The Kung Fu Kid (and why it's OK the new movie isn't called that)


I was seven when this photograph was taken of me attempting Daniel-San's crane technique in the sand. It must have been around this age that Karate Kid jump-kicked its way into my subconscious, sketching an outline for my life and my own incarnation of the American Dream: Focus your chi, beat up your enemies, win the trophy.

The new Karate Kid happens to feature Kung Fu. Although some have a problem with that literal misnomer (Karate is not the same martial art form as Kung Fu), I believe this apparent discrepancy speaks to deeper, common roots and philosophies shared by all martial arts. I'm cool with it.

I have three favorite films that parallel with important phases of my life.

The most recent phase pairs up with Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, a period piece about the cost of glory, the strength of quiet character, and teamwork for the sake of common good. You could say this film defines the part of my life working at Gizmodo, developing it into a large group effort.

In my twenties and teenage years, Enter the Dragon taught me about the confidence a young Chinese man could have. With his Jeet Kune Do style of abandoning the confinement of style, Bruce Lee taught me to take what is best and avoid being bound to traditional limitations, and rigid, old sets of rules.

The film that pairs up with the earliest phase of my life is the original Karate Kid, about the dream of a young man's life-- and for me, naturally, the early dreams of my own life.

In a decade glutted with Van Damme films, this was the most human of contemporary martial arts movies. Apart from lacking Van Damme, it also, thankfully, lacked the overdramatized emotional displays common in classic Kung Fu films. We see fear and adrenaline on Daniel-San's face and in his body language in combat; we see his awkwardness when he flirts with the cheerleader; we see his embarrassment when he is thrown into sand by the Cobra Kai; we see his bruises and injuries after scuffles. All of these human shortcomings makes that little plastic Valley Karate tournament trophy so much more shiny, and his sweetheart's love more sweet, in the end. Sure, the fight choreography is great, but the story itself is greater for any young man who has found solace in the dojo, as I did.

I met my first bully when I went to school in Hong Kong for a year, not long after seeing Karate Kid for the first time. The bully was a big, 9-year-old Australian. He picked on me constantly for being friends with a sweet 8-year-old California girl.

I took karate, but no one taught me how to correctly tie the belt on my oversized uniform. My pants fell off at every punch in one sequence we practiced. The Australian giant had one last laugh before I flew back to America when the school year ended. There was no victory, only surrender.

I did not practice karate again until my teenage years, but my return to the discipline happened just in time, saving me from hormone-driven angst after I scarfed a bunch of Advil in a mock suicide/heartbreak maneuver. After hitting that ibuprofen bottom, I started up some Tae Kwon Do with my friends Mike and Pete. I wasn't gifted as an athlete or student, but it was pretty clear from the start that kicking and punching were what I did best.

Within a few weeks I could kick tops of doorstops with vertical sidekicks and full splits. We lifted weights, took classes, watched tapes and taught each other Kung Fu, Judo, Jujitsu and Shotokan Karate on cheap foam mats. My height and weight were identical to those of Bruce Lee.

Unlike Daniel-San, I will admit that I did not always use my gifts exclusively for self-defense. But in an environment of widespread juvenile vengeance and pride, each of my strikes seemed fair at the time.

The first person I ever punched was Shawnee Alexandri. You couldn't call him a bully, but he was an antagonistic motormouth. After asking him countless times to shut up, I gave him a right cross and put him in a headlock in the school weight room. Everyone turned around, surprised. I was surprised, too: at how pliant the human face could be when it swung around on a human neck, and how much being jacked-up on adrenaline made me lose fine motor skills.

As long as you don't hit teeth or the top of the head, you will not get hurt. The captain of the football team told me it was "kind of a good punch" before the room returned to normal. That move must have seemed shocking to onlookers, coming from a skinny little honor class geek with broken glasses. I had just broken high school cliché rules (and quite nearly some of Shawnee's teeth).

Before graduation, I would go on to threaten to drop-kick the captain of the football team for picking on my little brother, and would slide-tackle the school bully during gym class for kicking my shins one too many times. Anyone who picked on me once never picked on me again.

I never got in trouble, because kids in smart people classes just didn't get detention. Most importantly, I'd worked out the self-pity and when I clenched my fist, I felt a spark of self-worth. I believed I could will myself to overcome problems in life. Just like the Karate Kid.

I went through college in an an unspectacular way. I went to a mediocre school, got mediocre grades, and had a mediocre time. I picked up a few skills but practiced nothing. I expected to grow up, but it didn't happen. I got fat.

Like Daniel-San, I picked up my East Coast roots and moved to California. I found a gym, the Fairtex Muay Thai school in San Francisco run by boxers from Bangkok who had all come from poverty and risen to championships (the recruiters only recruit the poor, because, like Mike Tyson, they fight harder.)

When I was laid off after the first internet bubble burst, all of the people who were fired alongside me were upset. Some cried. I could only think of the gym.

I worked full-time there, mopping floors. In a few months I was training, teaching and sparring almost every day, and I remember how content I was sitting under a skylight drenched from the routine of exercise, about to start teaching class. I remember thinking to myself, "I will never be more happy than I am right now."

And although I have been happier, life was never more simple. The head instructors were all gentle, strong, hilariously perverted, and generous with their knowledge. They, unlike the Americans at the gym, weren't there because they were afraid of life. For them, this wasn't therapy to work out aggressive tendencies. They did this because they had the skill, and because they began with no better options in life. They were Mr. Miyagis who would grab your nuts when you weren't paying attention in order to teach you how to pay attention.

It ended quickly.

One June, three years into this part of my life, I had the perfect exhibition match. I could feel where every punch and kick were coming from, and I kept complete composure. I was far from the best, but I felt that day I'd reached the level I wanted to reach.

A few weeks later, I witnessed the owner of the gym get shot while chasing down a plain-looking guy who backed into his parked car out in the alley behind the gym.

That plain-looking guy happened to be a serious criminal who'd skipped parole meetings for a year. I tried to give the gym owner CPR, but as they took his body off the street, wrapped in my t-shirt (I remember it had a phoenix logo), something changed inside. I didn't want to live by the sword anymore.

Two days later, the murderer shot himself in a standoff with police after a widely publicized manhunt, and round-the-clock media coverage.

The gym closed.

I thought I could approach something more meditative. I took some Aikido classes to learn how to draw the sword and cut, but I didn't have the heart for it now. I had to leave it, and everyone in that world, behind. I no longer believed it was the way. I broke my leg in a motorcycle accident and although the metal rod in my left tibia makes the bone stronger, every time I kicked the ankle went numb. I was finished. I began focusing instead on writing.

It's been years since I've practiced martial arts. But having studied a few different types, I guess you could say everything I do is done with as much martial spirit as I can muster. From the way I think, or move, from cooking to writing to running Gizmodo, to surfing, I have practiced enough that the best and worst lessons have become part of who I am. When something runs this deep, and when you've observed and practiced more than a few types of martial arts, its hard to understand why some people on the internet would raise such a fuss over the new Karate Kid movie being focused around Kung Fu instead of Karate.

Muay Thai is a brutal art. It involves knees, shins, elbows, and gloves on the fists. In the old days, I was told, fighters would dip their taped fists into broken glass-- but today, it's more of a graceful and tough sport. There are rules: no eye gouges or groin kicks. Its square stance and blocks are mostly meant to deflect round strikes from the sides or quick jabs to the face and body-- and because of that, you could say Muay Thai has a weakness to strong spinning back kicks. They aren't an official part of Muay Thai, but no one winces when you do them because it is not as cultish of a sport as other more traditional martial arts.

Still, a Muay Thai practitioner wouldn't necessarily know how to use or defend against these kicks. I know this because of my experience in other martial arts. And I know this because of Jongsanan Fairtex.

Jongsanan Fairtex's nickname is "the wooden man." He was one of the most decorated fighters in the gym, and was ranked by some publications in Thailand as one of the top 10 fighters of all time. If I remember correctly, his record was 98-28-0, and he's best known for a match referred to as "the elbow fight", where he and his opponent traded elbow smashes to each other's crowns repeatedly, with neither man going down. One of Jongsanan's moves, which he'd throw in every couple of fights when he knew his opponent was on his heels or the ropes, was the spinning back kick. It was sometimes effective, but it's also demoralizing to see your opponent break a rule of Muay Thai and turn his back to you. As a master, Jonsanan knew when to break the rule of the system and throw some jazz into the equation.

So, with Jongsanan in mind: Okay, the title of the "new" Karate Kid title may be a misnomer in the literal sense. But I don't consider the title a mistake. Some may argue that the filmmakers are demonstrating cultural insensitivity to Chinese and Japanese martial artists. But I believe the Karate/Kung Fu discrepancy can also be interpreted as masterful perception. Because a master, like Bruce Lee or Jongsanan, knows that at the core, there is no real difference between any of the martial arts. In fact, this is the very sort of provincial distinction Bruce Lee fought against throughout his life.

All martial arts operate on the same fundamentals, more or less. Each has a different emphasis on legs, feet, hard crushing or soft flowing styles, feints and slips or direct blocks. Each art has strengths and weaknesses. But the principles within each art are the same: efficient movement, focused minds, and strong spirits. When you understand that, there's no sense in fussing with the rules just for the sake of the rules.

Was Jongsanan, one of the defining fighters of this last 100 years, not doing Muay Thai when he did spin kicks? Or did he just reinvent Muay Thai when he threw that move in, during a few of his fights?

The correct title of the martial art in question hardly matters when your enemy is sprawled at your feet, knocked out by an attack with no name.

The Karate Kid, released as The Kung Fu Kid in China and Japan, opens today in theaters.


  1. Most of the time when we in the US say Karate, we mean Tae Kwon Do anyway. China isn’t much further if you’re already to Korea.

  2. So it’s okay to ignore the cultural legacies of China and Okinawa (Not Japan) to try and turn a fast buck because in the end fighting is fighting?


  3. Shawnee Alexandri? Get him a body bag! Yeah!

    (Bravo, Brian! Happy to see your byline on BB!)

  4. As a long time parcticion of many martial arts, I heartily disagree.

    “There is no real difference between any of the martial arts”? Um..yeah, there really is. Kung Fu covers many styles, some that could be argued are similar to Karate, and some – most obviously the softer styles – that are completely different, and exist for a different set of reasons.

    The various schools of karate all share an ethos based on combative striking. This is only one of many things that the family of arts that fall under the umbrella term “Kung Fu” contains – there are also styles that focus on wrestling, weaponry, meditative forms etc

    It’s my opinion – any only that, of course – that naming an American film “The Karate Kid” when the film takes place in China and features “The chinese national treasure” of Kung-Fu, rather than the Japanese/Okinawan art of Karate – the assumption is “oh screw it, it’s asian chop socky stuff, we’re close enough” – which sounds fairly casually racist to me.

    I’d love to see the derison that a Hong Kong movie about American Football would be met with, if it’s title called it soccer.

    1. Apparently you forgot about the 2000 movie The Replacements, in which a British football (soccer) player became the kicker in an American football team.

      No, they’re not the same. But kicking is kicking. Widening knowledge or application, sharing skills and finding commonalities–these are powerful and appealing themes.

      The new Karate Kid is apparently about a kid who’s had some exposure to karate, but gets introduced to kung fu. The story parallels the original Karate Kid, and makes reference/homage to it, so it’s related enough to share the name.

      The real question is whether the new film shares the emotional authenticity of the original that Mr. Lam mentions: will we see the bruises, the fear, the uncertainty, and the unbridled happiness Daniel showed in the original?

  5. Here in Japan, the title has always been “Best Kid” so there’s no confusion on this side of the Pacific… but it still gets under my skin that the movie title is wrong.

    It’s just so… lazy… and I’m… so… pedantic…. GRRRrrrawwwolll FLYING FIST OF DEEEATH!

  6. That was beautiful and enlightening to read. I understand now that it’s the breaking of traditional rules that make it a martial art as opposed to a martial discipline.

  7. Created an account to comment, so first of all : Yay first post ! \o/

    As #1 said, thank you for sharing it, Chris. I did much less martial art than you (a bit of Yoseikan Budo) before ruining my knee, but I really hope to come back to it again. I know I have much to learn, even about the effects in which it can ‘change your life’, but I’ve seen enough to recognize that those changes are deeply personal.

    Thus, thanks for digging and sharing that with us. Another argument against the whole internet rage about the title is (and you briefly mentionned that at the beginning of your post) the deep imprint The Karate Kid had on our collective subconcious. It is part of our pop culture, and The Karate Kid is as appropriate (if not more) as The Kung Fu Kid to describe J. Smith’s character in the movie.

    All my respect to Mr. Fairtex.

    Wax on, wax off.


  8. When it comes to the presentation of foreign culture, particularly Asian, in Western media, anything that reinforces “it’s (they’re) all the same” thinking, it does matter.

    Oh well, whatever it’s called it’s still Will Smith paying for his kid to pee on my childhood.

  9. I would be less irritated by the title if I could believe that the moviemakers had as much insight as you do towards the world of martial arts and the attached cultural history.

    But seriously: nothing in the marketing or the packaging of this movie speaks to an understanding of anything you wrote of above – in Hollywood, AZN STUFF IS ALL THE SAME ANYWAYZ lolz, and that’s why it’s irritating.

    Besides which, there’s a difference in a practitioner of martial arts modifying the rules in a fight and moviemakers deliberately keeping a mis-named art to market something. The former’s about taking your opponent off guard; the latter’s about cashing in.

  10. I can’t find the IMDB thread now (since so many people have put up nearly identical posts), but I did read that, in the movie, it is made clear that they know the difference between karate and kung fu. It apparently only seems to be a misnomer to people who haven’t seen the film.

  11. One wouldn’t call a remake of a film about the French language, only in the remake about English, “the French language”. And with not a jot of French in it.

    But, you say, French and English are similar, they are both languages!

    Whats the problem?

    The problem isn’t the remaking of an almost perfect film, it’s also not the cultural appropriation, it’s the simple illogic of a film called the “Karate” kid with no karate in it.

    However, one could point out the fact that the art in the first Karate Kid films was Goju ryu – it even included the katas – and that Goju Ryu is a Japanese form of a Chinese art – consider the kata “Sanchin”, which is obviously a southern Style kung-fu pattern slowed down – Therefore, of all martial arts films, the name “Karate kid” could easily be “Kung-Fu Kid” and not raise a martial eyebrow amongst experts.

    I just, personally, think that most people have Wing Chun in mind when thinking of Kung-fu and this is very different to any Karate style. They really should have renamed it the “Martial Arts Kid” to please everyone.


  12. I was under the impression that, in the new version, Dre comes to China with some knowledge of Karate. In fact, I believe I’ve seen a bit of a trailer where one of the antagonists calls him “Karate Kid”, like it’s a joke or insult.

    I guess I’ll know more after I see the movie tomorrow.

  13. I agree with what you say, but don’t you feel this plays into the Western “China/Japan; meh what’s the difference?” mentality?

    I remember watching coverage of the oscars on Japanese TV when Ken Watanabe was nominated for Last Samurai; an interviewer on the streets was asking people whether they knew who he was, and a lot of people said yes. He then asked “do you know any other Japanese actors?” and after about 20 negative responses, someone finally said “Yeh, Jackie Chan!” Creative editing certainly, but don’t you think it’s odd to encourage that mindset?

    Oh and did you mean Iaido, or did you really start off doing blade training in Aikido?

  14. “I never got in trouble, because kids in smart people classes just didn’t get detention.”

    Clearly you didn’t go to the schools I did, where all the administrators were former or current gym teachers or coaches. I was in trouble at every possible opportunity. If 20 kids were doing something, I would be the one to get in trouble.

  15. Sigh. Why don’t people understand that this is insulting to the Chinese? Sure, you can talk about philosophical and physical similarities between martial arts, but last time I heard, the Chinese were still rather upset with the Japanese over the Rape of Nanking. To say “Chinese, Japanese, whatever” is pretty much like saying “rapist, victim, I can’t tell one from the other.”

    1. I’m sorry but before China gets any pity over Nanking they need to start acting better in regards to Tibet and Taiwan.

      1. You might want to work on your multitasking.

        “Sorry, lady who was gang-raped and mutilated as a teenager while your family was bayonetted to death in front of your eyes. I just can’t find the time to form an opinion on past war atrocities until your government ends its own bad behavior.”

  16. My particular take on it, certainly influenced by working in a corporate setting for 11 years, is that the name of the movie has nothing to do with what was in the movie. It was a manager type somewhere, trying to show others that the money spent on his MBA was not wasted, made an executive decision while talking on a cel phone on route from one meeting where he saw half the trailer to another meeting where he will discuss the green-initiatives in their ad campaigns, that “Karate Kid”, which happened to be the first thing to jump in his mind, would be popular because… well just because. That’s why they pay him the big bucks, he reminded himself, to maximize profit by using what he brings to the table.

    So yeah, there could be logical a reason for it. There could be stereotyping in it. But really, there is little reason behind it. My experience is that a series of accidents make most corporate “decisions” happen, and the only skill is whether you get stuck with the blame or the kudos.

    In the end, I am discouraged that the the original movie is being used to help this afore mentioned manager type out. It also bothers me that the kid in the trailer is wearing a Detroit Lions to show that he is from Detroit, why not wear a positive symbol of Detroit?

    1. the spirit seems intact to me. maybe the corporate background gives you a certain perspective I can’t understand, though?

  17. Jongsanan deserves all the recognition he can get! Great instructor, and an amazing fighter. It’s saddening to remember Alex’s death, it’s just not the same place anymore.

  18. I find it sadly ironic that Brian posts a 2,100 word essay on his bonafides and reasoning why he doesn’t have a problem with the name and most of the counter responses are little better than “nuh-uhhh!”

    @Brainspore / yri: There’s blood between every country in the world. If you can’t refer to anything using a word that has origins elsewhere, then it would be a pretty difficult life to write about or speak about anything. Past atrocities have absolutely no bearing on whether or not using a Japanese word to describe a kid performing something that is Chinese is bad/wrong/insulting. It’s pretty ridiculous to think otherwise.

    1. I won’t get into the semantics argument, I was just responding to the rather callous implication that the world shouldn’t care about the Rape of Nanking because of the Chinese government’s current policies.

      1. I hardly think it’s callous to care more about the suffering of people alive now than that of those long dead.

        1. I don’t see why it should be so difficult to care about both at the same time. Besides, not everyone who was at Nanking is “long dead.”

  19. Fantastic piece Brian. Makes me reminisce about all my utter failures and ecstatic joy in exploring martial arts over 15 years.


  20. It is a cultural art. we dont call jazz=rock or the blues=country. be specific. I studied Martial Arts for over 20 years and the differences between styles is subtle to huge.

  21. I think what really matters is whether the end features Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best”

    Whenever I think Karate Kid , I think …
    you’re the best around, nothing’s going to keep you down

    Are we just a little oversensitive. should soccer fans be offended with American usage of football? Just call it ignorance and move along.

    and referencing Nanking in a pop culture debate –
    is that breaking Chinese version of Godwin’s rule.

    As we know, Chinese movies are notorious for horribly translated movie titles. Why not just change the movie title at different markets.

  22. I thought the article describing your relationship to the martial arts was very touching.

    I understand your reasoning for not being bent out of shape regarding the titling of this movie.

    At first, I thought it was wrong to call it “The Karate Kid”, since the studio was obviously doing it to cash in on the previous franchise. I think this title probably annoys a lot of people of both Chinese and Japanese descent, as well as movie fans, and martial artists practicing either disciplines.

    Somehow, though, since I heard that a character in the movie referred to Smith’s character sarcastically as the “Karate Kid”, I think of the title ironically, and somehow OK, as if the filmmakers are telling the audience that they know and understand that “The Karate Kid” isn’t the right title.

    Anyway, I have a feeling that, eventually, this movie will be known primarily as “The Kung Fu Kid”, making the whole controversy moot.

    I enjoyed your article, though.

  23. Brian,

    Thank you so much for referencing Alex Gong. He will always be remembered for what he gave to Muay Thai and what he inspired in others.

    Seek out a man named Pedro Villalobos.

    Good luck

  24. “I took some Aikido classes to learn how to draw the sword and cut…”

    I suspect you mean Iaido instead of Aikido, as there are many practitioners who do both. Iaido is exclusively sword work, especially fast draws from seated positions, for those who have the knees. It concentrates the mind wonderfully.

    What I always liked about the original “Karate Kid” movies is that they were all about the practice rather than the fight. In most physical disciplines, 99.9% of your time is practicing rather than performing. Working your body to the edges of its limitations is an exhausting and exhilarating enterprise.

  25. This was nicely done. Thanks for sharing.

    My own experience with martial arts involved Shoto-kan and Tae Kwon Do (which really are the same thing), and many years later some Tai Chi (which isn’t so bloody hard on the knees and ankles).

    I never really found myself in the position of having to use any of it in aggression or self-defense. I suppose that’s fortunate.

  26. I’m fairly certain they realized the moves in the film were Kung Fu, but also realized that adding the name “the karate kid” would suck a lot of us nostalgics into the theater… you know, so we can tell everyone how much better the original is.

  27. But I believe the Karate/Kung Fu discrepancy can also be interpreted as masterful perception. Because a master, like Bruce Lee or Jongsanan, knows that at the core, there is no real difference between any of the martial arts. In fact, this is the very sort of provincial distinction Bruce Lee fought against throughout his life.

    Now, if there was any evidence of Hollywood folks knowing or caring about such things, I might be with you on this. If that turns out to be even a minor theme within the movie, I’ll excuse it.

    Chances are, they did it solely for marketing reasons, and that bugs me. Not the least because they seem to think that we wouldn’t realize “Kung-fu Kid” was a modern remake of Karate Kid.

  28. Well you’re wrong. They didn’t use karate cause all martial arts are related. They wanted name of the original even though it doesn’t fit and has nothing to do with it.

    If they could make more money and get away with it they’d call it “Star Wars”

  29. It seems to me that it was purely a marketing decision. People that now have kids in the target market saw the original Karate Kid when they were at the target age. Using the same title plays upon that branding, starting this new movie off with immediate product recognition.

  30. This is a great post. i hold a 1st Dan in Tae Kwon do, have trained in Judo, Boxing, Akido, GOJU, muay Thai Kendo , Kobudo.

    I remember sittin on the floor of a dojo with another student, we were both guitarists and wondered when we would have to give up one for the other. I gave up martial arts for the music at 52 years.

  31. RIP Alex Gong. For awhile I was able to catch his fights, along with Jongsanan’s and Bunkerd’s on ESPN2’s Strikeforce kickboxing events. I joined Fairtex a few years after that incident at the Mountain View location with Jongsanan and Enn, but I’ve always respected the history and legacy that Alex helped create for the Fairtex name in the Bay Area.

  32. Karate or Kung-Fu?

    Blues or Hip-Hop?

    Country or Rock?

    Linux or Windows?

    Same difference, right?

  33. If the ironic useage of the term is actually inherent in the movie, and not just an obviously tacked-on “Crap! People know the difference!” move by the scriptwriters or marketeers then I completely retract my objections, but do you think it would be ok to make a movie about Muhammad Ali and call it “The Wrestler”? They’re both martial arts though, right?

    1. If you had a movie about Hulk Hogan taking up boxing and called it “The Wrestler”, or Muhammad Ali taking up wrestling and called it “The Boxer”, yeah, I think that would be OK.

      If that’s what it’s doing, taking a karate trained kid and teaching him kung fu, then I can see no problem there.

  34. I started reading your piece with a bit of humour in mind, but I remember how crushing it felt when Alex was murdered and I felt like I got kicked in the solar plexus. I am so sorry that you had to witness that.

    I had to stop reading when I realized what your piece was about. Please find the courage to continue training, muay thai brings a peace and calmness dude, I never feel right without it.

  35. Totally disagree with the ultimate premise, although I loved the piece.

    You have to respect the cultural legacies and histories that spawned these arts.

    Yes, “fighting is fighting”, but styles are styles. Agreed that Bruce Lee fought against this “provincial distinction” in martial arts, but he specifically also developed a new and original name (Jeet Kune Do) for what he was doing and didn’t continue under “Wushu” style.

    “Karate” means something. As does “Kung Fu (Wushu”). To gloss over it isn’t right and just sloppy thinking.

  36. The title was retained (for at least the US market) as a marketing move to grab the today’s parents who saw the original movie as kids in 1984. I’ve seen conflicting reports on how it will be marketed internationally. So it makes some sense, the “Karate Kid” name is now intentionally ironic, stemming from a plot point in the new movie. Dre knows some karate, but he gets his butt beat by a bully using kung fu.

    I found this passage from this ( to be relevant to some of the above discussion.

    “The true story of karate’s development provides some clues. The art’s progenitor, Ch’uan Fa Kung Fu, was created by Buddhist monks as many as 1,500 years ago and is thought to have spread throughout China and to Okinawa after the Shaolin Temple was destroyed in the 17th or 18th century. From the beginning, the Chinese roots of Okinawan karate were explicit—te, as Miyagi explained correctly, is Japanese for “hand,” but kara was a colloquial reference to China. The art of “China hand” adapted Ch’uan Fa Kung Fu with more direct attacks and blocks, befitting the rugged farmers and fishermen who were its first practitioners.

    Karate didn’t make it to Japan proper until the 1920s, thanks in large part to the marketing skills of Gichin Funakoshi. The schoolteacher-turned-sensei reconfigured the fundamentals of karate to make it more palatable—and seem less Chinese—to the Japanese. With a few deft scribbles, the character for kara was adjusted to emphasize its meaning as “open.”

    So it seems that marketing has a long history in the martial arts, as well as the movies

  37. You know what the biggest irony of all is here? In the original ‘Karate’ Kid, it wasn’t really Karate. Crane kick? Wax on Wax off? Anyone who’s done a lot of different martial arts knows that the Karate Kid has about as much to do with ‘real’ Karate as the TV Show Kung Fu had to do with real Kung Fu (i.e. not much).

  38. i forgot where I heard it, but I remember a quote about the meaning of kung-fu, to paraphrase, “it is knowledge gained by experience over time using patience.” Or some such… I’ve always found that hellish inspiring.
    To my shame I’ve never been able to study any of the Chinese styles (though i am wicked dangerous with a rope dart..heh) but I had a similiar experience in my youth with American Tae Kwon Do. I gave it up at the time to play football, wrestle and then smoke cigarettes, get angst, and go to college. I miss it though.
    It seems that a commonly used image, as Brian pointed out about Bruce Lee, was to take something apart, look at it and then make a new whole. This new assemblage makes it relevant again. I’m doing death to poetry, but you can see this device in Tolkien’s broken sword, Battlestar Galactica’s nuked planet or even Will Smith’s character’s desire to cure a dead world in that one film whose name I can’t remember, damn. It’s in our art because we want it in our lives, we desire completion and wholeness, yeah?
    So the question here is not if the majority of the world share holders can use wikipedia to look up martial arts derivations and names, but did they make a decent, sensitive film? Or is Karate Kid 4?

  39. “But I believe the Karate/Kung Fu discrepancy can also be interpreted as masterful perception. Because a master, like Bruce Lee or Jongsanan there is no real difference between any of the martial arts”

    What are you talking about? It`s like there is no difference calling “american” people “russian” cause we are people after all? One human race. Wait? Why don`t we call “americans” as “arabs”!
    Ah, I wonder how many people will agree to that.

    Definitely there is no much difference between real martial arts, cause it`s main idea is to protect something that you believe is needed to be protected, but it doesnt mean we should loose our commons sense in it? The idea of unity is okay and all, but it belongs to morality mainly, not to culture`s that represent absolutely different spirit. It`s like saying “we don`t care actually”, all we care is about money…

    i know why “karate kid” isn`t called “kung-fu” kid, cause some company (Dreamworks?) bought the rights to use the word “kung-fu”, ahahaha…

    sometimes i feel that one of the most greatest countries of “freedom” lost it`s common sense in it`s pursuit.

    Well there is a reason for everything.

    and the only reason why jackie is still in hollywood is because since Hong-Kong became China`s property – the whole movie industry crushed and everybody runed away (starting John Woo, Ang Lee, Jackie, Jet Li, and e.t.c.), they are slowly trying to build it again (with Ang Lee, trying to cast it and shoot it hiding his name till the last, or Jackie bringing some hollywood stuff to shoot there)… but well, until it is China… can`t be helped.

  40. I understand the stance you are taking here, but for the American masses who have not had such a smörgåsbord of martial arts training as you have, the stance is weak.

    While Hollywood continues to rape our childhood with horrid remakes the masses justly wince and flinch at the title.

    Since this is a motion picture suspension of disbelief is a very crucial element if you can’t not get the title right that doesn’t give the prospective audience much faith in this latest remake endeavor. Bruce Lee was a talented film maker and he would likely flinch at this movie making fopar.

  41. Awesome piece Brian, screw the naysayers; it’s obvious to anyone with a brain what the differences are and why they did this.

    Some people are always going to be crybabies. Cashing in on a successful franchise but putting a new spin on it don’t equal cultural insensitivity. So solly. (thought I’d give a better example so you fools might recognize the difference)

  42. Karate Kid is, like Blue Harvest, just the working title.

    It’s being put out as “The Fudebakudo Kid”.

  43. Any of you posters criticizing the author actually Chinese, or speak Chinese? Yeah, I didn’t think so. You know what we Chinese call Karate? Japanese Kung Fu. In the Chinese language, and the Chinese mind, Karate is Kung Fu.

    Nevermind the fact that the WHOLE POINT of the title is to pay homage to a film classic.

    Nevermind the fact that it’s a freakin movie, and movies don’t have any real importance to anyone, culturally or otherwise, except a tiny number of virgin film geeks, and of course the filmmakers who care so much about their “art” that they are turning everything into headache-inducing 3D so they can charge 20 bucks a ticket.

    Another friend of mine, also Chinese, was complaining, “why does the bad guy have to be Chinese?” … because they are in freaking China, and most people in China are… Chinese.

    Relax everyone.

  44. I think the title is simply becuase this film is a remake. I fyou watch it, it is the SAME movie. Same characters, plotlines, everything. It is proper repsect. And in the film they draw the distinciton between the two arts.

    Remember the point of the film, as this author alludes to is not martial arts per se but the personal development of a young man.

    1. I think you and I are probably the only people on this thread who have actually seen the film.

      I agree with what you’ve said. This was a remake, with homage. It’s not a perfect film, but it does a decent job…especially considering the fact that it’s meant for children, not film students.

  45. “You know what we Chinese call Karate? Japanese Kung Fu. In the Chinese language, and the Chinese mind, Karate is Kung Fu.”

    And do you know what hillbillies call Japanese people? Chinamen. But that don’t make it right.

    A widely shared error is still an error.

  46. “The Karate Kid” is not a misnomer. Before the era of escalating Japanese militarism before WWII, the name was changed from 唐手 (“Chinese hand”) to 空手 (“empty hand”) – both of which are pronounced karate in Japan. The change was created by Japanese nationalists who wished to develop the combat form in a Japanese style.

    So when the movie is released in China in Chinese subtitles, the movie will be called the “China Hand Kid.” They will most likely use the old form of the writing.

  47. Video games were exclusively called “Nintendo” for awhile. Same for martial arts and “karate.” You’d name the movie what it is too if it mean revitalizing an established, proven, money-making franchise. You can’t blame them.

  48. Its strange that I think most of you have the causality backwards on this one. I don’t think somebody had this awesome script and they tagged the name of Karate Kid on it afterwards, I’m pretty sure it came from some suit who noticed DVD sales and TV ratings for Karate Kid (1984) were stronger than the average property from that time frame and decided to cash in.

    Step two was to figure out how to make it cool and fresh. Let’s grab Jackie Chan–who cares if he doesn’t do Karate, he draws in the theater. The choice of the name isn’t wrong, it was a bad casting decision that made it look like the cart was leading the horse… and the casting of Jaden Smith will prove that to be a trend if he’s as bad in this as he was in that terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

  49. Well written post. I have done both Karate and Kung Fu, and yes there are some superficial differences, but it really doesn’t matter. The only people that get worked up about this are ones with too much time on their hands.

  50. It’s in the movie, they use the term “karate kid” to belittle the protagonist, with every one of the characters and everyone on set completely aware of the misuse of the term.

    And yes of course it’s to help them make a hefty withdrawal from the nostalgia cash machine.

    Complaining about this is like complaining about The Hunt for the Red October because no one field-dresses a calendar in it.

  51. I live in Shanghai and the film remained as “The Karate Kid” as its English title through its showing here; however, the Chinese translation was ‘Kung Fu Kid.’

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