Tai Chi vs Kung Fu – The Ultimate Comparison

Trying to describe tai chi vs kung fu causes so much debate and has led to a ton of confusion in the martial arts community. Is tai chi a form of kung fu? Are they the same art done at different speeds? Is it called “kung fu,” “wushu,” or “gong fu” or are those all different things? By not understanding how the two are related new people have trouble choosing which to learn and current practitioners don’t see how their art fits into the bigger picture or why both are often practiced together.

While tai chi and kung fu are both Chinese martial arts, the differences between tai chi vs kung fu are great. Tai chi is a slower moving internal martial art whereas kung fu is an external martial art that is faster and more physically demanding.

What we really need to understand are the many similarities and key differences that these two arts share. If you are excited to start training in a Chinese martial art, this will help you decide. If you are already a practitioner, this will show you how tai chi and kung fu relate and what they share historically, And if you have the opportunity to study both (like the original tai chi masters) you will see how well your martials abilities can develop.

Tai Chi vs Kung Fu – Getting the Names Straight

How we in the west use the word kung fu is completely different than what it means in Chinese. Kung fu (功夫) is the combination of characters that related to “achievement” or “effort.” Someone, not just a martial artist, can demonstrate kung fu simply by learning a skill to the highest level. This could be a chef, gardener, or even an artist. It is usually rserved for someone who is a tradesman or who creates something of the highest quality.

Gong fu is the same word as kung fu, actually just pronounced better! The word kung fu arrived in the West in the 1950s-70s with all the popularity of TV shows, movies, and let’s not forget Kung Fu Magazine. As we have had more access to China and traveling teachers, more practitioners have adopted the better pronunciation. The simple fact is that westerners have difficulty hearing the Asian difference between similar sounds (B/P, D/T. G/K) and I explain the linguistics around it in another article but it’s the same reason Westerners say Taoism and Daoism.

The group of external Chinese marital arts forms that we think of as kung fu is actually referred to as wushu (武术) in Chinese. It is the combination of characters that are used to describe: martial and techniques, methods, skills, or tactics. In the 1990s the International Wushu Federation was formed aligning over 150 countries and all Chinese martial arts into one association as they worked to get wushu accepted in the Olympics. Since then, most Kung Fu Associations have followed suit and either changed their name or started using both interchangeably. Tai chi chuan is actually a form of wushu, albeit, it is in a very different class – the internal martial arts.

For the purposes of this essay, we are going to stick with “kung fu” as it is still the most widely used and accepted term. Also, there is a form of Shaolin tai chi practiced. So we are making the distinction between kung fu and tai chi and not talking about Shaolin tai chi in this essay.

Shaolin Kung Fu Vs Tai Chi Chuan – Shared Origin and Key Differences

Kung fu’s roots can be traced back to the Shaolin Temple with the first documentation of the forms coming from the 15th Century. Religious communities became martial communities for fairly practical reasons. Monasteries were largely rural communities that could be prone to attack with monks and nuns the victims of roadside robberies. They also collected donations as well as moneys for taxes and land use. On the physical side, meditation required long hours of sitting and contemplation and deep thinking required a level of fitness. Put all this together and you have an intelligent, regimented community with a great need to defend themselves.

The development of Shaolin Kung Fu is not so boring and mundane though. The monks were also knowledgeable medically, had incredible sensitivity to internal development, and were able to push themselves physically. 100’s of kung fu forms have been developed with each generation improving the styles or creating new ones. The most popular kung fu routines are the imitate styles which has movements characteristic of living things such as Praying Mantis, Leopard, Dragon, and Monkey. With such a long history and so many styles, you can see why many martial arts trace their lineage back to Shaolin.

Bodhidharma’s Influence on Kung Fu Vs Tai Chi Chuan

Bodhidharma, a west-Asian Buddhist monk, arrived in central China somewhere around the 5th century and introduced physical exercises and calisthenics to the Shaolin Monks to stimulate internal development and increase stamina for meditating. The Buddhist Shaolin Monks took this knowledge and created the external martial kung fu forms which gave them the physical fitness needed for self defense to protect their monastery and be safe while traveling. It also increased their health to improve their meditations. Kung fu and their Buddhist activities are connected but separate practices.

The Taoist Wudang Monks took a completely different approach. They embedded the principles and teachings of Bodhidharma into the martial arts forms to develop the internal martial arts. It’s from here that we see both a philosophical and technical separation of kung fu vs tai chi chuan. Tai chi integrates the internal development and external forms into a single practice. Kung fu of Shaolin temple focused on both but as separate practices. Today, most kung fu practitioners are not Buddhist and only practice the external art.

Choosing Between Tai Chi vs Kung Fu – Which is Better?

Tai chi and kung fu are equally magnificent in their histories and traditions but are extremely different martial arts to practice. Choosing which is better for you largely depends on your goals. Every martial art has advantages and disadvantages. There is no harm in trying out any or every martial art until you find one that is perfect for you. However, if you choose a martial art based on what is most important to you, you are more likely to stick with it and reap the lifelong benefits.

Let’s talk about the different points here but you can also jump down to a table I made comparing the two.

Kung Fu Vs Tai Chi Fighting and Self Defense

Trying to make an argument between kung fu vs tai chi as a form of self defense is pretty difficult in our modern age. I talked about why tai chi can’t be used as a martial art successfully in a separate essay and while kung fu is still more of a fighting art, it is not usually successful when put up against MMA, BJJ or other styles. That being said, if fighting and self defense are important to you, it would be better to choose kung fu vs tai chi. Kung fu is more physically demanding and 100% an external martial art focused on kicks, strikes, and techniques. Most practitioners of kung fu, like tai chi, spend their time working on the forms rather than sparring or fighting.

Why argue about this on the internet when we can have so much fun with it. Watch this:

Kung Fu Vs Tai Chi Fight

Physical Fitness

Kung fu forms are physically demanding. They can be fast, require great flexibility, dexterity to manipulate weapons and great speed, and strength to be able to jump, kick, flip! and strike. This is THE reason many people study kung fu but also the reason others shy away from it. It is an amazing way to get in shape that is more fun than a gym membership. Tai chi dramatically influences my physical health because I rarely if ever get injured and recover faster but truthfully I do other things outside of tai chi to stay in shape. Kung fu wins here.

Checkout this spear vs open hand partner exhibition. It’s unbelievably cool but exhausting just to watch!

1st Wushu Championship

Popularity / Availability of Both Arts

If you want to practice either tai chi or kung fu you are in luck because both arts are extremely popular in the west and even smaller towns often have both schools available. More than likely you will be practicing a specific style say Yang Style, or Mantis Style but they exist nonetheless. Secondly, the resources that you can find online are huge for both arts. This isn’t always true of many of the other martial arts.

Ability to Practice

Both tai chi and kung fu get high marks here because they have solo form work that can be done anywhere and you don’t need a partner. This is really something to consider because I have friends who studied Judo and Aikido who had to quit because they moved or their partner moved away. Martial arts take years to perfect so if schools are not available, if you require an indoor setting, or if you require a partner, it could limit your progress.

Community / Socialization

Some people begin studying a martial art to get away from their daily life and do a physical activity alone. Others are looking for a community to be a part of. Both kung fu and tai chi have both. Often times schools are part of a Chinese cultural center so you not only get the school and your art, you get calligraphy, festivals, music, food, and all sorts of communal activities. I give both arts a 7/10 which I think is high and great. However, there are other arts like Brazilian Jujitsu which raise the bar further connecting to all other schools through competition and to the global community.


Both tai chi and kung fu get high marks as far as expense goes with tai chi winning over all. Tai chi requires very little in the way of expense. It is also taught for free in many communities. Kung fu is not expensive in comparison to the other martial arts. There are rarely testing fees or belt systems that require you to upgrade your uniform. Kung fu practitioners who compete spend more. Flashy uniforms, cool weapons, entrance fees, and travel to competitions are all expenses that need to be considered. However, you probably already spend more money on stuff that is not remotely as good for you.

Need for Gear / Location

It is hard to beat tai chi in terms of what equipment you need to practice and whether you can do the martial art inside or outside. Tai chi requires next to nothing and you can do it anywhere. Even for schools who have a “uniform” it is typically black pants and a t-shirt. No testing fees, no belts… You can buy uniforms for competitions, weapons, and pay fees to attend a school. All good ideas if you really get in to it but not mandatory. Kung fu gets high marks here because it can also be done outside and requires very little. Their uniforms are really beautiful and the weapons are cool if that is something that you are studying. Kung fu is usually learned in a school though that requires fees and the physicality of the forms usually require an indoor place to practice that has mats. So not terribly different but tai chi wins here if your situation doesn’t enable you to pay, transport equipment, or attend a school.

The fact is that all of the great original tai chi masters studied kung fu directly or studied martial arts and fighting indirectly as part of their military training. Choosing between kung fu vs tai chi is a modern decision and largely based on our interests and what is available in our community. If you have the opportunity to learn both an external and internal art, I don’t believe their is a better combination. You get the physical fitness, a way to heal, and the mental and emotional wellness.

A Comparison Chart of Kung Fu vs Tai Chi

ConsiderationTai ChiKung Fu
Self Defense / Fighting35
Physical Fitness58
Popularity / Availability108
Ability to Practice1010
Community / Socialization77
Need for Gear / Location107

Choosing Between Tai Chi and Other Martial Arts

This is one of a series of articles covering the similarities and difference between tai chi and other martial arts. You can use these articles to compare arts like the difference between kung fu and karate. We all have very different personalities and luckily there is a martial art for everyone. What is important is that more people on the planet are pursuing fitness that is functional and addressing their external and internal development. Whatever you choice and where ever you are in life, we all benefit by having more people improve themselves and interact with a like-minded community. Check out how all the major martial arts compare to tai chi be clicking on the headings.

ConsiderationTai ChiKung FuWing ChunKrav MagaMuay ThaiMMAAikidoBJJKarateTaekwondo
Self Defense / Fighting35710101031075
Physical Fitness587810104978
Popularity / Availability1088359101088
Ability to Practice1010433467610
Community / Socialization7775467877
Need for Gear / Location10786444487

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

One thought on “Tai Chi vs Kung Fu – The Ultimate Comparison

  1. great article Scott! I first studied Wah Lum Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu back in the 1980’s. Part of that training was having us learn Yang T’ai Chi as well, which seemed so strange at the time. “How’s all this slow stuff going to help my spinning back kick??” Your article now gives me the clarity that was never explained to me about the association of the two. King Fu is definitely for the younger crowd. My body finally said it was time to stop that, but I have continued the T’ai Chi journey and it looks like there is plenty yet to learn. As always many thanks for your articles!

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