Thursday, May 3, 2007

Our heritage: the Filipino Martial Arts

I think all of us have a rudimentary awareness of what arnis is. Arnis is also known by the terms kali or escrima. There is a lot of confusion about which is which, but essentially the naming is just semantics, because all styles share common principles and techniques. More often than not, it’s just the names of the techniques that vary from style to style. Increasingly, more people are using the term Filipino Martial Arts (FMA for short) to encompass all the fighting systems within the Philippines. For familiarity’s sake, I will interchangeably use the terms arnis and FMA.

Basically, the first thing that comes to mind is that arnis is a fighting method involving the use of sticks. Unfortunately, for most people, that is where the awareness ends. One of the most common misconceptions about arnis is that one needs a stick in order to be effective. However, the Filipino martial arts are actually one of the most complete martial arts in the world. The primary training tool is indeed the stick, and the stick can be used as a weapon in and of itself. But the stick movements also translate into blade fighting and empty-hand techniques. Outside the Philippines, Filipino knife fighting techniques are considered very effective combat arts. Foreign law enforcement and military personnel often incorporate Filipino martial arts into their melee combat training.

However, FMA do not stop with weapon fighting, as each arnis style usually incorporates hand-to-hand combat and grappling. Arnis is a warrior art. Warriors of old trained not only in the sword and spear, but also had to learn knife and empty hand fighting. The progression of training in arnis reflects this, because training starts first with weapons and only at the advanced levels are empty hand techniques introduced. After all, warriors fight with weapons first, only using the knife or empty hands as a last resort. Most people are unaware of the true depth of arnis, so much so that, if not for the efforts of a few dedicated and forward-thinking masters, the art would have become, if not extinct, then at least much obscured and forgotten by majority of Filipinos, putting it on the same level as hilot or anting-anting (i.e. people know it exists but would have no idea where to start learning or most wouldn't be interested in learning it at all) .

Aside from misconceptions about the nature of the art, other Pinoys also look down on arnis, thinking that it is unsophisticated and pang-tanod. This is really sad, because ironically enough, FMA have gained wide acceptance and popularity among foreigners. In fact, a couple of Hollywood films have featured FMA to some degree in their fight scenes. Examples include The Hunted (featuring Sayoc Kali), Equilibrium (the “gun kata” fight between Christian Bale’s character and the head bad guy towards the end of the movie is taken from FMA knife fighting exercises), The Bourne Identity (Matt Damon trained in kali for his fight scenes) and more recently, 300. And yet in the Philippines, the art continues to languish from the inattention of popular media.

One sad example I can think of is a now-concluded ABS-CBN TV series called Panday (The Blacksmith), starring Jericho Rosales. As you can infer from the title, the story is about a Filipino blacksmith who forges a magical dagger that can transform into a sword and he goes on various adventures fighting supernatural creatures. The original Panday was played by the late Fernando Poe, Jr. in a series of movies. The character, theme and setting, even from way back, are very Filipino.

So it was with great disappointment that I found out that Jericho Rosales was practicing with the RP wushu team to prepare himself for the sword fights. This is why there are signature wushu stances and moves in many of the fight scenes of the TV series.

My first reaction was, “Why wushu?” There’s nothing wrong with wushu in and of itself, but for me it was all about authenticity. After all, how would you feel if you watched 300 and saw the Spartans executing very obvious tai chi or wushu moves? But more than that, this was a chance for ABS-CBN to feature and promote the Filipino Martial Arts even indirectly, yet they squandered this chance.

I don’t know if this has something to do with colonial mentality or some sort of cultural insecurity where we automatically assume that anything Filipino is inferior to anything “imported” or foreign. But the fact remains that arnis is very much in the sidelines of public consciousness. You would find more Filipino pride, feeling and awareness in basketball or boxing (in no small part due to Manny Pacquiao). Many foreigners are surprised when they visit the Philippines, because most of them expect the Philippines to be a mecca for Filipino martial arts, with arnis gyms on almost every street corner. Yet the opposite is true, because FMA are more popular in foreign lands.

Make no mistake, arnis is still alive, but it’s not mainstream. One has to really research heavily, and no small amount of luck also plays into it when trying to look for an instructor or gym that teaches arnis. And that’s really part of the problem…accessibility.

We have many commitments in real life, and work and family take up a lot of our time. So any recreational activity we may have has to be within an easy drive or commute from home or our place of work. It’s easier to find affordable training for aikido, taekwondo, karate, and even mixed martial arts (because of the Ultimate Fighting Championship phenomena), hence more people get exposed to these arts.

So what can we really do? Well, I’m trying to do my own part in increasing awareness of Filipino Martial Arts by writing here. But I wish that the major networks like ABS-CBN or GMA-7 would do feature shows or segments on the Filipino Martial Arts. This way, if more people become aware and interested, arnis instructors would feel more confident about investing in a gym or gaining acceptance in gyms or schools. It’s more than just promoting something Filipino. It’s a part of our cultural heritage, something that we should fight to preserve just like we do the Ifugao rice terraces or Boracay.

On a personal note, I was lucky I was able to find an arnis instructor. He is now teaching me Arnis Rapado. Rapado is a Bicol word that means “to hit” or “to strike”. Master Maning Bonsa started his training in Bicol, hence the heavy Bicol influence on his style. In any case, I wrote a more detailed description of Arnis Rapado in another article, so check it out when you can.

It's really hard to find old-style arnis instructors today. Either the instructor is nowhere near your home or office, or what is being taught is arnis geared for sport or tournament rather than combat. Although tournaments are good for building camaraderie and awareness, I would rather retain the combat aspect, because that is what the art is and it's what I can practically use for self-defense. My dream is that the Philippines does indeed become a mecca for Filipino martial arts, with gyms "in almost every street corner."


Anonymous said...

Hi Shrapnel. This is supposed to be for your other article Exploring Arnis Rapado but I can't find the comment icon on it. I'm creating a website for Guro Maning Bonsa too ( I hope its also alright if I used your article.I have given you full credit for the article and I have linked it back to your blog. Thank you.

ShrapNel said...

Sure, no problem.