This art originated some 2000 years ago in China and is the ancestor of all Eastern 'boxing' type arts, including karate. Strictly speaking Gung-fu means only exercise, though the art is known in the East also as Ch'uan-fa or Kempo, which approximates in meaning to what boxing means to a Westerner. Once it was practised by Buddhist monks as a means of strengthening their physiques and maintaining good health, they also attached to it a mystical significance. Gung-fu secret societies formed the nucleus of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and they succeeded in convincing the peasants that an adept was invulnerable to Western bullets. Unfortunately for them this was not so. The techniques of Gung-fu are not very different from those of karate, though in most Gung-fu systems high kicks are rarely used.
Karate is the best known of the boxing type arts and has by far the greatest number of practitioners in the West. Modern karate evolved in Okinawa from Chinese Boxing and was not seriously imported by the Japanese until the 1920's when the name was changed from 'Chinese Hand' to the Japanese equivalent of 'Empty Hand' meaning empty of weapons, empty of evil intentions.
Karate is primarily an offensive art and its dynamic impact is clearly seen in demonstrations where boards, tiles, cinder blocks and even stones are smashed with the bare hands and feet. Karate kicks are spectacular and deadly and can land with bone shattering force, particularly the spinning back kick or the roundhouse kick, which can come whipping up apparently from nowhere to head height. Karate is also practised as a sport where the punches, kicks and strikes are controlled, (in theory at least) short of contact.
The competitive aspect of the sport has a great deal to do with its current widespread popularity in the West. This means that players can actually practice all-out fighting with the minimum of injury and without taking the punishment that is received for example in boxing.
Karate is probably the most effective method of unarmed defence and counter attack yet devised by man, the practitioner depending solely on the deadly efficacy of his trained and toughened bare hands, elbows, knees and feet. At a fair level of proficiency the karateka can defend himself successfully against a number of opponents simultaneously, because of the great speed and power with which karate offensive and defensive techniques can be employed. Karate in defence can be deadly, but the safeguard against its misuse is in the manner of the weapon used. You cannot walk into a shop and buy it, you have to fashion it yourself. In must be forged on an anvil of self-imposed discipline and training, the more time and effort spent the finer the result.
As already mentioned karate is no longer practised purely as a method of self-defence but also as a physical art par excellence and due to the great degree of skill and control exhibited by the karate exponent as a fast exciting combat sport. The benefits to be gained from karate practice go far beyond the purely physical. The experienced practitioner of the martial arts attains a high degree of physical and mental awareness. He radiates confidence and self-assurance, his body and mind is permeated with a new-found sense of well-being which manifests itself in everything he does in his everyday life. He has learned how to fight, how to defend himself in a wide range of situations, he has learned self-control and discipline, he has respect for his fellow man and a well-founded confidence in his own ability to defend himself in a tight situation.
The two main strands of karate in Okinawa consisted of the Shuri-te system and the Naha-te system. The Shuri-te system, from where Shotokan karate derived, was known for its long range techniques and lengthy stances while the Naha-te system, from where Goju karate derived, was known for its shorter techniques and close-in fighting ability. Kenwa Mabuni Sensei (1889-1952) trained under both systems and, from his studies, took the best aspects from each to form what is known today as the Shitoryu style of karate.