Dr. Noel Bormann

A History of Arnis

History of Arnis

From carbon echo web site

Arnis is a composite art in that it was influenced by numerous systems and cultures in its development. The Philippine Islands are located along important trade routes, and as a result their inhabitants were exposed to the martial arts of Chinese and Malaysian cultures, among others. As Filipinos frequently had to defend themselves against attackers from other countries as well as from other villages, it was necessary for them to hone their own effective and simple form of combat. Thus Arnis was developed as a way of defending one's life (and the lives of one's family members) when attacked. As a result, the developing art tended to be simple, and therefore easy to teach, in that there was no time to devote to learning a complex system when survival was at stake. It also tended to be lethal, as it originally relied on the use of daggers and knives.

Certain elements of the roots of Arnis are in dispute, although many facts are agreed upon. Chinese martial arts arrived in the Philippines during the Tang Dynasty, and Filipinos were exposed to the arts of Kuntao and Silat from Eastern Asia and Malaysia as well. These arts are considered by some historians to have been significant in the development of Arnis and the related arts, although other believe that Arnis derives from Tjakalele, an Indonesian form of combat. In any event, elements of Arnis reflect those of numerous other cultures. Arnis reflects a Spanish influence as well, as Spain came to rule the Philippines in the sixteenth century.

The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands, of which 400 are regularly inhabited. Due to this unique geographical layout, the developing Filipino martial art which was first recorded in the eighth century as "Kali" never again possessed a single name, vocabulary, or uniform body of techniques. Kali was the term used by those living in the Southern Philippines, but the art developed into multiple styles of Escrima (originally Eskrima, which means "skirmish"), the name used by practitioners in the Central Philippines. In the Northern Philippines, invading Spaniards dubbed the art Arnis, short for Arnis de Mano ("harness of the hand"). Within each of these categories and others which are less well-known today, there existed numerous stylistic variations and terms. There was no need for a standardization of terminology or tactics among arts intended only for practical use, and as there were some 70 dialects of Tagalog spoken throughout over 400 islands, such a standardization would have been impossible to achieve anyway. Nevertheless, nearly all of the arts relied on a combination of 12 basic techniques of offense and defense, 12 plausible angles of attack, and on the use of similar weapons (see Techniques, below).

Spanish invaders attacked the Philippines in the sixteenth century, and after decades of bloody conflict, the Philippines ultimately came under Spanish rule (Magellan himself was reportedly slain by a Arnis practitioner). So difficult was it for the Spanish to contain the Filipinos, given their ferocious and effective combat tactics, and so fierce were native uprisings once dominion was established, that in 1764 the Spanish banned the practice of martial arts. The native use of swords was banned as well. This did not halt the progress of the arts, however, which were preserved for over a hundred years in ritual dances and plays depicting combat, often put on for the amusement of the Spanish. The Spanish were unaware that what they were seeing was in fact not only martial arts practice, but a means of instruction as well.

It was at this time that, in order to effectively deceive the Spanish, practitioners of Arnis/Escrima/Kali adopted the use of sticks rather than knives. The theory of Filipino martial arts training with respect to weaponry is that the skills one develops while using weapons are equally applicable in situations where only a different weapon is available, or where no weapon is available at all; weapons were preferred for battle for the simple reason that, in a life-or-death situation, they were believed to be more effective than empty hands. Training with a different weapon was therefore acceptable. Subsequent to the Spanish reign over the Philippines, which lasted for over three hundred years, practitioners continued to train with sticks, and most still do today. The Spanish had a more direct effect on the techniques employed by the Filipinos as well, as elements of traditional Spanish fencing came to be a part of the Filipino martial arts techniques. Likewise, some Arnis-derived systems utilize Spanish terminology.

There are over two hundred systems, many with names entirely unrelated to the three more common ones. Many of the names depend on the locale wherein the art is practiced. Some of the arts are named after the ranges of fighting involved, the type of movement preferred by practitioners, or the type of weapon favored; others are named after individuals who developed their respective arts according to their own beliefs and discoveries. Some older forms of traditional Filipino martial arts include Estocada, Estogue, Baston, Pagkalikali, Siniwali, Kalirongan, Kaliradman, and Garote. Among the more recently developed and better-known derivations are Floro Villabrille's Villabrille System, today known as the Largusa-Villabrille System of Kali; Remy Presas' Modern Arnis, Presas Style; John LaCoste's Escrima/KunTao/Silat; Dan Inosanto's and Richard Bustillo's Inosanto Kali; and Angel Cabales' Serrada Escrima, or Cabales Serrada Escrima.

The basic principles of Arnis, Escrima, Kali, and other Filipino martial are for the most part uniform. The foremost of these are simplicity, practicality, the interchangeability of skills used in weapon and empty-hand fighting, sustaining an unbroken sense of "flow" in attacks, and the utilization of geometrically-determined angles in offensive and defensive fighting. However, due to the numerous styles and systems of Filipino martial arts that have always existed, there is a tremendous amount of variation when it comes to the nuances of training, emphasis, and terminology; details vary from system to system, and even from school to school. Listed below are generalizations that will not apply to all styles of Filipino martial arts.

As Arnis was originally developed for use in practical combat, attacks were often intended to be fatal. Only that which was determined highly effective in practical use would be employed. As most combat situations entailed the use of weapons, there is a focus on the disarming of the opponent. Unlike in many other martial arts, students are often taught the bulk of the core techniques at the start of their training (a notable exception to this rule exists in Presas' Modern Arnis). That which differentiates many amateur and advanced Filipino martial arts practitioners is not the number of techniques learned, but rather the extent to which a technique can be used effectively. It is up to each practitioner to determine which of the basic techniques are most appropriate to his or her abilities, and to apply them appropriately.

There were 12 basic areas of combat in traditional Filipino martial arts, and all of today's systems draw on some combination of these 12 areas. Weaponry still figures prominently. Students of many arts train with weapons before applying the skills learned to empty-hand methods, and employ sticks of various lengths (from four inches to six feet long). These sticks are made of rattan, a hard and lightweight wood. Only the hardiest of the arts still utilize daggers and swords, as sticks are (for obvious reasons) far more appropriate to today's applications. Some systems apply the use of ropes, rolled-up newspapers, or other improvisational weaponry.

Crucial to the Filipino martial arts is that both hands be fully involved in combat. At times this may mean the use of weapons in both hands. Should the practitioner have one empty hand, this hand is considered to be the "live" hand, and is no less important than the armed one. The live hand actively participates in blocking, striking, and disarming opponents. Single strikes are never performed; rather, armed or unarmed, both hands alternate in performing a series of offensive and defensive maneuvers that flow together seamlessly. Essential to Arnis and the other Filipino martial arts is this notion of "flow;" there is never a break in the rhythm of a Arnis practitioner in action.

Ten of the basic areas of combat in the Filipino martial arts:

  • 1. Single stick, sword, etc.
  • 2. Double stick, sword, etc.
  • 3. Long and short sticks or blades
  • 4. Single dagger and empty hand
  • 5. Double dagger or double short sticks
  • 6. Empty hands (kicking, punching, grappling, etc)
  • 7. Long weapons (spear, staff, etc.)
  • 8. Flexible weapons (rope, whip, chain, etc.)
  • 9. Throwing weapons
  • 10. Projectile weapons (bow and arrow, blowgun)

Of these, the most common methods used in combat are: Espada y Daga (sword and dagger, although long and short sticks are generally used), Sinawali (the weaving of two muton, or sticks), and Solo Baston (single stick).

Within the Filipino martial arts there are 12 commonly used angles of attack from which offensive and defensive moves are developed. These angles are numbered rather than given names. A geometric understanding of direction is essential to practitioners of Filipino martial arts. The triangle shape as it applies to combat plays a key role, and is often incorporated into school logos.

As mentioned above, disarming an opponent, sometimes called "defanging the snake," is often a priority. This was traditionally done by maiming the limb in possession of the weapon. Destroying an opponent's limbs was in fact a commonplace goal in the traditional Filipino martial arts, as their practitioners were concerned primarily with survival; an attacker whose limbs are useless is no longer a threat. This sounds morbid in the context of most of today's martial arts, but was a reality of combat then. Today's Filipino martial arts are considerably gentler, but their practitioners do possess the same potential for causing grave injury to their opponents.

The original Filipino martial arts did not require uniforms, and possessed no system of ranking. In recent years, however, many schools have developed their own versions of these things. Uniforms tend to be casual. Shoes are often worn to protect the feet from thrown or fallen weapons.