Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) refers to ancient and newer fighting methods devised in the Philippines, the most popular of which are known as Arnis/Eskrima/Kali. The intrinsic need for self-preservation was the genesis of these systems. Throughout the ages, invaders and evolving local conflict imposed new dynamics for combat in the islands now making up the Philippines. The Filipino people developed battle skills as a direct result of an appreciation of their ever-changing circumstances. They learned often out of necessity how to prioritize, allocate and utilize common resources in combative situations. Filipinos have been heavily influenced by a phenomenon of cultural and linguistic mixture. Some of the specific mechanisms responsible for cultural and martial change extended from phenomena such as war, political and social systems, technology, trade and of course, simple practicality.
Filipino martial arts have seen an increase in prominence due to several Hollywood movies and the teachings of modern masters such as Venancio “Anciong” Bacon, Dan Inosanto, Ben Lema, Elmer Banes, Teddy Buot, Sam Buot, Bobby Taboada, Cacoy Canete, Leo Giron, Leo Gaje, Mike Inay, Remy Presas, Ernesto Presas, Angel Cabales, Christopher Sayoc, Sr., Art Miraflor, Peter J.A. Arriola, and Amante P. Marinas Sr.
The oldest martial arts in the Philippines were those practiced by the indigenous peoples. They were in contact with the aborigines of Taiwan and Borneo, which is evident from oral legends and similarities between their fighting styles. The native tribes focused on combat with swords, shields, spears, knives, sticks, and bows and arrows, while practicing unarmed combat forms like dumog (wrestling). Some of these ancient Filipino martial arts still exist in tribal regions but others have either gone extinct or are very rare. Armed training took precedence over empty-handed techniques because of the simple fact that weapons are deadlier. Even today most Filipino fighting arts remain weapon-based.
Malays from Indonesia and Malaysia are theorized to have made three separate mass migrations to the Philippines and brought with them the influence of silat to the south. Early settlers and traders from China also had a large impact on the local fighting techniques and certain Filipino styles contain characteristically Chinese movements. Additionally, the migrants practiced localized Chinese martial arts, which they called kuntaw. These Malay and Chinese settlers are considered progenitors of the classical Filipino combat methods.
The first western account of Filipino martial arts comes from the 16th century from the accounts of Antonio Pigafetta who chronicled Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition (and last stand) where they were routed by the men of local chieftain Lapu Lapu who used spears, swords and wooden shields.
Decades after Magellan’s contact, Spaniards returned to what is now known as the Philippine islands and conquered it through superior technology (guns), religion, alliances and by exploiting local enmities and rivalries by setting the different tribes and kingdoms against one another. For more than three hundred years Spain had control over much of the Philippines. The European regime often enforced royal laws and decrees limiting and prohibiting weapons among the indigenous people. These restrictions were partly responsible for the secretive and underground nature of Filipino martial arts. During this period of colonization, fighters trained in secret and only passed down skills to family members. It was this isolation between the practitioners that gave birth to the vast number of Filipino fighting styles that exist today. Despite their prohibitions, Spaniards often employed Filipino warriors to fight in various battles and skirmishes such as the ferocious Macabebes of Pampanga.
As bladed weapons (tools specifically made for war like swords as opposed to farming implements like the bolo) were eliminated by the Spaniards from the areas of populace they “civilized”, fighters hid their fighting systems into stick dances such as the Sakuting in Luzon and Moro-moro stage plays where they engaged in mock battles with wooden swords and a unique and highly complex form of stick fighting developed and emerged.
After independence, martial arts in the Philippines could be practiced publicly and freely influenced each other. Modern styles use weapons and techniques taken from numeorus sources especially silat, karate, jujitsu and the Chinese martial arts. Today there are said to be almost as many Filipino fighting styles as there are islands in the Philippines. In 1972, the Philippine government included Filipino martial arts into the national sports arena. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports also incorporated them into the physical education curriculum for high school and college students. Knowledge of the Filipino fighting skills is mandatory in the Philippine military and police.
Filipino Martial Arts are considered as being the most advanced practical modern blade system in the world and is now a core component of the U.S. Army’s Modern Army Combatives program and used by the Russian Spetsnaz (special forces).
The three umbrella terms for the most commonly seen forms are Eskrima, Arnis and Kali.
The word Eskrima derives from the Spanish term esgrima which means skirmish or fencing.
Arnis comes from arnes, old Spanish for harness or armor (harness is also an archaic English term for armor with the same roots), which is what the costumes worn during Moro-moro (MorosSIS y Cristianos) stage plays were called when practitioners disguised their art as merely stage fight choreography for public entertainment under the Spaniards’ noses.
The origins of the word kali are uncertain. One theory is that it may come from the Indonesian word tjakalele., another is that it’s a contraction of Kamot Lihok (Cebuano for hand-body movement) The multitude of languages spoken in the 7,107 islands have not only diverged into over 170 dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another and as a result, Filipino martial arts comprise a vocabulary of heterogeneous terms.
Eskrima, Arnis and Kali are used interchangeably for weapon-based martial arts, particularly those that focus on bladed weapons or stick-fighting. Panantukan, pangamut and pamuok all refer to empty-handed striking methods, while pantadyakan and pananjakman are kick-based. Dumog or wrestling is considered one of the oldest unarmed Filipino fighting styles.
Aside from the more commonly seen blade and stick-oriented arts Escrima/Arnis/Kali, there are also distinctly separate arts such as Kuntao, which came from the Chinese settlers/traders, Silat (practiced in the South, next to Indonesia), Sikaran (practiced in Rizal province, which is primarily kick-based) and Yaw-Yan, a recent style very similar to Muay Thai.
Filipino martial artists are noted for their ability to fight with weapons or empty hands interchangeably and their ability turn ordinary household items into lethal weapons. Weapons-training takes precedence because they give an edge in real fights, gears students to psychologically face armed opponents, and any object that can be picked up can be used as a weapon using FMA techniques. Empty hands training is then taught as the stick is merely an extension of the hand.
Another thing to note is that the Philippines is a blade culture. The Southern Philippines with the Moros were never really conquered by the Spaniards and the Americans nor the Northern mountains of Luzon with their feared headhunter tribes so they kept their weapons and their fighting skills. For the more “civilized” provinces and the towns where citizens had been “disarmed”, bolos (a cutting tool similar to the machete) and other knife variants are still commonly used for general work (farming in the provinces, chopping wood, coconuts, controlling talahib (sword grass), which could grow higher than roofs if not cut, etc.) and of course, the occasional bloody fight. Until the 80s, balisong knives were still commonly used in the streets of Manila as general purpose pocket knives much like Swiss army knives or box cutters until new laws on allowable kinds of knives made it illegal to carry them in public without a permit or proof that it was a vital to one’s livelihood (e.g. Martial arts instructor, vendor). They’re still openly sold in their birthplace of Batangas, in the streets of Quiapo, souvenir shops and martial arts stores, wielded by practitioners and of course, street gangs. Thus, even when fighting systems were outlawed by the Spaniards, Filipinos still maintained their centuries-old relationships with blades and blade fighting techniques that survive from ancient times and are still much alive as they have been adapted and evolved to stay relevant and practical in colonial and modern times.
What separates Filipino Martial Arts from other weapon-based martial arts like Japanese Kendo & Kenjutsu, European Fencing and traditional Chinese Martial arts that teach the usage of classical Chinese weapons is that FMA teaches weapon use that is practical today: how to use and deal with weapons that one can actually encounter in the streets and how to turn ordinary items into improvised weapons. No one walks around with sabers, katanas or jians anymore, but knives, machetes and clubs are still among commonly encountered weapons on the street and in the field, thus making FMA very practical and geared towards military and street fighting.
Traditional weaponry varies in design, size, weight, materials and usage but because of the similarity of techniques and that the human being can move in only so many ways, any object that can be picked up can be turned into a weapon by a Filipino martial artist as a force multiplier.