HISTORY OF FILIPINO FIGHTING ARTS
All fighting arts have one common purpose, self-preservation.
Dictated by the need for a means to defend oneself, all defensive and offensive maneuvers evolved out of man’s natural reflex actions. These reflexive actions were developed to effective techniques and then to systems of fighting. This instinctive and basic human demand explains the commonality of the different fighting arts.
The Filipino fighting arts, a higher level physical manifestation of pure survival instinct, have a parallel but independent beginning from arts of other countries and have a history that dates back before the Spanish colonization of the Philippines that began in 1521.
The discovery of a copper artifact with Tagalog script on it, now known as the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, confirmed that the natives had a written language, long before the coming of the Spaniards.
Written language, being a pre-requisite in determining history, scholars and historians suggested that what is now the Philippines, can rightfully push back the history by at least another 600 plus years after this artifact was dated to about 900 A.D.
Questions were asked why there is no written record of the history of the country, much less the fighting arts.
Dr. H. Otley Beyer, prominent anthropologist and scientist (Tektites and Moon Stones) who made Philippines his home and married a native princess from the Mountain Province, in a book entitled “The Philippines before Magellan” wrote that “an over-zealous Spanish friar boasted of having destroyed more than 300 scrolls written in the native character”. It is possible that the Christian Spaniards tried to eradicate all traces of pre-Hispanic history because of their disdain for Philippine culture that was based on paganism.
The history of Filipino fighting arts, both armed and unarmed, and the existence of schools where these arts were learned was mentioned, albeit too briefly, by the Spaniard Pigafetta in his chronicles of the exploits of Ferdinand Magellan. Word of mouth, which was passed on by the masters to their students and down the line to the present, filled in the missing parts to make up a loosely, sometimes even iffy, but generally accurate accepted history of the Filipino fighting arts.
Centuries before the Europeans were even aware of the existence of the island chain, later to be known as Philippines, the inhabitants were already adept in the combative art of Kalis (system of fighting using the broadsword). This was brought about by the need for self-preservation and protection against marauding pirates, outlaws and various feudal chieftains.
Somewhere along its development, the art was referred to simply as Kali, reserving the term Kalis for the sword itself.
Kali, the Filipino Fighting Art of the Blade, had only one purpose – to kill in order to survive and the Filipinos go to battle with only one thing in mind, to kill or be killed. With this ingrained in their consciousness, Kali, the Filipino Fighting Art of the Blade was based on the principle of one strike – one kill. The emphasis was on the use of the broadsword.
Ferdinand Magellan, the Spanish conquistador credited for the discovery of the Philippines, fell victim to the Kalis (broadsword) of Rajah Lapu-Lapu, a Filipino chieftain who was apparently very proficient in the fighting arts.
With commerce in the early history of the Philippines, the Sino-Japanese traders brought the Chinese fighting system of Koon-tao (also spelled Kuon-tao). The art was later spelled Kuntaw, the Filipino way.
Fanned by the trade winds, the art of Koon-tao spread around the country and was passed on to the proletariat of the country, more of an entertainment spectacle than a fighting art. The inter-marriage of the Sino-Japanese traders with the native womenfolk also contributed to the dissemination of Koon-tao.
Koon-tao greatly influenced the native systems of Buno and SIKARAN, not so much in techniques but in the organization of techniques for a more structured and systematic training method. Buno, a native form of wrestling, laid emphasis in the use of the hands and was popular among the fishermen of the coastal towns. SIKARAN, a foot-fighting system was popular among the farmers of the big island of Luzon, particularly the province of Rizal.
This division was brought about by physiological and geographical influences. Due to the very nature of their occupation, fishermen have greater upper body strength and therefore favored a physical activity that utilizes more upper body strength. Farmers, whose lower body is more developed, favored foot-fighting maneuvers.
Buno was never elevated into a formalized art. It became accepted as an activity to while one’s time away rather than a sport or art. Interestingly, however, most Filipino wrestlers have their start from Buno. Another vernacular term for Buno is Dumog or Barog.
SIKARAN followed a different path. By constantly improving the use of the bare hands and feet in striking, parrying, blocking, off-balancing and disarming techniques by joint reversal, SIKARAN became a formalized unarmed fighting system.
Bersilat, an Indo-Malayan fighting system of Arabic origin was introduced to the country at about the same time in the same manner as Koon-tao. Through the course of time, the name was shortened to Silat.
The spread of Silat in the country was not as extensive as Koon-tao. The taboo on the inter-marriage of Muslims to non-Muslims was a big factor that contributed to this unfortunate circumstance. Silat continued to flourish as a secret form of combat exclusive to Muslim royalty and virtually did not undergo any change. It is still practiced in the predominantly Muslim section of the country, in the island of Mindanao.
Sometimes the arts were referred to in the active form as kuntawan and silatan. Both Kuntaw and Silat were a mixture of armed and unarmed techniques. These arts further influenced and enriched the native systems of fighting.
This was the environment that the Spaniards found when they colonized the island chain.
Together with reading and writing the native script, the systems of using the pana (bow and arrow), the sibat (spear), the punyal (dagger), the kalis (broadsword), other bladed weapons and alternative weapons were learned as a part of the rite of passage to adulthood. Moreover, different sections of the country developed their own regional systems of fighting. Even individual families, mixing in their philosophy and beliefs, set up their own unique methods of fighting. The Filipino Fighting Arts kept on evolving. This instilled the spirit of the mandirigma (warrior) in every Filipino. This also gave birth to various several styles of fighting with different names, but of the same basic system.
With the widespread Spanish conquest of the Philippines, training in the fighting systems was banned. Possession of blades, customarily used for fighting, such as the kalis, kampilan, bangkantuli, barong and other curved blades, was strictly prohibited. Even possession of the karit (sickle) was prohibited giving birth to the dulos (reaper), a small finger-maneuvered version of the harvesting tool.
The sibat (spear) and pana (bow and arrow), fundamentally hunting weapons, were banned. The Spanish authorities were afraid the guardia civil (civil guard) or the soldados (Spanish soldiers), will be ambushed by the Filipino revolutionaries using these weapons. It was also against the law to possess a kalasag or karasak (shield) because the Spaniard’s escopeta (musket) had a hard time penetrating it.
Possession of limited types of implements used for food production purpose such as the straight edge itak or gulok was allowed under close restrictions.
The Spaniards, however, were unable to stamp out the fighting systems altogether. The fighting systems underwent changes. With the changes came innovation, improvisation, modification, and organization of techniques thereby elevating the fighting systems to fighting arts.
Innocent everyday accessories, such as the pandong (bandana) and the yo-yo were elevated into deadly tools of self-defense.
The pandong was used effectively to strangle an enemy by tying knots about an inch apart from the center and placing them over the carotid arteries. Placing a piece of stone in the middle of the pandong, twirling it overhead then releasing one end turns it into a slingshot. When the pandong is rolled lengthwise with a stone in the middle it can be used as a bludgeon in the same manner as a club. The yo-yo was used in the same way.
The point of the spear was removed and the staff was simply called the tungkod. Another innovation to the tungkod was instead of the heavy wooden pole kawayang tsina (Chinese bamboo) which is legendary in strength and straightness was used. It was hollowed out and doubled as a sumpit (blowgun). Another type of bamboo was used as sumpak (popgun) and yet another as a one use emergency lantaka (canon). The fighting applications of a six-foot long sturdy, yet flexible bamboo called pingga or tungkli, was concealed as a carrying staff.
The karit (sickle) and the dulos (reaper) both harvesting implements, became lethal weapons. Techniques, both defensive and offensive, were developed exclusively for a particular implement. Even the palakol (axe) found an extended use from chopping wood to a throwing and hacking weapon called puthaw.
In the southern Tagalog region, particularly in the Province of Batangas, the use of the Balisong was secretly developed. Balisong is a knife with the blade hidden inside the handle much like a fan in order to conceal its deadly nature. Some call it fan knife, while others call it butterfly knife.
The Filipino Fighting Arts were called different names in different regions. Some call them kali, some call them estokada, some call them eskrima, others call them espada y daga, others still call them by the description of the movement as sinawali, cruzada, tirada batanguena, korto o largo kadena, abaniko, sinko tiros and other colorful and descriptive nomenclatures. To conceal the nature of the system some were called by the name of the people who developed them.
Whether it was out of patriotism or in defiance of the Spaniards, several places in the Philippines opted to retain the common vernacular term, such as Pagkalikali, Kalirongan, Kaliradman, Brokil and other native names.
Distributed in the more or less 7,110 island chain (depending on the tide) are over 87 Filipino dialects and it is safe to assume that there is at least about the same number of schools of the same system called differently.
However, no matter what name the system was called, the Spaniards had a collective name for the Filipino Fighting Arts – Armas de Mano, (weapons of the hand). Sometimes it was also called Arnes de Mano (harness of the hand - the archaic meaning of which is military armor or equipment. Arnes de Mano, became the popular term with the introduction of the Moro-moro. Moro-moro is a stage play simulating the battle between the Spaniards and the moors. With the passage of time, the art was Pilipinized to Arnis de Mano.
When the Filipinos train in Arnis de Mano, sticks were put in service instead of blades. Rattan cane (noted for flexibility) was used. A type of hardwood called bahi took the place of swords for more serious applications. Training was concealed behind dance movements and other ceremonial rituals. From the one strike – one kill principle, use of the cane or stick made it possible to hide the killing techniques in twirling, fanning and weaving motions.
Moreover, masters of the fighting arts found a way to treat and temper the bahi, making it tough and strong as steel and was said to be able to break or bend the blade of the Spanish sword or the barrel of the musket.
Filipino culture is immersed in superstitions. Part of this superstition was a popular belief that the master imbues the bahi with his “external” anting-anting or agimat (amulet), complemented by his “internal” nimbo.
The anting-anting or agimat (amulet) is the “external substance” which may be a pandong (bandana) tied around the neck or a holen (marble-like stone that the master keeps in his mouth), a singsing (ring), or a bulong (secret incantation).
Nimbo is the inborn inner force or intrinsic energy that exists in everybody and all living things. It is said to be the very life force that lies dormant in the subconscious until the moment when mind and body act in unison at a higher level. Nimbo has no taste, smell, or shape. Sometimes it is manifested by the “aura” that emanates from the subconscious. Unlike the Anting-anting, Nimbo cannot be transferred to another person. However, it can be developed through long training and guidance of a master.
True understanding is said to be attainable only when the Nimbo and the Anting-anting work together harmoniously.
The anting-anting and the bahi were passed on to the successor in a highly secret ritual before the master’s demise. It is said that unless the anting-anting is passed on to the successor, the master’s final moment will be agonizingly long in coming.
The almost 400 years of colonization, resulted in Spanish being the prevalent language and the native characters were replaced by the Roman alphabet. In view of this, most techniques in Arnis de Mano are still better known in the Spanish language.
Necessity and need forced alterations and adjustment that consequently led to the development and improvement of the systems.
Rajah Lapu-lapu, used the curved blade kalis to kill the Spanish conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. Centuries later the katipunero (freedom fighter) Andres Bonifacio, used the straight edge itak to fight the Spaniards in the famous Cry of Balintawak.
In the early 1900’s, the art of Ju-jitsu was introduced by the Japanese military class, who started infiltrating the Philippines as part of Japan's long-term plan of the Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. The art was Pilipinized and the term ditso became part of the Filipino language.
Having also been developed from natural reflex action, Ju-jitsu techniques had similarity with the two Filipino fighting systems; Arnis de Mano, the armed system of fighting and SIKARAN, the unarmed system of fighting.
During the Second World War, several masters of the fighting arts took refuge in the mountains and joined the fight for freedom and liberty. The "silent killer itak" once more was called upon to fight foreign aggression.
In honor of the katipuneros, the guerillas and the itak, the Philippine Army established an Army Division called the Tabak Division. Tabak is another term for itak.