By Jay de Leon
Originally Published in WorldBlackBelt Magazine, 2004
To test your knowledge of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), answer true or false to these widely-circulated myths and misinformation about FMA. If you have been reading the articles in this column assiduously, or you have actually been listening to the ranting, musings and reminisces of your “guro,” (teacher), then this test should be a breeze for you.
Here then are the common myths, mysteries and misconceptions about FMA.
The terms arnis, kali and escrima have different meanings depending on their geographical origin and types of weapons.
FALSE. All three terms refer to the same art, and there is no correlation between these term and the system’s geographical origin, the founder’s tribal affiliation, or types of weapons used. The use of one term over the other does not make it any better, older, more blade-oriented, more authentic, more complete, more Asian or more lethal than the other. If, for example, your FMA system is called “Pilantik,” you may call it “Pilantik Arnis,” “Pilantik Kali,” or “Pilantik Eskrima.” Even if your grandmaster in the Philippines calls it “Pilantik Arnis,” you may change it to “Pilantik Kali” here in the States if you wish, assuming of course your grandmaster’s virtues include leeway for your pigheadedness.
The terms arnis, kali and escrima are not the only terms or names you may give to a FMA.
TRUE. These are the three terms generally used for an FMA. But the individual Filipino Martial Arts historically have used many other names, mostly regional or ethnic names, like “estocada,” “kabaroan,” etc. Don’t sweat the ethnic names. At this point in time, most major FMA’s have converted to the traditional arnis, kali or eskrima terminology. Again, using an ethnic term over another will not supersize your system. By the way, “escrima” and “eskrima” are the same. Again, one is not older or more authentic than the other. If you want a technical explanation, there is no C” in the Filipino alphabet, only a “K.” So you can argue that “escrima” is the Spanish derivative, and “eskrima” the Filipino derivative, and please don’t debate which one is older.
FMA is a weapons-based system, and is strictly stickfighting.
FALSE. Okay, this is the give-away question. Depending on the particular FMA system, and at what level you are in your training, most FMA systems teach the use of many kinds of weapons, including impact, bladed, flexible and projectile weapons, both traditional and modern. So why the misconception? One, almost all FMA systems start your training with the sticks, either single or double, since the stick is considered the primary tool of training. Second, most tournaments and many demonstrations showcase skills with the sticks, and this is what the public sees.
FMA training usually starts outwith the single stick…
but may eventually include other weaponssuch as
espada y daga
(sword and knife)…
…or a bolo…
…or a Bowie knife.
In the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, judo was the premiere sport in the Philippines…
…followed by karate…
…and Muay Thai kickboxing.
FMA is a weapons-based system, but also has empty hands techniques.
TRUE. Again, depending on the particular FMA, most FMA systems have excellent empty hands techniques, ranging from a separate sub-system (like “dumog” or wrestling) to fully integrated in the weapons system. As part of their training and conditioning, “Yaw-yan” senior practitioners, for example, fight full-contact kickboxing bouts in the ring. Many FMA grandmasters are also high-ranking practitioners of karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, aikido, boxing or “dumog” and seamlessly incorporate these techniques in their FMA, whether in weapons or empty hands applications. And finally, weapons are extensions of the body, and advanced practitioners of FMA use this concept to “translate” weapon techniques into empty hands techniques.
FMA is the most popular martial arts in the Philippines.
FALSE.; If we believe all the historical lore, FMA is probably the oldest martial arts in the Philippines. Sadly, it was never, and still is not, the most popular martial arts in the Philippines. The Filipinos have been accused of having a "colonial” mentality, meaning, things imported from foreign countries are to be desired, and things indigenous are to be avoided. This also applies to martial arts. In the 1950’s, the premier martial art was judo. I remember being in awe of the Japanese Kodokan instructors teaching in Manila. This was followed by karate (mostly “shorin-ryu” as introduced by Grandmaster Latino Gonzales, and later “tae-kwon-do,”) then “kung-fu” during the Bruce Lee craze, Muay Thai kickboxing, and even “aikido” because of the Steven Seagal movies. During my time and through today, practicing FMA in the Philippines was considered “bakya,” meaning pedestrian or proletariat, and therefore uncool. Many “cool” Filipinos today are trying to change this, though.
FMA systems have a standardized ranking, terminology and curriculum, determined by the founding grandmasters in the Philippines.
FALSE. Not by a long shot. Sometimes, there is not even standardized ranking, terminology and curriculum within the same system itself. The reasons for this include lack of historical or technical documentation, linguistic (or dialect) differences, interfamily squabbles, and plain ego. Most of the time, the founder and eventually his inheritors determine their own rules of the game. My friend Marc Denny’s (Crafty Dog of the Dog Brothers) canine hackles come up every time the issue of terminology rears its ugly head, exclaiming “How do you expect us gringos to learn proper terminology, when you Filipinos cannot even agree among yourselves?” To which I always reply, “How did you think all these ferocious fighting systems came about in the first place?” As a final word on this issue, do not worry too much about the belt ranking, terminology and lineage of your style, as being really good and effective with your art.
The Philippines must be such a dangerous and lawless place, and the Filipinos such dangerous people, to produce such a violent martial arts founded by violent grandmasters.
FALSE, only because of the way the statement is phrased. In an earlier piece, I wrote that the Philippines has dangerous places, and even more dangerous men. From my point of view, the Philippines itself is no more dangerous or safer than any other country in the world. There are some extremely dangerous areas in certain provinces of Mindanao, in some mountainous regions of Luzon close to Pampanga and Nueva Ecija, and even in the urban jungles of Manila. And these dangerous places produce dangerous men. However, the Philippines is still a land of laws. True, the wheels of justice over there grind exceedingly slow, sometimes to a stop, and the scales of justice are often tipped in favor of the rich and powerful, but, on the whole, if you commit a crime, you will be punished. The so-called violent founders were the products of their times, environment, and personal situations. True, a couple of them were arrested for violent crimes. I do not need to point out that there have been many parallel cases in other martial arts.
What is there not to like about the Philippines? It has paradise…
…fauna--lechon at inihaw na bangus (roasted pig and milkfish)…
..and some fine local beverages.
All that metaphysical stuff about “anting-anting” (amulets) and “orasyones” (prayers) have to be bunk.
TRUE, BUT…I had a friend in the Philippines who used to say, “Let me see how his “anting-anting” stands up to my .45 (Colt 1911).” First of all, not all “anting-anting” and “orasyones” were meant to make the wearer invincible. Some had specific purposes, like to confuse the enemy, to make the wearer safe from sickness, from death by a blade, etc. Remember that these inanimate objects by themselves have no power, but derive their efficacy from the giver, from faith, from rituals that empower. If you have lived in the Philippines especially in the provinces as I have, it is hard to totally discount the praeternatural, the paranormal, or the spiritual forces the rural folk believe in. It is hard to explain, and I am as skeptical as the next person, but I have had enough personal experiences with this issue to keep an open mind. Besides, this is the mystery question. As a final point, most people forget that there is an opposite side to these “dark” metaphysical arts called “hilot” or the healing arts. It is no mumbo-jumbo laying of the hands, but a true chiropractic-like art that really works and has benefited many, and only a few masters know. Examples of “hilot” masters include Grandmaster Sam Tendencia and “Gat Puno” Abon Baet.
Would you trust these children with FMA weapons?
I did. My sons Michael (left) and Mitchell have been
doing FMA since they could walk. They are nowteenagers with extensive martial arts experience.
Since it involves the use of weapons, FMA must not be taught to children.
FALSE. I concede that swinging a stick is probably a little bit more dangerous that throwing a roundhouse kick, but for that original statement to make sense, it should say something like, FMA as taught to adults, must not be taught to children. In other words, the FMA that will be taught to children will be at an age-appropriate level, with the usual caveat about the use of force in a physical confrontation, just like in a traditional martial arts school. There are so many FMA drills that can be taught to children without the violent implication, such as stick-pattern drills (“sinawali” drills), footwork and zoning drills, basic releases and disarms, and breakfalls and groundwork (yes, preparation for “dumog” and “stickgrappling”). Then as their maturity and martial arts skills grow, they can be eased into the weapons course. I started teaching FMA to my boys, Michael and Mitchell, as soon as they could walk, and I did such a good job that I lost them to wrestling in high school.
Only a person of Filipino descent can found a FMA system.
FALSE. On one extreme, anybody can start any martial arts system or style. For the sake of discussion, let’s say we are talking about a legitimate, hardcore FMA with the proper curriculum and system lineage. Can a non-Filipino be the founder of his own FMA system? Definitely. In fact, this phenomenon has already started in the U.S. and Canada My friend from the Philippines named Bot Jocano, a university professor who is also a high-ranking “Lightning Scientific Arnis” instructor, calls this phenomenon the indigenization of a martial arts. Here in the U.S., you have seen it happen with tae-kwon do, kung-fu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and others. When a couple of such founders asked my opinion about founding their own FMA systems, my answer was, “As long as your FMA rocks, and your heart is in the right place, go for it.”
founder of Siling Labuyo Arnis.
Does his FMA measure up?
I hope you found this little test informative and entertaining. I encourage feedback and suggestions. Now that I have set you on the straight and narrow, try not to take these issues (or non-issues) too seriously, spend less time debating and flaming on the chat rooms and internet, and instead, get up, go out, and swing those sticks.
Copyright, Jay de Leon, 2004