National Martial Arts of Pinoy “Arnis”
Arnis, also known as Kali or Eskrima, is the national sport and martial art of the Philippines. The three are roughly interchangeable umbrella terms for the traditional martial arts of the Philippines (“Filipino Martial Arts”, or FMA) that emphasize weapon-based fighting with sticks, knives, bladed weapons, and various improvised weapons as well as “open hand” or techniques without weapons. It is also known as Estoque (Spanish for rapier), Estocada (Spanish for thrust or stab) and Garrote (Spanish for club). In Luzon it may go by the name of Arnis de Mano.
The indigenous martial art that the Spanish encountered in 1610 was not yet called “Eskrima” at that time. During those times, this martial art was known as Paccalicali-t to the Ibanags, Didya (later changed to Kabaroan) to the Ilokanos, Sitbatan or Kalirongan to Pangasinenses, Sinawali (“to weave”) to the Kapampangans, Calis or Pananandata (“use of weapons”) to the Tagalogs, Pagaradman to the Ilonggos and Kaliradman to the Cebuanos. Kuntaw and Silat are separate martial arts that are also practiced in the Philippine Archipelago.
As Arnis was an art usually practiced by the peasant or commoner class (as opposed to nobility or warrior classes), most practitioners lacked the scholarly education to create any kind of written record. While the same can be said of many martial arts, this is especially true for Arnis because almost all of its history is anecdotal, oral or promotional. The origin of Arnis can be traced back to native fighting techniques during conflicts among the various Prehispanic Filipino tribes or kingdoms, though the current form has Spanish influence from old fencing which originated in Spain in the 15th century. It has other influences as well, as settlers and traders travelling through the Malay Archipelago brought the influence of silat as well as Chinese, Arab, and Indian martial arts. Some of the population still practice localized Chinese fighting methods known as kuntaw.
It has also been theorized that the Filipino art of Arnis may have roots in India and came to the Philippines via people who traveled through Indonesia and Malaysia to the Philippine islands. Silambam, a stick/staff-based ancient martial art of India influenced many martial arts in Asia like Silat. As such, Arnis may share ancestry with these systems – some Arnis moves are similar to the short stick (kali or kaji) and other weapon based fighting styles of Silambam.
When the Spaniards first arrived in the Philippines, they already observed weapons-based martial arts practiced by the natives, which may or may not be related to present-day Arnis. The earliest written records of Filipino culture and life, including martial arts, come from the first Spanish explorers. Some early expeditions fought native tribesmen armed with sticks and knives. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan was killed in Cebu at the Battle of Mactan by the forces of Datu Lapu-Lapu, the chief of Mactan. Some Arnisadors hold that Lapu-Lapu’s men killed Magellan in a sword-fight, though historical evidence proves otherwise. The only eyewitness account of the battle by chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, tells that Magellan was stabbed in the face and the arm with spears and overwhelmed by multiple warriors who hacked and stabbed at him.
Due to the conflict-ridden nature of the Philippine archipelago, where port-kingdoms were often at war with one another or raiding each other, warriors were forged in the many wars in the islands, thus during the precolonial era, the geographical area acquired a reputation for its capable mercenaries, which were soon employed all across Southeast Asia. Lucoes (warriors from Luzon) aided the Burmese king in his invasion of Siam in 1547 AD. At the same time, Lusung warriors fought alongside the Siamese king and faced the same elephant army of the Burmese king in the defense of the Siamese capital at Ayuthaya. The former sultan of Malacca decided to retake his city from the Portuguese with a fleet of ships from Lusung in 1525 AD.
Notable Arnisadores from Balintawak lineage: (from left to right) “Chito” Velez, “Meo” de la Rosa, “Nene” Gaabucayan, “Anciong” Bacon, Ray la Victoria, “Bobby” Taboada, and Teofilo Velez at Fort San Pedro, Cebu City (c. 1976). The photos were taken by “Johnny” Chiuten
Pinto noted that there were a number of them in the Islamic fleets that went to battle with the Portuguese in the Philippines during the 16th century. The Sultan of Aceh gave one of them (Sapetu Diraja) the task of holding Aru (northeast Sumatra) in 1540. Pinto also says one was named leader of the Malays remaining in the Moluccas Islands after the Portuguese conquest in 1511. Pigafetta notes that one of them was in command of the Brunei fleet in 1521. One famous Lucoes is Regimo de Raja, who was appointed by the Portuguese at Malacca as Temenggung or Supreme Governor and Chief General.
Opinions differ on the degree to which Spanish rule in the Philippines affected Arnis. The fact that a large number of techniques and the names of the arts themselves (arnis/arnes, eskrima/esgrima, garrote, estoque, etc.) have Spanish names suggest an influence. Some argue though that Spanish names in the martial art simply reflect the fact that Spanish was the lingua franca of the Philippines until the early 20th century, and that actual Spanish martial influence was limited.
What is certain is that the Spaniards brought with them and used their bladed weapon arts (including the system of Destreza developed by Carranza) when they started colonizing the archipelago in the 16th century. What is also known is that the Spaniards recruited soldiers from Mexico and Peru and sent them to fortify the Philippines and they had also trained mercenaries and warriors from local people like the Pangasinenses, Kapampangans, Tagalogs, Ilonggos, Cebuanos and Warays to pacify regions and put down revolts. Of the Kapampangans, Fray Casimiro Díaz relates in 1718.
Logic dictates that these native warriors and foreign soldiers would have passed on to very close friends and family members these newly learned skills to augment already existing and effective local ones. They would have also shared tactics and techniques with each other when placed in the same military group and fighting on the same side in foreign regions such as Formosa, Mindanao, the Moluccas and the Marianas.
One of the more prominent features of Arnis that point to possible Spanish influence is the Espada y Daga (Spanish for “sword and dagger”) method, a term also used in Spanish fencing. Filipino espada y daga differs somewhat from European rapier and dagger techniques; the stances are different as weapons used in Arnis are typically shorter than European swords. According to Grandmaster Federico Lazo† (1938–2010), unlike in European historical fencing, there is no lunging in the Northern Ilocano Kabaroan style of Arnis – it is more of an evasive art. On the other hand, it is present in some Visayan styles documented by FMA researchers Celestino Macachor and Ned Nepangue such as Yasay Sable Estocada from Bago City. Having done comparative studies, Kalis Ilustrisimo archivist Romeo Macapagal also estimates that 40% of the blade-oriented style of Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo† (1904–1997) descends from European styles, brought by the Spanish.
After the Spanish colonized the Philippines, a decree was set that prohibited civilians from carrying full-sized swords (such as the Kris and the Kampilan). Despite this, the practitioners found ways to maintain and keep the arts alive, using sticks made out of rattan rather than swords, as well as small knives wielded like swords. Some of the arts were passed down from one generation to the other. Sometimes the art took the form choreographed dances such as the Sakuting stick dance or during mock battles at Moro-moro (Moros y Cristianos) stage plays. Also as a result, a unique and complex stick-based technique evolved in the Visayas and Luzon regions. The southern Mindanao retains almost exclusively blade-oriented techniques, as the Spaniards and Americans never fully conquered the southern parts of this island.
Although Arnis combines native fighting techniques with old Spanish fencing and other influences, a degree of systematization was achieved over time, resulting in a distinguishable Philippine martial art. With time, a system for the teaching of the basics also evolved. However, with the exception of a few older and more established systems, it was previously common to pass the art from generation to generation in an informal approach. This has made attempts to trace the lineage of a practitioner difficult. For example, aside from learning from their family members like his uncle Regino Ilustrisimo, Antonio Ilustrisimo seemed to have learned to fight while sailing around the Philippines, while his cousin and student Floro Villabrille claimed to have been also taught by a blind Moro princess in the mountains; a claim later refuted by the older Ilustrisimo. Both have since died.
The Philippines has what is known as a blade culture. Unlike in the West where Medieval and Renaissance combative and self-defense blade arts have gone almost extinct (having devolved into sport fencing with the advent of firearms), blade fighting in the Philippines is a living art. Local folk in the Philippines are much more likely to carry knives than guns. They are commonly carried as tools by farmers, used by street vendors to prepare coconuts, pineapples, watermelons, other fruits and meats, and balisongs are cheap to procure in the streets as well as being easily concealed. In fact, in some areas in the countryside, carrying a farming knife like the itak or bolo was a sign that one was making a living because of the nature of work in those areas. In the country of Palau, the local term for Filipino is chad ra oles, which literally means “people of the knife” because of Filipinos’ reputation for carrying knives and using them in fights.
Various Filipino knives
The arts had no traditional belting or grading systems as they were taught informally. It was said that to proclaim a student a “master” was considered ridiculous and a virtual death warrant as the individual would become challenged left and right to potentially lethal duels by other Arnisadores looking to make names for themselves. Belt ranking was a recent addition adopted from Japanese arts such as Karate and Judo, which had become more popular with Filipinos. They were added to give structure to the systems, and to be able to compete for the attention of students.
With regards to its spread outside the Philippines, Arnis was brought to Hawaii and California as far back as the 1920s by Filipino migrant workers. Its teaching was kept strictly within Filipino communities until the late 1960s when masters such as Angel Cabales began teaching it to others. Even then, instructors teaching Arnis in the 1960s and 70s were often reprimanded by their elders for publicly teaching a part of their culture that had been preserved through secrecy. The spread of Arnis was helped in Australia through Terry Lim (founder of Loong Fu Pai martial arts academy) who also holds a 4th Dan in International Philippine Martial Arts Federation. He ran seminars with the help of other masters such as Maurice Novoa Ruiz (a Wing Chun instructor).
In recent years, there has been increased interest in Arnis for its usefulness when defending against knives in street encounters. As a result, many systems of Arnis have been modified in varying degrees to make them more marketable to a worldwide audience. Usually this involves increased emphasis on locking, controls, and disarms, focusing mainly on aspects of self-defense. However, most styles follow the philosophy that the best defense is a good offense. Modern training methods tend to de-emphasize careful footwork and low stances, stressing the learning of techniques in favor of more direct (and often lethal) tactics designed to instantly end an encounter.
In the Philippines, the spread is more significant due to the efforts of Richardson “Richard” Gialogo and Aniano “Jon” Lota, Jr. through the Department of Education (DepEd) Task Force on School Sports (TFSS). Arnis was first introduced in 1969 to some public and private school teachers when Remy Presas taught his personal style of Arnis which he called “Modern Arnis”. He taught his own style to the students of the National College of Physical Education (NCPE) when he was given the chance to teach there. The style “Modern Arnis” is not synonymous with the concept of modern or contemporary Arnis, where it has become a full blown sport embraced by the Department of Education, although there are some similarities. There was no formal program for Arnis from 1970s to 1980s. Although some schools taught Arnis, these were not official nor prescribed.
Kali stick seminar group at Ben Poon’s Riseup Crossfit center by Terry Lim and Maurice Novoa Ruiz in Melbourne (Australia)
The earliest historical record was the DECS Memorandum No. 294 Series of 1995 which entailed the Arnis Development Program Phase I. This was a joint effort of the Department of Education, Culture and Sports or DECS and the Office of then Senator Orlando “Orly” Mercado who awarded a budget from his pork barrel for the implementation of a national Arnis program. The Office of Senator Mercado was given the authority to designate the Arnis instructors for the said program.
The next stage was the Arnis Development Program Phase II. It was just a continuation of Phase I through DECS Memorandum No. 302 series of 1997. The same group conducted the seminars; known as the Arnis Association International (AAI). The Arnis instructors designated by Senator Mercado were informally called the “Mercado boys”. They were Mr. Jeremias V. Dela Cruz, Rodel Dagooc and others who were direct students of Mr. Remy Presas of the Modern Arnis style. In this memorandum, there were two seminars conducted: October 6–11, 1997 in Baguio City and November 10–15, 1997 in General Santos City. The Arnis Module Development however did not push through. It was also during this time when the first Arnis instructional video was developed by the Bureau of Physical Education and School Sports (BPESS) entitled “Dynamic Arnis”. This video featured the Gialogo Brothers: Richardson and Ryan Gialogo, direct students of Jeremias V. Dela Cruz.
However, the national Arnis program of Senator Orly Mercado and DECS died a natural death. It was only after nine years that Arnis found its way back into the Department of Education (formerly known as Department of Education, Culture and Sports or DECS). On February 5, 2004, the Task Force on School Sports (TFSS) of the Department of Education (DepEd), the new agency after the defunct BPESS, met with the National Sports Association (NSA) for Arnis in a Senate hearing. The Head of the TFSS was National Coordinator Mr. Feliciano N. Toledo II, considered the “Father of Arnis” in the Department of Education. He met with the top NSA officials at that time; however, nothing happened.
It was only in 2006 when the Task Force on School Sports had a new program for Arnis. The “National Training of Trainors in Arnis and Dance Sports”, sponsored by the Task Force on School Sports, Department of Education (DepEd), was held at Teacher’s Camp, Baguio City on March 13–17, 2006 and was conducted by two top-caliber figures in the Arnis community: Mr. Aniano Lota, Jr. and Mr. Richardson Gialogo, then Secretary-General and Vice-President respectively of the National Sports Association for Arnis. And this was the start of the modern, contemporary and prevailing Arnis in the Department of Education.
Safety equipment used in Modern Arnis tournaments with padded vests, sticks, headgear and groin guards
In just two months, Arnis became part of the Palarong Pambansa (National Games) as a demonstration sport. The 2006 Palarong Pambansa was held in Naga City, Bicol Region with nine out of the seventeen regions of the Philippines participating. National, regional and provincial Arnis Seminars were conducted by the tandem of Mr. Aniano Lota, Jr. and Mr. Richardson Gialogo from 2006 to 2007 in coordination with the TFSS National Coordinator, Mr. Feliciano “Len” Toledo, and with the financial and logistical backing of the Department of Education. In 2007, Arnis was already a regular event in the Palarong Pambansa with all seventeen regions participating. Five weight divisions in the Full-contact Event and four categories in the Anyo (Forms) Event were played and became part of the official medal tally of the participants. This was held in Coronadal in Mindanao.
Arnis Seminars were continued in national, regional and provincial levels. These were all conducted by the tandem of Mr. Aniano Lota, Jr. and Mr. Richardson Gialogo, now both Arnis Consultants and official Lecturers of the Task Force on School Sports of the Department of Education. In 2008, Arnis was played in the Palarong Pambansa and again, with all seventeen regions participating. All nine events were played. This was held in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.
Aside from Sports Officiating and Accreditation seminars, Coaching and skill training seminars continued in national, regional and provincial levels. Requests from cities and even districts were also welcomed. The “evangelization” of Arnis was continued and both Gialogo and Lota were careful not to teach their personal styles. Both taught in “generic” form and focused on the rules of sports as promulgated by the Department of Education.
In 2009, Secondary Girls (High School Girls) were finally included in Palarong Pambansa and again, all seventeen regions participated. From the original five member teams, the number doubled with the inclusion of the girls. The medal tally also doubled from nine to eighteen. The 2009 Palarong Pambansa was held in Tacloban, Leyte in the Visayas.
In 2009, the “Writeshop of the Revision of the Physical Fitness Test and the Development of Learning Competencies in Arnis and Archery” was held in Teacher’s Camp, Baguio City in October 5–8, 2009. Phase I of the National Curriculum for Arnis was finished and the curriculum writers were Mr. Richardson Gialogo and Mr. Aniano Lota, Jr.
A pair of rattan bastons
The 2010 Palarong Pambansa was held in Tarlac, In Luzon. Again, both secondary boys and girls competed in the eighteen categories. It was here that the Department of Education Arnis Association Philippines or DEAAP had its first national elections.
The Modern Arnis system uses foam-padded sticks about an inch in diameter with thin rattan cores roughly a centimeter in diameter. These sticks are meant to break before serious injury occurs. For protection, the same headgear used in the WEKAF system, and a large groin guard is required for males. Vests (optional for men, required for women), optional armguards, shinguards and leg wraps are used. Scoring is more similar to fencing where fighters are separated after solid clean hits are made (observed by multiple judges stationed at different positions to observe if hits were clean and unblocked, and determine the strength of the strike by the loudness of the impact). Alternative ways to score are to disarm one’s opponent or to force him to step outside the ring.
Any part of the body, from head to toe, is fair game as a target – except for the back of the head, which the headgear does not protect. Stabs to the face are not allowed, because the thin rattan core may penetrate the padding and slip through the grills of the headgear into the player’s eye. Thrusts to the body score points, but are harder to present to judges for scoring because they make less noise and it is difficult to determine impact.
Punches, kicks and throws are not allowed. Prolonged clinching to prevent the opponent from striking is not allowed (similar to Western Boxing) to keep the game moving and more interesting for audience that may not appreciate the fine and practical aspects of grappling. Disarms must be performed quickly and cleanly to count. Because the legs are fair targets, in lighter weight divisions, complex evasion and deep lunges where players lie horizontal with the torso almost touching the floor to extend reach are often seen.
The emphasis of the ARPI system is on player safety, as proponents are applying to become a recognized Olympic sport like judo, karate, taekwondo, wrestling, boxing, and fencing.
Traditional bolos from the Visayas islands (ginunting on the left, and three talibongs).
Even though padded sticks are used in the sport, players regularly retain large bruises that last for weeks and sometimes minor injuries to joints and because of the sheer amount of force generated by conditioned practitioners. Sometimes the stuffing commonly comes off from the harder hitting players and one cause of injury is when a player is struck by the exposed rattan core. Still, these are relatively minor as compared to injuries sustained when practitioners spar with live sticks.
One major problem with the ARPI system is that because the padded sticks with light rattan cores are used, they tend to flex and “lag”, thus making the experience significantly different from using a live stick and in that sense, lessens the “realism” of this system. This is acceptable though as again, the emphasis is on safety.
Like the sayaw (meaning “dance”) in the WEKAF system, the ARPI system has a separate single and team choreographed division called Anyo (Tagalog for ‘forms’). Aside from the visual appeal, practical combative applications must be clearly seen so as to avoid looking like just majorettes in marching bands who just twirl batons and dance (a concept similar to the Floreio (“flourish”) aspect of Capoeira and to Tricking which are more for show than practicality). IMAFP Standard Equipment is being used in the international Arena.
Video by May Manlapaz