By Pedro Reyes ©1997
What is the hsitory of arnis ? The answer is: nobody knows.
There are no written treatises on arnis before the twentieth century.
There are references to arnis here and there in historical records before
the twentieth century, but
they are rare and hardly more than phrases.
Written references became more numerous during the twentieth century.
Balagtas, the great Tagalog poet, mentions arnis in his epic, Florante
at Laura. Jose Rizal,
Antonio Luna, Juan Luna, Marcelo H. del Pilar and other Filipino exiles worling in Spain for Philippine independence studied arnis. It was still a century of personal
duels and the Filipinos needed an art that could stand against European swordsmanship.
The Filipino exiles practiced arnis among themselves. At one time the
followers of Jose Rizal were dismayed when Rizal challenged Marcelo H.
del Pilar to a duel
over who should lead the Filipino community in Europe. It was with difficulty that the followers of Rizal managed to pack him off to another city to prevent the duel
from taking place. For the outcome was certain. Del Pilar was an expert arnisador, while Rizal was an indifferent one.
During the last fifty years there has been an explosion of books about
arnis. Filipinos are passing through a resurgent nationalism that makes
them proud of their
heritage, and that includes arnis. The discovery by Westerners that arnis is an effective fighting art has also produced a demand for books and video tapes about the
The techniques of several arnis maestros are now expounding in books
and seen in video tapes. Many maestros have related their autobiographies
and what they
remember of their own maestros. But when one tries to push the history beyond three generations, there is only darkness and silence. The detailed history of arnis
beyond the memories of living maestros remains a mystery.
The stories related by the maestros are fragmentary and are not always
trustworthy. Some maestros seem to have dramatized their stories for effect.
Others seem to
narrate to amuse or pull the leg of their disciples. One maestro claims that he learned arnis from a blind fairy princess who fell in love with him. Such answers may be
delightful, but are of doubtful historical accuracy.
Arnis a Polynesian Martial Art?
To the expert eye, arnis is neither Japanese, nor Chinese, nor Indian.
The stance and footwork are more flexible than the Japanese, the arm movement
than the Indian, yet less theatrical than the Chinese. A question immediately comes to mind: is arnis an Asiatic martial art? By Asiatic I mean from Continental Asia
whose cultural fountainhead is India and China.
To answer that question, one has to go back to Philippine prehistory.
Extensive written accounts about the Filipinos start only in 1521 when
the Spanish expedition
of Ferdinand Magellan entered the Philippines in Magellan's search for a Western route to the fabulous silks and spices of the East.
But Lapu-lapu, a Filipino tribal chief, killed Magellan in a battle
for the island of Mactan. The expedition sailed away minus its commander,
and again Philippine
history sinks into myth. It took forty-four years for Philippine history to resume as proper history with the coming of the Legaspi expedition in 1565 to conquer the
Philippines for Spain.
So what was Filipino culture like before 1565 ? Evidence now converges
to show that the culture was not Asiatic at all. Historians who assert
Filipinos were Asians are likely to be wrong. The most damaging piece of evidence is that the pre- 1565 culture described by Spanish chroniclers hardly bear any
resemblance to the dominant Asiatic culture at that time. For example, China and Japan were already using chopsticks and eating noodles at that time. There were
none of that in the Philippines.
India had made Southeast Asia either Hindu or Islamic. The Filipinos
were pagans. Continental Asia was already using the plow for agriculture
and the wheel for
transport. The Spaniards had to introduce the plow and the wheel to the Philippines. Filipino textbooks still assert that the Philippines was once part of the Shri
Vijaya empire of Southeast Asia. But many historians now believe that the empire never existed. No prinicipal cities of the supposed empire have been found. A
stream of edicts and letters would have poured from the center of the empire to its peripheries; none have been found.
No. Pre-Hispanic Philippines was not Asian despite its proximity to
the continent. It was part of Polynisia-Oceania, that great cultural complex
that extends over the
pacific ocean as far east as Hawaii and as far west as the Philippines. Anthroplogists hypothesize that the Mongols drove the Polynesians from south china to the
Phillipines. From the Phillipines, the Polynesians migrated to the islands of the pacific as far south as New Zealand and as far east as Hawaii.
As I have already mentioned, the social organization and religion of
the pre-1565 Filipionos had more in common with Polynesia than with Asia.
Even after three
hundred years of Hispanic and Islamic influence, one can still discern that the gentle rhythms of filipino music and the lither grace of Filipion dances have more in
common with polynesian music and dance than they have with more stacatto rhythms and stiffer dances of continental Asia.
So the answer tot he question, "is arnis Asiatic?" is: arnis is not
asiatic at all. it is a Polynesian fighting art. But the distance between
islands in the Pacific are so vast,
the people are isolated from one another. During those centuries that the Phillipines stood as a possible prize for colonizing hordes of Asians or Europeans, the
Filipinos had time to elaborate arnis into an art completely their own.
Arnis is Filipino.
Arnis Goes Underground
Before the coming of the Spaniards, arnis was probably an art of war
taught to warriors to use in the unending tribal wars of the period. Being
an art of war, each
tribe would develop its own distinctive techniques which it would jealously keep secret. During this period, arnis was a tribal art, a public art taught to any qualified
tribal member, not the prvate, individual art that it is today.
The colonization of the Phillipines by the Spaniards radically changed
the preactice of arnis. The warrior class was outlawed; and formal instruction
abolished. The arnis maestros were reduced to teaching private pupils who were either members of their own families, or were students who have sought out the
masters. What was once public became private. An art of war became an art of individual self-defense. A public, tribal property became the private property of the
It was during this period that the characteristic method of teaching
arnis by individual coaching rather than by mass drill evolved. An arnis
maestro would teach only
those techniques that he felt the student could make good use of. Thus what he teaches to one student may differ in detail, or even in essence, from what he had
taught to another. The result was a further fragmentation of the already numerous tribal styles, and a hopelessly confused terminology with a baffling number of often
contradictory names for the same technique. The fragmentation was exacerbated by the practice of student of travelling from one maestro to another now that the
tribal barriers were down. As each student gained experience and self-confidence, he would create his own style by synthesizing the methods he had learned.
Still the number of arnisadores dwindled. Individual coaching precluded
large classes. The reason for mass practice, the use of arnis in war, had
elite preferred to learn European swordsmanship. Near urban center, European saber fencing heavily influenced some arnis styles, among them the Cinco Tiros (Five
Blows) style and Balintawak (Butterfly) style.
The Moro-moro and Theatrical Arnis
But when the Spanish priests introduced the moro-moro as public entertainment
during town fiestas, arnis was once more transformed. The moro-moro was
play that featured manadatory combats between Christians and Muslims. There was a demand for arnis maestros to choreograph the battles, coach the combatants,
and even play as actors. The maestros created a theatrical form of arnis characterized by elaborate arm movements and acrobatic footwork. Unfortunately as time
went on, people began to confuse the boundaries between theatrical arnis and battle arnis, with what one can imagine to be fortunate consequences in actual combat.
theatrical arnis has the same relation to battle arnis as the cinematic boxing of sylvester Stallone has to the real boxing of Mike Tyson. A similar confusion faces arnis
today as tournament officials try to tame battle arnis and modify it to sports requirements of safety and ease of scoring.
The Japanese Influence Arnis
After the Second World War, arnis again entered into the doldrums. The
moro-moro dis-appeared as staple entertainment during town fiestas, replaced
variety show. Some hardly individualists continued to practice arnis, but the rage was the Japanese martial arts. The Japanese masters attracted hordes of students
with books, publicity and superior organization.
A few students of Japanese systems rediscovered arnis, generally after
they had already earned their black belts; thus they tried to modify arnis
according to their
Japanese training. The style developed by Remy Presas is typical of this period. Presas incorporated the wide stances, the straight line katas and the colored belt
rankings of karate into the Balintawak (butterfly) style of arnis that he had learned. He called his version Modern Arnis.
Presas wrote a book on Modern Arnis and vigorously promoted his style.
He and his disciples taught the police and members of the armed forces,
instructed in a
national school for teachers, and sponsored tournaments. They organized the National Arnis Association of the Philippines (NARAPHIL), with Gen. Fabian Ver the
Armed Forces Chief of Staff as first president, the first relatively successful post World War II arnis national organization. Presas had learned his lesson well from
the Japanese. It takes organization and continuous publicity to popularize a martial art, a lesson that Leo Gaje, the Canete brothers and Edgar Sulite later applied
when they went abroad.
As is often the case, a reaction soon set in. Students sought out the
old maestros and found that arnis is different from other Asiatic martial
arts. A resurgent
nationalism made them proud of their Filipino heritage, so that they now sought to purify arnis and free it from "foreign" influences. Luckily, some maestros of the
closely guarded family styles had not adulterated their styles with moro-moro or Japanese techniques, the Ilustrisimo Style among them. Arnis Goes International
Soon afterwards, the internationalization of arnis began. In the 1980's
after decades of Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, and Thai martial arts, the
In the beginning, Filipino emigrants to the West taught arnis to foreighers,
but arnis maestros from the Philippines soon went abroad. Leo Gaje went
to the United
States to teach his Piquete Tercia (One-third Trust) style. Ernie Presas, the brother of remy Presas, went to Australia to teach Modern Arnis. Remy Presas himself
eventually taught in the United States. Sponsoring numerious international tournaments, the Canete brothers propagated the Doce Pares (Twelve Parries) style in the
Americas and Europe.
Edgar Sulite went to the US to teach a synthetic style, which he baptized
with the acronym Lameco, combining techniques he had learned from three
including the most revered of living arnis masters, Maestro Antonio Ilustrisimo. Foreign students also come to the Philippines to study under the old maestros like
Felix Maranga, Jose Mina or Antonio Ilustrisimo and young maestros like Jose Lanada Antonio Diego, or Yuli Romo.
Can Arnis Become a Sport?
But the growing international popularity of arnis fores the maestros to face new problems.
First, maestros have to make the transition from individual coaching
to mass instruction. Traditional coaching is individual. It is also situational,
that is , the maestro
varies his technique depending upon the ability and physique of the student and the circumstances in which the exchange of blows took place. On the other hand,
mass instruction requires techniques that are standardized and repetitive. It does not mean that the various styles will coalesce into only one style, but techniques will
have to be standardized within each style. Some maestros think that may lead to less effective coaching.
But the most important challenge facing arnis maetros today is to transform a fighting art into a sport.
Traditonal arnisadores fight without protectors; fights end only when
one combatany can no longer bear the pain, although referees usually step
in before disabling
injuries occur. That will no longer do. Armor similar to that of kendo has proven to be too confining. The search is on for a baton that would be sufficiently rigid to
allow parring while remaining flexible enough to prevent injuries. Since those are contradictory requirements it may take some time before a suitable compromise is
found. A baton of fabric-covered rubber made stiff by pumping in compressed air looks promising, although its helf and balance is different from the usual baton.
Again, tournament officials currently give higher points to blows to
the head or body compared to blows to the arms or legs. But that violates
a canon of the art. The
essence of arnis is to first damage the opponent's arm so that he can not defend himself or strike another blow. The violation of this canon in tournament play has
been deleterious. Combatants mill about wildly slashing at one another without art or form in the hope of scoring the first killing blow.
Sports officials also classify contestants by weight. Why not classify
contestants by reach instead? Weight is important in boxing or wrestling
because strenght is vital
in those sports. Not so in arnis. Speed and finesse are what count. Thus whether tournament officials can or can not turn a fighting art into a sport without losing
arnis; combat effectiveness is still an open question.
So arnis has passes through several stages in its evolution. Before
the 16th century the Filipinos used it in their constant tribal wars, nurturing
it from its Polynesian
orgins into an art uniquely their own. The Spaniards united the warring tribes in the 16th century and arnis underwent its second transformation. Arnis retreated
underground forcing the masters to transform a public art used by warriors in tribal conflict into an art of individual self-defense. The popularity of the moro-moro in
the 17th century brought arnis into the stage, this time in theatrical form, somewhat ending its isolation.
The 20th century brought several influences to bear on arnis in rapid
order. During the 60's and the 70's arnis students with black belts in
the japanese martial art
tried to incoporate Japanese techniques into arnis. By the 80's, however , a reaction had set in and arnis practitioners now tried to free arnis from foreign influences.
This coincided with the growing international fame of arnis.
Currently arnisadores are trying to tame arnis into a safe sport, although
they have yet to find a satisfactory solution. Eventually arnisadores may
have to draw a line
between battle arnis used for self-defense; tournament arnis used for sport; and theatrical arnis used for exhibitions.
Meantime arnis continues to evolve. Unlike other Asiatic martial arts
whose masters ty to pass on the past too improve their techniques and do
not hesiatate to revise
a technique should the change prove more effective. They encourage their students to do likewise. The result makes the distinction between traditional arnis and
contemporary arnis meaningless. There is no traditional arnis. There is only contemporary arnis. Arnis is an srt constantly in ferment.
Thus it is risky to generalize about arnis style. Arnis techniques in
regions remote or isolated from urban center are notable for the simplicity
and purity of their passed
on through successive generations of the Ilustrisimo clan in Daan Bantayan, a remote fishing island in Central Philippines.
Styles in regions near urban centers, or in provinces where people are
fond of stage plays and dancing, are more complex and theatrical, which
does not mean that
they are more combat effective. One such is the Macabebe Style, named after a town near Manila, the Philippine capital. Its adherents swing and twirl their batons in
complicated circles and figures of eight.
Inside the cities are found styles heavily influnenced by th Japanese
and other Asiatic arts. For example, Modern Arnis has numerious practioners
Manila using the wide stances and stiff bodies characteristic of Japanese karate, from which many of its sayaw (katas) are derived. Theatrical arnis also flourished in
Kung Fu's influence is currently negligible. That may change as some
kung fu students are now enthusiastic students of arnis as well. Some people
cite Kun Tao, a
Muslim Style in Mindanao, Southern Philippines, as a style of arnis heavily influenced by kung fu. Actually Kun Tao is a Chinese style that came from Malaysia; it
was then heavily influenced by arnis as it spread in Mindanao.