Here’s an unexpected plot twist: The remake of “The Karate Kid” isn’t actually about karate. Detroit-born hero Dre (Jaden Smith) knows how to do a couple chops, but when he moves to China with his mom and finds himself in a playground brawl with the neighborhood bully, he realizes he needs to learn the local martial art, which is kung fu.

Many Americans — including Dre’s mom — don’t realize there’s much of a difference between the two fighting styles. That’s probably because in the U.S., both “karate” and “kung fu” are synonymous with beating people up, says Abdur-Rahim Muhammed, president of the Hung Tao Choy Mei Kung Fu Leadership Institute (1351 U St. NW; 202-265-1670).

“In China,” he explains, “They call that ‘wushu.’ ‘Kung fu’ is skill attained through hard work and effort.” In his school, that means students don’t just learn punching and kicking, but also dragon dances, classical weaponry, culture and a moral code. “If you have fighting skills without character, you’re just a gangster,” adds Muhammed, echoing the reaction Jackie Chan has in the movie to the bully and his crew.

As for “karate,” the Japanese characters translate into “empty hands.” “It was a quasi-military set of techniques for unarmed farmers to defend themselves,” says David Ernst, who’s the chief instructor for the Washington DC Shotokan Karate Club (3265 S St. NW). That includes ways of avoiding dangerous situations, since “the essence of karate is enabling yourself not to fight,” Ernst adds.

So, although they share values — such as discipline and respect for elders — they don’t look much alike. Kung fu is choreographed and flowing, while karate is linear and more direct, describes Carol Middleton, founder of the DC Self Defense Karate Association (1716 Newton St. NW; 202-328-1203), which specializes in Tae Kwon Do, the Korean style of karate.

Both, however, are attractively stylized, which makes them stand apart from Middleton’s other specialty: Krav Maga. “Krav Maga is not a martial art, just a self-defense system. They don’t care if it looks ugly,” she adds.

The other important similarity is that karate and kung fu are both effective fitness regimens. In kung fu, this comes from the repetition of forms — techniques strung together into lengthy routines — that build muscle. Even when you’re still, you’re usually in the horse stance, which is a wide-legged squat. “Your whole body is toned, so it hurts them more than you,” Muhammed says.

Karate practitioners have forms of their own, but they develop most of their strength through regular conditioning. “Torture of the day varies from sit-ups to push-ups to doing a lot of kicks,” Ernst says.

As for whether kung fu or karate is more likely to win in a smackdown, that’s impossible to determine. “It’s not the art form. It’s how intent you are on being good,” Muhammed says. And knowing either one will help you deal with the bad guys.

Photo by Jasin Boland/Columbia Pictures