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The Filipino Martial Arts: History, Culture, & Weapons



General Background:


      The Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) is the umbrella term for the various ancient and newer fighting methods devised in the Philippines. The most popular forms of which are known as Arnis/Eskrima/Kali.  Due to the tradition of teaching FMA among family members, (often in secrecy, especially during the occupation by Spain) the FMA have been often been given various names that reflect a focus on particular skill set or family name.  Thus, among the 3 main names mentioned above, the FMA styles include Arnis de Mano, Pananandata (use of weapons), Sinawali, Sitbatan, Kabaroan, Kaliradman, Pagaradman and Kalirongan.   Due to the sad state of infighting over various claims of supremecy or inauthenticity of various names of particular styles/methods, FMA has been adopted as a way to include all the different methods/styles/branches of Filipino martial artists.  Due to the geographical location of the Philippines, and the contact with nearby countries' foreign traders, and conquerors, the FMA have been influenced by various degrees by Indonesian, Malaysian, Bruenei, Chinese, India, Arab, and Spanish martial arts.  It should be mention that Kuntoa/Kuntaw and Silat are separate martial arts that have also been practiced in the Philippine islands.


      The intrinsic need for self-preservation was the genesis of these systems. The approximate 7000s islands of the Philippines have a history of constant warfare between the various tribes of other islands and foreign conquerors, that has help them develop their fighting skills to a high degree.  Due to constant warfare and armed conflict, the Philippino culture has had the ability to constantly test and adapt their skills and techniques in order to protect their persons, their families, their villages, and their tribes.  


      This desire for survival and protection, has made the FMA focus on efficientcy of movement, and ease of training.  Thus, unlike other martial cultures, the FMA first trains with weapons (usually stick, sword, or knife) and then progresses to empty hands.  This is because a person with a weapon is more able to protect the family, and is easier and more efficient to train a large group of people in a shorter time-frame.



Blade Culture:


     The Philippines is a blade culture.  Due to farming and warfare, blades have always been a part of the Philippine tradition.  In 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines and claimed the islands for Spain.   However, colonization really began when Spanish explorer Miguel López de Legazpi arrived from Mexico in 1565 and formed the first European settlements in Cebu. After putting down native resistance and defeating a Chinese warlord Limahong, the Spanish ruled the majority of the Philippine until 1821.  In order to pacify the citizens and make rule easier, the Spanish outlawed martial arts, "disarmed" the populace, and converted the most of the lowland people to Christianity.  


     However, the Southern Philippines with the Moros were never really conquered by the Spaniards or the Americans; nor the Northern mountains of Luzon with their feared headhunter tribes so they kept their weapons and their fighting skills.  In 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. 


     Finally, the old FMA masters & instructors resorted to taking their art "underground," and continued to secretively teach their precious art to their family and trusted students in jungles, beaches, and wherever they could be safely out of eye of the Spaniards.   Thus, even when fighting systems were outlawed by the Spaniards, Filipinos still were able to maintain their centuries-old relationships with blades and blade fighting techniques.  Although many individual methods of FMA have died out, many others have survived from ancient times and are still very much alive; as they have been adapted and evolved to stay relevant and practical in both colonial and modern times.





      It is often said that their are almost as many Filipino fighting styles, as there are islands in the Philippines.  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.  Since the weapon is seen as simply an extension of the body, the same angles and footwork are used either with or without a weapon. The reason for this is probably historical, because tribal warriors went into battle armed and only resorted to bare-handed fighting after losing their weapons.


       FMA students usually start their instruction by learning to fight with weapons, and only advance to empty-hand training once the stick and knife techniques have been sufficiently mastered. This is in contrast to most other well-known Asian martial arts but it is justified by the principle that bare-handed moves are acquired naturally through the same exercises as the weapon techniques, making muscle memory an important aspect of the teaching. It is also based on the obvious fact that an armed person who is trained has the advantage over a trained unarmed person, and serves to condition students to fight against armed assailants.


      Many systems begin training with two weapons, either a pair of sticks or a stick and a wooden knife. These styles emphasise keeping both hands full and never moving them in the same direction, and trains practitioners to become ambidextrous. For example, one stick may strike the head while the other hits the arm. Such training develops the ability to use both limbs independently, a skill which is valuable even when working with one weapon.


      A core concept and distinct feature of Filipino martial arts is the "Live Hand." The live hand is the opposite hand of the practitioner that does not contain the main weapon. The heavy usage of the live hand is an important concept and distinguishing hallmark of Eskrima. Even (or especially) when empty, the live hand can be used as a companion weapon by FMA practitioners.  As opposed to most weapon systems like fencing where the off-hand is hidden and not used to prevent it from being hit, FMA  actively uses the live hand for trapping, locking, supporting weapon blocks, checking, disarming, striking and controlling the opponent, and 


      The usage of the live hand is one of the most evident examples of how FMA 's method of starting with weapons training leads to effective empty hand techniques. Because of Doble Baston (double weapons) or Espada y Daga (sword and parrying dagger) ambidextrous weapon muscle memory conditioning, FMA  practitioners find it easy to use the off-hand actively once they transition from using it with a weapon to an empty hand.



Weapons training includes:


Sticks (single or double) -

most common is a rattan stick for training, and harder denser woods like Kamagong or bahi are use for actual defense. These hardwoods are generally not used for sparring, however, as they are dense enough to cause serious injury, but traditional sparring does not include weapon to body contact. The participants are skilled enough to parry and counterstrike, showing respect in not intentionally hitting the training partner.


Impact Weapons (single or double)-

any blunt object that can be utilized to smash and break; including shields, rocks, metal pipes, umbrella, rolled up newspaper, cell phone, coffee mug, bottle, tree branch, etc. 


Edged weapons (single or double) -

from kerambits (small curved knives w/ key-hole for finger placement), dagas (knives of various sizes), balisong (butterfly knives), kalis/kris (Indo-Malay ceremonial dagger/sword), bolos (similiar to machetes), espada (sword), golok (broadsword), kampilan (fork-tipped sword), sibat (spear), any improvised weapon w/ an edge (icepick, scissors, box cutter, pen, etc.).



Flexible weapons -

sarong/malong (a length of fabric worn around waist or over shoulder), ekut (handkerchief), tabak-toyok (chained sticks/flail i.e. nunchaku), latigo (a whip usually between 8 and 12 inches), lubid (rope), cadena/tanikala (chain), improvised weapons (socks w/ rocks or soap bars inside them, belt, bandana, shirt, towel, etc.)


Projectiles -  

dagas (knives), Pana (bow and arrow), sibat (spear), sumpit (blowpipe), bagakay (throwing darts), Pintik/tirador/saltik (slingshot), kana (slingshot propelled darts, etc.



Unarmed techniques include:


Mano Mano -  ("hand to hand") Incorporates punches, kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts, finger-strikes, locks, blocks, grappling and disarming techniques


Sikaran - Kicking techniques, also a kick-based separate art practiced in Rizal province


Dumog - Filipino style of grappling.


Buno -  Filipino style of wrestling.


Yaw-Yan or Sayaw ng Kamatayan - closely resembles Muay Thai, but differs in the hip-torquing motion as well as the downward-cutting nature of its kicks, and the emphasis on delivering attacks from long range (while Muay Thai focuses more on clinching). The forearm strikes, elbows, punches, dominating palms, and hand movements are empty-hand translations of the bladed weapons. 



Modern Day:


    The Philippine government made the FMA a national sport in 1972, and incorporated it into the physyical education curriculum for high school and college students.  Knowledge of FMA is mandatory for Philippine military and police force.  In addition, the FMA is considered to be the most advanced practical modern blade system in the world and is now a core part of the U.S. Army's combat program, the U.S. Marines, and other special forces around the world. FMA is has grown in popularity in the U.S. and the world due to the teaching of prominent masters like as Prof. Remy Presas, Dan Inosanto, Leo Gaje, and many more.  In addition, FMA is becoming prominent in films such as I, Frankenstein, The Bourne series, The Book of Eli, The & The Hunted.  The beauty of this efficient, practical, and resourceful martial art will sees its popularity continue to grow as it gains more exposure to the world at large.

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