tournaments.

Tai Chi, “The Supreme Ultimate”

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Background

The development of Tai Chi (translated as “the supreme ultimate”) is credited to Chang San-feng, but Wang Chung-yueh and Chiang Fa elaborated on the original art. They took San-feng’s 13 postures and devised continuous sequences that linked them together. 

Tai Chi began as a greatly defensive art – even deadly. Families who knew it guarded it fiercely.

Today, Tai Chi is much less violent and is practiced as a way to get rid of more figurative enemies, such as stress and fatigue. You’ll see it commonly practiced by the elderly in local parks.

Techniques

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

People who practice T’ai Chi may use weapons, but the underlying philosophy is that the art is used to unify the mind, body and spirit. Today, it is often used to guide negative energy away from oneself. 

There are two ways to practice Tai Chi. The long form can take 30 minutes or more while the short form can take less than 10 minutes. The forms focus on continuous movement that leads to relaxation and solid stances. 

In Tai Chi, each arm is used to protect half of the body and the hands never reach past the toes. Tai Chi can be done alone (forms) or with a partner (self-defense training).

Summary

  • Tai Chi teaches awareness of balance and what affects it in oneself and in others.
  • Tai Chi has five major styles, but there are always new ones developing.
  • The basis of ’ai Chi’s self defense is to meet a force and redirect it instead of resisting it.
  • Tai Chi focuses on slow and continuous movements, so people who like vigorous exercise often find this martial art to be too boring

Kung Fu, “Skill and Effort”

Background

Kung Fu (translated as “skill and effort”) actually refers to over 200 styles of martial arts (most of which stem from Chinese martial arts). Kung fu can be traced back to the Shaolin Temples where the monks practiced it for health, spiritual development, and as a method of self defense. 

During the early 1900s, Kung Fu spread throughout China when martial arts became very popular. In the 1960s and 70s, Kung Fu became even more popular thanks to Bruce Lee’s movies.

Techniques

Kung Fu is central to the Chinese culture and is used both for physical wellness and artistic expression. Within the many different styles of Kung Fu, there are some that are hard and linear, and some that are soft and circular. 

Some use weapons such as the sword, saber, or spear, while others do not. Despite their differences, something that is found common to all Kung Fu disciplines is having respect for the teacher and other Kung Fu styles. 

Kung Fu also helps build the required mental and physical strength to practice it successfully. Kung Fu students can either practice their techniques individually or in groups. In many schools, beginners start with a technique called the Southern Fist style, which involves footwork, kicks and hand combat techniques.

Summary

  • Kung Fu refers to the hundreds of different styles of martial arts in China.
  • People who practice Kung Fu learn many different fighting techniques including fist fighting, and weapon fighting.
  • Many Kung Fu styles use similar principles such as, proper diet, and breathing, concentration and meditation exercises.
  • Some Kung Fu styles use weapons while others do not.
  • Kung Fu training improves physical conditioning by strengthening the joints and improving speed and reaction times.
  • Kung Fu’s major difference over other martial arts is that it not only focuses on physical strength, but it also involves training the mind and inner power through breathing exercises and meditation.

A Closer Look At Kung Fu

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

The martial art of Kung Fu is a form of exercise, a method of self-defense, and also a beautiful expression of culture. The art is very popular throughout the world, and is also known as Gung Fu, Wu Shu, and even Kuo Shu. It shares some common traits with Karate, where both use hand and foot techniques. Kung Fu is one of the most popular forms of martial arts, and one of the oldest.

Within Kung Fu, there are many different styles, but the most popular are those that originated in the well known Shaolin Temple. What most people don’t know is the fact that Kung Fu was practiced in China years before the first Shaolin temple was established.

A majority of martial arts enthusiasts think of self defense as being the ultimate goal of any martial art, including Kung Fu. While Kung Fu can be used for self defense, this martial art is so much more than just fighting and defense. It is a true art, a way of life, one that develops the mind, body, and the soul.

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Kung Fu teaches students to look within themselves and learn to have complete and total control over their emotions. Kung Fu actually promotes harmony between people, and it teaches students to remain at peace and avoid confrontations. If a situation presents a true threat to the student, then he must become a warrior and defend himself.

Just like other types of martial arts, Kung Fu teaches the importance of balance in executing techniques and the proper movements. The basic concept behind balance is the same balance between heaven and earth. Students can achieve this balance if they completely focus their thoughts and empty their minds from any type of distractions.

Kung Fu is a martial art that can be learned by anyone. It does take a strong desire, just like any other martial art. It has a rich heritage, and a proud legacy. Kung Fu can be a lethal martial art if used in the wrong ways. There are variations of Kung Fu, including the five animals – Tiger, Dragon, Eagle Claw, Crane, and the Snake.

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Adapted by the animals in which they are named after, the five animals style is some of the most impressive in martial arts. Tiger Claw is by far the deadliest of the five animals, teaching students to strike just like the powerful tiger. This style teaches the student the power in his hands. The Tiger Claw is deadly, but it can be hard to find instructors that teach this style today.

Unlike other martial arts, there aren’t many competitions for Kung Fu. Students can compete in other competitions, but they do not focus on Kung Fu. It is an ancient martial art that’s reserved for combat if there’s no other option than to fight back. But again, the priority for a Kung Fu student is to broker peace and avoid confrontation.

Kung Fu teaches lessons of respect, fairness to others, harmony, and total self control no matter the circumstance. These values help the students achieve success not only in combat, but in life. Kung Fu helps students walk on the path towards mental and physical toughness.

The Many Styles Of Kung Fu

In the last section, we briefly described the many styles of Kung Fu, including the 5 animals. There are several different forms of Kung Fu that add to the power and mystique. We will highlight some of the most famous styles and what distinguishing features and techniques they employ.

White Crane style

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The spirit of the White Crane has been considered by many martial artists as the most graceful system of Kung Fu. The White Crane style was patterned after crane birds that are found in marshes and open plains. The White Crane defense and attack techniques are breathtaking, often known as “deadly beauty”.

Although the White Crane techniques can take years to master, they are simple and effective. White Crane stylists are masters of self defense, and they are taught to avoid confrontations. Even though a practitioner can handle himself in any situation, he will avoid a fight at all costs and only react physically when he is left with no choice.

Wing Chun

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The approach behind Wing Chun is that the opponent will attack, absorb, and then neutralize any attacks. Then, the opponent will back off, pursue, then counter. He would disengage, then retaliate with a deadly and penetrating force.

This philosophy will take years to fully understand, and years of practice to master. Wing Chun uses a steady and never ending forward flow of energy that’s based on the principle that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

Offensively, Wing Chun is all about a combination of intercepting and straight lines attacks. In general, it is an aggressive close-quarter style that pushes offensive attacks and takes the fight right to the attacker. Wing Chun doesn’t emphasize the more traditional block and counter routines.

Hung Gar

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Hung Gar is more or less an adaptation of the Tiger system of Shaolin that emphasizes close quarter combat. It doesn’t focus much on distance fighting. it is very effective in close quarter situations, such as alleys and in small rooms. It is a very strong system, teaching stylists to handle themselves properly in areas where other martial arts seem to fail.

Praying Mantis

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Nearly 400 years ago, a man named Wang used a praying mantis that he captured to study its movements. By using what he saw, he created and founded the style of Praying Mantis. Wang perfected his own martial art style by observing both the offensive and defensive movements of the praying mantis, and blending them with his style.

The Monkey style

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Though it has some comedic background, the Monkey style is actually one of the deadliest martial arts systems in the world. This style dates back to the 1840s, when missionaries were first allowed into China.

The Monkey style all began when a peaceful man resisted arrest after accidentally killing an officer. He was sentenced to prison for his crime, and he spent all of his time watching prison apes. He found them fascinating, and he would watch them from his cell to pass the time.

Over his ten year prison sentence, he studied how apes moved, paying close attention to how they defended themselves and fought one another. Then, when he was released from prison, he adapted his style, becoming known as the Monkey Master. A lot of people joined him along the way and began to learn his Monkey system, which is still very effective today.

The Difference Between Karate and Kung Fu

For many people, especially those who are not familiar with martial arts, the question often arises on what the difference is between karate and kung fu. When watching someone doing martial arts, the untrained eye will find it hard to tell whether that person is doing karate or kung fu. Even those who are experienced in martial arts may sometimes be confused about the different styles. But when you get to know the styles closely, you will see just how different they really are.

Historically, the people living in the Okinawa islands south of Japan were able to witness Chinese kung fu martial arts due to the close proximity to China. Over time, the Okinawans and Japanese developed their own styles of martial arts. This style is now known as karate and pulls from the original influence of Chinese kung fu. 

Although both karate and kung fu utilize many similar martial arts techniques, most kung fu styles will usually have more variety of techniques compared to karate systems. It almost seems like the Japanese streamlined the number of techniques from Chinese systems to develop karate. The Japanese also modified the way techniques are executed in karate: they became more linear compared to kung fu. This is particularly clear in the forms or katas (traditional sequence of set moves) where karate techniques are performed with crisp movements that have distinct stop and go movements.

In kung fu forms, movements involve the use of more circular techniques, particularly with the hands. These circular motions give kung fu forms a more visually graceful look as techniques seem to flow from one to another. There is less stop and go with most kung fu styles. This is why some martial artists, especially in North America, often refer to Chinese kung fu as a soft style, while karate and taekwondo are ‘hard’ styles. 

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

This is not to say that hard styles such as karate or tae kwon do are more powerful martial arts than kung fu and other soft styles. The term ‘soft’ is a bit misleading because the power from circular kung fu moves is often hidden. Circular moves can generate just as much power as linear ones found in hard styles. 

Most kung fu forms are also usually more complex than karate forms. To most martial artists, a kung fu form will look much more exotic while a karate form will look more straight forward in terms of martial arts techniques. Interestingly enough, there are karate styles such as goju which do have quite a lot of circular techniques similar to kung fu. Kempo styles are considered a hybrid of Chinese kung fu and Okinawan karate techniques with both circular as well as linear techniques. There are also many more different styles of kung fu compared to karate.

Martial arts weaponry is found in both kung fu and karate styles but different sets of weapons are utilized in each martial arts system. Much like the empty hand forms, the kata with karate weapons are also more linear compared to those with kung fu weapons which have more circular movements. As expected, there is a lot more variety of different Chinese kung fu weaponry than found in the Japanese karate.

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Traditionally, karate practitioners wear a white uniform called a gi which features the overlapping kimono-like top. Less traditional schools like those in North America allow colored uniforms. A colored belt will be the finishing touch to the gi – the highest of course is the black belt that bestows an instructor level ranking. 

Most of the time and especially inside a dojo studio, karate stylists will not wear any shoes while training. Most kung fu stylists will wear a very different looking uniform. Kung fu uniforms usually consist of tops with Chinese ‘frog-style’ buttons rather than overlapping fronts like the karate gi top. The uniforms can be black or a variety of colors with often lighter fabrics such as satin and shoes are commonly worn.

The modern acrobatic Chinese martial arts of wushu can feature satin uniforms with many different bright colors. Many kung fu schools simply utilize t-shirts and baggy pants as uniforms. Satin colored sashes are often worn to signify rank of students but this is actually more of a North American style as most kung fu schools in Asia do not show rankings in uniforms.

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Overall, there’s more variety of techniques, styles, weapons and uniforms found in the Chinese kung fu systems compared to karate. However, that is not to say that one system or style of martial art is better than another. They are different, and to the observer it could come down to personal preference. 

Some prefer kung fu and some prefer karate. Ambitious martial artists who desire a well-rounded education practice both kung fu and karate.

Kung Fu and the Movies

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Pioneers of an Industry

Many people who study martial arts got their start by watching kung fu films. The most obvious and most classic ones are the martial arts movies done by the late Bruce Lee. He set a new standard in martial arts films. He made things faster, more dramatic, and more impressive than ever before. His movies not only had excellent and unprecedented fight scenes (he fought Kareem Abdul Jabbar!), but the movies also had captivating plots and menacing villains to boot.

When watching old martial arts movies, it is easy to forget how they were the pioneers of their time. Many people get caught up in the bad translations and cheesy dialog, and they don’t notice the incredible fight scenes. Of course, modern Chinese martial arts movies have taken things even further. Actors like  Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan have set a whole new level of excellence for martial arts fight scenes. They seamlessly combined special effects, brilliant choreography, and humorous antics into some unforgettable performances..

Of course, there are plenty of other martial arts movies besides the kung fu films. America has been making fighting films for years. There were the Karate Kid movies – anyone who grew up in the 80s remembers these films vividly. They were great because they featured a style of fighting that wasn’t generally portrayed in movies at the time. Karate is pretty straightforward, and it doesn’t necessarily make for a great film. In the Karate Kid movies, however, they were able to make it work..

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

Real Martial Arts

Some of the most interesting martial arts movies are actually not fictional films at all, but demonstrations. I first saw a kung fu demonstration video about a year ago, and since then I have been watching every single one I can get my hands on. Many of these demos are based around long, elaborate, intricate dance-like routines rather than simple fighting. All the moves have a combative purpose, but they also have a grace and beauty to them as well. 

The fighters fight with imaginary enemies, leaping, vaulting, kicking, and punching all over the stage with grace and ease. They punctuate flashy aerobatics and martial arts weapons displays with grunts, shouts, and shoulder rolls. It is almost every bit as dramatic as watching Jackie Chan take on the bad guys in one of his martial arts movies. Best of all, it gives you a taste of the art that you don’t really get in the big kung fu movies, no matter how cool they are. Somehow, it feels more authentic and more immediate.

Master Martial Arts

martial arts, An Overview of the Asian Martial Arts and Kung Fu, Culturenesia

As we celebrate the food and the fashion from different cultures, there’s also so much utility and things to learn from the local combat styles. It’s not to debate which style is superior to another, but rather see how combat, self-defense, and harmony were emphasized and have shaped society even today.

And as we took a closer look at KIng Fu, we saw that it became famous thanks to Bruce Lee’s films from the 60s and 70s. There are hundreds of variants of Kung Fu too, so there’s always a new technique or a new thought provoking saying to meditate on every day.

If you are deciding to learn martial arts, or you are about to learn, we’d love to hear from you. There’s so much more to still get to know, but we had a chance to get started on learning more about the cultural values of peace, harmony, and self discipline. 

Leave a comment below if practicing martial arts has influenced not just your fighting ability, but your life too. We’d love to hear from you, so please do share your experience.

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