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You may know that there is no single martial art called Karate or Kung Fu.These are umbrella terms that describe a wide variety of striking arts. Karate refers to many different styles of empty-handed fighting from Japan and Okinawa, and Kung Fu describes an entire system of Chinese martial arts. The term Tae Kwon Do refers to the Korean traditions corresponding to Kung Fu or Karate.

All three systems are known among martial artists as “hard” styles, meaning they rely on offensive strikes (kicks, punches, and other attacks with the hands, feet, elbows, and knees) and defensive blocks, which deflect incoming attacks and create opportunities to counter. Other arts like Hapkido or Aikido, Judo, Jujitsu, or T’ai Chi are called “soft” because they use grappling techniques (throws, trips, joint manipulation, chokes, pins, and so forth) to subdue an opponent.

The literal translation of Tae Kwon Do is “The Way of Kicking and Punching.” The most important part of this name is the word Do, which is the Korean equivalent of the Chinese word “Tao,” which means “Way.” Practitioners of Tae Kwon Do learn how to kick, block, punch, and other self-defense techniques, but they also learn much more. As they continue their training, as years pass, most grow in directions they never imagined at the start. They learn a new way of experiencing the world in which they live. This Way is the real purpose of Tae Kwon Do and all other martial arts. The Way is a process, a path, and many people who practice seriously come to believe that following it is one of life’s most rewarding journeys.

Korea occupies a small peninsula in Southeast Asia. China forms its northwest border, and Japan lies across the narrow Korean Strait to the east. This geographical destiny has resulted in profound influences from both cultures, and its effect on the development of the Korean martial arts is clear. The techniques of Tae Kwon Do resemble those of Karate and Kung Fu, but because the three traditions developed simultaneously over hundreds or even thousands of years, it is hard to determine which techniques were native to any individual art.

The Korean martial arts are nevertheless distinct from those of China and Japan. The following metaphor is a way some teachers illustrate some conceptual differences between them:

  • China is a large country, about the same size as the United States, and it sprawls across mountains, plains, marshes, rivers, and every other kind of terrain. When armies came together on China’s battlefields, they had lots of room to maneuver. They could circle each other, feint in different directions, gauge reactions, and strike quickly at just the right moment. Kung Fu is characterized by fluid, circular motions, and its techniques are fast, graceful, and infinitely varied like the motions of the ancient Chinese armies.
  • In contrast, Japan is a long slender island nation. Because generals had less room to maneuver their troops, military engagements were more direct in Japan, as one army sought to dominate the other with an overwhelming display of force. Many of the Japanese striking arts emphasize the development of efficient, powerful, linear techniques. The virtues are strength, precision, and discipline, and the practitioner of Karate develops these characteristics on physical, mental, and spiritual levels.
  • Because Koreans have been exposed to the fighting systems of both China and Japan throughout history, Tae Kwon Do combines elements of both to form a unique third tradition. Tae Kwon Do practitioners develop powerful, linear techniques like those of Karate while retaining the fluid, circular motions of Kung Fu.

Learn more about Ji Do Kwan, the martial arts style we practice at River Valley Tae Kwon Do.

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